Saturday, January 16, 2010

The value of a point

Recently I have been spending a lot of time on Hacker News. I've lurked for quite a while, but it is only in the last month or so that I have actively started to comment. I usually try for informative comments rather than going for the inflammatory or popular topics. This only gets me a point or two per comment I post, but these are points I have earned by contributing to the discussion in a positive way. I had almost reached 50 points this morning and was feeling quite good about my contributions overall.

But then I made a submission.

Most of my submissions go the way of my comments, earning with a point or two plus some interesting responses. It's these responses I am after; I find an interesting article somewhere, so I submit it to see what the HN community has to say about it. But this one, for whatever reason, the community really appreciated, and within 20 minutes it was at the top of the front page. The discussion was lively and as interesting to read as I could hope for, and it was raking in the points.

And therein lies the problem. Someone, a self proclaimed member of HN no less, took the time and effort to write a thought provoking piece and there I was earning scores of points off it, which left me feeling like a bit of a cheat. But even had I been the original author, I don't think I would want that many points for it. By the time it falls off the front page it will likely be over 50 points itself, surpassing a month's effort in one fell swoop and devaluing the points accordingly. I was looking at points as a general reflection of my value to the site, but I cannot do that anymore, at least not directly.

So what can be done about the 'problem' with points? I can think of a few suggestions.

  1. Nothing. After all, I am only a single opinion, and the system seems to be working fine as it is.
  2. Don't count any points past a certain cutoff. They would still be useful for display and ranking, but for karma the extra would be discarded. I kind of like this idea, but any cutoff would be an arbitrary one. Stack Overflow uses a system like this, although there it's points per day rather than per action.
  3. Count points on a log scale. Display them as normal, but change the way karma is calculated. This would help address crazy outliers like this one, and in general promote sustained quality over hot-button topics (for people actively trying for points).
I know pg is always tweaking the system to make it work better; it will be interesting to see what, if anything, actually changes in the next while.

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