There's a general belief in the tech circles I inhabit that Hacker News is a useful indicator for up-and-coming technologies that will hit the mainstream within the next few years.
So I picked some of the major tech topics of the past fifteen years to see if that's really true. Can I convince myself that checking the HN front page multiple times a day is a useful and productive exercise?
[Method: I grabbed a collection of 3.3m posts, going back to 2006, kindly scraped and uploaded to Kaggle by Santiago Basulto. For each topic I counted how many times it had been mentioned in a post title, then calculated a 0-100 index, where 100 is the month with the most mentions. Google Trends provides a button to download any result to a CSV file with a similar 0-100 index of search interest over time. It would be more scientific to factor in the increase in HN's traffic since 2006 but I don't have access to that data.]
Hacker News was more than two years early on this one (notice the little red bumps in the chart). Interest peaked in late 2013 a whole four years before it hit the mainstream in late 2017.
The price of one Bitcoin was basically zero when it was first mentioned on Hacker News. A little over a year later someone would pay 10,000 BTC for a pizza.
There are competing definitions of "serverless", varying from simply hosting your app with a cloud provider like Google Cloud, to truly on-demand compute services like AWS Lambda or Cloudflare Workers.
Either way Hacker News was ahead of the curve by 1-2 years on this one. Be sure to check out the first ever HN post mentioning serverless from Robert Scoble's blog for an entertaining insight into attitudes at the time.
First mention: The serverless Internet company (November 2007)
Hacker News was a bit late on this one but perhaps we can pencil that down to this topic being more about automotive than tech.
You can see an initial bump in Google Trends in mid-2006 as the Tesla Roadster was first unveiled, but HN didn't notice until mid-2007.
First mention: Comment (March 2007)
NFTs (non-fungible tokens) are the fad du jour. The idea is that you make an 8x8 pixel piece of art in MS Paint, encode a link to your creation in The Blockchain, then sell it to a fully rational human being for $150k.
The first NFT was minted in May 2014 but it wasn't until 2018 that someone first posted about NFTs on Hacker News. But that's still way ahead of the price bubble that started in early 2021.
This one is a little different as the term "machine learning" has been in use for a long time. The current wave of interest in machine learning and AI started in the early 2010s.
Hacker News was only ahead of the trend by 6-12 months on this one.
First mention: Some comments on an NYT article (Feb 2007)
As we would expect, interest in this topic peaked in early 2020 as the world went into lockdown. I thought that Hacker News would have been more ahead of the trend on this one.
Hacker News basically maps on to the trend for this one, then quickly loses interest.
The boom in consumer drones arguably started in early 2010 with the release of the Parrot AR Drone. The first mention on Hacker News was around three years early.
This one is slightly problematic as the word 'app' was widely used before the smartphone era, but the trend is still interesting to look at. You can clearly see the meteoric rise of the smartphone in this chart. Hacker News was surprisingly somewhat behind the trend on this topic.
First mention: Time to start making apps for the Google Phone (March 2007)
Google quietly acquired Android Inc., then just a startup, in 2005 and a Hacker News commenter first made mention of that in April 2007. It wasn't publicly announced until November 2007.
First mention: Mysterious comment (April 2007)
My conclusion: Hacker News is typically ahead of the mainstream, often by a few years, but you would need to be paying very close attention to catch the early mentions of a new tech trend. Most of the linked posts and comments have very few upvotes and probably wouldn't even make it to the front page.
Thanks for reading. If you like data and you like podcasts, check out my podcast outreach database Rephonic.