How I Was Unbanned from Hacker News
November 14, 2013

How I Was Unbanned from Hacker News

by Brian de Haaff

Somehow I managed to become what I thought was hellbanned on Hacker News. I was ready to apologize for sinning — to bow down to the Internet gods of geeky and fresh content and atone for my evil ways. But, it was not clear why I needed to. Here is the story of an algorithm gone wrong and surprisingly quick and humane service from what is often considered to be a cruel and fickle master.

It all started on a typical Monday morning at Aha! — the new way to create brilliant product roadmaps.

The title of this post could have also been — how I got banned on Hacker News. Or the Hacker News algorithm that got me.

I am writing up this experience to share what I have learned and help others who might be in the same position. You may not know that you can be banned from Hacker News or have your permissions removed, but it happens. And here is what you can do if it does (assuming you were a good citizen and did not deserve it).

I wrote the following blog post and submitted a link to Hacker News: VCs Will Not Save You from the Startup Death Spiral.

The only difference was that Google Analytics showed that close to no one was reading the blog post. Strange. A link on Hacker News typically drives at least a few folks to the site. So, I mentioned it to Chris (Aha! co-founder and CTO) and asked him to take a look.

He could not see the story posted on Hacker News. It did not exist for him. What I did not know is that if you are hellbanned or your submission privileges have been revoked, no one will tell you. And worse, you will continue to use the site in a way that appears to be normal to you, but others cannot see your submissions or comments. You basically become invisible.

So, I considered just creating a new account, but that seemed like giving up even though I was fairly certain that I did not do anything wrong. So, I read the Hacker News guidelines and figured I would send a message to the info email listed on the page ( I expected silence. What happened next surprised me.

I wrote the following:

My account on HN news, bdehaaff, has been hellbanned. Maybe I deserved it, but I read the guidelines and do not know what I did to cause this.
I considered just creating a new account, but that seems wrong. I would appreciate any guidance on why I was blocked so I will be a better citizen moving forward.
I would also appreciate if you could unlock my account as I have tried to responsibly participate in the community and grow my karma.

Amazingly, within a few hours, I received a response:

Hi Brian, what is you HN id?
Sent from my iPhone

I immediately responded:

My user name is user: bdehaaff
Is there some other ID you are looking for?

The next day is when I was freed and the reason I had lost my privileges (I was not actually banned) was clearly explained.

Hi Brian,
Your account wasn’t banned, but it had lost submission privileges. I’ve just restored them.
This happens sometimes when an account posts repeatedly from a single site. We want people to post things because they’re interesting, not just because they’re promoting content. So to prevent this from happening again, your best bet is to diversify your submissions.
This is one case when we have to rely on a heuristic because we don’t have time to read everything. When we get it wrong, we need people to tell us, so I’m glad you emailed.
Let us know if there’s anything else.
xxxx  xxxxxxx, xxxxxxxxxx
Y Combinator

So, the lesson is that sometimes when technology fails us and algorithms go wrong, humans can step in and make things right. Kudos to Y Combinator for providing a great resource and being willing to supplement technology with responsive personal support.

We try to do the same at Aha! for product and engineering management leaders looking to get their mojo back. Sign up for a free trial to see why so many leading software and web companies use Aha! to create brilliant roadmaps and build what matters.

Brian de Haaff

Brian seeks business and wilderness adventure. He is the co-founder and CEO of Aha! — the world’s #1 product development software — and the author of the bestseller Lovability. Brian writes and speaks about product and company growth and the journey of pursuing a meaningful life.

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