Opinion vs. Skill on Hacker News

Hacker news has been one of my most-visited sites since March 2008. I’m not sure what has kept it so useful and relevant to me but whatever the magic sauce is, it’s reliably one of the highest-value websites to randomly drop in on. Content is refreshed enough to educate and amuse multiple times a day (unlike, say, Google News which can keep shit around for days), and unlike most other sites, it’s typically more valuable to read the comments before the article because someone will extract the nuggets and add insight.

I do miss the days that PG posted, before the snark set in and people started one-upping each other to argue and gather worthless internet points. Yes, there’s usually someone wrong on the internet and we’ve all had the urge to correct them. However, the mild cost of HN is very much outweighed by the value, especially if you can separate out the chaff.

Some threads are garbage. Some are wonderfully insightful. The secret, for me, is what I call the opinion-skill continuum.


Opinion-oriented threads encourage the participation of anyone with a keyboard and an urge to gather magic internet points. Any opinion is valid. You can drag the conversation in twenty different directions. Sometimes that’s delightful and sometimes it’s just a time suck. Very often, useful comments are crowded out by one-uppy point scorers and the top half of a reasonable thread can be filled by long side-discussions that can’t be scrolled past fast enough. Vitriol abounds. Sometimes I care, sometimes I don’t, depends on how bored I am. I participated on this post about Poaching Tesla - see, anyone can post.

A few more examples:

UK votes to leave EU - massively important, some good insights, but it’s going to attract a good level of opinion.

Let’s Replace JavaScript with Something Better - a crucial thread that you better consume this minute. Filed under opinion.

Apple’s best product is now privacy - we head off into the weeds within seconds here.


There’s another kind of thread. One where an article is so specialised that it attracts the thoughts and opinions of internet gods. Here is where you find the person who wrote the spec, or helped build that feature at Google, or is a lawyer or specialist doctor, physicist, chemist. Those posts might be run-of-the-mill on some PhD insider forum but it’s so above my pay-grade that I’m just there to read. Those threads are worth gold and I’m not aware of a website that clusters so much richness in one place.

Look for high vote-to-comment ratios. Look for specialised topics that you don’t know anything about. Latest iOS update or best new Javascript library? Avoid unless you want to argue. Compare that to:

DNSSEC KSK Rollover Postponed - unless you’re deep into DNS you’re probably going to learn something.

What Makes the Hardest Equations in Physics So Difficult? - I have nothing valuable to add.

Reading privileged memory with a side-channel - some chitchat but also some gold.

The Structure of Stand-Up Comedy - yes anyone can have an opinion, but honestly the top-voted comments will give you insight into a whole new world.

JVM Internals - with tidbits like https://news.ycombinator.com/item?id=17279463

Functional Data Structures

We don’t want to be educated with every post or thread. I certainly don’t, otherwise I’d be on Wikipedia instead. Having a balance is wonderful. But the real cream, the content that makes HN truly wonderful, has a high skill-to-opinion ratio.

This post is not likely to inspire one of those high-value threads. My apologies. Feel free to break my hypothesis with world-class insights. Go.