diegocaleiro said this in Research is Polygamous:

Being in an area where the most awesome people are is not asking to "lose the game" it is being in an environment that cultivates greatness.

It made me think of the recent post in Main on How to Build a Community. And reflect a bit on how, while I've lived pretty much exclusively online for the last ten years, the lack of meatspace social contact is finally beginning to annoy me. So here's a question for the group: Not how does one build a community, but where and how does one find existing communities that are worth joining? And what are some examples? Not counting LW itself and its tributaries.

A few things I've tried or will try, in no particular order:

Mensa. Didn't work out terribly well, largely because I seemed to have very little in common with anyone else there. Apparently intelligence alone is an insufficient filter.

Geek conventions. (e.g. Dragoncon) I'm a giant flaming unrepentant geek, so I get the feeling of being among my own kind, and selecting for passion seems to work better than selecting for intelligence insofar as finding interesting people goes. The sheer size of the crowd makes getting at the people who are actually doing awesome things difficult, though. 

Makerspaces. For those that haven't heard the term, these are a sort of shared lab for private individuals. I actually became aware of these through item 2. Seems promising and it's the next thing I intend to look into, within the next few weeks. Unfortunately the nearest established one, like the nearest LW meetup, is downtown through murdertraffic; a 2-3 hour round trip.

I suspect, but have no significant evidence, that universities containing graduate schools would also be a good bet. But I'm long out of college (I dropped out, for irrelevant reasons) and have no wish (or money, or time) to go back. I occasionally apply for jobs at the closest such place to me, but haven't had a hit yet and I'm unsure I would want to move downtown anyway. I do get the impression that many here are undergrads or graduate students, so opinions on whether that route may be worth pursuing are welcome.

Beyond that? I don't know. There don't seem to be many communities that both select for being awesome and are accessible to anyone who cares to be awesome. I've found that social reinforcement for doing cool stuff helps a lot. I don't like that fact very much, but I had better find a way to use it.

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A specific example that is available worldwide is the Society for Creative Anachronism (SCA). [ETA: A medieval and rennaisance recreational and educational non-profit organization]

I have actually had in depth conversations with the local rationalist community about how the SCA does community building/running right, and what part of that can we steal. I think it's set-up is highly optimized for geeky types:

Explicit, official hierarchies (aka The Order of Precedence), with explicit rules of how to advance in it (Do Awesome Things)

Strong reputation-based social system. It is small enough, and people stay in it long enough (I know 3rd generation SCAdians) that personal reputation is a strong factor. Rather than being based primarily on social skills, reputation is built on Knowing Things, Doing Things, Helping People, and Running Things.

Sub-groups. The SCA is officially divided into geographic kingdoms, which are divided into principalities or regions, then into baronies, then into marches or colleges, etc. So you are automatically given a smaller sub-group to be a part of as soon as you join, instead of trying to find friends amongst a crowd of hundreds or thousands. Unofficially, it is also divided into households, which are headed by an individual or couple who has reached the highest levels, and take "squires", "apprentices", etc into their household, which forms a close social group. So you have small social circles that are related to each other, and part of progressively larger social circles, giving everyone an explicit Place to Belong.

Lots of options. This also fits with the "a place for everyone" concept above. Do you want to learn swordfighting, or would you rather make them? If it was done between 600-1600 AD, you can do it for the SCA. Bored of embroidery? Join the commedia dell arte troupe! There are so many options for what you can do or learn, you could never do it all. I think this is how a) entire families can enjoy the activity (there's something for everyone), and more importantly b) People can stay involved for DECADES (it's like 1000 hobbies in one, so if you get bored of what you've been doing, you can switch to something else)

I've found that social reinforcement for doing cool stuff helps a lot.

The SCA explicitly rewards awesome. Did you cook an awesome meal for everyone? People of Authority will publicly thank you. Did you spend months working on a craft project? You can enter a competition or display. Did you spend a decade honing your knowledge and skills of a particular craft? You will be officially inducted into the highest orders and gain the title of "Sir" or "Master" So-and-so (NOT in a kinky way...cmon, guys...)

Also, as a completely volunteer-run organization, the SCA highly acknowledges and values service. The people who do the grunt work are given status for it.

Seeing this get voted to be top comment, I figured I should also probably give some downside to the SCA.

What they are actually accomplishing is not very important. There are no startups formed. There is no higher goal. Yes, people are actually doing stuff, which is cool, but WHAT they are doing isn't overly useful (getting really good at tablet weaving, or horn carving, or whatever), and is often done as a status competition (since you gain status by doing these rather overall useless things) [ETA: This is also going to be true about the vast majority of social/activity groups. As an example, geek conventions (comic con, anime cons, dragoncon, etc- mentioned in the OP) are even worse IMO because they are more about CONSUMING media/culture, rather than CREATING anything.]

Stick Jocks. One of the biggest and most useless conveyors of status is how well you hit people with sticks ("swords"). The highest honors and powers (King, Queen, Duke, etc) are granted to those who hit people with a stick really good that day. Unsurprisingly, women tend to a) not participate in the status-conveying people-hitting nearly as much and b) are generally not as successful when they do, and are more often to be in non-statusy support roles (water bearing, keeping score, etc) or to gain status by dating/marrying people who do the stick-hitting well.

Politics. Not obvious at first glance, but oh is it there. (A small, long-lasting community with both an explicit and implicit hierarchy and strong reputational structures? Yeah....)

Time suck. It is not unusual for active members to spend ALL their free time involved in the SCA (you get higher status by doing the things!) When my ex-husband was doing his final push for knighthood he spent a minimum of 4 days/week at SCA stuff (Household gathering, baronial gathering, fight practice(s), weekend event (1-3 days), and hosting armor building workshops).

Taking it too seriously. Spending all your time in an activity that also gives you your prime source of community/social needs, and your prime source of status? Your brain is probably justifying that by convincing itself that this is Really Important.

ETA: How to Ameliorate the Negatives:

Participate in the activities that are more instrumentally rational. For example, commedia dell arte (guided improv theater) can give you all the same skills that improv does (CoZE, body language, thinking on your feet, etc); woodworking and metalworking etc can be useful skills, especially if you are a homeowner; running SCA events gives you the same event-planning skills that running other events does, etc.

Remain a more casual participant. Possibly pre-commit to how many days/month you will spend on SCA stuff. This also helps in staying out of the status race, since you will obviously not "win" at that rate, and helps in staying out of political stuff since you are obviously not a "player" at that point, and helps in not taking it too seriously, since you won't have to justify your major life's activity to yourself... Do NOT have the goal of getting into one of the three highest orders (this is most SCAdians' goal).

As others note, large areas make finding good groups much easier. Population density, and type of density is key.

I've never been a member of Mensa or attended a meeting, but I've been uniformly unimpressed with Mensans. (Isaac Asimov reported similarly many years ago.) In general, the people who are grouping solely by intelligence are, predictably, not often successful. If you're working at Google or have a Harvard law degree or won the state chess championship, you don't need some symbol of "Top 2%," and you'd rather hang with doers than people who are proud of their testing skills. (And on LW, top 2% is not an especially high bar.)

It seems to me that intelligence is an enabling thing; higher intellgence people can achieve certain things that others can't. But if you're focusing on the raw skills rather than the actual achievement, you're probably not interesting.


I was always under the impression that the point of Mensa was that smart people have difficulty finding others they can meaningfully communicate with, and having a community of their own helps. I was also under the impression that its decline in status was related to the rise of the internet. Now that it's easier to find communities of very smart people online, Mensa's purpose is less necessary, and it will be populated more by older existing members and those who want proof-of-smartness, rather than by people who just want a peer group. I would expect actual meeting attendees to be heavily slanted towards the former group, and that was the experience I had at meetings -- most of the people there were ~20 years older than me, and I didn't get a negative impression so much as have very little in common to talk about.

A friend suggested I should go to meetings anyway for professional-networking reasons.

Interesting side note: In real life I hesitate to mention Mensa membership because it feels like I'm boasting. Here on LW I hesitate to mention it because I expect it to be looked down on.

I was also under the impression that its decline in status was related to the rise of the internet.

This seems very credible to me. Also, it seems to me that Mensa does not use internet well.

For example, as a member of a small local Mensa (50 or 100 members in Slovakia), I was surprised why we don't use some international web forum to discuss with Mensa members from other countries. I mean, speaking with 100.000 people worldwide could be more cool that speaking with 100 people in my country, and even that would be more cool than meeting 10 of them in person and realising we share no common interests. Okay, not everyone speaks English, but there should be no problem to create subforums for each language, and let any member participate in any forum they understand. I would expect a smart international organization to do this as one of their first steps -- especially if their #1 goal is networking.

Mensa can be meaningful only if it will contain many subgroups with various goals. The organization as a whole should only provide universal support for those groups, such as filtering new members (which it does), and providing useful tools (which it does not).

What exactly are your goals? To whatever extent tradeoffs exist between "the feeling of being among my own kind" and finding good friends on the one hand, and "social reinforcement for doing cool stuff" and "cultivating greatness" on the other hand, which would you prefer?

Either way, moving closer to downtown would probably help, if it's an option. It will bring you closer to two specific communities you've identified, and in general, more people means more communities worth joining.

To whatever extent tradeoffs exist between "the feeling of being among my own kind" and finding good friends on the one hand, and "social reinforcement for doing cool stuff" and "cultivating greatness" on the other hand, which would you prefer?

I don't think I'd be happy with either-or. Though I think you've helped me narrow the question down a bit: "where do good creators of my own tribe congregate, and how and where do they coordinate in person." That seems like something I could find answers to. But I'm still interested in this community's answers.

Either way, moving closer to downtown would probably help, if it's an option.

It's an option, but not an especially viable one. Moving would mean changing jobs with its attendant risks, and would mean my partner having to find a new job too. Also, murdertraffic.

So yes, it could be done, but only at a fairly large cost in time and aggravation.

Don't underrate simple friendships. If you want social contact it can be very fulfilling to just sit down with a friend who has shared interests. You don't need big groups. You can get a group of friends together without doing it under a community banner.

Once you do meet with friends you can ask them about local events that they visit and they could recommend to you.

Meetup.com is a good resource to groups that meet around a common purpose. Look whether their are groups that interest you.

I suppose it depends on how you classify "being awesome", but there are some hobbies that select for moderately smart, educated and adventurous people. You would, of course, have to take up that hobby, but if it's something you'd independently like to do, it's win-win.

Such as?

Generally, activities that are prohibitively difficult, functionally pointless, demonstrate an excess of leisure time, and confer in-group social status for those who are especially competent. Concretely, dancing, circus skills and rock climbing seem to draw a suspiciously nerdy and educated crowd.

Upvoted for being the first (and so far only) person to Name Three.

Seconding all of these, oddly enough.

I think this is analogous to socially-acceptable conspicuous consumption. If you want to demonstrate / obtain desirable characteristics without appearing narcissistic and shallow, develop a virtuous-looking hobby that fosters those characteristics.

How about having a hobby of doing something useful, but unpaid?

For example, I found people doing nature-protecting activities to be a nice company. Specifically, there is a place in Slovakia with some unique flowers, which require some work to do so they survive. Originally the flowers adapted to side-effects of some agricultural activities, but those are not longer done; so the volunteers simulate the activities. It is a work that can be done by dozen people in two or three days, so if we make it a week, we have a time reserve for case of rain, and we have some free time to talk.

To me this seemed like a great filter -- it filtered for having free time, willingness to do a volunteer activity, willingness to go away from the computer... and also the people who started this were great, and then it attracted similar people.

I am aware that from sufficiently abstract point of view it demonstrates having time and money (so we can do volunteer work instead of working to survive). But it still seems that signalling by doing something useful attracts different kind of people than e.g. signalling by buying expensive consumer goods.

Protecting nature was just a specific example; perhaps a good one because it requires no special skills. But any kind of volunteer work could have a similar effect.

What? Rock climbing demonstrates depth? Circus skills are virtuous?

Which hobbies are especially shallow and narcissistic? Arts, crafts, gardening, cooking? Team sport, extreme sport, cycling, karate, yoga? Romance novels, short films, video games? Genealogy, collecting, puzzle solving? Card games, brewing, stage magic, lock picking? Sailing, camping, fishing, geocaching, trainspotting?

You are right that a cluster exists, and not everyone will be a con-langing, rocket building, capoeira fighter, but the attributes you're naming don't select for that group (or any group really).

Perhaps "virtuous" and "shallow" aren't the ideal words to use, but they seemed to be pointing well-enough to the concept I was trying to get at.

Let's say Albert has a ridiculously well-defined physique. Can you recognise that him saying "I do a lot of rock climbing" appears less narcissistic and shallow than "I spend hours and hours toning up at the gym"?

OK. I think I've figured out the miscommunication here. My claim isn't that these activities select for people who exhibit virtue and depth, but for people smart enough at signalling to pursue "vain" outcomes incidentally through indirect means, and wealthy enough to waste a lot of time doing it.

As a personal example, I am currently learning authentic jazz dancing. On one level this is because I find it intrinsically enjoyable, but on another level I'm less proud of, it's because many women in my social circle exhibit intense arousal when they see a guy in a sharp suit bust out a sweet Charleston solo.

There are more direct and less time-consuming ways of accomplishing this, but I don't much care for them. On one level, I don't much care for them because I find them dull and uninteresting, but on another level I'm less proud of, it's because I want to signal to a more discerning audience.

The gelling of truly awesome and useful communities is hard to achieve through a deterministic, step-by-step process. What I find useful to focus on is a more iterative, trial and error process along these lines:

(1) Be where communities are forming – density generally means more opportunity. Per ModusPonies, move downtown or wherever you need to be to improve your odds of achieving initial critical mass.

(2) Be prepared to adapt and flex. A community is made up of… wait for it… multiple people. Who may have somewhat different skills, goals and values and may want something similar, but different to what you were initially looking for. A tight filter and a rigid template not only lowers your odds but might lead you to miss a maximization opportunity you hadn’t thought of.

(3) Nurture the initial tender shoots of community and cherish existing high-functioning communities when you find yourself in them. Along the lines of Peopleware’s concept of “teamicide”, realize that it’s much more efficient to not disrupt, degrade or kill off existing high-functioning communities than to start over from scratch.

I was surprised to find that this isn't the case with science or engineering graduate students, at least not at my grad school.

With a few exceptions, most are NOT geeks/hackers, and tend to use social interaction to escape thinking about technical things, not to geek out on them even harder than they do in the lab.

I've had better luck finding interesting and smart friends in artistic and psychedelic drug use subcultures, despite the fact that I have little interest in those activities myself.

I don't have a broad sample of what different schools are like, but mine is a large public research university in the southwestern United States.

Huh. Anecdotal or not, that's interesting for being contrary evidence. Thanks.

(I was somewhat surprised to discover the same in the working IT world. Either my prior was too high or I wasn't taking it properly into account, I'm not sure which.)

Makerspaces? I hope you mean hackerspaces / coworking spaces. If you're not familiar with them, I strongly recommend checking out http://hackerspaces.org/wiki/List_of_ALL_Hacker_Spaces . There are hackerspaces almost everywhere. I went to Singapore for study abroad, and because of the hackerspace got intro'd to a bunch of awesome people and other events.

Coworking spaces are an even more recent phenomenon. I get the feeling like they, on average, aren't as social as hackerspaces, but they still provide some sort of community.

There's also co-living places, one of which I'm in right now ( http://www.risesf.com/ ). In San Francisco there are a few of these, basically big collective houses that support 8-15 people. A "community in a box" so to speak.

I've also found that there are a bunch of "we're the cool intellectual-ish people" groups out there. They seem to kind of blend together, but sometimes are international and very good for networking. The Sandbox network comes to mind (http://sandbox.is/). Also the TED and BIL communities, which are both pretty large.

Of course, the single biggest recommendation for any of this is that they are all significantly easier if you are located in or near a city. Seriously, that's about the biggest "improvement hack" I've made so far in my life (coming from suburbia New York to San Francisco).

That is what I mean, yes. I used the term makerspace because I first encountered the concept from Freeside Atlanta. I think they phrase it that way to emphasize that they're there to support all kinds of creation rather than just programming; but I'm pretty sure hackerspaces came first.

Thanks for the additional suggestions.


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I'm somewhat puzzled by the notion throughout this thread that you should filter for people with lots of free time. Is this the same community that's interested in Soylent?

People prefer the idea of Soylent because they value their free time.