Life without the front page

Written on July 7, 2024

I consider myself low on the spectrum of addict-ability: I don’t smoke, I rarely drink, I don’t gamble, I don’t have a video game addiction, and I don’t snack on sweets. But every man has his kryptonite, and a couple years ago I found myself compulsively checking the front page of Hacker News and various programming subreddits for the tech world’s latest goss.

We all tell ourselves that staying on top of tech developments is crucial to our fast-changing profession, but what does Sam Bankman Fried’s sentencing, or Sam Altman’s sacking and re-hiring have to do with that? Much front-page content is no more refined than what you can read about the royal family in a tabloid magazine. Even nitty-gritty discussions on the relative merits of programming languages are just glorified status contests for your monkey brain to fixate on.

You probably know the feeling of having fried your dopamine receptors after surrending to temptation and scrolling way too far. Front pages and feeds of various kinds, whether it’s Hacker News or social media, are a treasure trove of small dopamine hits spaced out just the right amount1 for you to end up wasting a bunch of time with little tangible reward.

So I decided to put a rule in place: no more front pages or feeds. That included, but was not limited to, Hacker News, Reddit, Facebook, Twitter, and LinkedIn. I was still able to peruse all of these sites to my hearts content, so long as I did not access any content directly from the feed. So if I want to google a specific topic and get the Hacker News take on it, that’s fine. But I need to know what I’m looking for ahead of time. That way, I can still benefit from the intelligent articles and discussion without the risk of endless scrolling.

I’ve maintained this rule for a couple years now and I’m very happy with it. Sometimes I’ll find myself bending the rules by just googling ‘Hacker News Rust’ (a google search that guarantees plenty of juicy debate), but on net it feels good to have curtailed the addiction that was wasting a bunch of my time.

Two things I’ve learnt since making the switch:

  • If news breaks out that is actually important, a friend will end up telling you about it
  • Very rarely does news break out that is actually important

If GPT5 comes out tomorrow, I’ll know about it whether I’m reading Hacker News or not.

One thing I am wrestling with is that by neglecting the front page, I’m a bit of a free rider: many of my posts have made it to the front page of Hacker News and I have greatly benefited from the attention that my posts get (often in the form of constructive criticism that completely changed the way I view a topic), but if everybody was like me and had a rule not to read the front page, then I wouldn’t have benefited from all those eyeballs. In fact if everybody had that rule, the site as a whole would probably collapse, and unlike with some social media sites, I would consider that a bad thing for the world. For all its problems, Hacker News is a force for good.

This guy named Kant came up with the ‘Universalizability Principle’ which says that an action is permissible if the whole world could do it without there being some bad outcome. So if it’s bad if everybody stops reading the Hacker News front page, does that mean it’s also bad for you to make that choice as an individual?

In my defense, Hacker News would also collapse if nobody was writing articles in the first place, which is ironic given that it often seems like the typical commenter has no intention of reading the article that they’re commenting on. If I can provide just one of the three crucial ingredients (articles, comments, and eyeballs), perhaps I’m off the hook.

Then again, who cares what this Kant guy thinks: if you’re reading the front page so much that it’s become an addiction, you’ve already served your sentence. Make a change now!

  1. People like to talk about how algorithms get tweaked to maximise addiction: I’m sure this is probably happening on most social media sites but it’s strikes me as only adding a small bonus layer of addictiveness on top of a huge natural base of addictiveness. You do not need any sophisticated addiction-boosting algorithm to have a site like Hacker News surface genuinely interesting content that people want to consume, which in turn creates addiction potential. The users will do all the heavy lifting for you. This is not to say that dang’s fantastic moderation is unnecessary. 

Shameless plug: I recently quit my job to co-found Subble, a web app that helps you manage your company's SaaS subscriptions. Your company is almost certainly wasting time and money on unused subscriptions and Subble can fix that. Check it out at