Revitalizing Less Wrong seems like a lost purpose, but here are some other ideas


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John_Maxwell_IV

This is a response to ingres' recent post sharing Less Wrong survey results. If you haven't read & upvoted it, I strongly encourage you to--they've done a fabulous job of collecting and presenting data about the state of the community.

So, there's a bit of a contradiction in the survey results.  On the one hand, people say the community needs to do more scholarship, be more rigorous, be more practical, be more humble.  On the other hand, not much is getting posted, and it seems like raising the bar will only exacerbate that problem.

I did a query against the survey database to find the complaints of top Less Wrong contributors and figure out how best to serve their needs.  (Note: it's a bit hard to read the comments because some of them should start with "the community needs more" or "the community needs less", but adding that info would have meant constructing a much more complicated query.)  One user wrote:

[it's not so much that there are] overly high standards,  just not a very civil or welcoming climate . why write content for free and get trashed when I can go write a grant application or a manuscript instead?

ingres emphasizes that in order to revitalize the community, we would need more content.  Content is important, but incentives for producing content might be even more important.  Social status may be the incentive humans respond most strongly to.  Right now, from a social status perspective, the expected value of creating a new Less Wrong post doesn't feel very high.  Partially because many LW posts are getting downvotes and critical comments, so my System 1 says my posts might as well.  And partially because the Less Wrong brand is weak enough that I don't expect associating myself with it will boost my social status.

When Less Wrong was founded, the primary failure mode guarded against was Eternal September.  If Eternal September represents a sort of digital populism, Less Wrong was attempting a sort of digital elitism.  My perception is that elitism isn't working because the benefits of joining the elite are too small and the costs are too large.  Teddy Roosevelt talked about the man in the arena--I think Less Wrong experienced the reverse of the evaporative cooling EY feared, where people gradually left the arena as the proportional number of critics in the stands grew ever larger.

Given where Less Wrong is at, however, I suspect the goal of revitalizing Less Wrong represents a lost purpose.

ingres' survey received a total of 3083 responses.  Not only is that about twice the number we got in the last survey in 2014, it's about twice the number we got in 20132012, and 2011 (though much bigger than the first survey in 2009).  It's hard to know for sure, since previous surveys were only advertised on the LessWrong.com domain, but it doesn't seem like the diaspora thing has slowed the growth of the community a ton and it may have dramatically accelerated it.

Why has the community continued growing?  Here's one possibility.  Maybe Less Wrong has been replaced by superior alternatives.

  • CFAR - ingres writes: "If LessWrong is serious about it's goal of 'advancing the art of human rationality' then it needs to figure out a way to do real investigation into the subject."  That's exactly what CFAR does.  CFAR is a superior alternative for people who want something like Less Wrong, but more practical.  (They have an alumni mailing list that's higher quality and more active than Less Wrong.)  Yes, CFAR costs money, because doing research costs money!
  • Effective Altruism - A superior alternative for people who want something that's more focused on results.
  • Facebook, Tumblr, Twitter - People are going to be wasting time on these sites anyway.  They might as well talk about rationality while they do it.  Like all those phpBB boards in the 00s, Less Wrong has been outcompeted by the hot new thing, and I think it's probably better to roll with it than fight it.  I also wouldn't be surprised if interacting with others through social media has been a cause of community growth.
  • SlateStarCodex - SSC already checks most of the boxes under ingres' "Future Improvement Wishlist Based On Survey Results".  In my opinion, the average SSC post has better scholarship, rigor, and humility than the average LW post, and the community seems less intimidating, less argumentative, more accessible, and more accepting of outside viewpoints.
  • The meatspace community - Meeting in person has lots of advantages.  Real-time discussion using Slack/IRC also has advantages.

Less Wrong had a great run, and the superior alternatives wouldn't exist in their current form without it.  (LW was easily the most common way people heard about EA in 2014, for instance, although sampling effects may have distorted that estimate.)  But that doesn't mean it's the best option going forward.

Therefore, here are some things I don't think we should do:

  • Try to be a second-rate version of any of the superior alternatives I mentioned above.  If someone's going to put something together, it should fulfill a real community need or be the best alternative available for whatever purpose it serves.
  • Try to get old contributors to return to Less Wrong for the sake of getting them to return.  If they've judged that other activities are a better use of time, we should probably trust their judgement.  It might be sensible to make an exception for old posters that never transferred to the in-person community, but they'd be harder to track down.
  • Try to solve the same sort of problems Arbital or Metaculus is optimizing for.  No reason to step on the toes of other projects in the community.

But that doesn't mean there's nothing to be done.  Here are some possible weaknesses I see with our current setup:

  • If you've got a great idea for a blog post, and you don't already have an online presence, it's a bit hard to reach lots of people, if that's what you want to do.
  • If we had a good system for incentivizing people to write great stuff (as opposed to merely tolerating great stuff the way LW culture historically has), we'd get more great stuff written.
  • It can be hard to find good content in the diaspora.  Possible solution: Weekly "diaspora roundup" posts to Less Wrong.  I'm too busy to do this, but anyone else is more than welcome to (assuming both people reading LW and people in the diaspora want it).
  • EDIT 11/27/16 - Recently people have been arguing that social media generates relatively superficial discussions.  This plausibly undermines my "lost purpose" thesis.

ingres mentions the possibility of Scott Alexander somehow opening up SlateStarCodex to other contributors.  This seems like a clearly superior alternative to revitalizing Less Wrong, if Scott is down for it:

  • As I mentioned, SSC already seems to have solved most of the culture & philosophy problems that people complained about with Less Wrong.
  • SSC has no shortage of content--Scott has increased the rate at which he creates open threads to deal with an excess of comments.
  • SSC has a stronger brand than Less Wrong.  It's been linked to by Ezra Klein, Ross Douthat, Bryan Caplan, etc.

But the most important reasons may be behavioral reasons.  SSC has more traffic--people are in the habit of visiting there, not here.  And the posting habits people have acquired there seem more conducive to community.  Changing habits is hard.

As ingres writes, revitalizing Less Wrong is probably about as difficult as creating a new site from scratch, and I think creating a new site from scratch for Scott is a superior alternative for the reasons I gave.

So if there's anyone who's interested in improving Less Wrong, here's my humble recommendation: Go tell Scott Alexander you'll build an online forum to his specification, with SSC community feedback, to provide a better solution for his overflowing open threads.  Once you've solved that problem, keep making improvements and subfora so your forum becomes the best available alternative for more and more use cases.

And here's my humble suggestion for what an SSC forum could look like:

As I mentioned above, Eternal September is analogous to a sort of digital populism.  The major social media sites often have a "mob rule" culture to them, and people are increasingly seeing the disadvantages of this model.  Less Wrong tried to achieve digital elitism and it didn't work well in the long run, but that doesn't mean it's impossible.  Edge.org has found a model for digital elitism that works.  There may be other workable models out there.  A workable model could even turn in to a successful company.  Fight the hot new thing by becoming the hot new thing.

My proposal is based on the idea of eigendemocracy.  (Recommended that you read the link before continuing--eigendemocracy is cool.)  In eigendemocracy, your trust score is a composite rating of what trusted people think of you.  (It sounds like infinite recursion, but it can be resolved using linear algebra.)

Eigendemocracy is a complicated idea, but a simple way to get most of the way there would be to have a forum where having lots of karma gives you the ability to upvote multiple times.  How would this work?  Let's say Scott starts with 5 karma and everyone else starts with 0 karma.  Each point of karma gives you the ability to upvote once a day.  Let's say it takes 5 upvotes for a post to get featured on the sidebar of Scott's blog.  If Scott wants to feature a post on the sidebar of his blog, he upvotes it 5 times, netting the person who wrote it 1 karma.  As Scott features more and more posts, he gains a moderation team full of people who wrote posts that were good enough to feature.  As they feature posts in turn, they generate more co-moderators.

Why do I like this solution?

  • It acts as a cultural preservation mechanism.  On reddit and Twitter, sheer numbers rule when determining what gets visibility.  The reddit-like voting mechanisms of Less Wrong meant that the site deliberately kept a somewhat low profile in order to avoid getting overrun.  Even if SSC experienced a large influx of new users, those users would only gain power to affect the visibility of content if they proved themselves by making quality contributions first.
  • It takes the moderation burden off of Scott and distributes it across trusted community members.  As the community grows, the mod team grows with it.
  • The incentives seem well-aligned.  Writing stuff Scott likes or meta-likes gets you recognition, mod powers, and the ability to control the discussion--forms of social status.  Contrast with social media sites where hyperbole is a shortcut to attention, followers, upvotes.  Also, unlike Less Wrong, there'd be no punishment for writing a low quality post--it simply doesn't get featured and is one more click away from the SSC homepage.

TL;DR - Despite appearances, the Less Wrong community is actually doing great.  Any successor to Less Wrong should try to offer compelling advantages over options that are already available.