Update: Since publishing this post, I’ve been engaging in a very friendly and informative email conversation with Andrew de Andrade. Andrew has shed a lot of light on my situation, and has shown me that what I experienced was not censorship, but an attempt to provide the Hacker News with an experience they would benefit most from. I thank Andrew for providing this clarity. I apologize to anyone who was offended by this post. I’ve also issued an apology on this post’s Hacker News thread.

This experience has taught me a lot about community and social norms and behaviours, which Andrew has encouraged me to write about in a future post. If you have any input on this situation or topic, I’d love to hear from you!</em>

I’ve been a reader of Y Combinator’s Hacker News off and on for about a year now. I enjoy the mix of technical, business, and social news it provides. And, more often than not, the discussion in the comments can be just as informative as the articles the site links to.

After hearing my friend Ben Brooks remark that he often submits articles he writes to Hacker News, I decided to submit my post announcing the closure of Simple Desks.

I submitted the story to Hacker News with the title of the article, “Shutting Down My Porno Site.” Yes, the title was provocative. But, it felt appropriate given the context, which was the idea of what has come to be called productivity porn. Most of the article and especially the lead paragraph played on that very idea.

After I hit the submit button, I started getting ready to head out and join the New Year’s Eve celebration. Before I left, I took a quick look at my Hacker News submission and was surprised to see the title had been edited: the system removed the word “porno.”

I was also a bit confused. A quick search reveals 432 story titles that include the word “porn,” 173 with the word “fuck,” and 210 with the word “shit.”

Even more confusing, there are currently 9 stories on Hacker News with the word “porno” in it.

I wondered if my submission was censored because it had quickly made the front page. Maybe I had just missed seeing when it was edited. But, many of the stories found in the above searches clearly had enough points to have been on the front page.

I tried doing a Google search for other instances of people complaining about censorship on Hacker News, and came up empty. Any mention of censorship right on the Hacker News site seems to revolve around Y Combinator’s relationship with the startups that are covered on the site.

I’m not opposed to a site like Hacker News controlling the content that gets posted to their site. They have a brand they wish to maintain and a certain audience they hope to serve. As their guidelines state, they aren’t interested in “politics, or crime, or sports, unless they’re evidence of some interesting new phenomenon. Videos of pratfalls or disasters, or cute animal pictures.”

However, no where in the guidelines does it say anything about the use of provocative language in a story’s title. They do warn against adding your own “gratuitous editorial spin” on a link to an article you didn’t write, but nothing is mentioned about language that should or shouldn’t be used in a link’s title.

Once I saw that Hacker News had censored my link’s title, I posted a quick comment to let potential readers know what happened. My fear was that visitors would see a title that read “Shutting Down My Site” and be offended once they saw the article’s actual title. My intention was never to trick people into seeing my article. I just thought it would be an interesting read for the Hacker News community.1

If Hacker News doesn’t want provocative titles on their site, I would have preferred the entire submission be rejected rather than potentially deceiving the community into reading something that uses language they don’t want to see. It reflects poorly on me as a publisher and as the submitter of the link.

Whatever their policy is, it should be clearly communicated in the site’s guidelines. I’m cool either way, I just want to make sure I’m contributing fairly to a community that I’ve benefited from in the past.

  1. That my link's page on the Hacker News site resulted in 50 comments tells me it was a topic close to the community's heart.