Sep 2, 2012
In the thread "LessWrong could grow a lot, but we're doing it wrong.", I explained why LessWrong has the potential to grow quite a lot faster in my opinion, and volunteered to help LessWrong grow. Of course, a lot of people were concerned about the fact that a large quantity of new members will not directly translate to higher quality contributions or beneficial learning and social experiences in discussions, so I realized it would be better to help protect LessWrong first. I do not assume that fast growth has to cause a lowering of standards. I think fast growth can be good if the right people are joining and all goes well (specifics herein). However, if LessWrong grows carelessly, we could be inviting an "Endless September", a term used to describe a never ending deluge of newbies that "degraded standards of discourse and behavior on Usenet and the wider Internet" (named after a phenomenon caused by an influx of college freshmen). My perspective on this is that it could happen at any time, regardless of whether any of us does anything. Why do I think that? LessWrong is growing very fast and could snowball on it's own. I've seen that happen, I saw it ruin a forum. That site wasn't even doing anything special to advertise the forum that I am aware of. The forum was just popular and growth went exponential. For this reason, I asked for a complete list of LessWrong registration dates in order to make a growth chart. I received it on 08-23-2012. The data shows that LessWrong has 13,727 total users, not including spammers and accounts that were deleted. From these, I have created a LessWrong growth bar graph:
Each bar represents a one month long total of registration dates (the last bar is a little short, being that it only goes up until the 23rd). The number of pixels in each bar is equal to the number of registrations each month. The first (leftmost) bar that hits the top of the picture (it actually goes waaaay off the page) mostly represents the transfer of over 2000 accounts from Overcoming Bias. The right bar that goes off the page is so far unexplained for me - 921 users joined in September 2011, more than three times the number in the months before and after it. If you happen to know what caused that, I would be very interested in finding out. (No, September 2010 does not stand out, if you were wondering the same thing). If anyone wants to do different kinds of analysis, I can generate more numbers and graphs fairly easily.
As you can see, LessWrong has experienced pretty rapid growth.
Growth is in a downward trend at the moment, but as you can see from the wild spikes everyplace, this could change any time. In addition to LessWrong growing on it's own, other events that could trigger an "endless September" effect are:
LessWrong could end up on the news after somebody does something news worthy or because a reporter discovers LessWrong culture and finds it interesting or weird.
(A more detailed explanation is located here.)
For these reasons, I feel it is a good idea to begin constructing endless September protection, so I have volunteered some of my professional web services to get it done. This has to be done carefully because if it is not done right, various unwanted things may happen. I am asking for any ideas or links to ideas you guys have that you think were good and am laying out my solutions and the pitfalls I have planned for below in order to seek your critiques and suggestions.
I really thought this out quite a bit because I think it's going to be tricky and because it's important. So I wrote a cliff notes version of the below solution ideas with pros and cons for each which is about a tenth the size.
People want the site to be enriching for those who want to learn better reasoning but haven't gotten very far yet.
People also want an environment where they can get a good challenge, where they are encouraged to grow, where they can get exposed to new ideas and viewpoints, and where they can get useful, constructive criticism.
The problem is that a basic desire all humans seem to share is a desire to avoid boredom. There is possibly a survival reason for this: There is no way to know everything, but missing even one piece of information can spell disaster. This may be why the brain appears to have evolved built-in motivators to prod you to learn constantly. From the mild ecstasy of flow state (cite Flow: The psychology of peak experiencing) to tedium, we are constantly being punished and rewarded based on whether we're receiving the optimal challenge for our level of ability.
This means that those who are here for a challenge aren't going to spend their time being teachers for everybody who wants to learn. Not everyone has a teacher's personality and skill set to begin with, and some people who teach do it as writers, explaining to many thousands, rather than by explaining it one-to-one. If everyone feels expected to teach by hand-holding, most will be punished by their brains for not learning more themselves, and will be forced to seek a new learning environment. If beginners are locked out, we'll fail at spreading rationality. The ideal is to create an environment where everyone gets to experience flow, and no one has to sacrifice optimal challenge.
To make this challenge a bit more complicated, American culture (yes, a majority of the visits, 51.12%, are coming from the USA - I have access to the Google Analytics) can get pretty touchy about elitism and anti-intellectualism. Even though the spirit of LessWrong - wanting to promote rational thought - is not elitist but actually inherently opposite to that (to increase good decision making in the world "spreads the wealth" rather than hoarding it or demanding privileges for being capable of good decisions), there is a risk that people will see this place as elitist. And even though self-improvement is inherently non-pretentious (by choosing to do self-improvement, you're admitting that you've got flaws), undoubtedly there will be a large number of people who might really benefit from learning here but instead insta-judge the place as "pretentious". Interpreting everything intellectual as pretentious and elitist is an unfortunate habit in our culture. I think, with the right wording on the most prominent pages (about us, register, home page, etc.) LessWrong might be presented as a unique non-elitist, non-pretentious place.
For these reasons, I am suggesting multiple discussion areas that are separated by difficulty levels. Presenting them as "Easy and Hard" will do three things:
1. Serve as a reminder to those who attend that it's a place of learning where the objective is to get an optimal challenge and improve as far as possible. This would help keep it from coming across as pretentious or elitist.
2. Create a learning environment that's open to all levels, rather than a closed, elitist environment or one that's too daunting. The LessWrong discussion area is a bit daunting to users, so it might be really desirable for people to have an "easy" discussion area where they can learn in an environment that is not intimidating.
3. Give us an opportunity to experiment with approaches that help willing people learn faster.
Creating an imbalance in the proportion of thick-skinned individuals to normal individuals.
Anything that annoys, alienates or discourages users is going to deter a lot of people while retaining thick-skinned individuals. Some thick-skinned individuals are leaders, but many are trolls, and thick-skinned individuals may be more likely to resist acculturation or try to change the culture (though it could be argued the other way - that their thick skin allows them to take more honest feedback). For example: anonymous, unexplained down votes create a gauntlet for new users to endure which selects for a high tolerance to negative feedback. This may be the reason it has been reported that there are a lot of "annoying debater types".
People that we do want fail to join because the method of protection puts them off.
There are two pitfalls that I think are going to be particularly attractive, but we should really avoid them:
1.) Filtering into hard/easy based on anything other than knowledge about rational thinking. There are various reasons that could go very wrong.
- Filtering in any other way will keep out advanced folks who may have a lot to teach.
If a person has already learned good reasoning skills in some other way, do we want them at the site? There might be logic professors, Zen masters, debate competition champs, geniuses, self-improvement professionals, hard-core bookworms and other people who are already advanced and are interested in teaching others to improve their skills, or interested in finding a good challenge, or are interested in contributing articles, but have already learned much of the material the sequences cover. Imagine that a retired logic professor comes by hoping to get a challenge from similarly advanced minds and perhaps do a little volunteer work teaching about logic as a past time. Now imagine requiring them to read 2,000 pages of "how to think rationally" in order to gain access to all the discussion areas. This will almost guarantee that they go elsewhere.
- Filtering based on the sequences or other cultural similarities would promote conformity and repel the true thinkers.
If true rationalists think for themselves, some of them will think differently, some of them will disagree. Eliezer has explained in undiscriminating skeptics that "I do propose that before you give anyone credit for being a smart, rational skeptic, that you ask them to defend some non-mainstream belief." he defines this as "It has to be something that most of their social circle doesn't believe, or something that most of their social circle does believe which they think is wrong." If we want people in the "hard" social group who are likely to hold and defend non-mainstream beliefs, we have to filter out people unable to defend beliefs without scaring off those who have beliefs different from the group.
2.) Discouraging people with unusually flawed English from participating at all levels. Doing that would stop two important sources of new perspectives from flowing in:
- People with cultural differences, who may bring in fresh perspectives.
If you're from China, you may want to share perspectives that could be new and important to a Westerner, but may be less likely to meet the technical standards of a perfectionist when it comes to writing in English.
- People with learning differences, whose brains work differently and may offer unique insight.
A lot of gifted people have learning disorders and gifted people who don't tend to have large gaps between skill levels. It is not uncommon to find a gifted person whose abilities with one skill are up to 40% behind (or better than) their abilities in other areas. This phenomenon is called "asynchronous development". We associate spelling and grammar with intelligence, but the truth is that those who have a high verbal IQ may not have equally intelligent things to say, and people who word things crudely due to asynchronous development (engineers, for instance, are not known for their communication skills but can be brilliant at engineering) may be ignored even though they could have important things to say. Dyslexics, who have all kinds of trouble from spelling to vocabulary to arranging sentences oddly may be ignored despite the fact that "children and adults who are dyslexic usually excel at problem solving, reasoning, seeing the big picture, and thinking out of the box" (Yale).
Everyone understands the importance of making sure all the serious articles get published with good English, but frequently in intellectual circles, the attitude is that if you aren't a perfectionist about spelling and grammar, you're not worth listening to at all. The problem of getting articles polished when they are written by dyslexics or people for whom English is a second language should be pretty easy - people with English problems can simply seek a volunteer editor. The ratio of articles being published by these folks versus the number of users at the site encourages me to believe that these guys will be able to find someone to polish their work. Since it would be so easy to accommodate for these disabilities, taking an attitude that puts form over function as a filter would not serve you well. If dyslexics and people with cultures different from the majority feel that we're snobby about technicalities, they could be put off. This could already be happening and we could be missing out on the most creative and most different perspectives this way.
People who qualify under the "letter" of the standards do not meet the spirit of the standards.
For instance: They claim to be rationalists because they agree with a list of things that rationalists agree with, but don't think for themselves, as Eliezer cautions about in undiscriminating skeptics. Asking them questions like "Are you an atheist?" and "Do you think signing up for cryo makes sense?" would only draw large numbers of people who agree but do not think for themselves. Worse, that would send a strong message saying: "If you don't agree with us about everything, you aren't welcome here."
The right people join, but acculturate slowly or for some reason do not acculturate.
- Large numbers of users, even desirable ones, will be frustrating if newbie materials are not prominently posted.
I was very confused and disoriented as a new user. I think that there's a need for an orientation page. I wrote about my experiences as a new user here which I think might make a good starting point for such a new user orientation page. I think LessWrong also needs a written list of guidelines and rules that's positioned to be "in your face" like the rest of the internet does (because if users don't see it where they expect to find it, then they will assume there isn't one). If new users adjust quickly, both old users and new users will be less annoyed if/when lots of new users join at once.
The filtering mechanism gives LessWrong a bad name.
For instance, if we were to use an IQ test to filter users, the world may feel that LessWrong is an elitist organization. Sparking an anti-intellectual backlash would do nothing to further the cause of promoting rationality, and it doesn't truly reflect the spirit of bringing everyone up, which is what this is supposed to do. Similarly, asking questions that may trigger racial, political or religious feelings could be a bad idea - not because they aren't sources of bias, but because they'll scare away people who may have been open to questioning and growing but are not open to being forced to choose a different option immediately. The filters should be a test about reasoning, not a test about beliefs.
Principle One: A small number of questions can deter a lot of activity.
As a web pro, I have observed a 10 question registration form slash the number of files sent through a file upload input that used to be public. The ten questions were not that hard - just name, location, password, etc. Asking questions deters people from signing up. Period. That is why, if you've observed this trend as well, I think that a lot of big websites have begun asking for minimal registration info: email address and password only. Years ago, that was not common, it seemed that everyone wanted to give you ten or twenty questions. For this reason, I think it would be best if the registration form stays simple, but if we create extra hoops to jump through to use the hard discussion area, only those who are seriously interested will join in there. Specific examples of questions that meet the other criteria are located in the proposed acculturation methods section under: A test won't deter ignorant cheaters, but they can force them to educate themselves.
Principle Two: A rigorous environment will deter those who are not serious about doing it right.
The ideal is to fill the hard discussion area with the sort of rationalists who want to keep improving, who are not afraid to disagree with each other, who think for themselves. How do you guarantee they're interested in improving? Require them to sacrifice for improvement. Getting honest feedback is necessary to improve, but it's not pleasant. That's the perfect sacrifice requirement:
Add a check box that they have to click where it says "By entering the hard discussion area, I'm inviting everyone's honest criticisms of my ideas. I agree to take responsibility for my own emotional reactions to feedback and to treat feedback as valuable. In return for their valuable feedback, which is a privilege and service to me, I will state my honest criticisms of their ideas as well, regardless of whether the truth could upset them."
I think it's common to assume that in order to give honest feedback one has to throw manners out the window. I disagree with that. I think there's a difference between pointing out a brutal reality, and making the statement of reality itself brutal. Sticking to certain guidelines like attacking the idea, not the person and being objective instead of ridiculing makes a big difference.
There are other ways, also, for less bold people, like the one that I use in IRL environments: Hint first (sensitive people get it, and you spare their dignity) then be clear (most people get it) then be brutally honest (slightly dense people get it). If I have to resort to the 2x4, then I really have to decide whether enlightening this person is going to be one of those battles I choose or one of those battles I do not choose. (I usually choose against those battles.)
How do you guarantee they're capable of disagreeing with others? Making it clear that they're going to experience disagreements by requiring them to invite disagreements will not appeal to conformists. Those who are not yet thinking for themselves will find it impossible to defend their ideas if they do join, so most of them will become frustrated and go back to the easy discussion area. People who don't want intellectual rigor will be put off and leave.
It's important that the wording for the check box has some actual bite to it, and that the same message about the hard discussion area is echoed in any pages that advise on the rules, guidelines, etiquette, etc. To explain why, I'll tell a little story about an anonymous friend:
I have a friend that worked at Microsoft. He said the culture there was not open to new ideas and that management was not open to hearing criticism. He interviewed with various companies and chose Amazon. According to this friend, Amazon actually does a good job of fulfilling values like inviting honest feedback and creating an environment conductive to innovation. He showed me the written values for each. I didn't think much of this at first because most of them are boring and read like empty marketing copy. Amazon.com has the most incredible written values page I've ever seen - it does more than sit there like a static piece of text. It gives you permission. Instead of saying something fluffy like: "We value integrity and honesty and our managers are happy to hear your criticisms." it first creates expectations for management: " Leaders are sincerely open-minded, genuinely listen, and are willing to examine their strongest convictions with humility." and then gives employees permission to give honest feedback to decision-makers: "Leaders (all employees are referred to as "leaders") are obligated to respectfully challenge decisions when they disagree, even when doing so is uncomfortable or exhausting. Leaders have conviction and are tenacious. They do not compromise for the sake of social cohesion." The Amazon values page gives their employees permission to innovate as well: "As we do new things, we accept that we may be misunderstood for long periods of time." If you look at Microsoft's written values, there's no bite to them. What do I mean by bite?
Imagine you're an employee at Amazon. Your boss does something stupid. The cultural expectation is that you're not supposed to say anything - offending the boss is bad news, right? So you're inhibited. But the thing they've done is stupid. So you remember back to the values page and go bring it up on your computer. It says explicitly that your boss is expected to be humble and that you are expected to sacrifice social cohesion in this case and disagree. Now, if your boss gets irritated with you for disagreeing, you can point back to that page and say "Look, it's in writing, I have permission to tell you."
Similarly, there is, what I consider to be, a very unfortunate social skills requirement that more or less says if you don't have something nice to say, don't say anything at all. Many people feel obligated to keep constructive criticism to themselves. A lot of us are intentionally trained to be non-confrontational. If people are going to overcome this lifetime of training to squelch constructive criticism, they need an excuse to ignore that social training. Not just any excuse. It needs to be worded to require them to do that and it needs to be worded to require them to do it explicitly despite the consequences.
Principle Three: If we want innovation, we have to make innovators feel welcome.
That brings me to another point. If you want innovation, you can't deter the sort of person who will bring it to you: the "people who will be misunderstood for long periods of time", as Amazon puts it. If you give specific constructive criticism to a misunderstood person, this will help them figure out how to communicate - how else will they navigate the jungle of perception and context differences between themselves and others? If you simply vote them down, silently and anonymously, they have no opportunity to learn how to communicate with you and what's worse is that they'll be censored after three votes. This ability for three people to censor somebody with no accountability, and without even needing a reason, encourages posters to keep quiet instead of taking the sort of risk an innovator needs to take in presenting new ideas, and it robs misunderstood innovators of those opportunities for important feedback - which is required for them to explain their ideas. Here is an example of how feedback can transform an innovator's description of a new idea from something that seems incomprehensible into something that shows obvious value:
On the "Let's start an important start-up" thread, KrisC posts a description of an innovative phone app idea. I read it and I cannot even figure out what it's about. My instinct is to write it off as "gibberish" and go do something else. Instead, I provide feedback, constructive criticism and questions. It turns out that the idea KrisC has is actually pretty awesome. All it took was for KrisC to be listened to and to get some feedback, and the next description that KrisC wrote made pretty good sense. It's hard to explain new ideas but with detailed feedback, innovation may start to show through. Link to KrisC and I discussing the phone app idea.
Send them to Center for Modern Rationality
Now that I have discovered the post on the Center for Modern Rationality and have see that they're targeting the general population and beginners with material for local meetups, high schools and colleges and they're planning some web apps to help with rationality training, I see that referring people over to them might be a great suggestion. Saturn suggested sending them to appliedrationality.org before I found this but I'm not sure if that would be adequate since I don't see a lot of stuff for people to do on their website.
Highlight the culture.
A database of cultural glossary terms can be created and used to highlight those terms on the forum. The terms are already on the page, so what good would this do? Well, first they can be automatically linked to the relevant sequence or wiki page. If old users do not have to look for the link, this speeds up the process of mentioning them to new users quite a lot. Secondly, it would make the core cultural items stand out from all of the other information, which will likely cause new users to prioritize it. Thirdly, there will be a visual effect on the page. You'll be able to see that this place has it's own vocabulary, it's own personality, it's own memes. It's one thing to say "LessWrong has been influenced by the sequences" to a new user who hasn't seen all those references on all of those pages, and even if they do see them, won't know where they're from, versus making it immediately obvious how by giving them a visual that illustrates the point.
Provide new users with real feedback instead of mysterious anonymous down votes:
We have karma vote buttons, but this is not providing useful feedback for new users. Without a specific reason, I have no way to tell if I'm being down voted by trolls and I may see ten different possible reasons for being voted down and not know which one to choose. This annoyance selects for thick-skinned individuals like trolls and fails to avoid the "imbalance in the proportion of thick-skinned individuals to normal individuals" side-effect.
If good new users are to be preserved, and the normal people to troll ratio is to be maintained, we need to add a "vote to ban" button that's used only for blatant misbehavior, and if an anonymous feedback system is to be used for voting down, it needs to prompt you for more detailed feedback - either allowing you to select from categories, or give at least one or two words as an explanation. Also, the comments need to should show both up votes and down votes. If you don't know when you've said something controversial and are being encouraged to view everything you say as black-and-white good-or-bad, this promotes conformity.
A test won't deter ignorant cheaters, but they can force them to educate themselves.
Questions can be worded in such a way that they serve as a crash course in reasoning in the event that someone posts a cheat sheet or registrants look up all the answers on the internet. Assuming that the answer options are randomly ordered so that you have to actually read them then the test should, at the very least, familiarize them with the various biases and logical fallacies, etc. Examples:
Person A in a debate explains a belief but it's not well-supported. Their opponent, person B, says they're an idiot. What is this an example of?
A. Attacking the person, a great way to really nail a debate.
B. Attacking the person, a great way to totally fail in debate because you're not even attacking their ideas.
You are with person X and person Y. Person Y says they have been considering some interesting new evidence of what might be an alien space craft and aren't sure what to think yet. You both see person Y's evidence, and neither of you has seen it before. Person X says to you that they don't believe in UFOs and don't care about person Y's silly evidence. Who is the better skeptic?
Person X because they have the correct belief about UFOs.
Person Y because they are actually thinking about it, avoiding undiscriminating skepticism.
Note: These questions are intentionally knowledge-based. If the purpose is to avoid requiring an IQ test, and to create an obstacle that requires you to learn about reasoning before posting in "hard", that's the only way that these can be done.
Encouraging users to lurk more.
Vaniver contributed this: Another way to cut down on new-new interaction is to limit the number of comments someone can make in a time period- if people can only comment once an day until their karma hits 20, and then once an hour until their karma hits 100, and then they're unrestricted, that will explicitly encourage lurking / paying close attention to karma among new members. (It would be gameable, unless you did something like prevent new members from upvoting the comments of other new members, or algorithmically keeping an eye out for people gaming the system and then cracking down on them.)  The delay being a near-continuous function of the karma- say, 24 hours*exp(-b karma)- might make the incentives better, and not require partitioning users explicitly. No idea if that would be more or less effort on the coding side.
Cons: This would deter some new users from becoming active users by causing them to lose steam on their initial motivation to join. It might be something that would deter the right people. It might also filter users, selecting for the most persistent ones, or for some other trait that might change the personality of the user base. This would exacerbate the filtering effect that the current karma system is exerting, which, I theorize, is causing there to be a disproportionate number of thick-skinned individuals like trolls and debate-oriented newbies. My theory about how the karma system is having a bad influence
Give older users more voting power.
I question, though, whether changing the karma numbers on the comments and posts in any way would have a significant influence on behavior or a significant influence on who joins and stays. Firstly, votes may reward and punish but they don't instruct very well - unless people are very similar, they won't have accurate assumptions about what they did wrong. I also question whether having a significant influence on behavior would prevent a new majority from forming because these are different problems. The current users who are the right type may be both motivated and able to change, but future users of the wrong type may not care or may be incapable of changing. They may set a new precedent where there are a lot of people doing unpopular things so new people are more likely to ignore popularity. The technique uses math and the author claims that "the tweaks work" but I didn't see anything specific about what the author means by that nor evidence that this is true. So this looks good because it is mathematical, but it's less direct than other options so I'm questioning whether it would work.
Make a different discussion area for users with over 1000 karma.
Make a Multi Generation Culture.
Limit the number of new users that join the forum to a certain percentage per month, sending the rest to a new forum. If that forum grows too fast, create additional forums. This would be like having different generations. New people would be able to join an older generation if there is space. Nobody would be labeled a "beginner".
Temporarily turn off registration or limit the number of users that can join.
(See the cliff notes version for more.)
I think the answer to this is yes, because no filtering mechanism is perfect and the last thing you want to do is filter out people with a different and important point of view. Unless the site is currently having issues with trolls posting new articles, or with the quality of the articles going down, leaving that freedom intact is best. I definitely think, though, that written guidelines for posting an article need to be put in "in your face" expected places. If a lot of new users join at once, well-meaning but confused people will be posting the wrong sorts of things there - making sure they've got the guidelines right there is all that's probably needed to deter them.
How do we tell if this worked? Tracking something subjective like whether we're feeling challenged or inundated with newbies is not going to be a straightforward matter of looking at numbers. (Methods to assist willing people learn faster deserves it's own post.) Just because it's subjective doesn't mean tracking is impossible or that working out whether it's made a difference cannot be done. I suspect that a big difference will be noticed in the hard discussion area right away. Here are some figures that are relevant and can be tracked, that may give us insight and ways to check our perceptions:
1. How many people are joining the hard forum versus the easy forum? If we've got a percentage, we know how *much* we've filtered, though we won't know exactly *who* we've filtered.
2. Survey the users to ask whether the conversations they're reading have increased in quality.
3. Survey the users to ask whether they've been learning more since the change.
4. See which area has the largest ratio of users with lots of vote downs.
(This could be tricky because people who frequently state disagreements might be doing a great service to the group, but might be unpopular because of it, and people who are innovative may be getting voted down due to being misunderstood. One would think, though, that people who are unpopular due to disagreeing, or being innovative, assuming they're serious about good reasoning, would end up in the hard forum.)
Your honest criticisms of this idea and your suggestions will be appreciated, and I will update this idea or write a new one to reflect any good criticisms or ideas you contribute.
This idea is hereby released into the public domain, with acknowledgement from Luke Muehlhauser that those were my terms prior to posting. My intent is to share this idea to make it impossible to patent and my hope is that it will be free for the whole world to use.
Preventing discussion from being watered down by an "endless September" user influx. by Epiphany is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike 3.0 Unported License.