Can the democratic power of a platform like Hacker News be applied to products?

By Carmel DeAmicis , written on December 4, 2013

From The News Desk

The democratization of information has been hugely important for startups in the last decade. Threads like Reddit or Hacker News can drive huge amounts of traffic to new companies, giving them crucial early attention. Multiple startups, from Your Superhero Delivers to Popcorn Messaging have launched without media coverage simply by posting their products on a user-generated and -controlled forums.

But these forums hold a lot of information, and the noise of other topics doesn't make them a great place for easily discussing one theme. Just like subreddits appeared on Reddit, "vertical" Hacker News (like Hacker News for designers) have formed for the startup community, although not associated with the official HN forum.

The latest is Product Hunt, a HN for startup products. Every day people link to their new favorite applications, games, software, or services, and others can up-vote the selection.

Ryan Hoover, the founder and former Director of Product at startup PlayHaven, geeks out on products. He wanted a place to share cool stuff with others who feel the same. He reached out to his friend, General Assembly product manager Nathan Bashaw, who built the first version over the Thanksgiving break.

In building Hacker News, Paul Graham's biggest fear was the dilution effect. He wanted to make sure the content and comments posted to the site remained of high quality even as the community grew. He lays that out in his welcome blog post, warning users, "Essentially there are two rules here: don't post or upvote crap links, and don't be rude or dumb in comment threads." He also put in systems to control quality. Kitten pictures aren't allowed. Users can be quietly "hellbanned" such that their posts stop appearing for others to see.

Likewise, Hoover believes building a strong community will be the biggest challenge facing Product Hunt. "You could invite one bad egg and it ruins the community," Hoover says. "You don't want someone to post links to Instagram or other tools everyone already knows about." He will have to navigate establishing spoken or unspoken rules in the community about how to engage, while simultaneously trying to acquire new users.

At the moment though, Hoover's not worried about user acquisition, focusing instead of user engagement. He's paying attention to whether people are returning to the site multiple times a day and taking the Paul Graham approach of growing slowly at the expense of initial scale. At the moment, people need to request an invitation to post links to the site, although anyone can see the content.

If the community fosters intelligent discussion and information the way Hacker News does, Hoover's hope is that Product Hunt will become the place investors and entrepreneurs alike use to discover early stage companies that haven't even launched yet. "This is the voice of people that love products and enjoy products and want to surface what they love," Hoover says.

Of course, Product Hunt begs the question: Do we really need a Hacker News just for products? New applications and companies regularly make the front page of Hacker News anyways. The best stuff will grab people's attention, regardless of the other "noise" on the site.

The answer depends on how robust a community Hoover manages to build. If people can turn to Product Hunt with a near-guarantee they'll find the best, most compelling new Silicon Valley stuff, then the site may flourish and be used in conjunction with a more general forum like Hacker News.

Easier said than done though. Without the prestige of a Paul Graham figure backing him, Hoover has to fight an uphill battle to capture people's attention.

[Image via Thinkstock]