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. For some, it’s the first Web site they pull up in the morning; it captures the mix of technical obsession, business ambition, and aspirational curiosity that’s typical of the Valley. On any given day, its top links might include a Medium post about technical hiring; a 1997 article from Outside magazine about freezing to death; an open-source virtual private network hosted on GitHub; an academic paper, from 2006, about compiler construction; an announcement from Facebook’s corporate communications team; a personal blog post about Linux kernels, and another about selling Vidalia onions on the Internet. Nearly all the software engineers I know check it religiously. Not one of them has a neutral opinion about it.
Like many of the software products that have shaped the Valley, Hacker News began as a side project. In 2007, the venture capitalist Paul Graham, who was then the president of the startup accelerator Y Combinator—an early investor in Dropbox, Stripe, Reddit, Twitch, and other companies—built the site as a way to experiment with Arc, a new programming language that he was co-authoring. Originally, Graham named the site Startup News. He hoped that it would serve as a new home for the startup founders and “would-be founders” who had once gathered on Reddit, before that site grew too popular to feel like a community. Among other benefits, he imagined that Startup News might help him find worthy entrepreneurs. (“There are a number of Reddit users that I know only by their usernames, but I know must be smart from the things they’ve written,” he explained, in his launch announcement. “We’re counting on the same phenomenon to help us decide who to fund.”) Within a few months, though, Graham found that startup-centric conversation had its limits. He renamed the site Hacker News, and expanded its focus to include “anything that good hackers would find interesting . . . anything that gratifies one’s intellectual curiosity.” (Hacker News is still owned by Y Combinator.)