Here is how things currently work:

  • Someone writes a post.
  • It lingers around the front page for a few days. During this time, conversations emerge in the comments section.
  • After a few days, the post no longer persists on the front page and conversations largely fizzle out.

For some types of posts, this works. For other types of posts, it doesn't.

For example, Two Definitions of Generalization seems like the type of post where the status quo wouldn't work (edit: What is the most effective way to donate to AGI XRisk Mitigation is another good example). Instead, to make meaningful progress on the question of what generalization really is, I think you'd want something closer to academia, where there are various scientists interested in the same research question, and they have a long running conversation about it. A few days of back and forth just doesn't cut it. You need a lot more back and forth.

In a recent interview I had with Professor Quirrell, I asked him for his take on this. Here is what he had to say:

Mister Zerner... a lesser version of myself would find your naivety amusing. Unfortunately, this current version merely finds it annoying.

The issue with your idea is the premise that John Does on the internet want to engage on the same level as academic researchers. They don't. They are just killing time, looking for instant gratification.

You are going to object that members of LessWrong are not average Joes. Again, I find your naivety annoying. While it is true that LessWrongers, as you fondly refer to them, are a step up from the rest, it is just that: a step. Getting people to engage seriously in long running conversations would require something more akin to a leap. Merely being "less wrong" is not sufficient.

I think that there is a lot of truth to what Professor Quirrell is saying. However, I am also not convinced that it has to be this way.

Here's a thought. Consider the Two Definitions of Generalization post. Imagine that I invested a bunch of time reading up on the topic, thinking about it, and commenting on the post. The likely outcome is that I get a reply or two, and maybe a discussion emerges for a few days. But after that it will fizzle out. And then the topic of the day will move to whatever new posts happen to have made the front page.

That is demotivating. It'd be nice if I knew that if I invest the time on a post, I can depend on there being an eg. month long period of time where people will continue to engage with it.

What would this look like? You could have users precommit to engaging for a certain period of time. Maybe you measure the engagement by number of comments or something, maybe you don't. Maybe you use the honor system, maybe you penalize people who didn't engage enough by taking away karma. Maybe you just award extra karma, utilizing the carrot instead of the stick. Maybe you have people pledge real money (integrate with Beeminder?). Maybe instead of a normal precommittment you structure it more like a kickstarter, where you'd only be committing to engaging with the post if X number of other people engage with it as well.

Perhaps an MVP for this could simply be something like a "posts for the month" space on the front page, where eg. three posts are guaranteed to stay on the front page for a full month. The curated posts that we currently have sorta do this, but it's not quite the same thing. For me at least, when I look at the curated posts, it doesn't evoke too strong a feeling of "this will remain here for a long time".

To be clear, I am not saying that every post should be long running. There is definitely a place for short running posts. However, IMHO, there is also a place for long running posts.

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I suspect (but am not sure) that the cases in which long-running discussion would be valuable aren't ones where a post-plus-comment system is ideal, even at the start before the discussion has petered out. They're ones where A writes something substantial (of post-length), and then B writes something similarly substantial (also of post-length), and then A writes something similarly substantial, and so forth. In that case, B should be writing a post rather than a comment.

Writing top-level posts can be intimidating, and can be a lot of work. (They can be intimidating because they're a lot of work -- one feels daunted at the prospect. They can be a lot of work because they're intimidating -- fear of writing something unsatisfactory motivates research and polishing. This parenthesis is really just for fun.) Perhaps there's space for something intermediate between a comment and a post, somehow, for exactly this situation? But I'm not sure what it would be, how it would work, or whether it would actually end up feeling like something intermediate.

In the absence of such a mechanism, I suggest: (1) If you have something to say in response to a post, and it feels as if it might turn into a ... (read more)

There are a few things that are tagged as "the great conversations on LessWrong" in my mind, and those are specifically ones that took the form of posts-as-responses. Two specific examples that I'm thinking of would be

  • Wei Dai's The Nature of Offense, which was a response to three earlier posts by Alicorn, orthonormal and Eliezer (posts which had in turn been responding to each other), and showed how each of them was a special case of a so-far unrecognized general principle of what offense is.
  • Morendil and my Red Paperclip Theory of Status; this was a post that Morendil and I co-authored after I had proposed a definition of status in the comments of a post that Morendil had made that was in turn responding to a number of other posts (mine one of them) about "what is status" on LW. I'm no doubt a little biased in considering this one of the great successes, but it felt pretty significant in that to me it felt like it did to the concept of status what Wei Dai's post did to the concept of offense: pulled together all the threads of the conflicting theories that'd been proposed so far to provide an overall synthesis and definition that the main participants in the discussion (in this cas
... (read more)
5Adam Zerner
Thanks for contributing these examples!
Eliezer and Robin's debate also wasn't really no LessWrong and happened outside of it. 
4Adam Zerner
Hm, I'm finding it difficult to think in the abstract about the question of "extended discussion in the comments section vs having a follow up post". I feel like it's the sort of thing where it's easier to think about a concrete example. Fortunately, I just came across one! At this point in my conversation with bendini, I agreed with their point about a shift in cultural norms needing to come before any UI changes. I feel like this would be a good time to continue via a follow up post. However, before reaching this point, I think the back and forth discussion in the comments section worked well. I sense that in practice, using your judgement for this question of comment section vs follow up post would work out well. But more to the point, I think my original idea of having these crazy month long discussions via the comments section is probably wrong. It'd probably make sense to continue via a follow up post before the discussion gets that long. Maybe not 100% of the time, but most of the time. This is a great point. I agree that this is an important barrier. I think the LW team has tried to address this with the concepts of personal blog posts having a low bar, and then also with shortform posts. And in some sense, with the concept of asking a question too. However, piggybacking off of bendini, I think that the real crux of the problem is social/cultural shifts, not UI shifts. Agreed. This is an important practical consideration that I overlooked. Thanks for bringing it up. I think I am more bullish than you about back-and-forth comments being useful/productive, but I don't see it as an important point to discuss further, because big picture I agree that after however many days, it'll usually make sense to continue the discussion by writing up a new post.
maybe scheduled a chat? text or audio or something like that to discuss an article?
2Adam Zerner
Makes sense.

This is partly why I’ve shifted in my posts on scholarship to just building on my own thoughts over a long time. Having a readership, even if shallow, is motivating. I do occasionally get useful comments, sometimes via PM. I think reaching out to others for zoom or other back and forth goes a long way to establishing the trust needed to generate even a 45 minute conversation.

With commenting, I feel at each stage a concern that I won’t be responded to. I imagine others feel the same way. And this frequently turns out to be the case! Many times I’ve taken a fair bit of time writing up comments for posts where comments were explicitly solicited, only to have them ignored.

Other times, as on SSC/AC10, I notice that the OP has a pattern of posting no more than one reply per comment. So this causes me to develop an even stronger prior for them specifically about the depth to expect. And if they’re clearly not interested enough in what I have to say to read my reply, why should I think they care enough about me to have invested much thought into their comment in the first place?

I do think this is an important and solvable problem. I think part of the problem is lack of credibility and ince... (read more)

4Adam Zerner
Hm, previously I had been assuming that this wouldn't work because readership isn't necessarily consistent, and because even if you do get the same readers they'd have lost the context of the previous posts. But in thinking about it now, I'm shifting a small-moderate amount away from this belief. My model is different here. I don't get the sense that trust/personal connection is something people particularly look for as a prerequisite to having a long running conversation. Thanks for contributing a data point here. I've noticed this too and very much agree. I agree, but don't feel strongly enough to think that these things aren't worth experimenting with (the bar for experimenting is a lot lower). In particular, my model is that heavy handed incentives would be more important for the other party. Eg. if Alice knows that there are people who pledged real money, she'll feel more confident that they will keep their word and participate at a high level. On the other hand, if Alice only has a measly promise from the other people, she may think, "Meh, who knows whether they'll really keep their word." Hey, that's a great MVP! I'll try it for this post! (Done)
Oh, to be clear, this is a response to having to some extent given up on hoping for deep conversations from readership. Instead, I just try to structure my research such that I have a feeling of responding to and building on my own line of thinking, rather than just ping-ponging off other people's thoughts. However, I do hold out hope that if my writings truly bear fruit, that having a demonstrated track record of thought behind them will somehow be helpful. Also, sometimes you're really just writing for a couple of other people who are seriously interested in your work. I've received some behind-the-scenes real attention in the EA sphere from my "true fans," even though that wouldn't show up in the comments. I view trust/personal connection as means to generate a credible expression of interest in further dialog and ability to deliver insight. The latter, not the former, is what's necessary to provoke extended conversations. Trust/personal connection is a good motivator for the latter. So is professional interest. The big question is whether or not we can generate that sort of credibility in a cheaper way. Being concerned that the answer is "no," I suggest leaning on the methods we do know work. But I could be wrong, and it's certainly worth trying! Yep, agreed. Just pointing toward the MVP as a starting point, as you describe. Worth trying the lightest-weight and most convenient options and seeing what you can milk out of them first. I can pledge to continue responding indefinitely, but I can't promise specific dates by which I'll respond. If I come to a point where I notice myself feeling unlikely to continue the discussion, I also pledge to state that explicitly. If you haven't heard from me in a while, I'm open to you asking me if I'm still interested in discussing.
5Adam Zerner
Ah, I see. I do see the value in this and might give it a shot myself. It also makes me think about an idea I've always had: Blog Buddies. Alice is a blogger who is interested in having a lot of discussion and constructive criticism on her posts. So is Bob. And Carol. And Dave. They can all get together, form a group, and read + critique each others posts. Seems like it scratches an itch. I've thought about it as a startup idea, but I could see it making sense more narrowly on LessWrong. Yeah that makes sense. I've had some similar behind the scenes attention happen before. This makes me think of something Paul Graham says. That it's better to have a small amount of users who really love you than to have a large amount of users kinda like you. He's referring to startups, but perhaps it applies to writing as well. I'm having trouble understanding what you mean here. Would you mind explaining this differently? Yeah. I was going to link to a Beeminder goal for the pledge I made on this post, but I agree with you and didn't want to start off with such a heavy handed convention. Cool, sounds good!
Yeah, this sounds like a book club, except where the participants are also the authors. I'll bet that there are some groups of authors who do this already. Seems totally do-able. And I actually think that posts like this are exactly how you get this done. This is part of why I've been posting a lot of questions lately - my stab at catalyzing conversation that people feel open to participating in. They've gotten a decent number of comments relative to the LW baseline. This feels like a solvable problem, though it probably has a few interlinked challenges (the intimidation factor, status concerns, building an expectation of continued discussion, and probably others too). The fact is that we see a lot more idea posts than metaconversation posts on LW. By contrast, in my closest relationships, a huge proportion of the conversation is metaconversational. It's about exploring the nuances of relationships and conversation challenges. Those conversations genuinely lead to baseline improvements and real progress. So it might be that we're just straight-up neglecting something tractable that's critical for generative conversation on LW to thrive.
What metaconversations have you experienced in your closest relationships and/or elsewhere that you think LessWrong would benefit from discussing? How do you turn the metaconversations into actionable, implemented, and solved advice? Rather than such conversations well...becoming very navel gazing and meta circle jerk-y? I imagine it's much easier making such conversations bear fruit and pay rent in the context of close personal relationships because there should be a more visceral "this isn't working" type of feeling fairly immediately, yes? Whereas in an online, usually loosely connected social environment I imagine the visceral and immediate feelings of "this doesn't work" probably don't arise as much, or at least not quickly. This is me speculating, what do you think? I'll second the "posting lots of questions" being more catalyzing and accessible feeling than regular posts. I still don't comment too much nor write as much as I'd like, but whenever I see someone post a question post that seems to generate more discussion with people who's names I don't recognize than other types of posts. And seem more accessible. Anecdote: I comment way more on metaconversation and community norms / culture types of posts than I do ideas focused and other kinds of posts. Not 100% certain why, might have to do with issues concerning people, group and community norms, culture, etc. feeling more accessible and interesting to me whereas pure ideas are less interesting to me usually. I like people a lot and seem to get more interested in something based on the impact that thing has on people. Probably is why I find X risks, AI Safety, and other such things to be very important and good and have read a good bit about such things, but whenever I try to dig into the weeds of the ideas and grok the technical idea aspects of those things...well that's a lot less interesting to me. Anyway, this was an aside. Helpful to me though.
Adam Zerner’s recent question is a good example of a “this isn’t working” followed by analysis of the causes. Emotion is often a motivator for meta conversation in offline relationships. In online settings like LW, we might tend to start by imagining what sort of interactions we think are possible and missing, and then inferring the reason for their absence and experimenting with solutions. Keeping those analyses general and succinct seems like the right way to go. I wouldn’t want to have a public discussion about my feelings about a specific other blogger. But trying to find explanations for general behavior online seems like world modeling, not navel gazing.
I agree re Adam's question being a good example of the case, and not at all navel gazing. My worry about navel gazing is motivated by some personal baggage, anxiety about what's worth spending time on, and some anecdotal experiences where it seemed like metaconversations were not effective in doing anything and took a ton of time and energy, then nothing happened from them. Focusing on "...trying to find explanations for general behavior online..." definitely is helpful world modeling that can provide useful insights and instigate changes in behavior in response to those insights. I like how you only used the word meta conversation in your comment a single time and tabooed it otherwise, instead offering more specific and actionable commentary / insights about the issues of online discussions and how to align those with what people want out of the site + discussions. Taking an Oath of Reply like you wrote is a good idea, and I'll start doing that for my own posts or on discussions / comment threads too. "In online settings like LW, we might tend to start by imagining what sort of interactions we think are possible and missing, and then inferring the reason for their absence and experimenting with solutions." This would make a really good question, if it hasn't already been asked recently I'll go make that post and reference this discussion, post, and other relevant things.
4Adam Zerner
I like that analogy. Yeah I like that idea. Huh, interesting. Drawing that connection to your social life makes it feel intuitive to me that we should be doing a lot more of it on LessWrong. Seems like a good topic for a follow up post. Just curious, but if you don't mind sharing, to what extent is this an exaggeration?
Not the clearest language, sorry. Slightly more specifically, I mean that a lot of the conversation is either about our own conversations, conversational dynamics generally, or conversation dynamics between ourselves and family/friends or between people we know and others. I don’t have a confident number to put on it. Between 10-50% perhaps? Which feels huge to me.
4Adam Zerner
I see, that makes sense. That 10-50% range does seem huge to me also, but I think it's cool :)
You're right, that was convoluted :) Having a prior that your conversation partner will reply motivates commenting. When both partners have that prior, they'll continue their conversation, as we're doing here. Figuring out how to generate that prior in both parties is the important part. So how do we generate that prior? One way is trust/personal connection. If you're having a conversation with a friend, you can usually expect they'll respond when you bring up a new topic. Another is professional interest in the topic. If you're an academic and bring up a topic among colleagues at a conference, you can often expect at least some response. However, these are just means to an end. The end being that prior expectation of receiving a response. There may be other means to that end that are cheaper and easier, like your pledge for ongoing discussion, or using Beeminder.
4Adam Zerner
This makes perfect sense now, thanks! I actually don't get a strong sense that this is true. The handful of people on LessWrong who I'm friends with, I expected that they're slightly more likely to respond to my posts, but not by too much. I expect it to be mostly about whether they are interested in the post and have something to say.
Ah, what I mean is that if you specifically ask a person to discuss a topic, or bring it up clearly showing you want to discuss it with them, they’re likely to take you up on it in an organic conversation. Also, if you specifically ask a friend to give you feedback on a piece of writing, making it clear it would mean a lot to you, I wouldn’t be surprised if they do. Most people I know seem happy to help. But yeah, just sending a friend a link to a post isn’t going to increase the response rate too much.
2Adam Zerner
Gotcha, I agree.

Some frames worth considering:

  • Strong Prune, weak Babble among LessWrongers
  • Conversation failing to evolve past the low-hanging fruit
  • People being reluctant to express thoughts that might make their account look stupid in a way that's visible to the entire internet
  • Everyone can participate, and as the number of people involved in a conversation increases it becomes more and more difficult to track all positions
  • Even lurkers like me can attempt to participate, and it's costly in terms of conversational effort to figure out what background knowledge someone is mi
... (read more)
3Adam Zerner
Yeah those frames all make sense. And I like the idea of a follow up post summarizing the takeaways from the comment section, as well as giving the process a name.

Pledges for ongoing discussion

As an experiment and because I am interested in a more in depth conversation on this topic, I pledge to respond to every comment on this post for a month. If you want to make a similar pledge, please do so as a response to this comment.

Edit: Some comments don't seem like they're worth responding to, so I won't respond to those. I guess I'm going against my pledge here, but I feel that not responding to literally every comment is still consistent with the spirit of the pledge. If anyone disagrees or would like me to respond to anything in particular, I would be be happy to do so.

I think I'll actually write this up as a corollary to For Better Commenting, Avoid PONDS.
2Adam Zerner
Cool, I'll check it out!
Here it is! Thanks for the inspiration.

The distinction Professor Quirrell makes is a useful one but I think it's a mistake to apply it at the level of people, as if some people were Average Joes who just want to kill time on the internet and some people are Serious Arguers who want to make intellectual progress. Anyone can be both at different times. I suspect most people, even those who are valuable as Serious Arguers, are more often in Average Joe mode, and I am not convinced that that's a problem.

To whatever extent that's right, the way to have more long-running discussions with Serious Argu... (read more)

2Adam Zerner
Good points, I agree with them all. And speaking of switching between modes, before writing this comment I took a break to watch Frank Caliendo impersonate Charles Barkley on YouTube. That's low class enough where we might need a new category beneath Average Joe.

Long running conversations are extremely common on old-style bulletin message boards/fora (see here for an example. This is mostly/solely because of the software design where threads are ordered only by the latest reply. Whether or not this leads to qualitative debate is another matter, often the same points get belaboured  ad nauseam and moderators have to close old threads. 

2Adam Zerner
Interesting. I wouldn't expect ordering by the latest reply to have such a strong effect.
In addition to ordering by latest reply, those forums also had a linear thread structure which made it easy to scroll to the last post.  In reddit style forum that are a tree it's harder to go to the last post.
2Adam Zerner
Yeah, good point. gjm made that point too and I agree. It's a practical thing that I think would actually be a big barrier.

I don't think it's completely to blame, but I suspect that the way the LessWrong homepage is set up encourages this cultural norm. LessWrong 2.0 has paid some attention to the need to revisit content, but the homepage is still much closer to Reddit (where discussions die out quickly) than a forum (where they don't).

My reason for thinking the website is not completely to blame is that it seems to reflect the revealed preferences of the users. If there was a strong (and conscious) preference for long running discussions, people would work around it via the n... (read more)

5Adam Zerner
Agreed. However: 1. I think there's room on the site to accommodate both preferences. 2. With long running discussions, I think that a) more intellectual progress and b) deeper satisfaction happens. (a) and (b) seem like they would outweigh the downside of c) pleasing people who prefer shorter discussions. 3. I sense that (c) is actually a pretty small group. I think the majority of people here would be happier having longer, deeper conversations, and that similar to eg. Facebook, people's revealed preference of shallow usage doesn't actually indicate that it is what makes them happy.
I think points 2 and 3 are correct, but the thing I wanted to convey was that without strong explicit preferences for things to be different, it's unlikely that the necessary changes would be made. I think that while 1 is often true in general, it is not true in this specific case. We already have the positive sum solution (notifications) which allows anyone to continue discussions for as long as they like without having to manually check for new replies, and this clearly isn't enough to unstick the norm of avoiding comment sections once a post is a few weeks old. This implies it would require a more drastic change, which likely involves making tradeoffs that will negatively impact people who are satisfied with the current homepage.
3Adam Zerner
Perhaps, but you've gotta start somewhere! How about if: 1. In between the Recommendations and Latest sections on the home page, there was a short Ongoing Discussions section with three posts? And if you want to see more you can expand it. 2. On the page for an individual post, eg., above the comments section, there was a section for making pledges about ongoing discussions? Those two things seem like a) they'd be sufficient and b) wouldn't get in the way too much of people who aren't interested in ongoing discussions.
I think those things would be a step in the right direction, but I'd be surprised if they turned out to be sufficient. Remember, LessWrong already notifies the subset of the userbase most likely to reply (i.e. users who have already replied) when there are new comments, but those users choose to ignore them after ~2 weeks. For things to actually change, I predict that we'd first need a widespread perception that this behaviour is a problem, then have various UI nudges put in place. The only way you'd get the desired behaviour change without that consensus is if the UI went beyond nudging and aggressively pushed it as the default.
3Adam Zerner
My apologies if I was being dense or if I was misunderstanding you before, but in reading this now, I agree and think it makes a lot of sense. So then, I think the question becomes much more social than technical. It's not about how to design the UI, it's about evolving cultural norms. I suppose a good starting point there would be to have a post talk in more detail about why this would be a good thing (I didn't really do that in this post). From there, maybe the next step would be if you started to see post authors do things like making pledges or holding office hours.
(As a side note, for some reason people have become more reluctant in the past decade to rebel against interfaces and the implicit messages sent by its design choices. Like, until about last year you could not get people to use Discord as a tool for serious work, even though it was better than Slack, simply because it was associated with gamers.)
2Adam Zerner
Ah, great point. Seems obvious in retrospect, but it's always good to talk to users. I agree that that would make sense as the first step.
If you don't write a seperate post about it, you could reply to this comment with the results. (i have nothing further to add at this time.)
How would that differ from the current curated posts list? What changes might happen to the currated post feature that it would work more like it does the job you are envisioning?
4Adam Zerner
When I look at the curated posts, I don't have the sense of "this post will stay here for a very long time and continue to receive comments". I think to myself, "this very well might be removed tomorrow and replaced with something else". So what I envision with the Ongoing Discussions section is to make it clear that it will stay there for a long time and that the intent is to have long running discussions. However, after discussion here, I think it would be important for a cultural shift to happen before launching such a feature. (Well, it might still be worth launching as an experiment, because the bar for experiments is low.)

If you spend a month composing a contribution, make it a new post, with a link back to the previous. That is how I've seen several longer conversations happen here

2Adam Zerner
That makes sense. However, I think it is a different thing from the sort of back-and-forth conversation I am trying to point towards in this post. Edit: after reading through gjm's comment and thinking it through, I see what you're saying and agree with you.

I think this already happens sometimes, just in the comments on posts where you don't see it. I've been part of conversations that lasted ~1 month on LW via back and forth on comments on posts. ~1 week is somewhat more common.

Admittedly the audience for this is kinda small, but you can always look at the global stream of comments to jump into it.

2Adam Zerner
Yeah I agree that they happen sometimes. I guess my point is moreso that the frequency is very low.

As one of the mods, my general recommendation agrees with some of the other commenters: For a long running discussion, make a new top-level post. For every level you go down in the comment tree, my gut says you lose something like half of your readers. And we've had really good long-running conversations of people riffing off of each other, making posts that either directly or indirectly respond to each other. 

For a while I've been thinking about explicitly encouraging this by having a "response-post" feature, but I never figured out a good UI for it, and it never quite made the cut.

2Adam Zerner
Yeah I agree with this idea of response posts now as well (I started off not agreeing with it). And that makes sense about it not making the cut as a feature. The current functionality seems to already support it pretty well.

I think that this might be likely if people who wrote on similar topics were to have conversations and record them as writing an article takes a lot more time than just having a discussion.

2Adam Zerner
Hm, very good point. Now that you mention it, I feel like in the real world, long running conversations are usually oral, not written. If true, that probably points pretty strongly away from my idea of encouraging them to happen via writing. Personally I really like having them via writing because I find it easier to keep things organized, but my personal preference isn't relevant here, it's the aggregate preference of the community that matters. I wonder what it'd look like for LessWrong to encourage/support such continued oral conversations. Maybe something similar to my pledging idea, where people can express interest in an extended oral conversation. Maybe "office hours" where you can hang out in a Discord channel or something (for a predetermined duration of time?).
1Mary Chernyshenko
I think long-running conversations IRL that they are unencumbered not just by UI. They have asides, dead ends, really long re-introductions, the hope that the other person will value the topic years later to remember it, much less comment. Not months, years. LRCs are big-stakes stuff, not necessarily deep or polished or shareable or even productive. They have the freedom to fail.

It's not that long conversations never happen here. I had a pretty long conversation with valentinslepukhin under I would like to try double crux. The threads got so deep that the boxes started rotating. Neither of us managed to change the other's mind, so I'm not sure if I would call it a success. I think I did slip into soldier mode a few times. valentinslepukhin finally stopped responding. I'm not sure if he simply gave up, or got distracted and forgot to come back, or got banned without me noticing.

Is this kind of thing something you'd like to see more of on LessWrong?

2Adam Zerner
Yup! Although 1) I actually envision it being a good amount longer. Eg. over the course of a month. And 2) the topic of whether or not there is a god I don't see as a very productive thing to talk about. That isn't to say that it shouldn't be a topic of discussion, just that it isn't representative of what I am envisioning.

I think one issue is that comment trees are just not the ideal format for conversation. It's pretty common that someone will make a comment with four different claims, and then ten different comments of which two make similar objections to one, and then a couple other objections, and those will be responded to, and it's all very ad-hoc. Structure doesn't spontaneously emerge, and having to scan through a whole disordered tree to understand the current state of the argument makes it hard for bystanders to join.

Having a section for posts-for-the-month (or "O... (read more)

6gilch has an online implementation of these. I tried it out for a while. It was definitely interesting, but I think this is the wrong format for rational conversation. It was too focused on scoring debate points, at the expense of finding out what is true. It succeeded in being entertaining, but probably doesn't change anyone's mind very often. Something more like collaborative Bayesian nets seems like a better approach for us, but if the software exists, I haven't found it yet.
4Adam Zerner
Maybe Guesstimate is a solid proxy for this?
3Adam Zerner
Ah, much better name! Thanks! I agree that this is a pretty big problem. However: 1. I suspect that the solution is moreso about having humans periodically take the time to distill/organize the current state of the conversation. Argument maps are a cool idea, but my sense is that the structure they impose would make things awkward. 2. I don't get the sense that this problem is the major obstacle. It isn't as frequent as I think it should be, but people do successfully have long running discussions despite this obstacle.

I am only speaking for myself, but on LW I'd be afraid of growing a reputation of "always wants the last word". So I just stop commenting when I find it convenient. (I know it's not always the right thing to do, but it's better to be talked to, like, at all.)

3Adam Zerner
Thanks for bringing this up. I hadn't thought of it but it makes sense.

(without reading other comments) Academia does have its share of failed-to-ignites and should-have-stopped-alreadies. Maybe we can zoom in on the successful cases instead of looking at the whole.

3Adam Zerner
That makes sense. I don't really have any experience in this area so take this with a grain of salt, but here are some things that come to my mind. * Cruxes. The participants continue to identify cruxes and work towards addressing them. On the other hand, I guess you can refer to the opposite of that as "talking past each other". That is a red flag. * Expected value and sunk costs. If the conversation is no longer the most productive one to be having, it probably makes sense to move on. (Caveat is that impulsiveness might make people want to move on too early.) * Not updating fast enough. Ie. what Eliezer talks about in Science and Rationality. Scientists update too slowly, and this could lead to a should-have-stopped-already situation. I'm not sure what this would mean in terms of designing LessWrong to encourage more long running conversations. Perhaps it could automatically prompt the participants with these sorts of questions. "You two have been going at this for a while. Have you been successfully identifying cruxes?" This reminds me of linters that automatically do code review comments in the world of software.
To the extend that "You two have been going at this for a while. Have you been successfully identifying cruxes?" is a good question, it doesn't have to be asked by software. If you see a discussion where you think that question would be helpful, just ask it. 
2Adam Zerner
For sure!

My wild guess is that, yes, "instant gratification" is important to engage people better. There was a recent discussion on how to do that, but it fizzled.  A built-in chat window, a live comment scroll window, a temporary discord channel for select posts where the author commits to being around at announced times... there are many ways to engage the audience better.

2Adam Zerner
Thanks for the data point. (Not sarcastic, I really do appreciate these sorts of data point comments.) Oh the irony :)

The key question of what comments are for and where you might create a new post. The bar to creating new posts on LessWrong is lower then the bar to publishing academic articles. 

When the amount of effort to engage in an intellectual conversation reaches a certain level, it's worth creating a new post in LessWrong and have a pingback. 

The design of LessWrong is generally more optimized for getting people to write posts then it is for getting people to write comments.

As far as my own commenting experience goes I don't feel like it's central whethe... (read more)

2Adam Zerner
Yeah, after some discussion in the comments section I now agree with this. Good point, I agree. I actually did have this in mind but found it easier to just talk about "frontpage". In retrospect, maybe that was a bad idea. Huh, I always imagined that being subscribed is the default and that most people are subscribed. Regardless, I think that what AllAmericanBreakfast is saying here is important, and with what you propose with notifications, Alice wouldn't realize that Bob is subscribed to comments.
The author of a post gets notification to all comments on the post by default additionally the person who writes a comment gets notifications about replies to their comments.  Additionally, there's a feature that allows you to subscribe to posts to get notifications similarly to being the author of the post and that feature is currently hidden behind a hamburger menu.
2Adam Zerner
Gotcha. Maybe it'd be a good idea to display how many people are currently subscribed to a post.


Sorry for shouting... I'm an old man. But Renegade and Telegard had this feature called "newscan" (or for the more pedantic "new scan") where you could scan for all new posts or replies to threads you were engaged in since the last time you visited and quickly preview them and respond if desired. 

It was one of the ways that a a keystroke-driven text-based menu system was superior to a website, because I've never seen a successful implementation of this on the web. You can have a similar feature, but you... (read more)

2Adam Zerner
Haha nope, never used it. Doesn't LessWrong currently do this by highlighting new posts and comments with a green sidebar? Regardless, my feeling is that ease of discovering of new posts/replies isn't the issue.
It may not be. It’s hard to describe if you’ve never done it. Like you can see them highlighted on a thread, but it’s just not as easy to respond or find really. You still have to go and look at the thread. You can’t just login and say “show me everything new one post and a time and let me skip or reply without having to click.”