Y Combinator News

A few weeks ago my RailsConf talk on writing better web apps when they outgrow MVC was posted to Y Combinator News. It hung out on the front page all day, spending some time at the #2 slot. Over 35,000 people visited the page and 3,700 watched the talk video, which thrills me.

But I’m not posting to brag about traffic, I’m posting to explain the quirk in the previous paragraph.

I say “Y Combinator News” but the site calls itself “Hacker News”.

“Hacker”, eh? Yeah, I know:

To the popular press, “hacker” means someone who breaks into computers. Among programmers it means a good programmer. But the two meanings are connected. To programmers, “hacker” connotes mastery in the most literal sense: someone who can make a computer do what he wants—whether the computer wants to or not.

Paul Graham, founder of YCombinator and creator of YCombinator News
in The Word “Hacker”

1. A person who enjoys exploring the details of programmable systems and how to stretch their capabilities [...]

8. [deprecated] A malicious meddler who tries to discover sensitive information by poking around. Hence password hacker, network hacker. The correct term for this sense is cracker.

The Jargon File’s definition of “Hacker

The ‘hacker culture’ is actually a loosely networked collection of subcultures that is nevertheless conscious of some important shared experiences, shared roots, and shared values. It has its own myths, heroes, villains, folk epics, in-jokes, taboos, and dreams. Because hackers as a group are particularly creative people who define themselves partly by rejection of ‘normal’ values and working habits, it has unusually rich and conscious traditions for an intentional culture less than 50 years old.

The Jargon File’s Introduction

In 2015 these old words sound desperate. I love the idea of “hacker” as a badge of pride for elite programmers who push systems in exciting, undexpected new directions. But the battle is over, and it was lost before those words I quoted were written.

“Hacker” means someone who breaks into computers in the mainstream, and computers are mainstream. The internet isn’t a private alternate realm, a special place you can go. It’s part of life, an overlay on the world. Virtual reality is dead, but now we all live in augmented reality.

The only people I see persisting in using “hacker” are involved in the Bay Area startup ecosystem. And as much as I tried to be charitable in my last post, I can’t find good motives for YCombinator News continuing to promote the term.

Y Combinator is a venture capital firm that invests in very young startups. Like any VC firm, it exists to turn money into more money by trading dollars for equity in a portfolio of ~170 companies per year. Y Combinator realizes these returns in “liquidity events” when a company is acquired or makes an initial public offering. Y Combinator’s success is the sum of the outcome of its portfolio, and the returns from individual companies vary hugely.

None of this means that the Y Combinator principles are not “hackers” in the classical sense. I don’t think they’re mustache-twirling evil exploitative capitalists but I think it’s vital to know on which side their bread gets buttered. When you’re trying to understand humans, incentives tell you the most about their actions. The stories they tell themselves are rationalizations to make life comprehensible, not the motive source of actions. (And I say “they” but I’m not immune to this; it would be totally fair to note that my last post admits that I fail to understand the worldview Bay Area in self-justifying ways.)

But it all means I don’t buy Y Combinator’s myth-making.

This idea that a startup is visionaries hustling long hours against tough odds in hopes of billion-dollar results is an idea that benefits venture capitalists. When you own one company it’s in your best interests to accept modest returns by minimizing risks. When you own a portfolio of companies it’s in your best interests to encourage those companies to get big returns by having companies accept huge risks. The failures cost you very little compared to the windfall of an AirBNB, a Slack, an Uber. You want companies groomed for gross revenue, potential growth, and acquisition, not steady, realiable profit.

And you have to convince the companies in your portfolio that these risks are in their best interest. You produce hagiographies of successful entrepreneurs and claim that failure isn’t a big deal, it’s a learning experience, a badge of pride, it makes you a better entrepreneur. Entrepeneurs must to try big to win big, and burnout is a personal failing that can be overcome with a personal retreat or by taking up meditation or with anything but structural change.

A venture capitalist firm owns and operates the most popular news site for programming and entrepreneurship. I’ve been reading it since it was announced, and I unsarcastically think it was started with motives as pure as the driven snow. It was an experiment to prove Arc, to help people suceed in business, to improve the practice of programming, to showcase intellectually stimulating stories. Even as I participate on other news sites I know they’re comparatively tiny and far less useful.

But I know humans have biases, and one of the biggest is that we don’t think we have them. That our actions are the result of the reasons we think they are. That those reasons aren’t rationalizations.

And to remind myself of all that when I visit the site that dominates my industry, I call it “Y Combinator News”.

(Besides, that’s the domain name.)

2017-10-23: I’m now the sysop of a tech news site.