Becoming a Better Community

by Sable5 min read6th Jun 201716 comments

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Personal Blog

So I've been following Project Hufflepuff, the efforts of the rationalist community to become, rather than better rationalists (per se), but a better community.  I recently read the summary of the recent Project Hufflepuff Unconference, and I had a thought.

 

The Problem

LessWrong And Guardedness

I can only speak to my own experiences in joining the community, but I have always felt that the rationalist community holds its members to a very high standard.  This isn't a bad thing but it creates, at least in me, a sense of guardedness.  I don't want to be the rationalist who sounds stupid or the one who contributes less to the conversation.

 

Every post I've made here on LessWrong (not that there have been many), has been reviewed and edited with the same kind of diligence that I normally reserve for graded essays or business documentation.  Other online communities I'm a part of (and meatspace communities) require far less diligence from me as a contributor.  (Note: This isn't a value judgement, rather a description of my experience.)

 

However, my best experiences in communities and friendships have generally occurred in very unguarded atmospheres.  Not that my friends and I aren't smart or can't be smart, but most of the fun I've had with them happens when we're playing card or board or video games, or just hanging out and talking.  Doing things like going out to eat, playing ping-pong, and talking about bad TV shows have led to some of the strongest relationships in my life.

 

So Where Is The Fun?

So - where is this in the Rationalist Community?  Now, it is very possible that the fun is there and I'm simply missing it.  I haven't been to any meetups, I don't live in the bay area, and I don't even know any rationalists in meatspace.  But if it is, aside from the occasional meetup, I don't see any evidence of it.

 

I tried to do some research on how friendships and communities are formed, and there seemed to be little consensus in the field.  A New York Times article on making friendships as an adult mentions three factors: 

As external conditions change, it becomes tougher to meet the three conditions that sociologists since the 1950s have considered crucial to making close friends: proximity; repeated, unplanned interactions; and a setting that encourages people to let their guard down and confide in each other, said Rebecca G. Adams, a professor of sociology and gerontology at the University of North Carolina at Greensboro. This is why so many people meet their lifelong friends in college, she added.

I was unable to find this in an actual paper, but a brief perusal of the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy's page on friendship at least shows that people who think about the topic seem to agree that there has to be some kind of intimacy involved in a friendship.  And while there are certainly rationalists who are friends, for me becoming a rationalist and joining the community has not yet materialized into any specific friendships.  While that is on my shoulders, I believe it highlights a distinction I want to make.

 

If what we have in common, as Rationalists, is a shared way of thinking and a shared set of goals (e.g. save the world, improve the rationality waterline, etc.), then the relationship I share with the community strikes me as more as an alliance than a friendship.

 

Allies want the same goals, and may use similar methodologies to achieve them, but they are not friends.  I wouldn't tell my ally about an embarrassing dream I had, or get drunk with them and make fun of bad movies.

 

I don't mean to get hung up on meanings - the words themselves aren't important.  But from what I have seen, the community, especially those outside the Bay Area, lack the unguarded intimacy I see in my close friendships, and that I think are a key component of community-building.  I'd be willing to bet that even in meetups, many (>20%) of Rationalists feel the weight of the high standards of the community, and are thus more guarded than they are in relationships with less expectations.

 

What I'm trying to get at is that I haven't experienced an unguarded interaction with a rationalist, online or in meatspace.  I always want to be at the top of my game, always trying to reason better, and remember all the things I've learned about biases and probability theory.  And I suspect that low-standards unguarded interactions have something to do with growing friendships and communities.

 

So, for an East-coaster with a computer:

 

Where is the fun?  Where are the rationalist video game tournaments?  Robot fights?  Words with Friends who are rationalists?

 

Where is the chilling and watching all the Lord of the Rings movies together?  The absurd Dungeons and Dragons campaigns because everyone is a plotter and there are too many plots?

 

A Few Suggested Solutions

Everyone in the Rationalist community wants to help.  We want to save the world, and that's great.  But...not everything has to be about saving the world.  If the goal of an activity is community/friendship building, why can't it be otherwise pointless?  Why can't it be silly and inane and utterly irrational?

 

So, in the interests of Project Hufflepuff, I spent some time thinking about ways to improve/change the situation.

 

The Hero/Sidekick/Dragon Project

There was a series of posts in 2015 that had to do with different people wanting to take different roles in projects, be it the hero, the sidekick, the dragon, etc.  An effort was made to match people up, but as far as I can tell, it petered out, because I haven't seen anything to do with it since then (I would be happy to be wrong about this).  I'll link the posts here; the first is, in particular, excellent: the issue in general, an attempt at matchmaking, and a discussion of matchmaking methods.

I might suggest an open thread that functions as a classified ad, e.g. Help Wanted, must be able to XYZ, or Sidekick In Need of Hero, must live in X area, etc.

I'd also like to mention that the project in question shouldn't have to be about friendly AI or effective altruism; I think that developing an effective partnership is valuable by itself.

 

Online Gaming

Is there a reason that members of the community can't game together online?  This post on Overwatch provides at least a small amount of evidence that the community would have enough members interested to form teams, and team-building seems to be one of the goals.

 

Fun Projects 

I can think of plenty of challenging projects that require a team that I'd love to do, but that have almost nothing to do with world-saving at any scale.  Things like making a robot, or coding a game, or writing a book or play.  Does this happen in the community?  If not, I think it might help.  Again, the goal would be to create an unguarded atmosphere to foster friendships and team-building.

 

Rationalist Buddy System

I'd like to distinguish this from the Hero/Sidekick idea above.  I know that I could use a rationalist buddy to pair up with.  Many motivational and anti-akrasia techniques require social commitment, and Beeminder can only go so far.  Having a person to talk things through, experiment with anti-akrasi techniques, or just to inspire and be inspired by would be insanely helpful for me, and I suspect for many of us.  I'm vaguely reminded of the 12-step program's sponsors, if only in the way they support people going through the program.

I'm not sure how to execute this, but I think it has the potential to be useful enough to be worth trying.

 

Rationalist Big/Little Program

One of the things I got out of the Project Hufflepuff Unconference Notes was that making newcomers feel welcome was an issue.  An idea to change this was a "welcoming committee":

Welcoming Committee (Mandy Souza, Tessa Alexanian)

Oftentimes at events you'll see people who are new, or who don't seem comfortable getting involved with the conversation. Many successful communities do a good job of explicitly welcoming those people. Some people at the unconference decided to put together a formal group for making sure this happens more. 

I would like to suggest some version of the Big/Little program.  For those who don't know, the idea is that established members of the community volunteer to be "Bigs," and when a newcomer appears (a "Little") they are matched with a Big.  The Big then takes on the role of a guide, providing the Little an easier introduction to the community.  This idea has been used in many different environments, and has helped me personally in the past.

Perhaps people could sign up on some sort of permanent thread that they're willing to be Bigs, and then lurkers and first-time posters could be encouraged to PM them?

In Conclusion

It seems to me as though the high standards of the Rationalist community promote a guarded atmosphere, which hampers the development of close friendships and the community.  I've outlined a few ways that may help create places within the community where standards can be lowered and guards relaxed without (hopefully) compromising its high standards elsewhere.

I realize that most of this post is based upon my personal observations and experiences, which are anecdotal evidence and thus Not To Be Trusted.  I am prepared to be wrong, and would welcome the correction.

Let me know what you think.

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16 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:09 AM
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Join the slack, the discords, the irc, the meetups, the big events like solstice, the tumblr, the facebook...

Lots of unguarded conversation going on.

Thank you for this advice. I was going to ask you for specifics, then I felt dumb, then I just started googling, then I found the list:

https://wiki.lesswrong.com/wiki/Less_Wrong_meetup_groups#Virtual

Yeah, I think the issue I mostly see here is that it's not very clear how to get to those things if you've just stumbled upon the site. (In particular, I don't know much at all how to find online hangouts. I think the site does a decent job of displaying meetups - if you live near a city and want to do any hanging out, I highly recommend going to a meetup. If you don't live near a city, then yeah doing the slack/discord/irc is the best bet, but we could do a better job of making that obvious)

On Less Wrong itself, the Open Threads and Media Threads function as this sort of thing.

I also think "rationalist facebook" and "rationalist tumblr" are places where more informal discussion ends up happening.

People tend to be members of many different circles and these circles have different functions. You might have friends that are great to get drunk and do silly things with, and you might have friends that you rely on to get you out of messes that you dove into head-first, but they are probably not the same friends.

In meatspace there is a lot of functionality overlap because there is a limit on how many people you can be close friends with. But that doesn't hold online. It's perfectly viable to spend some time on the *chans for the lulz and spend some more time on high-brow forums discussing the hermeneutics of some ancient text.

The point is that one circle does not and can not do it all. Circles tend to specialize. LW is one of such specialized online circles. It does not and should not attempt to provide a full-service replacement for meatspace friends (though it might introduce you to potential candidates).

The "guarded" aspect is a function of two things. First, attention and time are valuable. By posting crap you're wasting the attention and time of many (potentially very many) people. Therefore there are strong incentives to post high-quality content and not unguarded "I had a peanut butter sandwich today". Second, this is the internet where all you post is both forever and can and will be used against you. If you want to be unguarded, do it somewhere where no permanent record of your unguarded behaviour is created.

Where is the chilling and watching all the Lord of the Rings movies together?

Let me remind you of what you said in this very post: "I don't even know any rationalists in meatspace". This is an entirely sufficient condition for being unable to chill and Netflix together with other rationalists.

I might suggest an open thread that functions as a classified ad, e.g. Help Wanted, must be able to XYZ, or Sidekick In Need of Hero, must live in X area, etc.

Everybody can make a new thread, so don't let yourself be hold back.

In practice, it's however worth pointing out that LessWrong is not the best channel of you want to reach all LW-adjacent people in a certain region. Most local LW communities have their own channels to communicate about local issues.

Is there a reason that members of the community can't game together online? This post on Overwatch provides at least a small amount of evidence that the community would have enough members interested to form teams, and team-building seems to be one of the goals.

That requires that you (in order of importance)

  1. Have good computer hardware to run the game
  2. Have good latency to the servers (for me specifically, but statistically I'd imagine there shouldn't be a big one)
  3. Have good skill at aiming
  4. Actually spend quite a bit of time learning all the game mechanics

As an ex-gamer I just realized that I can drop the games (still miss them sometimes) and focus on reading a book or do some better activity. Games are incredible fun, but so (at least from what I've been told) are plenty of drugs that you wouldn't want to do, and once you generalize it a little bit games can be seen as a drug themselves.

Many people disagree with the 'gaming is a waste of time' opinion. I wouldn't say totally, but most games focus on being like chocolate versus a salad to your mind.

That requires

Nope. You're confusing "play" and "play competitively". You can have fun in Overwatch without all the stuff that you mention (by the way, Overwatch very deliberately has classes that don't require any aiming at all). And, of course, there is a variety of coop games that are not FPS or twitch-based.

like chocolate versus a salad to your mind

I see nothing wrong with picking chocolate over salad :-D Tasty and nutrient-dense vs some water with fiber -- no contest at all.

I agree, and you're pointing pretty directly at what hurt LessWrong as a community in and of itself: too high standards made the space feel unsafe for anyone wanting to discuss ideas not within a narrow band of things everyone in the community agreed were worth talking about. Only having discussion and only allowing upvotes seems to have helped a lot here, but that's beside your larger point.

I don't know about online, but we have some pretty strong communities in person. In particular, the friend networks in the Bay Area and New York are reasonably strong and resemble the sort of community you get with a small religious order that is embedded in a larger community. That we are all pretty different seems fine and even desirable even if that means all that unifies some of us is a very vague connection of "read a few of the same things".

But those few things in common are important to us, and so they bind us.

If you are looking for how to connect more with people and building your friend network, I suggest the following:

  • attend events like a CFAR workshop or EA global
  • get to know some people there and friend them on facebook (most of us are connected online via facebook)
  • maintain the online connections
  • visit people in person when you can (if you can pay for a flight and food, you can use these friends to string together crash space to avoid paying for hotels because even if they can't host you they probably know someone who can)
  • and if you really want to get deep in the community, move to one of the hubs (Bay Area or New York)

and if you really want to get deep in the community, move to one of the hubs (Bay Area or New York)

In the US Seatle also has a striving community.

In Europe, Berlin has a decent community. It's not as strong as the US communities but it has multiple regular events.

I've been thinking about this post the last couple of days and I had an idea. I'm not sure if it directly addresses the topic, but if I don't write it down then it'll probably be wasted.

Idea: prior to an event like a CFAR workshop (or similar event) create teams of 5 people each. Organize by where they live and what leisure activity they enjoy. Choices are video games, movies, reading, board games, etc. In some rented space with plenty of snacks the 5 participants are asked to spend 4-8 hours in the same space. They can enjoy the leisure activity if they wish. Or, they can talk and just relax. The participants will have a chance to activate their parasympathetic nervous systems and authentically relate. The faces of the other participants will seem familiar and safe. This strengthens bonding in the larger cohort when the event begins the next day, or something.

Assumed context: Modern society puts too much focus on productivity. I have a strong bias about this because my career involves operational analysis. There are always top-down forces pushing to reduce staff by x% by increasing everybody's productivity. This is because cost metrics are clear. We can easily measure how many widgets were produced. Value metrics are often unclear. We can't easily measure the strength of a teams internal relationships (i.e. its social complexity). All of us are often trying to 'do more', and so in social settings we are often guarded. Consequently, strong social bonds are less likely to occur. This isn't just about places of work, it's part of our philosophy. We are all trapped in the attention economy, trying to create things that might make people notice us. (just like what I'm doing now I guess...)

It may be useful to distinguish between the goal-oriented skills of rationality (The Craft) and the people who gathered around the effort to build those skills (The Community) when talking about this. For example, if everyone was very careful and diligent about their posts on LW, but there was also a Discord channel full of people making whale puns and jokes about using one boxing glove on omega, would that fit what you want?

Because that exists. As Elo says in another post, there's a slack, a discord or two, an irc, a sort of loose constellation of tumblrs, etc.

I'm glad of the existence of a high standards place of discussion. I like reading the higher quality posts on Less Wrong, even if I don't usually have the motivation to write in that vernacular. I'm also glad that of the diaspora surrounding it that trade some quality of discussion for humour value. That said, I know I have a similar feeling about speaking up in the discord that I do about approaching a cluster of people talking to each other- an irrational impulse that I'll be interrupting Important People and won't measure up. This is basically the same feeling I have IRL, and my solution is the same. (Mentally suck in my gut, put on a smile, and do it anyway.) Even once I successfully speak up in a crowd, I can sometimes feel like I glanced off, that the contact was shortlived. I went to the NY Solstice last year, and despite having a really good time and meeting a bunch of people, I have to admit I haven't kept up any of those contacts like I'd hoped would happen.

I think a solution might be something like differentiating your warm fuzzies and your effective altruism. Lets keep Less Wrong's quality filter about where it is, while sometimes using it as a common place from which to spin off fun groups if we want. And, in the interests of attempting a solution- If you'd like to do some overwatch or play some D&D*, I'm game. I suspect an open invite to a tabletop game on the open thread wouldn't be badly received, and I've actually been considering that as a very low scale version of the community building efforts.

*I'm using D&D as a generic term here. I'd actually probably reach for Dungeon World, Exalted, or Chuubo's before I went for Dungeons & Dragons proper.

If you'd like to do some overwatch or play some D&D*, I'm game.

I feel a LessWrong corporation in Eve would be a very interesting experiment.

This is one of those cases where "interesting" is usefully ambiguous between good and bad, isn't it?

:-)

I expect you'd get, um, meaningful results. You are not guaranteed to like them.

If you failed you'd want to distinguish between (a) rationalism sucking, (b) your rationalism sucking, or (c) EVE already being full of rationalists.

Whether or not success in Eve is relevant outside Eve is debatable, but I think the complexity, politics and intense competition means that it would be hard to find a better online proving ground.

I agree with most of what you said. But in addition to changing the community atmosphere, we can also change how guarded we feel in reaction to a given environment.

CFAR has helped me be more aware of when I'm feeling guarded (againstness), and has helped me understand that those feelings are often unnecessary and fixable.

Authentic relating events (e.g. Aletheia) have helped to train my subconscious to feel more safe about feeling less guarded in contexts such as LW meetups.

There's probably some sense in which I've lowered my standards, but that's mostly been a fairly narrow sense of that term: some key parts of my system 1 have become more willing to bring ideas to my conscious attention. That has enabled me to be less guarded, with essentially no change in the intellectual standards that I use at a system 2 level.