Last week, I noticed that my Hacker News account had turned five years old. Wow. This got me wondering about the HN community in general and raised a concerning question: am I a typical user… or the creepy old guy in the room?

A few years back, I crunched some numbers from the HNSearch API to learn more about the Hacker News community. I figured this data set was overdue for a revisit. I pulled a fresh sweep of data from the API, loaded it into RJMetrics, and had my answers in just a few minutes.

(Obligatory plug: If you’re interested in a powerful analysis tool for your online business, try RJMetrics for free today.)

Here’s what I found:

  • Aaron Swartz and the NSA were the big topics in 2013, taking the place of 2012 leaders like SOPA and Hurricane Sandy
  • AngularJS gained serious momentum in 2013 as mentions of Backbone.js cut in half
  • With over 5 million upvotes cast in 2013, Hacker News activity grew by about 25% for a record year
  • The balance of comments, submissions, and upvotes has stayed remarkably stable as the community has grown
  • Users who engage early on stick around for years to come– in fact, more than half of the site’s activity in 2013 was from users who had joined more than a year before

For the full details behind these and other findings, read on.

Community Growth and Quality

Hacker news now boasts over 500,000 new submissions and comments per quarter, as shown below.

New-Activity-by-Quarter

15-20% of that activity is link submissions, with the rest consisting of comments. This ratio has remained stable as the community has grown, as has the percentage of submissions that receive any upvotes.

Percent-of-Submissions-with-Any-Upvotes

This stability is quite interesting, and holds up even with higher thresholds for number of upvotes, with about 7% of submissions reaching 10 upvotes and 1% of submissions reaching 50 upvotes.

I was actually quite surprised to find this level of stability in the community over time. I would have expected the rate of unpopular submissions to increase over time, but it seems that the number of upvotes has increased in proportion with the amount of content, and the distribution has remained consistent. The next time someone claims that the quality of content on HN has dropped, you should show them these statistics — it seems the community’s behavior would not agree.

I was able to get rough estimates of upvote growth by simply looking at the points earned by the submissions each year. In 2013, over 5 million upvotes were cast:

Upvotes-Cast-by-Year

Understanding how this delicate balance has remained in place requires understanding the makeup of the community — a question that will also answer my original question about just how anomalous I am as a five-year-old user.

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User Cohorts: Am I the Old Guy?

The cohort analysis below shows what percent of each HN vintage come back to submit or comment again each quarter.

Quarterly-Distinct-User-Cohorts

Note that this, and all other analyses in this report, are driven only by submissions and comments. People who only upvote on Hacker News are not captured here, meaning these "active user" numbers are almost certainly underestimated.

A staggering percentage of my cohort, about 20%, still participate in the community five years later. The starting point of 30-40% seen in "Quarter 2" is quite typical of online communities, but what’s impressive about the Hacker News population is the extremely low level of decay after that initial dropoff. In other words, people who stick around past their first quarter will continue stick around for years to come.

It seems I’m not an anomaly at all — in fact, as time goes on, the community is increasingly dominated by users who have been around for more than a year. The chart below shows the percent of comments and submissions that came from users who had joined at least a year beforehand:

Percent-of-Activity-from-'Old'-Users

With each cohort that sticks around, the "old guard" continues to generate a higher percentage of the activity. In 2013, nearly two-thirds of activity on Hacker News came from users who had been members for at least a year.

2013’s Content Winners and Losers

The links on Hacker News can reveal a lot about what’s hot in technology and entrepreneurship right now. If you watch this content evolve over time, however, it provides a fascinating lens into macro trends as well.

I ran an analysis of the words that appeared in submission titles in 2012 and 2013, and then compared the relative counts between those years to identify the biggest movers and shakers in those years. Only terms with at least 100 mentions were considered.

Languages and Platforms:

Gained Ground Lost Ground
Docker (+25,000%) Metro (-76%)
Angular[JS] (+1,900%) App.net (-70%)
WebRTC (+200%) BackboneJS (-50%)

Startups and Products:

Gained Ground Lost Ground
Vine (+6,200%) [Mountain] Lion (-88%)
Snapchat (+1,200%) RIM (-85%)
Bitcoin (+700%) Retina (-69%)
[Google] Glass (+400%) Pinterest (-67%)
Medium (+300%) Zynga (-65%)
Tesla (+250%) iPad (-65%)

News, People, and Politics:

Gained Ground Lost Ground
[Aaron] Swartz (+13,000%) SOPA (-96%)
Edward [Snowden] (+3,700%)
Romney (-93%)
PRISM (+6,000%) Sandy (-88%)
NSA (+2,700%)
Blackout (-88%)
Obamacare (+1,000%) MegaUpload (-87%)
[Bradley] Manning (+900%) Election (-69%)
Silk [Road] (+500%) Piracy (-60%)
Servaillance [sic] (+450%) Hollywood (-60%)
Spying (+425%) Curiosity (-58%)

As you can see from the relative size of these lists, news stories are far more volatile when it comes to Hacker News mentions. If you increase the threshold for mentions to 1,000, you can also get a sense of what higher-volume terms gained and lost momentum.

Terms with Over 1,000 Appearances:

Gained Ground Lost Ground
NSA (+2,700%)
iPad (-65%)
Bitcoin (+700%)
Apple (-39%)
3D [Printing] (+65%) Facebook (-38%)
Security (+30%) Windows (-37%)
Python (+26%) iPhone (-33%)
Programming (+15%) HTML5 (-26%)
Design (+14%) Microsoft (-15%)

Judging from this list, 2013 was the year when the Hacker News community shifted its attention from big companies and their products to security and privacy. Skill development and discussions of programming and design also gained steady ground.

Most-Upvoted Domains

I find it interesting to explore which content sources tend to perform the best on Hacker News. Below, we see the top and bottom 20 domains for 2013 by the average number of upvotes received per submission from that domain. Domains were only included if at least 20 submissions were made in 2013.

Top-Domains-by-Average-Points

bottom-domains-by-avg-points

Since the bottom domains are pretty much unrecognizable, I also went through and hand-picked some of the more mainstream online publications for comparison (again, at least 20 data points from 2013 were required for inclusion):

Mainstream-Content-Domains-by-Average-Points

Respected media outlets known for their long-form content take up almost all of the top slots, after that technology news blogs consume the rest of the spectrum. It’s quite easy to see the correlation between average votes and substantive reporting. Hacker News does not respond well to linkbait and thin content, the producers of which have a stronghold toward the bottom of the list.

Conclusions

As it turns out, I’m not a creepy old guy in the Hacker News community — I’m actually in the majority. As the discussions evolve to keep pace with the times, extremely loyal cohorts from all eras are still contributing to the conversation.

If the Hacker News community is truly on the bleeding edge of technology, the major trends are clear. It’s probably about time I switch to DuckDuckGo and buy some Bitcoins. See you next time!

  • http://www.referralcandy.com/ Visakan @ ReferralCandy

    Oh wow, these are some really juicy stats. Thanks for digging them up! The “words in submission titles” is my favorite. I’ve noticed that Salon articles do well on HN, too. You guys are doing great work! Eager to see what you’ll do next.

  • Yasha Podeswa

    Very cool analysis! Also, as someone working in data analysis and marketing myself, love how you tie a wide appeal topic like Hacker News really well into your narrower niche market!

  • raveur

    Nice work. Thanks

  • http://www.osiaffiliate.com/ Tariehk @ osiaffiliate

    Really great stats. I find it interesting that ipad has lost 65%