Lobsters is a computing-focused community centered around link aggregation and discussion, launched on July 3rd, 2012. The administrator is Peter Bhat Harkins ("pushcx"), contact him with any support issues. Lobsters was created by joshua stein with careful design touches to encourage a healthy community:
- a tagging system to categorize and filter submissions,
- a user invitation tree to combat spam,
- flag explanations to curb punishing disagreement,
- a strong commitment to transparency,
- and many more features that have been added over the years.
Tags and Topicality
When links or stories are submitted, they must be tagged by the submitter from a list of predefined tags. Users can choose to filter out or subscribe to all submissions with particular tags (example: programming.rss) or combinations of tags (example: programming,audio.rss). All users see all stories by default. The tagging system works this way for three reasons:
It keeps the site on-topic by only allowing a predefined list of tags. These tags represent what most of the users of the site want to read, so content that does not fit into any of those categories should not be submitted. It also keeps stories organized and more easily searchable.
It promotes discussion. On a site with separate forums, a Ruby programmer would probably subscribe to a Ruby forum, but not a Python one. When a link is posted to the Python forum, that Ruby programmer would probably never see it, even though they may have something useful to say about it (perhaps the link is about a Python library which does the same thing as a Ruby library which that Ruby programmer created). On this site, the link would get posted with a python tag and shown to everyone, encouraging the Ruby programmer to read and comment on it (unless that Ruby programmer disliked Python enough to filter it out).
It keeps the community coherent. Often stories contain discussion about more than one topic, yet on other sites they are confined to a single category/forum, limiting the exposure. The link could be submitted to more than one forum, but then each conversation would remain separate and users would rarely interact with users from other forums. On this site, the story would simply be tagged with multiple tags and all users would see all discussion about the story in a single location.
Creating new tags and retiring old tags is done by the community by submitting, discussing, and voting on meta-tagged requests about them, and these events are logged (since 2018-04). To propose a tag, post a meta thread with the name and description. Explain the scope, list existing stories that should have been tagged, make a case for why people would want to specifically filter it out, and justify the increased complexity for submitters and mods.
Lobsters is focused pretty narrowly on computing; tags like art don't imply every piece of art is on-topic. Some rules of thumb for great stories to submit: Will this improve the reader's next program? Will it deepen their understanding of their last program? Will it be more interesting in five or ten years?
Some things that are off-topic here but popular on larger, similar sites: entrepreneurship, management, news about companies that employ a lot of programmers, investing, world events, anthropology, self-help, personal productivity systems, last-resort customer service requests via public shaming, "I wanted to see what this site's amazing users think about this off-topic thing", and defining the single morally correct economic and political system for the entire world when we can't even settle tabs vs. spaces.
The full user tree is public and each user's profile shows who invited them. This provides some degree of accountability and helps identify voting rings.
Invitations are used as a mechanism for spam-control, to slow registrations to a pace we can acculturate (more below) and to encourage users to be nice, not to make the Lobsters userbase an elite club. Users are considered "new" for their first 7 days, and their usernames appear in green. New users can't send invites, submit links to domains we haven't seen submitted before, flag stories and comments, suggest edits to story titles and tags, resubmit links that have been seen before, or
The quickest way to receive an invitation is to talk to someone you recognize from the site. If you wrote a link that was posted, please reach out in chat, we'd love to have you join the discussion. Finally, if you can't find anyone you know in the invitation tree and didn't author something posted to the site, consider getting to know the community in the chat room.
There's no limit on how many invitations a user can send (though we might at some point, to manage growth). There's also no official vetting process for new users, each user is responsible for inviting people they believe will contribute positively to Lobsters. When accounts are banned for spam, sockpuppeting, or other abuse, moderators will consider disabling their inviter's ability to send invitations or, rarely, also ban them.
All story and comment ranking on this site comes from user activity. All users have equal votes, with no special priorities or penalties for specific users or domains. Moderators have no ability to raise or lower the rankings of stories or comments (besides voting like any user). Per-tag hotness modifiers affect all stories with those tags, but these modifiers (and changes to them) are public. Domains used for marketing analytics are banned and tracking parameters are removed from links (look for TRACKING_DOMAINS and utm_ in story.rb).
Users can flag stories and comments when there's a serious problem that needs moderator attention; two flags are needed to add the story or comment to the moderation queue. Users must reach 50 karma to flag. To guide usage and head off distracting meta conversations ("Why was this flagged!?", etc), flagging requires selecting from a preset list of reasons.
For stories, these are: "Off-topic" for stories that are not about computing; "Already Posted" for duplicate submissions and links that elaborate on or responses to a thread that's less than a week old (see merging); and "Broken Link" for links that 404, 500, or present a paywall; "Spam" for links that promote a commercial service.
For comments, these are: "Off-topic" for drifting into meta or topics that aren't related to the story; "Me-too" when a comment doesn't add new information, typically a single sentence of appreciation, agreement, or humor; "Troll" for derailing conversations into classic arguments, well-intentioned or not; "Unkind" when uncharitable, insulting, or dismissive; and "Spam" for promoting commercial services.
Less than 1% of stories or comments get flagged, and users are not automatically punished by flags. Users whose stories or comments are getting flagged significantly more often are strongly encouraged to talk to mods about what's not working. (Please don't use flagging to try to push down topics or people you don't like; click "hide" on the story and move on rather than clutter up the mod dashboard with false alarms.)
All moderator actions on this site are visible to everyone and the identities of those moderators are public. While the individual actions of a moderator may cause debate, there should be no question about if an action happened or who is responsible.
If users are disruptive enough to warrant banning, they will be banned absolutely, given notice of their banning, and their disabled user profile will indicate which moderator banned them and why. There will be no shadow banning or other secret moderation actions.
The source code to this site and its provisioning and deployment are made available under a 3-clause BSD license for viewing, auditing, forking, or contributing to. The codebase is used to run a dozen or so sister sites (that we know of) and we keep a list; please get in touch if you've launched one.
The Lobsters community is in a sweet spot that it's large enough to be worth asking questions about and small enough the answers make sense. We have some basic stats available, and Peter is happy to run queries against the database and Rails/MySQL/nginx logs (but not write them for you), as long as they don't reveal personal info like IPs, browsing, and voting or create “worst-of” leaderboards celebrating most-flagged users/comments/stories. If you're an academic researcher, please be like MIT, not like UChicago secretly experimenting on maintainers without IRB review.
Other Technical Features
Mailing list mode can be enabled per-user to receive all new stories (including their plain-text content as fetched and extracted by Diffbot) and user comments as e-mails, mirroring discussion threads offline. This makes it easy and efficient to read new stories as well as keep track of new comments on old threads or stories, just like technical mailing lists or Usenet of yore. Each user is assigned a private mailing list address at this domain which allows them to reply to stories or comments directly in their e-mail client. These e-mails are then converted and submitted to the website as comments, just as if the comment was posted through a web browser.
Private messaging enables users to communicate privately without having to publicly disclose an e-mail address, and users can receive e-mail and Pushover notifications of new private messages.
Responsive design enhances functionality on smaller screens such as phones and tablets without having to use a separate URL, 3rd party (often read-only) websites, or mobile apps.
Integrated search engine covers all submitted stories and comments, including full-text caches of all submitted story contents. Searching for a keyword will often bring up relevant stories that don't even mention that keyword in the URL or title.
Story merging collects comments on a topic that would otherwise fragment across multiple stories. This keeps the front page from being overwhelmed by a single topic and the discussion together for those interested (or so disinterested they'd prefer to hide it). Moderators merge stories on the same topic submitted within a week. Here's a small and large example.
Fuzzy-matching of submitted story URLs to avoid duplicate submissions of similar URLs that differ only in http vs. https, trailing slashes, useless analytics parameters, etc. When using the story submission bookmarklet, story URLs are automatically converted to use the page's canonical URL (if available) to present the best URL to represent the story, as defined by the story's author or publisher.
User-suggested titles and tags can be automatically applied to a story when a quorum of users agrees on a new title (such as removing a site's name, or appending the story's year of publication) or set of tags, without any moderator action required. (Log)
Hats are a more formal process of allowing users to post comments while "wearing such and such hat" to give their words more authority (such as an employee speaking for the company, or an open source developer speaking for the project).
Stickers will be available again when someone finds a service that will print and ship 2" square vinyl stickers with a bleed <= 1/16" (preferably full-bleed) directly to people who want them.
Lobsters is hosted on three VPSs at DigitalOcean: a s-4vcpu-8gb for the web server, a s-2vcpu-4gb for the mariadb server, and a s-1vcpu-1gb for the IRC bot. Our domain name is registered with CRI Domains, who donated our first year of registration. DNS is provided by DNSimple and we use Tarsnap for backups, both of which pushcx pays for. Lobsters is cheap to run, so we don't take donations.
The name "Lobste.rs" is a cute domain hack without any deeper meaning. It has nothing to do with self-help guru Jordan Peterson, whose fans started to call themselves "lobsters" about six years after we started.
We have a backup domain lobsters.dev in case of issues with our primary domain.