The Post that Got Me Hellbanned on Hacker News

A Preface

Two mornings ago on Hacker News (HN), tokenadult linked to an article on the Wall Street Journal website by Bill and Melinda Gates, titled, "Three Myths on the World's Poor". Although I respect what the Gateses are trying to achieve, and agree with them that poverty reduction is not a lost cause, I felt the arguments stated in their article had a number of flaws. After reading it, I promptly spent around two hours writing a response. I didn't intend to writing something akin to a full-blown article; present circumstances merely elicited me to say more than I usually do on HN1. On the case of poverty, I felt like I had something more substantive to add, if largely anecdotal (and therefore perhaps of little scientific value).

As stated in the post, I'm in southeast Asia. I'm visiting with friends and former clients (note the previously-mentioned editing detours), and with the help of local guidance, have managed to see more of this region than i would have cooped up in an expensive hotel in the city centre. I haven't seen the worst, to be sure, but I haven't had a blanket draped over my eyes, either. That's all I'll say on this.

I returned to HN in the evening to check whether there were any replies. To a combination of horror and dismay, the first comment was another user, aptwebapps, telling me, "[Y]ou've been hell-banned for over 500 days, apparently." Simply, I fell victim, without warning, to HN's policy of shunning unwanted users by making their posts go unread. Discovering this fact was a jolt to my senses.

What got me hellbanned follows.

The Offending Response

The Gateses don't account for inflation in their prediction. Income may be higher in the future, but so will be living costs. The standard of poverty will simply be shifted. Furthermore, I think it's hard to reasonably expect a world in which almost no people are poor without considering the changes in consumption that will have to occur first. Present consumption levels won't be sustainable with more countries consuming at the level of the US, for example, unless new food/energy production innovations are able to mitigate it. (To that end, I admit to wishing the level of consumption of many western countries would be reduced.)

An anecdotal piece about income levels:

Currently, I'm in southeast Asia, and have seen first-hand income disparity. The city in which I'm living has seen a drastic increase in hotels over the past decade (someone reported 32 were approved in 2013, but they did not provide evidence), and many large roads have a hotel (or two) under development somewhere along them. These hotels are pristine and obnoxious. Beyond these main roads, within the bowels of the city blocks with narrower, labyrinthine, and occasionally unpaved streets, houses are barely adequate. With the chickens and other animals running between these houses, you feel like you're in a rural village. This is not specific to the entire city, but that you see it in a not-very-poor neighbourhood reminds you that poverty exists just behind the walls of rich hotels.

Food is incredibly cheap, $1 if you want something affordable; the most expensive meal I've had was $3, although I'm sure you can find more expensive food. Cooking isn't very efficient and cheap here, so most of your lunch and dinner comes from stalls or restaurants. Clothing is uneven; a branded T-shirt is $4, good shirt $30, and discounted shorts $10. Housing is cheap unless you want western amenities; I have a comfortable apartment in a quiet alley, with all the furnishings, a balcony, free drinking water, free laundry service, and free cleaning service for $230 a month. Tech doesn't appear to be very different; Laptops are 50% cheaper, as was an OTG cable, and when it was first released the S3 was $500.

The designation of all this as "cheap", however, depends on perspective. When comparing it with a country where good meals cost $20, especially ones that are relatively bland in comparison with the food here, one may view living comfortably here as an easy thing to do, but that's only if you earn a western-level amount. Instead, a good income here will barely cover my rent, which, seen from a local perspective, is actually quite obscene. And the longer I've lived here, the more I've found paying $3 for ribs harder to stomach. Earnings are commensurate with living costs, so when I think about whether I want to live here permanently and earn money here instead of in Europe, I have to consider that what would be a good income here would make it hard for me to return to the west with much pocket change. (For that reason, a friend works in the UAE2 and visits his wife here only every few months.)

If income levels increase here, so will restaurant bills, electricity, and the price of a laptop. The cost of everything will be higher, and everyone will be left with the same (in relative terms) amount of money to spend. The people who beg for 10 cents today will start begging for $1. Everywhere I've gone, it's been the same story: there's a balance between what you earn and what you pay; the only difference is the bracket surrounding those two numbers

To me, the issue here isn't of income, but of prosperity. For many people, earning 10% of what they would in the west for often harder work is not a problem, because it's enough to support their families. What breaks my heart is that I can't drink tap water, am weary about my health, the rivers and air are heavily polluted, education depends on the interest levels of jaded teachers, and earning that 10% carries with it a significant cost to the environment. I desperately want the people here to be able to view the price of lunch for their family as flippantly as I did, but what I think they want more is to be able to assure that their children will be able to recover from sickness at a reasonable cost (for free in a perfect world), get a good education and hopefully make it to university (which is expensive but more prestigious here than in the west), have clean water and enough food, fewer power outages, and after that, enough money to afford the trinkets every modern human wants to show off to their friends. I believe they will take all that before higher income in 20 years to afford the same amount of what they get now.

I don't know whether any of this adds any value to the discussion or has too many fallacies (I think there is some appeal to emotion), but hopefully it was worth reading. Full disclosure: many of the people with whom I've worked here are in conservation and political science; I likely have an environmental bias, as well as bias relating to corruption and gender/class equality.


Yeah, it's a bit long. I don't know what I did wrong, but I will recount a related incident below that may shed some light. Perhaps I shouldn't have disagreed with the Gateses. Perhaps I shouldn't have made it so long. Perhaps I should have pretended to be an expert3 4 instead of trying to be ethical and admit my biases. Perhaps I unwittingly made a serious goof. Perhaps I'm the prey of a vindictive hawk.

The related incident is as follows: yesterday, I discovered that this is not my first hellbanning. This thread shows that 44 days after first joining HN (which was in July of 2012), I was reportedly hellbanned. I didn't read viraptor's comment—

Of_Prometheus: you're probably hell banned. You'll see your posts, but others who didn't explicitly enable the option will not. Which is also something that I see a lot lately... pretty well written comments from hell banned accounts. Makes me a bit uneasy - maybe there was some reason for those actions, but I rarely see one in the author's history.

—so I had no idea I was hellbanned. Instead, I naively responded to buro9's comment that my post was "marked as dead and not visible to many" (i.e. the author has been hellbanned, but I was not aware of that at the time):

How unfortunate! (Although, it doesn't appear to be dead on this end.)

I've been in a community where the senior members clashed with the moderators, and it was very much a case of the former attempting to preserve the status quo and prevent new, uninformed members from "tainting" the discussions, and the latter disapproving of the rough treatment of new members, to the ultimate detriment of the community as a whole: the old members left and, without the lively discussions that made visiting every day worthwhile, the new members lost interest. Last I checked (around two months ago), the pool has still not been replenished by the maturation of new members, and the site, to be honest, is but a shell of its former self.

Both sides were right and wrong in different ways, and both went about arguing their point in destructive ways. I think the problem, in the above case and here is the same: if your members are negative, the tone will be negative; and so on. The best way to "fix" the perceived problems of HN and other communities is to attempt to foster positive discussions. Not by restricting members and ruling them, but... well, I'm not sure. In my experience, the bigger a community becomes, the more "bad worms" begin to slither in. I don't know how you prevent that without doing some form of damage.

This comment, unbeknownst to me, was not viewable by members who wished not to view dead comments. The original comment in the original thread that got me hellbanned:

How does that system deal with the old members > new members hierarchy that would develop? I think the problem with giving a member a longer stick the longer they stay/comment is that older members are given greater leniency when they do decide to be jerks, and new members who may very well develop into excellent members are kicked aside for possibly minor errors, thus creating an unfair advantage.

This may also stifle new members' contributions, if they're afraid of either being themselves (which would present a problem later) or speaking up against a more senior member for fear of being reprimanded. As a new member on HN, I'm certainly cognizant of the fact that I've been keeping my comments shorter than they normally would be on more familiar territory.

Can't... contain... the... irony! Naive noob I was, one of my first serious discussions was a camouflaged landmine. I theoretically broke the same site rule that did in Joshua Stein, who noted after he was hellbanned for questioning HN's moderators for "pedantically changing post titles". In an email to Stein, Paul Graham sent him an email, saying, "The guidelines (as you probably already knew) also say that if you  have a question about moderation, send us an email instead  of posting about it on the site."5

Violation of that rule, whether malicious or naive, results in long-term censorship—at the discretion of the unseen moderator.

Oh, well. I left HN once before because I lost interest in what seemed like repetitive, predictable, and often meaningless debates. This time I leave because I learn that HN's leadership never wanted me, in the first place. Since HN's lack of transparency means I probably won't know exactly what caused the hellban, I will simply leave what I wrote here. Which is fine; no less pettily than HN, itself, I have no interest in hearing someone try to justify or rationalise not only shelving a comment that took hours to write, but sneakily silencing the author for over a year for his effort. Rather than argue over a website, I'd prefer to just move on, and rather than be bitter about underhanded moderation tactics, I would prefer to be pragmatic about the value of writing things no one will read6. So, you can disseminate this, ignore it, bury it, agree, disagree, find flaws, whatever. Two days ago, I was crushed. Today, I realise only my ego took a beating, and that ego is big enough to take it.

Such is life.

Final Comments

Thank you to the members who informed me that I was hellbanned, both on HN and via email. I would never have known, otherwise, and continued to obliviously live in my previous naiveté. These are aptwebapps (who also reposted my comment)  and alan_cx on HN, and one anonymous user and David Lindsey (the aforementioned aptwebapps) via email.

Unfortunately, I will have to uninstall Matt Bishop's excellent Hacker News app. If you're looking for an HN client on Android, I highly recommend his.



1. You can view my profile here (I assume). I'm neither prolific nor noteworthy within the community. That I tend only to comment only when I feel it is necessary makes this hellbanning more bitter than it would otherwise have been.
2. A correction: it's Saudi Arabia, not the UAE.
4. As certain prominent members are wont to do.
5. Stein consequently did what I am doing and left HN for good. He then went a step further and created as a replacement. Since it's invitation-only, I'm internally debating whether to ask for an invite.
6. I still have you, Dear Reader, don't I?

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