The first round of SlateStarCodex meetups took place from April 4th through May 20th, 2017 in 65 cities, in 16 countries around the world. Of the 69 cities originally listed as having 10 or more people interested, 9 did not hold meetups, and 5 cities that were not on the original list did hold meetups.
We collected information from 43 of these events. Since we are missing data for 1/3 of the cities, there is probably some selection bias in the statistics; I would speculate that we are less likely to have data from less successful meetups.
Of the 43 cities, 25 have at least tentative plans for future meetups. Information about these events will be posted at the SSC Meetups GitHub.
Attendance ranged from 3 to approximately 50 people, with a mean of 16.7. Turnout averaged about 50% of those who expressed interest on the survey (range: 12% to 100%), twice what Scott expected. This average does not appear to have been skewed by high turnout at a few events – mean: 48%, median: 45%, mode: 53%.
On average, gender ratio seemed to be roughly representative of SSC readership overall, ranging from 78% to 100% male (for the 5 meetups that provided gender data). The majority of attendees were approximately 20-35 years old, consistent with the survey mean age of 30.6.
Existing vs new meetups
Approximately one fifth of the SSC meetups were hosted by existing rationality or LessWrong groups. Some of these got up to 20 new attendees from the SSC announcement, while others saw no new faces at all. The two established meetups that included data about follow-up meetings reported that retention rates for new members were very low, at best 17% for the next meeting.
Here, it seems important to make a distinction between the needs of SSC meetups specifically and rationality meetups more generally. On the 2017 survey, 50% of readers explicitly did not identify with LW and 54% explicitly did not identify with EA. In addition, one organizer expressed the concern that, “Going forward, I think there is a concern of “rationalists” with a shared background outnumbering the non-lesswrong group, and dominating the SSC conversation, making new SSC fans less likely to engage.”
This raises the question of whether SSC groups should try to exist separately from local EA/LW/rationalist/skeptic groups – this is of particular concern in locations where the community is small and it’s difficult for any of these groups to function on their own due to low membership.
Along the same lines, one organizer wondered how often it made sense to hold events, since “If meetups happen very frequently, they will be attended mostly by hardcore fans (and a certain type of person), while if they are scheduled less frequently, they are likely to be attended by a larger, more diverse group. My fear is the hardcore fans who go bi-weekly will build a shared community that is less welcoming/appealing to outsiders/less involved people, and these people will be less willing to get involved going forward.”
Suggestions on how to address these concerns are welcome.
Advice for initial meetings
Bring name tags, and collect everyone’s email addresses. It’s best to do this on a computer or tablet, since some people have illegible handwriting, and you don’t want their orthographic deficiencies to mean you lose contact with them forever.
Don’t try to impose too much structure on the initial meeting, since people will mostly just want to get to know each other and talk about shared interests. If possible, it’s also good to not have a hard time limit - meetups in this round lasted between 1.5 and 6 hours, and you don’t want to have to make people leave before they’re ready. However, both structure and time limits are things you will most likely want if you have regularly recurring meetups.
Most meetups consisted of unstructured discussion in smallish groups (~7 people). At least one organizer had people pair up and ask each other scripted questions, while another used lightning talks as an ice-breaker. Other activities included origami, Rationality Cardinality, and playing with magnadoodles and diffraction glasses, but mostly people just wanted to talk.
Topics, predictably, mostly centered around shared interests, and included: SSC and other rationalist blogs, rationalist fiction, the rationality community, AI, existential risk, politics and meta-politics, book recommendations, and programming (according to the survey, 30% of readers are programmers), as well as normal small talk and getting-to-know-each-other topics.
Common ice-breakers included first SSC post read, how people found SSC, favorite SSC post, and SSC vs LessWrong (aka, is Eliezer or Scott the rightful caliph).
Though a few meetups had a little difficulty getting conversation started and relied on ice-breakers and other predetermined topics, no organizer reported prolonged awkwardness; people had a lot to talk about and conversation flowed quite easily for the most part.
One area where several organizers encountered difficulties was large discrepancies in knowledge of rationalist-sphere topics among attendees, since some people had only recently discovered SSC or were even non-readers brought along by friends, while many others were long-time members of the community. Suggestions for quickly and painlessly bridging inferential gaps on central concepts in the community would be appreciated.
Meetups occurred in diverse locations, including restaurants, cafés, pubs/bars, private residences, parks, and meeting rooms in coworking spaces or on university campuses.
Considerations for choosing a venue:
- Capacity – Some meetups found that their original venues couldn’t accommodate the number of people who attended. This happened at a private residence and at a restaurant. Be flexible about moving locations if necessary.
- Arrangement – For social meetups, you will probably want a more flexible format. For this purpose, it’s best to have the run of the space, which you have in private residences, parks, meeting rooms, and bars and restaurants if you reserve a whole room or floor.
- Noise – Since the main activity is talking, this is an important consideration. An ideal venue is quiet enough that you can all hear each other, but (if public) not so quiet that you will be disrupting others with your conversation.
- Visibility – If meeting in a public place, have a somewhat large sign that says ‘SSC’ on it, placed somewhere easily visible. If the location is large or hard to find, consider including your specific location (e.g. ‘we’re at the big table in the northwest corner’) or GPS coordinates in the meetup information.
- Permission – Check with the manager first if you plan to hold a large meetup in a private building, such as a mall, market, or café. Also consider whether you’ll be disturbing other patrons.
- Time restrictions – If you are reserving a space, or if you are meeting somewhere that has a closing time, be aware that people may want to continue their discussions for longer than the space is available. Have a contingency plan for this, a second location to move to in case you run overtime.
- Availability of food – Some meetups lasted as long as six hours, so it’s good to either bring food, meet somewhere with easy access to food, or be prepared to go to a restaurant.
- Privacy – People at some meetups were understandably hesitant to have controversial / culture war discussions in public. If you anticipate this being a problem, you should try to find a more private venue, or a more secluded area.
Overall most meetups went smoothly, and many had unexpectedly high turnout. Almost every single organizer, even for the tiny meetups, reported that attendees showed interest in future meetings, but few had concrete plans.
These events have been an important first step, but it remains to be seen whether they will lead to lasting local communities. The answer is largely up to you.
If you attended a meetup, seek out the people you had a good time talking to, and make sure you don’t lose contact with them. If you want there to be more events, just set a time and place and tell people. You can share details on local Facebook groups, Google groups, and email lists, and on LessWrong and the SSC meetups repository. If you feel nervous about organizing a meetup, don’t worry, there are plenty of resources just for that. And if you think you couldn’t possibly be an organizer because you’re somehow ‘not qualified’ or something, well, I once felt that way too. In Scott’s words, “it would be dumb if nobody got to go to meetups because everyone felt too awkward and low-status to volunteer.”
Finally, we’d like to thank Scott for making all of this possible. One of the most difficult things about organizing meetups is that it’s hard to know where to look for members, even if you know there must be dozens of interested people in your area. This was an invaluable opportunity to overcome that initial hurdle, and we hope that you all make the most of it.
Thanks to deluks917 for providing feedback on drafts of this report, and for having the idea to collect data in the first place :)