I was reading the comments to The Rationalist Community's Location Problem and especially this comment by Damien Tatum, and thinking about some classic questions of LessWrong/EA/fully-general physical community.

I think a guiding idea for years has been that if we get as many good people and organizations to have close proximity in the bay area, good things will happen. But I don't know whether that's been positive or negative overall.

For years I've heard about brain-drain problems in other would-be hubs. The best people move to the bay area, and the local hub either gets much worse or disappears. (I'm talking especially about meetup groups, but in the hypothetical where this sort of think didn't happen so much, we might also see more serious organizations in those other hubs.)

In a significant sense, this makes for a higher bar to getting involved. If what you have to do in order to get good in-person discussions with rationalists/EAs is move to the bay area rather than get to the closest decent meetup in your city/state/country, well, that puts a big damper on things.

If there have been discussions/modeling about this trade-off before, I'd especially appreciate links.

Edit: The Berkeley Community & The Rest Of Us discusses the brain-drain dynamic I'm discussing.

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Was being part of the Bay area rationalist community a primary motivating factor for moving to the area for most rationalists who live there?

Maybe this community just attracts a lot of techies. Or maybe there's more AI alignment jobs there.

Personally, I've participated in relatively little in-person rationalist community. The online forum meets my needs pretty decently. But this is partly because I'm building a career in scientific research, and anticipate that I'll be around smart people wherever I go. I'm averse to moving to the Bay area for all the usual reasons: the high cost of living, fires, gender skew, and state legal system. May wind up getting sucked down there anyway.

Is the Bay area rationalist community really all that great as a social group compared to just meeting the smart nice sane people who live in every town?

I think there's likely a pretty big selection effect on who posts in these discussions about community, because the only reason I'm even here to comment at all is that the in-person rationalist community helped me build the confidence to do so. Before moving in with the LW team, I was so shy and low-self-esteem that I didn't think myself worthy to even talk to the people whose names I'd seen online. I spent the last two years of college wishing desperately for the return of the rationalists I knew who had all up and moved to the Bay, but never once reaching out to them, because I didn't feel like I was smart or cool enough to be worth their time. The first time I posted on LW I was so nervous that I cried for an hour before pressing submit, and I only got to that point in the first place because someone was sitting next to me giving me encouragement and basically holding my hand through all of it.

I'm also not good at making friends online and don't enjoy spending much of my time interacting online, so for the people who have said that they get plenty of value out of just being part of the rationalist community online, well, that wouldn't work for me either. 

The problem with yo... (read more)

Also, I knew a lot of nice, smart, sane people at my elite college, and I was friends with them, but there was always something missing. Rationality was a big part of my life long before I ever met other rationalists, and it was exhausting to have to re-explain AI risk, transhumanism, and the basic definition of rationality any time I wanted to talk to someone about the things I cared about. 

It also wasn't until I moved to the Bay community that I ever felt I was surrounded by people who were better than me. Growing up I was always the smartest kid in the room, and in college, I was more thoughtful and more altruistic than the people around me, and I was better at dealing with my own problems and directing my own actions than most adults I knew. As a result there were very few people for me to learn from, something that was disappointing and isolating for my entire life. That feeling has completely disappeared since I moved here; I'm always being pushed to become better by the people around me.

7AllAmericanBreakfast7moThanks for sharing such a compelling personal story about what the rationalist in-person community means to you. My experience is sort of opposite to yours. It sounds like prior to integrating with the rationalist community, you: * Had a well-developed set of compatible intellectual interests in rat-related topics * Lacked social confidence By contrast, I: * Had social confidence * Lacked a well-developed set of intellectual interests in rat-related topics. Rationalism online gave me room to develop my intellectual interests. I had a very low bar for my first post on LW. I've never seen participation in the rationalist community as the place where I'll finally be able to "be myself." Instead, I view my future professional community of scientific researchers as fulfilling that role. Prior to COVID, I was able to attend the 2020 AAAS conference, where AI safety, the future of scientific research, and topics related to transhumanism were all heavily discussed. This was thrilling to me. Lacking there, of course, was the deep moral and economic discussions and wide-ranging amateur scholarship that we enjoy here. To me, LW is sort of like a scientific water cooler conversation. Which is excellent (no sarcasm intended). Definitely not something I want to set as my #1 priority for optimizing, nor something that I can imagine very many people uprooting their lives to pursue. But valuable nonetheless. Certainly lacking in the school system and among the vast majority of "smart nice sane people." I do find myself getting almost all my intellectual "inputs" from the internet, books, and coursework. The exceptions are my friends and family who have long-term professional careers or amateur scholarly interests. When they talk about those subjects, I often learn quite a bit. Much of my social satisfaction is due to my ability to extract this kind of conversation from my friends and relations. I expect that will grow as I am increasingly surrounded by fellow scienti

Is the Bay area rationalist community really all that great as a social group compared to just meeting the smart nice sane people who live in every town?

I'll say the one big advantage here is pre-existing shared context. I can walk into a rationalist or EA party or other space and just already have a ton in common with the other people there. We have natural things to talk about, and there's some useful amount of pre-vetting that happens via a self-selection process that seems to shed many of the "smart nice sane people" would are otherwise fairly incompat... (read more)

2AllAmericanBreakfast7moHaha, I guess if I liked parties that would be a draw. As it is, I’ve been collecting people like this for years and have a solid friend group who I can have these conversations with regularly. But maybe post-pandemic I’ll take a turn at being a rationalist socialite down in San Fran and see if I like it.
4mingyuan7moI honestly have no idea what non-college, non-rationalist parties are like, but if I just compare the two, rationalist parties have significantly less drinking, often have more accommodations for people with sensory processing issues, and almost always have waaaay more conversations about AI alignment.

I think many hubs is probably the right answer, but it depends on the goal.

If the goal is to feed people into MIRI, or generally advance some single community organization as far and as quickly as possible, then the benefits of centralization are well known and hard to overstate.  Similarly, if the goal is to have a social environment for rationalists, where one's friendships and broader social circles mostly involve other rationalists, then one hub is also clearly the best goal.

However, if the goal is to spread awareness of rationality, raise the sanity waterline generally, grow the movement, or find new ideas and fruitful applications, then many smaller hubs are a vastly better option.  All of these things are encouraged by putting rationalists in differing environments, where they contact a wider variety of people, ideas, and problems.

It seems to me that the stated goals of the community are the latter, and so the "right" answer is obvious.  We should be encouraging people to find and befriend like-minded people in their local area, and introduce the ideas to their potential rationalists.  Have many friends, rationalist and not.  Figure out how to talk about rationality's greatest insights quickly and concisely, so you can give people that ah-ha moment and get them hooked.  Etc.

To be clear, Berkeley people have a community too, and I don't think we should tell them they have an obligation to move out and evangelize, like early Christian apostles.  But I think we should stop encouraging people to move there and if someone is fed up and wants to leave the Bay, they should be bid a happy farewell.

I also think centralization in Berkeley causes damaging PR problems, and that this is a significant point in favor of many hubs.  But that's in a comment because it deserves separate attention and may invite passionate response.

A story:
I was rationalist adjacent for a long time, but I never spent much time on LessWrong.com or felt like a member of The Rationalist Community.  Partly, I was intimidated by the posters here and had (still have) some pretty core philosophical disagreements.  But a lot of it was because every time I came here or to any other rationalist's blog, I would see a bunch of obliquely-referenced personal drama and inside baseball stuff about the community in Berkeley.

Eventually, Scott's SSC Meetup Everywhere post convinced me to check out my nearest group.  I met some really cool people, who were a lot more normal and friendly than I'd been led to expect.  Now I run a meetup in my local city, and do some outreach.  I'm pretty sure that I'm the kind of person who's a really good fit for joining the cause, the kind we want more of.  But I didn't know it from the online community.

Rationality is already pretty weird, and rationalis... (read more)

It might be worth to think more about what we mean with the term hub. The distinguishing feature about the Bay Area isn't that it has LessWrong or SlateStarCodex meetups that you can't find anywhere else. 

People that moved to the Bay Area frequently reported afterwards that finding connection to other people in the Bay Area is a lot harder then they expected because a lot of the events where rationalist meet each other aren't open to the general public. 

The distinguishing feature of the Bay Area is that it employs plenty of people in jobs that are adjacent to the community through orgs. If a person wants to work in a community adjacent org, applying to one of those jobs makes sense and that does cause brain drain. It turn out that the kind of people who want to invest energy into community building and run meetups outside of the Bay Area are also the kind of people who would like to work in adjacent orgs. 

It's good when many cities have meetups but that has little to do with the question about hubs. 

Currently, it seems like there are a bunch of people who are looking to relocate and who would feel like it would be good to relocate to the same place as other rationalists. 

So, people most qualified to build community and organize meetups often happen to be people who want to do more than merely build community and organize meetups. They often want a community-adjacent job, and they move where such jobs exist.

To have sustainable rationalist communities outside of Bay Area, we need one of the following:

a) people qualified to build community and organize meetups, who are not interested in this type of job;

b) sufficiently large local community so that there are enough replacements for the people who leave;

c) community-adjacent j... (read more)

I believe there should be at least a few, as soon as the population can support it. As I recall the course of conversations, the initial challenge was achieving a critical mass of intellectual development in the first place; this is when the decision about the Bay Area was made.

I do not live in the Bay Area and do not have this complaint myself, but lately I am reading a lot of complaints about the Bay becoming an area with a lot of conformity pressure. This highlights what I think are the two primary advantages of multiple hubs:

  1. On the productivity side, multiple hubs will make it easier to pursue multiple specializations; our work still needs development in many directions simultaneously, and multiple hubs will allow more space for this to develop, as well as make it easier to capitalize on different regional specializations (for example, the Bay Area is particularly good for AI and CS; other areas might be better for other subjects like philosophy or finance or an EA focus).
  2. On the risk reduction side, consider (epistemic) disaster recovery: there are lots of reasons a given hub might no longer suit, whether it is conformist pressures, or being priced out, or economic collapse, etc. If the Bay becomes unsuitable, currently the likely outcome is everyone to scatters to the four winds. With other hubs, there would be fallback options.