SSC Meetups Everywhere Retrospective

by Scott Alexander SSC6 min read28th Nov 2019No comments

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Slate Star Codex has regular weekly-to-monthly meetups in a bunch of cities around the world. Earlier this autumn, we held a Meetups Everywhere event, hoping to promote and expand these groups. We collected information on existing meetups, got volunteers to create new meetups in cities that didn’t have them already, and posted times and dates prominently on the blog.

During late September and early October, I traveled around the US to attend as many meetups as I could. I hoped my presence would draw more people; I also wanted to learn more about meetups and the community and how best to guide them. Buck Shlegeris and a few other Bay Area effective altruists came along to meet people, talk to them about effective altruism, and potentially nudge them into the recruiting pipeline for EA organizations.

Lots of people asked me how my trip was. In a word: exhausting. I got to meet a lot of people for about three minutes each. There were a lot of really fascinating people with knowledge of a bewildering variety of subjects, but I didn’t get to pick their minds anywhere as thoroughly as I would have liked. I’m sorry if I talked to you for three minutes, you told me about some amazing project you were working on to clone neuroscientists or eradicate bees or convert atmospheric CO2 into vegan meat substitutes, and I mumbled something and walked away. You are all great and I wish I could have spent more time with you.

I finally got to put faces to many of the names I’ve interacted with through the years. For example, Bryan Caplan is exactly how you would expect, in every way. Also, in front of his office, he has a unique painting, which he apparently got by asking a Mexican street artist to paint an homage to Lord of the Rings. The artist had never heard of it before, but Bryan described it to him very enthusiastically, and the completely bonkers result is hanging in front of his office. This is probably a metaphor for something.

Philadelphia hosted their meetup in a beautiful room that looked like a Roman temple, and had miniature cheesesteaks for everybody. Chicago held theirs in a gym; appropriate, given this blog’s focus on BRUTE STRENGTH. Berkeley’s was in a group house with posters representing the Twelve Virtues Of Rationality hanging along the staircase. In Fairbanks, a person who had never read the blog showed up to get a story and an autograph for his brother who did. In New York, someone brought the best bread I have ever had, maybe the best bread anyone has ever had, I am so serious about this. In Boston, the organizers set up a prediction market to determine how many attendees they needed to plan for; they still ended up being off by a factor of two. This is also probably a metaphor for something. If only they had used more BRUTE STRENGTH!

Along the way, I got to see America. Most of it I saw from an airplane window, but I still saw it. In Portland, I ate from a makeshift food court formed by a bunch of really good food trucks congregating in the same empty lot; one of them just sold like a dozen different kinds of french fries. In Texas, I rode with an Uber driver whose day job is driving mechanical bulls to parties that need mechanical bulls, and who Ubers people around while he waits for the party to finish. In Washington DC, I tried to see the White House, only to be thwarted by the construction of a new security fence; they say that before you change the world you must change your own home, and it seems like our Wall-Builder-In-Chief takes this seriously. In Delaware, I stood on the spot where the Swedes first landed in America and declared it to be the colony of New Sweden; probably there are alternate timelines out there who could appreciate this more than I did. In New Jersey, I confirmed that the Pine Barrens are, in fact, really creepy.

People gave me things. You are all so nice, but you also seem to think I am about ten times more classy and fashionable than I really am. One person gave me a beautiful record of their audiobook – a real, honest-to-goodness vinyl record – as if I had any idea what to do with it. A reader in Philadelphia gave me a beautiful glossy magazine about Philadelphia culture, which I stared at intently for twenty minutes. Many people gave me beautifully-bound copies of my own work, which was so incredibly thoughtful that I feel bad that I will have to hide them in a closet so nobody sees them and thinks I am the kind of narcissist who makes beautifully-bound copies of my own work. The Charter Cities Institute people gave me a very nice Charter Cities Institute bag (although I assume that if I ever take it outside in Berkeley, someone will punch me and it will start a National Conversation). I am still really grateful to all of you.

But you already know how great you are. Let’s get to the statistics.

Mingyuan, the Official SSC Meetup Coordinator, sent out a survey to get information on the meetups we weren’t able to visit, and determined that we had somewhere between 81 and 111 meetups around the world. I’m sorry I can’t be more precise. 111 meetups were supposed to happen, 81 organizers reported back to Mingyuan that their meetups happened, and I’m not sure what happened to the other 30. Although most activity was concentrated in the Anglosphere, there were meetups as far away as Bangalore (9 people), Tel Aviv (25 people), Oslo (9 people), and Seoul (4 people). Medellin, Colombia reports a one person meetup; I am sorry it sounds like you did not have a good time. Montreal, Canada, reports a zero person meetup, which sounds very computer-sciency, kind of like a heap of zero grains of sand.

Here’s the histogram of attendance, binned by fives. About twenty meetups had 0-5 people, thirty had 5-10, and the remaining thirty had more than 10. The best-attended meetups were Boston (140), NYC (120), and Berkeley (105). Total meetup attendance around the world was almost 1500 people!

Did the event fulfill its goal of bringing more people to meetups? Many organizers had only a vague idea how many people usually attended their meetups, and many said their city didn’t have a usual meetup group at all. But as best I can tell, about 2.3x as many people attended the Meetups Everywhere meetup in a city compared to the average previous meetup. Breaking it down by tour status, meetups on my tour had much higher attendance (6.1x usual), but even meetups off my tour had somewhat higher attendance (1.6x usual).

Did the event succeed in bringing some people into meetup groups who might stay around later? I suggested meetup organizers bring a signup sheet that people could sign to get on a mailing list for future meetups. My data on this is sparse, because people took the survey question overly literally and wrote things like “I didn’t have a signup sheet, I just asked people for their emails” and then didn’t tell me how many people gave them. But for the 40 meetups where I have data, people on average got a population of new signers equal to 77% of their previous regular attendance; that is, a meetup group that usually had 100 people had 77 extra new people sign up for their mailing last. Breaking it down by tour status, meetups on my tour gained 170%, other meetups gained 58%.

This seems implausibly large; did one event nearly double the attendance of SSC meetup groups around the world? I don’t know how many people who signed up for the mailing list will really start attending regularly. But I will probably survey the organizers again next year, and they might be able to help me figure out how many people stayed around.

In total, 1,476 people attended SSC meetups, and 339 people added their name to mailing lists (the ratio here doesn’t match the previous numbers because most organizers didn’t have a mailing list or didn’t report mailing list data, and the ratios above only counted those who did).

So much for the numbers. What did I learn?

I don’t want to generalize too much – I deliberately went to the biggest meetups, and things that work for a group of 100 people might not apply to a group of 2 people. So take all of this with a grain of salt, but:

1. Tables and chairs kill big meetups. Some people tried to hold meetups at a restaurant or a park with picnic tables or something. Everyone would sit down at the table, talk to the 3-4 people in their immediate neighborhood, and that would be that. Eventually I figured out that I need to force everyone out of the picnic tables and into the rest of the park. This caused a phase shift from solid to gas, with people milling about, talking to everyone, finding the conversations that most interested them.

2. The welcomeness sentence is really important. In the meetup descriptions on the blog, I included a sentence like “Please feel free to come even if you feel awkward about it, even if you’re not ‘the typical SSC reader’, even if you’re worried people won’t like you, etc.” It sounds silly, but I had so many people come up to me saying the only reason they came was because of that sentence. It happened again and again and again. Anybody planning any kind of meetup about anything should strongly consider including a sentence like that (as long as it’s true). Maybe there are other simple hacks like this waiting to be discovered.

3. Group houses are important community nuclei. Obvious in retrospect, but it was pretty stark seeing the level of community in cities that did have rationalist group houses vs. the ones that didn’t, even if there were good meetup groups in both. This also came out in listening to some people mourn the loss of the main group house in their city and talk about all the great things they were no longer able to do.

I was thinking of this last one because a lot of the meetups felt kind of superficial. Everyone shows up, talks about their favorite SSC post or what their job is or what kind of interesting thing they read recently, and then they go home. Lots of people seemed to enjoy that, I enjoyed it, but seeing the kind of really great rationalist communities in the Bay Area or Seattle gave me a sense that more is possible. I don’t know, maybe it’s not possible in cities with only 10 or 20 interested people; maybe only places like the Bay Area and Seattle have enough people, and everywhere it’s possible it’s already happening. But group houses seem to be a big part of it.

I was also struck by the number of female meetup organizers; the female:male ratio on the meetup organizer survey is almost twice that on the SSC survey in general. When there were cities that didn’t have regular meetup groups, and I asked for a volunteer to set one up, it was usually a woman who volunteered.

This suggests to me that we’re not just performing at some kind of theoretical maximum for the amount of people and interest in a given community; there’s a shortage of something (speculatively, social initiative) that (in this community) women are better than men at. I don’t know how to solve this (though integrating more with the EA community, which has more women, might help), but I think it’s an interesting problem.

And Buck has written his own retrospective of his EA work at the meetups here.

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