[META] Introduction thread attitudes and discussions

by Vaniver1 min read2nd Jan 201242 comments

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So, we have three introduction threads, and recently have had several contentious ones, like AspiringKnitter's introduction as a theist or Bakkot's introduction as a proponent of infanticide. It seems to me like there's value in trying to come up with a unified policy on how to respond to introductions. Replies seem to run the emotional gamut, and different norms often conflict. Beyond that, practical concerns suggest arguments may be poorly suited to introduction threads.

Take MagnetoHydroDynamics's introduction as not interested in cryonics as an example of a smaller discussion that spawned meta-discussions about attitudes. Epistemic hygiene suggests that challenging wrong beliefs is a positive, but I found myself dismayed to find the only reply to a newbie's first post was a factual correction, and so posted a welcoming comment with a joke. Later, wedrifid posed a test for MHD, which MHD passed. Kaj_Sotala questioned wedrifid's tone on the grounds that MHD was a newcomer, and I'm not entirely sure what to think. On the one hand, I can easily come up with a friendly rewriting on wedrifid's test, and I think friendliness to newcomers is a sound strategy. But on the other hand, while testing newcomers can turn some away, it does so in a selective way. Should newcomers be shielded from some criticism in introduction threads, or should it be the same as the rest of LW? Are there inappropriate attitudes in introduction threads?

 

The practical concern is that pages only display 500 comments at once, which is why we have three threads now. But on the first day of 2012, our 2012 thread already has over half the comments it'll be able to display simultaneously. (The post has been up for a week, not a day, but still.) At time of writing, 150 of the 270 comments are children of Bakkot's comment, arguing about infanticide. It seems obvious to me that we ought to seriously discourage promoting discussion on ideas in introduction threads, and instead point people to open threads / a primer on writing discussion posts.

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FWIW I think that erring strongly on the side of keeping discussion friendly and welcoming is good not just for newcomers but for everyone - for one thing, it makes it easier for both you and the person you're addressing to let go of an error.

A key question for this discussion and SIAI: how do you define "friendly"?

I can't speak for ciphergoth, but in this context I understand "friendly" to be as opposed to adversarial. (It perhaps goes without saying that this is unrelated to "Friendly" as applied to nonhuman environment-optimizing systems, and distinct from "friendly" as opposed to "rude.")

I usually approach it by assuming that everyone involved in the conversation is engaged in the joint project of improving their own and one another's models of each other and of reality.

Can you clarify why this is a key question for SIAI?

Can you clarify why this is a key question for SIAI?

They want to make friendly AI. As you described it, ""friendly" as applied to nonhuman environment-optimizing systems" probably has a different definition than in normal parlance, and so defining it is non-trivial and important.

Gotcha. Yes, it has a radically different meaning (and is unrelated to cipergoth's use of the word in the comment you respond to). Also, "Friendly" is often capitalized when used in the sense you mean.

Roughly speaking, a nonhuman environment-optimizing system is said to be Friendly if the goals it is optimizing for are stable under reflection and self-modification (that is, no matter how sophisticated its awareness of what it is optimizing for, or its ability to change what it is optimizing for, becomes it will continue to optimize for those things), and if those goals are such that optimizing our environment for them results in an environment that's optimal for humans.

Of course, defining that operationally is, as you say, non-trivial and of key importance. As far as I know that problem has not been solved yet. There's a general consensus that even defining those goals (let alone designing and building a system that preserves them under reflection and self-modification) is a staggeringly hard problem.

Thinking about this... it seems likely to me that if we could manage it, encouraging newbies to start their own threads in the discussion section (or in open threads) rather than launch active discussions in the introduction thread itself would be an even more effective means of getting them involved/introduced.

Like you, I'm not sure how effective we'd be at actually doing that.

All that said, I don't think it's a big deal. I think we're seeing an exceptional blip at the moment, but it will die down once the people willing to update do, and the people unwilling to update exhaust the patience of everyone else.

I only have my own impressions to talk about, and I only had one reply to my meager introduction. There was a minor criticism included, but the welcoming part of the reply left me with a possitive feeling about it. The criticism also made me feel a little more like I was part of a discussion. It was a bit more than just a "Hey, happy you're here".

Getting any reply at all encouraged me to post a few more comments (like this one). Though others may mind criticism more, or of course get more of it by mentioning more extreme views.

There was a minor criticism included, but the welcoming part of the reply left me with a possitive feeling about it. The criticism also made me feel a little more like I was part of a discussion. It was a bit more than just a "Hey, happy you're here".

Right. I think it's important to engage with introductory comments on a level deeper than "welcome!" but any criticism without a "welcome to LW!" in there somewhere seems harsher than it need be.

I agree. I would not expect newcomers to be always ready to sustain a hard discussion: after all, they came here to be more rational, and it can be a long process. It's important to remember this, and to make it clear with the newcomers: expect people to challenge your beliefs, but expect them to have a sincerely positive attitude.

I would have felt unwelcome if I had received tons of argumentation in the intro thread when I signed it. But then again, these three particular introductions seem like bold invitations to argumentation. If I had come across these before X other commenters, I would have responded as well. in fact, I've already responded to another intro thread with an argument.

Is this only something that I can recognize because I'm somewhat familiar with how this community behaves? Can we find out from AspiringKnitter and/or Bakkot whether they expected or intended to bring these threads on?

I would have felt unwelcome if I had received tons of argumentation in the intro thread when I signed it.

I'm wondering which community Bakkot could give that introduction to and be more welcome. Some people take baby killing more personally.

Dude, this is the Internet. There has got to be a community website out there for soi-disant infanticide rights proponents. (And no, I'm not going to search for it at work.)

And no, I'm not going to search for it at work.

Because, if it exists there is...

Ah, I see. Well, that too, but actually even if it were an entirely nonpornographic site laying out the argument in favor of infanticide rights and making emotional appeals to help these poor suffering parents who are prevented by unfair laws from killing their newborn, I am reluctant to put that in my office IP log.

Hell, I'm not even sure I want google to know I searched for it. But I'm fairly sure that's just unreasonable paranoia with a side order of cultural guilt.

I mean, I actually do feel strongly that I should have been allowed to kill my grandfather (rather than watch while he suffered and died slowly and predictably in a hospital), but I'm reluctant to assert that in most contexts.

You're very right. This is a welcoming, friendly and tolerant place. I still hesitate 1/10th as much before posting something to reddit despite it being less friendly. Strange. Does anyone else feel that way? It's like this place has standards, somehow and it would actually be bad if I were junking it up with useless or harmful comments.

I know exactly what you mean, and I think it's one of the best features. Think of all the flamewars that have been prevented by that extra moment of hesitation over the history of LW.

I agree with that, and I've said so before. While this definitely keeps the quality of the site up, and is the reason I find it attractive in the first place, it seems to be that same fact that makes it feel uninviting to newbies.

Because we're communicating in text, and people are saying smart things in few words I used to parse most comments as being very "cool" or dismissive. It took some emails and a face-to-face with Carl Shulman and some gradual absorbtion of the culture before I could figure out how to parse much of the content here as being friendly. I wonder if there's a way to keep the benefits of thinking without losing that immediate "invitingness".

Goo to know! Thanks for responding.

Note that while I felt an extra objection to wedrifid's tone because it was to a newcomer, I would have felt at least mild disapproval even if it was to a regular. I don't think anyone - newcomers or regulars - should be shielded from criticism, but I do think that the tone for the criticism should be kept friendly.

A Suite of Pragmatic Considerations in Favor of Niceness seems relevant here.

I agree that friendliness is generally positive, though unfriendliness has its uses.

[-][anonymous]9y 9

At present, 150 of the 270 comments are children of Bakkot's comment, arguing about infanticide. It seems obvious to me that we ought to seriously discourage promoting discussion on ideas in introduction threads, and instead point people to open threads / a primer on writing discussion posts.

Another possible solution is to have new introduction treads on a more regular basis. Say, monthly, like quotes threads, or as they fill up, like MoR threads.

children of Bakkot's comment

^

arguing about infanticide

^

discourage promoting discussion

Heh. Whoa. How'd you call something like this. A meta-rhyme or something?

This may be the better solution, as many discussions that newbies may be interested in having are things that would get voted down if they were discussion posts, but not as someone's first LW discussion.

I'd be happy to conform to a "no extended discussion threads on welcome threads" convention. Presumably with such a convention in place we would have spawned a new discussion post to catch the spillover.

I'm not interested in being part of a unified policy on the content of introduction threads. That said, if broad agreement emerges on such a policy ought to exist, I'm willing to stay out of intro threads altogether rather than violate it.

I'm not interested in being part of a unified policy on the content of introduction threads. That said, if broad agreement emerges on such a policy ought to exist, I'm willing to stay out of intro threads altogether rather than violate it.

Interesting! Able/willing to articulate why?

Which part?

I'll stay out of intro threads rather than violate an extant content policy that has broad agreement because to do otherwise seems rude.

But in the absence of such a policy I don't have any desire to create one, for many of the same reasons that I don't endorse the recurring "LW should behave differently so as to be more hospitable and compelling to the sorts of people who don't find LW's current behavior hospitable or compelling" threads. It strikes me as an attempt to alter the local social norms to reflect those of the broader mainstream culture, and I don't see any real value to that.

Does that help?

Does that help?

Yes! When I read "being part of a unified policy" I interpreted that as "following the policy" rather than "creating the policy." It seemed odd to me that the existence of the policy would be enough to muzzle you, regardless of the policy's actual contents. And it should have seemed odd, because I had misinterpreted what you wrote.

It strikes me as an attempt to alter the local social norms to reflect those of the broader mainstream culture, and I don't see any real value to that.

I am also skeptical of the value of attempting to alter the local norms. But I think it's worthwhile to contemplate / articulate / discover this narrow subset of the norms, because there seem to be many small discussions / interactions about them that would benefit from being centralized.

Awesome. I love it when communication works. Thanks for asking.

Your point about norm discovery is well taken. I share your sense of that being worthwhile.

Thinking about it some more, it's clear to me that I'm assuming that the actual discussions would be so choked by people who have already written their bottom lines and merely wish to implement them that any actual discovery that took place would just not be worth the effort. If that assumption proved false, I'd likely find myself much more interested in the subject.

Just to be clear, I'm not implying that people ought not attempt to implement their preferred bottom lines, merely that I'm unlikely to be interested in participating in the process myself.

If the tone is to be argumentative there should be a warning in the thread introduction.

So, we have three introduction threads, and recently have had several contentious ones, like AspiringKnitter's introduction as a theist or Bakkot's introduction as a proponent of infanticide.

If you come up with any policy that declares Bakkot's introduction should not provoke exactly the conversation is started then I will wholeheartedly oppose it. It has been the most interesting conversation here in weeks. What a few self selected people happen to notice (and care about) on some meta post in the discussion section most certainly shouldn't be enough to stop people engaging in that sort of free flowing conversation.

(Can we have a meta discussion about how to discourage meta discussion about controlling what conversations people have? Because I'd much rather go back to talking about killing babies.)

If you come up with any policy that declares Bakkot's introduction should not provoke exactly the conversation is started then I will wholeheartedly oppose it.

If the policy were that the conversation should have happened in its own discussion post rather than the introduction thread, would you oppose it?

Sure we can.

Personally, I suspect the easiest way to discourage meta discussion about controlling what conversations people have is more or less the way you're doing it: participate in the discussions you think are interesting and either ignore or challenge the ones you don't.

The folks who think it's important to control such things will not in general change their minds, but thus far they routinely seem willing to attribute such challenges to LW as a whole (rather than treat the individual objectors as individuals), which seems to achieve precisely the goal you want.

Also -- hm. Wait. Were you asking ironically? Sorry.

Incidentally, I agree with you in principle, though I'm open to a "move large discussions somewhere other than the intro thread" modification if it can be made to work relatively seamlessly.

Also -- hm. Wait. Were you asking ironically? Sorry.

Ironic but serious too. The best kind of irony. (And if there wasn't a hint of intended irony it'd be ironically self-defeating!)

Incidentally, I agree with you in principle, though I'm open to a "move large discussions somewhere other than the intro thread" modification if it can be made to work relatively seamlessly.

Good idea.

Upvoted for agreement. The infanticide discussion in particular is a bit absurd.

[-][anonymous]9y 0

Take MagnetoHydroDynamics's introduction as not interested in cryonics as an example of a smaller discussion that spawned meta-discussions about attitudes.

Heh, good times.

Yes, I will admit I found myself somewhat alianated for all of twenty minutes. LW is generally pretty friendly, and I tend to take everythign with a grain of salt.

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Good idea; I've edited the post on the welcome thread accordingly, and I'll try and ask people to start a Discussion post when this next happens.