Twenty-six-year-old me would be very proud. Four of my essays have trended on the first page of Hacker News, bringing thousands of like-minded technologists to the site you’re currently reading. In this post, I’m going to share a few tips. And I am kinda proud, too.
What is Hacker News?
What is the website you open when you’re in the mood to read something? New York Times? Reddit? Facebook? For me, and millions of other technologists, it’s Hacker News. It is an aggregator of links gathering content from around the web, with a voting system, created by Y Combinator – a startup accelerator.
Open-plan offices offer few pleasures; one of them is snooping on other people’s browsing habits. When, years ago, I began working for tech companies in San Francisco, I noticed that my co-workers were always scrolling through a beige, text-only Web site that resembled a nineteen-nineties Internet forum. They were reading Hacker News—a link aggregator and message board that is something of a Silicon Valley institution. Technologists in Silicon Valley assume familiarity with Hacker News, just as New Yorkers do with the New York Post and the New York Times.
This New Yorker article is not exaggerating. While working in a Polish subcontractor to the mighty western technology companies, it was my (and my friends’) morning ritual to begin every day with a copy and browsing of Hacker News. It was there, and then that my dream to work in a Silicon Valley startup, like the ones I read about, began.
When I circled back, we treated this site a little too seriously. We probably made technical decisions based on pieces of technology that happened to be popular and deemed everything trending worthy of our attention. Our views on social issues were quite in sync with the site. The other users are builders, techno-optimists, fans of obscure historical trivia, socialists, libertarians, and billionaires. For better or worse, my people. And some of them have read my stuff.
How did you launch on top of HN?
Go to your people
As I pointed out before, I spent significant time browsing the articles on the site. Is it possible that I somehow internalized the algorithm to think like the hive mind of Hacker News?
For an individualist, this is a scary thought. But it’s reassuring to feel like a part of something. The lesson is boring, and not very novel – promote your writing in the community you are already a part of.
When I heard this lesson in the past, I used to think that’s because of the trust you radiate as an established member. But now I realize that promoting in your existing online communities works because you deem them interesting and they influence your writing. It’s a self-reinforcing loop.
Where do you spend your online time?
The hardest problem in computer science is naming things
Hacker News has a very minimalist design. You don’t judge the book by its cover, you judge it’s by the title and others’ upvotes.
While wrapping up my essays, I find myself thinking “Hey, this is an interesting twist. How can I adjust the title to tease that promise?“
And later, after adjusting the title I make sure the rest of the article follows that promise – it usually makes for a much more interesting angle. That’s why in the Write of Passage community, we call that a shiny dime.
Hacker News has a voting system, and clickbait is definitely not the way to the top. When I now reflect on the titles that have trended, they share a few common characteristics:
- Something that makes you “huh, that is interesting, haven’t thought of that”
- Has to have something with tech
- Has to have a promise of teaching something new
- My combinations have this vibe of “old + new”:
Here are my successful submissions. Each one brought about 4000 – 6000 visitors during the first day:
The content triangle
That last essay is an expanded version of my response to Paul Graham’s Tweet. It got a bit of attention, so I transformed it into an essay.
Only after the essay has taken off on HN, I realized that Paul Graham’s followers ARE HN readers, since he built the site. In Write of Passage, we call it the content triangle – you move the idea onto a “higher level” (in this case, an essay) only if it succeeded in conversation, on Twitter, or in your DMs.
There really is no way to cheat the system, but there is an extremely pleasant obvious route: Write content YOU would like to read and share it with people like yourself.
Your Hacker News visitors
You also need to know a few things about the browsing habits of the HN crowd.
We are reluctant to convert
We really hate spam, so converting these spikes of traffic into an email list requires a really good pitch.
We are blocking Google Analytics
This article suggests that 58% of Tech-Savvy HN users block Google Analytics. My own findings suggest a different figure, but there is a significant difference between my GA stats and WordPress.com stats:
3159 visitors according to WordPress.com
2472 visitors according to Google Analytics:
Other people’s experiences
- The founder of Nomadlist has shared numbers behind his HN launch.
- Good Hacker News discussion about getting featured
- Your post here