“We are actively taking steps to not become a wasteland of AI’s musings” says HackerNoon Founder/CEO

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Photo Credit, David Smooke recovered from stomach illness. In original publication of this interview, “David Smooke Founder & CEO at HackerNoon — Digital Publishing Evolution, AI Impact, Content Management Innovation, Community Growth, Future Visions,” this photo was rejected in favor of a kinder, more professional headshot. In the spirit of additional context when republishing, we added the original image above, about two dozen contextual links, and embedded a fun video at the end.

Flor Laorga from AI Time Journal: 1. David, can you share the origin story of HackerNoon and what motivated you to create a platform focused on technology storytelling?

Hey, AI Time Journal! Thanks for having me. I’m David Smooke. I started and run HackerNoon.  We publish technology stories and build publishing software. Before HackerNoon, I was managing 400+ contributing writers on the blog for SmartRecruiters, which is now a tech unicorn. Back then, it was cumbersome to manage the writer accounts, content, and editorial review process through existing systems. Building for the contributing writers opened doors. When I started this company, I built many sites, most failed, and HackerNoon found the right mix of community, customers, and - just a cool place to spend time on the internet. Millions visit us every month for free to read our 100k+ stories across thousands of tech topics. By offering editing and distribution, many technology practitioners, writers, and companies find value in publishing their stories with us.

2. With HackerNoon’s commitment to keeping its library free of paywalls and popups, how do you navigate the challenge of generating revenue while maintaining an open-access philosophy?

It’s a battle! Historically, we’ve 2x-ed revenue most years of the company’s existence, and our yearly revenue is in the low millions. Media is a brutal industry, and tech’s an up-and-down world where layoffs and profits seem to coincide with each gen ai launch or full moon. Our top source of revenue right now is ad placements by content relevancy. Companies like Brave, NVIDIA and AWS buy monthly ads on all stories within a category, like programming or data science. Our second and third sources of revenue are business blogging and writing contests. Business blogging is about getting more readers for blog posts owned by technology companies like MinIOOckamBlockchain Oracle Summit, and BrightData. We leverage our publishing system and owned media channels to improve and further distribute their content. Quality technology blog posts require a lot of effort from talented people. The labor that goes into each post on a tech company’s main blog is worth thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars - companies work with HackerNoon to get those technology blog posts more readers. In terms of writing contests, companies award the authors of the best stores on a tag (like how Aptible awarded $18k to best #DevOps stories), pay HackerNoon to run the contest, and ultimately, more technology content enters our library to serve the readers. The intention is to create discussion about a niche technology topic.

3. As AI continues to evolve, how do you see it transforming the landscape of digital publishing, especially in terms of content creation and distribution?

AI’s a massive wrench into productivity and authenticity. Every current job relying on a keyboard or a phone has/will have an AI assistant, and an AI will be on deck with you in whatever UX replaces the keyboard or the phone next. On the positive side, small capable teams can have greater extensions of themselves and their work. AI and AI agents can move portions of projects forward. For example, we introduced technology categories, and had to assign every story in our 100k+ library to one category. 100k human decisions would have taken a while, but a chatgpt spreadsheet plugin was able to assign each story a technology category very easily. On the negative side, there is spamflation everywhere. Why must the builders of our generation rush to make AI tools to spam instead of AI tools to assist? In 2022, one contributing writer, Jeremy Hillpot, made the case that 99.99% of all content would be AI-created by 2025. There is just so, so much content being generated by AI. It’s human-like, but it’s not human. Which brings me to authenticity. Who authored the content will become more important in the future as it indicates trust in a uniquely human way.

4. In your experience, what are the most effective strategies for managing and growing a small team of editors, developers, and startup individuals to produce high-quality technology content?

We’re still small enough that everyone’s an individual contributor first, even the C-suite and board, which are both just me and Linh Dao Smooke. When you’re under 20 people, everyone has to carry their own weight. When it comes to managing a small remote team, reducing meetings is a good start. Editorial, sales, and product, each only have one internal meeting a week. This provides time to do the actual work and makes the meetings we do have will carry more importance. We do highly encourage one-off, project-focused, short meetings. Weekly product meetings are the longest and loaded with demos, recaps, and debates. But it connects the group, and designers have a full view into what developers are doing and vice versa. Staff happiness and sense of purpose, or lack thereof, will show in the little actions with our community. I work to create a company where a small team of elite contributors can thrive.

5. Could you discuss the development process of HackerNoon’s content management system and what makes it uniquely suited for technology professionals?

At HackerNoon, we’ve built a lot of systems to create, edit, and distribute content at scale. Technologists spend a lot of their day on the keyboard (like I am now) and understand that documenting their journey and professional expertise will lead to more long-term success. Our CMS helps you create content with help from templatesAI, and a human editorial review. The CMS also integrates with our email and social media distribution engines, and backups up all content on the blockchain for good measure. We live between social media where anyone can post and traditional media where staff content production drives content creation and consumption. There is a vibrant community of millions of technologists on HackerNoon. Plus, our CMS is built to seamlessly port content around the web. For example, with the HackerNoon CMS, we’ll be launching AI-specific publications in 2024, such as FewShot.TechTextModels.Tech, and more.

6. How has HackerNoon leveraged AI to enhance its platform? and what lessons have you learned about AI's role in spam creation and prevention?

HackerNoon uses AI and machine learning to improve grammar, translate storiesgenerate featured images, and suggest possible headlines. Maybe Clippy was ahead of its time? Writers have and will continue to have smart AI assistants. AI can not and should not replace the writer, but it should and can assist the writer and editor throughout the publishing process. We are documenting our approach to editorial at EditingProtocol.com. With the rise of LLMs, we’ve seen an influx of AI story spam submissions. Other blogging platforms are hosting so much of these types of machine generated stories right now. We are actively taking steps to not become a wasteland of AI’s musings. Because every story is reviewed before publication (with about half being rejected), I think our average story quality is higher than other blogging platforms. Every story submission automatically enters into plagiarism and AI writing detection. We highlight what sections are likely, possibly, and unlikely to be written by AI. It’s all about confidence levels. Ultimately, human editors make the final call in interpreting the machines’ reports.

7. Given your expertise in product management and editing, how do you balance innovation with user experience when introducing new features or updates to your platform?

The core has to work for any new feature to matter. Our core is the blog post. We work to publish better blog posts and build for what comes before and what comes after the blog post. New functionalities cannot come at the expense of a delightful reading experience and a smooth publishing experience. It’s got to load quickly and the relevant ads have to surface at the right place for customers. There’s always more projects that could be done to improve the core. We also have been using more API driven journalism in order to gain more traffic. What I mean by that is aggregating relevant data and business information so that we can build pages that cover tech companiestechnologies, and currencies. By connecting stories around the web to relevant companies, technologies and currencies, we can make HackerNoon a stronger destination for technology education and discovery. In terms of what to build next, we’ve built a simple product management system within Notion, where we detail product cards, weighing which user it would benefit, the expected input/output of the project, and then generally contributors choose their own projects.

8. As a leader, how do you foster a culture of creativity and innovation within your team, and what practices have you found most effective in motivating and inspiring your staff?

The simplest way is to lead by example. I’m contributing to projects more than managing projects. The people who make this business happen are good people. If I want people to blog with HackerNoon, I need to blog with HackerNoon. I’ve published almost 300 technology stories and this year, my goal is a post a week. Our staff is remote and around the world, we have people in Munich, Goa, Florida, Hanoi, Buenos Aires, Bangkok, Michigan, Lahore, Lagos, and of course where I live in Colorado. It’s a lot of different cultures. And a lot of different ideas. Everyone on the team started by applying via our careers page, so one thing that unites us is reading and using HackerNoon before joining HackerNoon. Everyone also has stock in the company, that helps with buy-in and enthusiasm. We agree on metrics we want to move, but we might not agree on how to get there. It generally works best when contributors choose their own paths.

9. With your insights into the future of work and career advice, what guidance would you offer to professionals aiming to break into the rapidly changing tech industry?

Make things! Apps, models, prototypes, blueprints, communities, whatever - just start making. Your first technology thing probably won’t be your best or your future, but if you make more things in tech they become less like just technology things and more like just essential everyday things.  In terms of breaking in, it’s a tough market in technology/media right now with mass layoffs & unpredictable demands. Having your own functioning project, app, site, academic paper, or even just a blog can set you apart from other candidates. I recommend looking to apply at companies that make technologies or products that you use and respect. Write short and simple cold emails that explain why you’d like to work together.  Take a step back and look at our daily lives - and what you think our daily lives might be in ten years - technology isn’t going anywhere. It’s becoming more ingrained. Closer to our eyes. I’d also add that getting into tech doesn’t necessarily mean staying in tech forever, but better understanding technology will help however your career grows.

10. How do you envision the role of digital publishers like HackerNoon in shaping public discourse and understanding of complex topics like cryptocurrency, AI, and blockchain technology?

We normalize it. I learned about Bitcoin from a HackerNoon story submission. Milton Friedman’s been talking about the need for ecash since 1999. The technology’s finally caught up; let’s talk about it. I learn a lot by reading what contributors think could be next. As many people on HackerNoon are publishing about what they’re building, we usually learn about newer technologies before they reach more mainstream learning destinations. Learn Blockchain by Building One is a great blogging example for how the people making the next internet are documenting and teaching others along the way. That author, Daniel van Flymen, kept writing that blog post into a book. Meanwhile, we kept integrating our tech stack with more Web3 technologies. Fun Easter egg, you can read the entire HackerNoon library via blockchain signatures here. Publishing platforms are still learning how to detail where and how and when AI contributed. We add an “AI Assisted” emoji credibility indicator on all stories where AI assisted the writer. At Meta, I see they’re implementing a watermark checking and display system for all AI generated images, I’ll be monitoring how that goes. Publishers should provide transparency to the reader when it comes to AI content creation. Hopefully, the internet can reach reasonable standards for accrediting AI.

11. Finally, can you share a personal story or moment from your journey with HackerNoon that has been particularly meaningful or impactful to you?

Well, it’s been a long road! Hard to pick just one. Recently, meeting Pham Minh Chinh, the Prime Minister of Vietnam, stands out. He invited Linh to be a technology consultant as the country forms its semiconductor strategy. Was cool to see up close how a head of state walks, talks and listens to pitches about how the country could become a bigger player in the technology industry. Another one that comes to mind is when we launched HackerNoon.com with our own CMS, it was janky, it was pixelated, and it mostly worked but didn’t work in all the right spots. It was ours and it was beautiful. HackerNoon! I’ll leave with you this previously unpublished video of the moment we went live:

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