Epistemic status: Not a historian of science, but I have thought fairly extensively about meetups. Kind of making this up as I go along, almost certainly missing important points.

Other meta: Written all in one sitting, to not let the perfect be the enemy of the good. No one proofread it, so hopefully there aren't sentences that just cut off in the middle. Also, forgive my excessive use of scare quotes.

tl;dr: The difference between historical salons and LW meetups is that meetups do not feel like the place where progress is made. They’re not doing research or publishing anything. If they wrote up the results of their discussions and posted them on LW, that would help conversations be less siloed.

This post is a confluence of two major topics I’ve been mulling over for a while now.

Number one is rationality meetups. I’ve been working on global meetup coordination on-and-off and more-or-less formally for over two years now, and it is just... not an easy problem. It was about two years ago that I wrote What Are Meetups Actually Trying to Accomplish?, and I honestly haven’t made a ton of progress since then (due to meetups being like my sixth or lower priority at any given time). However, I have changed my outlook somewhat - that post was very much trying to be descriptive, but I’m now much more inclined towards prescriptivism (more on that in the appendix).

Number two, Habryka has gotten me hooked on books about the history of science, and on thinking about how intellectual progress is made more generally. I’ve recently read The Innovators, The Age of Innovation, and the biographies of Steve Jobs and Elon Musk, and I’m in the process of reading The Making of the Atomic Bomb, Science in the 20th Century, and a biography of Benjamin Franklin. I also majored in physics, which de facto included a fair amount of history of science.

Turns out, most modern histories of science and innovation (at least the ones that I’ve read, but like, selection bias) focus pretty heavily on the first half of the 20th century, and specifically, the people during that time who roughly thought of themselves as physicists.

Physics at the time was a small community. If the books I’ve been reading are to be believed, all the big-name scientists read each others' papers, many of them were close friends who regularly exchanged letters, and they all went to lectures by each other and often had their big ideas there.

I’ve come to think of the thing that meetups should be as something akin to these lectures (but mixed with intellectual salons / Franklin’s Junto / gentlemen’s clubs). A version of meetups I’d be excited about would be not only forums for exchange of ideas, but also ones that aim towards real intellectual progress.

Glossing over all the detail and individual variation, meetups are currently a mix of a) social groups, and b) forums for learning, intellectual discussion, and exchange of ideas. For the latter, we generally have a core set of ideas that we’re all more or less familiar with, and we build from there. This is much like an intellectual salon or Franklin's Junto. However, I think there are a few key things missing that prevent us from developing and building on ideas in a way similar to early 20th century scientists:

Missing pieces

Less clear focus

I have a sense that, compared to early 20th century scientists, our efforts are less focused on one thing in particular. ‘Rationality’ is a broad umbrella, encompassing AI safety, developing the art of human rationality, navel-gazey community stuff (like this post), science more generally, and everything that falls under the ‘effective altruism’ umbrella (animal welfare, global development, cause prioritization, etc, etc, etc.). This means that even people who are really trying to ‘make progress’ on ‘the project of rationality’ are often working on completely different things, and won’t even be able to talk to each other in depth about what they’re doing.

However, this isn’t necessarily a dealbreaker - it’s similar to the way that particle physicists and astrophysicists will share a lot of basic knowledge, but there’s still plenty of detail about their research that they may not easily be able to share with each other.

Feeling of license

I’ve gotten a feeling - both from talking to meetup attendees who don’t live in ‘rationalist hubs’, and from being one myself - that most meetup attendees have a feeling that they’re ‘not part of the intellectual elite.’ Speaking for myself, there was a feeling that all the ‘real’ progress was happening in conversations in the Bay Area that are never written down, and that there were these special elite people like Eliezer, Scott, Nate Soares, Luke Muehlhauser, Julia Galef, Anna Salamon, etc., who were the only ‘real rationalists’, and other people just didn't really get to contribute to rationality. This resulted in a feeling that because I wasn't part of this select elite, I wasn't smart enough to be working on rationality, and so it wasn't worth writing down and developing my ideas.

Sense that it matters

As gruesome and horrible as the World Wars were in terms of immediate human cost, history of science books make it pretty clear that they were really good for science and progress. There was a sense of urgency, coupled with plenty of government funding, and this resulted in innovations like the transistor and the radar, as well as huge developments in fields like nuclear physics.

Many people in this community do have a sense of urgency, because of existential risk. But I think it’s fair to say that AI safety, for most people, feels less viscerally real than the current, imminent, or past gruesome deaths of their friends and family members. In WWII, people knew what the end of their world looked like, because it was happening all around them. For us, we may have a sense that our world is very close to ending, but it usually feels pretty intellectual. (I think events like Petrov Day and the Secular Solstice are valuable for bringing existential risk into near mode, but that's another story).

Ending death is definitely more visceral, but it’s still very different from the World Wars. During that time (at least as the history books tell it, so could be way off), most of the Western world was pretty focused on a single goal. By contrast, ending death is currently a pretty out-there idea, and it's much harder to rally behind a cause when people think you're crazy than it is when multiple countries are on your side.

Siloed conversations

Conversations in the geographically disparate communities are fairly siloed. This means that, while past-Mingyuan all the way over in Chicago may feel left out because she doesn’t know what’s being discussed in Berkeley, the flip side is that the people in Berkeley have no idea what’s being discussed in Chicago.

As a result, different meetups are probably endlessly retreading much of the same ground. While this isn’t always a bad thing - since discussions like those can be useful just for practicing things like debate and idea generation - it does feel like there’s a lot of wasted motion. There must have been dozens of meetups on Meditations on Moloch, and I’m sure most of them have had plenty of ideas and insights, but there’s no net progress because we don’t communicate with each other.

How can we be more like early 20th century science?

I have several concrete ideas for improving on the current situation, most of which I’ve sanity-checked with Habryka. Some of these are going into effect immediately, while others are more long-term goals that we aren’t currently prioritizing.

Fostering a feeling of license

Habryka and I have talked a bit about how to make meetups feel more like real institutions, rather than just random groups of people. One idea we’ve floated is having there be ‘official’ LessWrong groups - similar to how other organizations (Toastmasters, Girl Scouts, etc.) have official chapters. While I think this would probably be cool, it would also require a lot more work than any of us currently have the time to put in.

Something that we can do in the short term is build a feature to allow people to make frontpage LessWrong posts that are affiliated with meetup groups. I’m not sure how much this will actually foster a feeling of license, but at least it will make my other proposal work better.

A single conversational locus

Three years ago, Anna Salamon wrote On the importance of Less Wrong, or another single conversational locus. In direct correspondence to her point about the online rationalist diaspora, I think the various geographic communities could benefit strongly from having a more centralized discussion.

Proposal: Monetary incentives for write-ups

I propose that meetup attendees write up the ideas that come out of each meeting - or even just summarize the conversation they had - and post them on LessWrong. In order to encourage people to actually write these posts, I am offering a monetary incentive of $100 per write-up (to be paid out a maximum of once per week to each meetup). See this doc for further details.

Proposal: Facebook group

I’m also in the process of creating a Facebook group for attendees of all meetups worldwide. The goal is to make meetup attendees feel more like part of a single community, and to have a Schelling place for them to discuss problems specific to meetups.

I've wanted something like this to exist for a while, and in a survey I ran a couple months ago, more than 80% of respondents indicated that they'd appreciate a way to communicate with people from other meetup groups. Of those, a plurality preferred to use a Facebook group, and much as I personally dislike Facebook, I have to admit that it has pretty good infrastructure for this use case.

Some other ideas:

  • Cross-pollination of ideas via geographical travel.
    • Obviously this won’t be feasible for everyone, or even most people. However, I’ve found that there’s value to meeting people face-to-face that’s really hard to get even with years of online discussion. This is why a bunch of people were excited to accompany Scott Alexander on his Meetups Everywhere road trip - it’s just really hard to know what’s going on in a place without actually going there.
  • Topics of the month.
    • I’d potentially like to generate a default meetup topic for each month, so that lots of people all over are talking about the same thing at the same time. This could make discussion on both LessWrong (via the write-ups) and the Facebook group more focused, and thus hopefully move the community's conversation around those topics forward (trying to avoid the failure mode of retreading the same ground).
    • I am not going ahead with implementing this idea imminently both because I'm less confident in it, and because of the overhead required.


So, I have some ideas and some amount of power to execute them. I am fairly excited about the write-up incentives idea and fairly confident that the Facebook group is at least something that enough people want to try. On the other hand, many of the times that I've previously tried to publicly take action in this space, I got shot down pretty harshly. So I'd love to hear why you think my proposals are naïve / misguided / going to pollute the commons / going to crash and burn before I launch anything this time. Concrete critiques and proposals of alternatives would be greatly appreciated.

Appendix: Towards prescriptivism

So, why the change from the descriptive approach in my last post to a more prescriptive outlook? Well, frankly, it became pretty clear to me that there had been barely any thought put into meetups as a whole (not to diminish the work that has been done in this domain; there’s just been very little of it overall). Meetups kind of grew organically because people wanted to socialize with people who shared their interests, but over the last decade or so, many of them have grown into institutions that do tangible things like invent holidays, run their own rationality workshops, and translate the Sequences into different languages. While all of those things are really cool and great, the majority of meetup groups aren't doing anything like that. So I've come to think of meetups, as a whole, as vastly underutilized resources. If this is going to change, someone needs to take real action on it, and I've somehow ended up in a position where I guess that's my job. So here we are.

New to LessWrong?

New Comment
26 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 6:21 AM

The role of rapporteur, in its many incarnations from secretary to FAQ maintainer, is an oft underestimated one.

Well said! Good thoughts. Since, you bring this up at the same time as I have been thinking about it, I feel obligated to add my current thoughts now, even though they are as yet not fully developed.

I also just started reading Walter Isaacson's biography of Ben Franklin and have been reading a few article about the so-called "Republic of Letters" which existed outside of the academy, made real scientific progress, and was contributed to by both academics and enthusiasts alike. Here are some of the dynamics that seemed to make the Republic of Letters and the British clubs work:

1) a drive to invite promising people to the group, even if they are not up-to-speed yet.

2) those personal, friendly invitations go to up and coming writers and thinkers who still have enough slack in their time to join a new community. People at the beginning of their career are the life of an organization.

3) an expectation that members not just observe but also write, share, and present essays, and host occasional focused discussions.

I’d potentially like to generate a default meetup topic for each month, so that lots of people all over are talking about the same thing at the same time. This could make discussion on both LessWrong (via the write-ups) and the Facebook group more focused, and thus hopefully move the community's conversation around those topics forward (trying to avoid the failure mode of retreading the same ground).

I predict that this will be better the closer this is to "deeply consume content X" than "generate content X". I also suspect something like... 'retreading the same ground' is actually good, in the context of meetups, so long that it's on a sufficiently long schedule that there's something new to come back to, and the content is 'evergreen' in the right way. (Specifically, meetups regularly have member turnover, such that you can't all read the Sequences together in 2014 and then everyone knows the Sequences.)

It also might be neat if we could generate meetup-exclusive content, such that actually showing up in person gives you some access that you can't get otherwise, adding some scarcity to (actually!) increase the value. But where that content will come from is, of course, an obstacle.

Yeah - retreading the same ground seems like a necessary and normal part of having a culture with common knowledge.

Creating new stuff is hard, and creating it as a group rather than working alone is an additional hard thing. This can often be at odds of the normal meetup goal of inclusiveness. The most cool new progress I've experienced at a meetup was in attacking epistemology problems (like the raven paradox), which kind of makes sense if we imagine that this sort of problem was hard because it was confusing, but not too complicated and not requiring much domain expertise outside the LW curriculum.

This point (from both Vaniver and Charlie) is well-taken - I definitely agree that some amount of retreading the same ground is fine and often necessary or useful. I guess what I meant to express was, if there are conversations people are having that contain potentially novel insights or interesting new ways of looking at a problem/topic, then it would be good if those were written up and added to the canon. By default this is almost never happening, so it's the thing I want to encourage.

As someone who has organised meetups outside of the main hubs my experience matches pretty much everything said here. The current format is not ideal for accomplishing anything, so much so that I've stepped down from organising mine because they were providing so little value. It's a sad state of affairs, but from what I can tell the majority are content with them being low-effort social groups.

In terms of coordinating between regional hubs I would suggest opting for LessWrong instead of Facebook. Many people simply won't see the content due to either algorithms or newsfeed blockers plus Facebook no longer maintains the monopoly over everyone's social calendar that it had just 2 years ago.

I would also like to register my opposition to using Facebook. While it might seem convenient in the short term, it makes the community more fragile by adding a centralized failure point that's unaccountable to any of its members. Communicating on LessWrong.com has the virtue of it being owned by the same community that it serves.

I share a general opposition to Facebook. However, I'm not sure what would be a reasonable alternative. I've tried setting up Google Groups and Slacks for coordination of this type before, but those platforms have a bit of a 'talking in a library' problem - if they're inactive, they generally remain inactive. There's also the problem of needing to use a platform that people use all the time anyway. Slack is good for me, because I'm in multiple active Slack workspaces, but lots of people use it only for work or don't want multiple workspaces. Google Groups are okay on this axis because they can go to people's emails, but there's some magic startup energy that needs to go into making a Google Group active, and I don't know what it is (critical mass?).

As for the LW suggestion - I don't feel that LessWrong currently has the infrastructure to support something similar to a Facebook group, and even if the LW team was willing to build something like that, they have dozens of other priorities. In addition, a lot of the groups I'm targeting identify as SlateStarCodex meetups and don't have buy-in to LessWrong either as a platform or as a thing they want to identify with.

So, yes, I'm definitely open to alternatives to Facebook. I guess at this point a Google Group feels like the best option, but I'm not optimistic about it. Very open to continuing this conversation here or elsewhere.

It seems worth at least checking what the requirements are for making meetups on LW good. The team did an initial "get them basically working at all" pass, and they're about to benefit a bit from our subscriptions-overhaul (so getting notifications, email-notifications-in-particular) will become easier.

My guess is that there's maybe a 1-3 months of work that'd be needed to get them generally as-good-as-facebook, which is nontrivial but definitely worth considering.

The one major thing going on FB that's less easily portable is the sheer casualness (which includes the entire color scheme, portraits, focus on colorful reacts, etc. You might consider this good or bad.

Awhile ago we had talked about something like "www.social.lesswrong.com" which might be as sub-site that's just much more geared towards casualness, and is allowed to veer off in that direction without conflicting with the vague "minimalist respectability" theme we have going on in the main site.

1-3 months doesn't seem so bad as a timeline. While it's important not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good (since projects like this can easily turn into a boondoggle where everyone quibbles endlessly about what the end-product should look like), I think it's also worth a little bit of up-front effort to create something that we can improve upon later, rather than getting stuck with a mediocre solution permanently. (I imagine it's difficult to migrate a social network to a new platform once it's already gotten off the ground, the more so the more people have joined.)

Well, Raemon said it's 1-3 months of work, but I'm a bit concerned that those 1-3 months might not start for another year or so, due to the LW team being busy as heck with a bunch of other priorities. I do agree that it's worth putting real thought into this though, and not starting out on a platform just so we can start out, if it might end up being the case that we want to use a different platform later.

I’m interested in hearing about the specific things that seem necessary to get a sense of when and how to prioritize it, though

It seems to me that there's a tension at the heart of defining what the "purpose" of meetups is. On the one hand, the community aspect is one of the most valuable things one can get out of it - I love that I can visit dozens of cities across the US, and go to a Less Wrong meetup and instantly have stuff to talk about. On the other hand, a community cannot exist solely for its own sake. Someone's personal interest in participating in the community will naturally fluctuate over time, and if everyone quits the moment their interest touches zero then nobody will ever feel like it's worth investing in its long-term health.

Personally, I do have a sense that going to meetups matters, in that it helps (however marginally) to raise the sanity waterline in one's local community, and to move important conversations about x-risk and the future of humanity into the mainstream. I myself was motivated to dive into Less Wrong again, after a hiatus of many years, by finding a lively meetup group that was discussing these ideas regularly.

In any case I think that the question of "why meetups matter" is something that we're all collectively trying to figure out over time. I don't claim to know the answer right now.

I do, however, have some concern about creating a "monoculture" among the various sub-groups. It's good that we have a wide variety of intellectual interests, ways-of-running-meetups, etc., because this allows for mistakes to be corrected and innovations to be discovered. If we are all given a directive from on high[1] saying "We are going to mobilize all the resources of the Rationality Community towards goal X, which we will achieve by strategy Y," then it might at first seem like a lot of stuff is getting done. But what if strategy Y is ineffective, or goal X is a bad goal? Then we would have ruined our chance to discover our mistake until it was too late. This is especially important when the goals of the community are so ill-defined, as is the case now.

Of course, in order to reap these benefits of having a diverse community, a prerequisite is that there be any communication at all between groups. So, the suggestion of having meetups write up blog posts for public consumption seems like a good one[2]. But I don't think the groups should be told which topics they must discuss, because they might be interested in something else that nobody else would've thought of. Perhaps it's enough to provide a list of topics that any meetup group can draw from if they can't think of something. And maybe, after one group publishes a writeup, another group might be inspired to discuss the same topic later and submit their own writeup in response.

[1] Or, more realistically, a persuasive message to the effect of "All the cool kids are doing Z and you're going to feel left out if you don't," which can feel like a compulsory directive because of Schelling points, etc.

[2] Caveat: The mood of a conversation is likely to change dramatically if it's known that someone is taking notes that will be posted later, since then one is not speaking merely to those in attendance, but effectively to an indefinitely large audience of all LessWrong readers. So, I would recommend that meetups have a mixture of on- and off-the-record conversations, with a clear signal of which norm is in effect at any given time.

I’m also in the process of creating a Facebook group for attendees of all meetups worldwide.

There used to be a LessWrong Facebook group and now there isn't anymore. Are you aware of what happened? What kind of governance do you want for the new group?

I am not aware of what happened. My guess from your tone is tragedy of the commons or something Eugine-like?

I grant that this is an experiment that could go poorly. I'm currently talking with someone who has experience running online rationalist spaces about potentially moderating the group, which I think should help. I'd want fairly strict moderation policies, with most of the discussion focused on meetups themselves (either how to run them or things that happen at them). The group would also be walled (not just freely open to the public).

Basically, there was political discussion happening with non-PC views. As far as I remember EY thought that it was bad to have that group associated with the LW brand and wanted to ban people. There was drama and the group was renamed into Brain Debugging Discussion.

One way to prevent this from happening would be to ban political discussion explicitly.

I don't remember the details, but I think it was more that the discussion was generally low-quality, not because of the political content in particular.

If I recall correctly, I knew the guy running it, and while he was well-intentioned, he had not read the sequences or much of LW, and the low-quality content was the reason for the name change.

I'm not sure how "official meetups" would be any different by nature of being "official" or even what official means. The idea also seems a bit strange to me because I don't think the LessWrong.com team has any claim of being an official arbiter on the term LessWrong.

LessWrong Germany e.V. is a NGO with a 5-figure yearly budget.

It seems to me that an individual toastmasters club has a lot less license to innovate then our local meetup has. A toastmasters club can't say: "Let's run this marathon together under the logo of our club." but our local meetup would have no problem with running a marathon together as an LessWrong team.

It seems to me like making a top-down decision about what topics people should discuss is a way to remove agency from individual meetups. Our meetups in Berlin also aren't discussions about topics but rather about doing rationality exercises together.

Hi Christian, sorry I wasn't entirely clear in expressing this idea. As I mentioned in the appendix, there are several communities that are doing just fine on their own, producing things, having regular events, having structure such as an NGO, etc. I think Berlin, Prague, Moscow, and NYC clearly fall into this category, and possibly other cities like Warsaw, Amsterdam, Tel Aviv, Helsinki, Toronto, Seattle, Sydney, and Oxford. (Apologies if I missed any obvious examples, but you get the idea).

However, these are a small minority of the total meetup groups that exist, which number over 100. It's the rest of those groups that I'm really targeting - ones in smaller cities or just cities with fewer active rationalists, where there's little sense of direction and it's often hard to even sustain a regular meetup at all. I organized meetups in a city like that myself a few years back, and I've talked to plenty of people from other cities who would really appreciate more guidance and/or centralized organization. I think some of these meetups would also appreciate being granted a sense of legitimacy by becoming an "official" LessWrong meetup, even if the designation doesn't ultimately have much meaning on its own.

I also wasn't proposing forcing any kind of structure on anyone. Groups can continue to function however they want (running marathons as a group seems great!) and should feel totally free to ignore the top-down planning if they don't need it. The topic-of-the-month idea was intended to a) help people in smaller, far-flung communities feel like part of a larger conversation, and b) provide a default structure for groups that have trouble with structure. (In the survey I ran a few months ago, lots of people expressed dissatisfaction that the only thing they ever did at meetups was unstructured socializing, which they didn't feel provided a ton of value). Doing rationality exercises together is really great, but is also something many communities can't do because they e.g. don't have any CFAR alumni, or because there isn't enough buy-in to the group that people want to commit to rationality training.

I hope that clears things up. Sorry if you felt attacked or something.

Exciting stuff!

On the other hand, many of the times that I've previously tried to publicly take action in this space, I got shot down pretty harshly. So I'd love to hear why you think my proposals are naïve / misguided / going to pollute the commons / going to crash and burn before I launch anything this time. Concrete critiques and proposals of alternatives would be greatly appreciated.

I think it's unfortunate that you were shot down this way. I think caution of this sort would be well-justified if we were in the business of operating a nuclear reactor or something like that. But as things are, I expect that even if one of your meetup experiments failed, it would give us useful data.

Maybe it's not that people are against trying new things, it's just that those who disagree are more likely to comment than those who agree.

One activity which I think could be fun, useful, and a good fit for the meetup format is brainstorming. You could have one or several brainstorming prompts every month (example prompt: "How can Moloch be defeated?") and ask meetups to brainstorm based on those prompts and send you their ideas, and then you could assemble those into a global masterlist which credits the person who originated each idea (a bit like the Junto would gather the best ideas from each subgroup, I think). You could go around to various EA organizations and ask them for prompt ideas, for topics that EA organization wants more ideas on. For example, maybe Will MacAskill would request ideas for what Cause X might be. Maybe Habryka would ask for feature ideas for LW. You could offer brainstorming services publicly--maybe Mark Zuckerberg would ask for ideas on how to improve Facebook (secretly, through Julia Galef). You could have a brainstorming session for brainstorming prompts. You could suggest brainstorming protocols or give people a video to play or have a brainstorming session for brainstorming protocols (recursive self-improvement FTW).

But as things are, I expect that even if one of your meetup experiments failed, it would give us useful data.

It's one thing to run a meetup experiment. It's another to globally say that everyone should run their meetups in a certain way.

Global coordination needs much more buy-in from other people.

Yeah, I actually agree, and that's what I meant by 'polluting the commons' - if anyone who ever had an idea about meetups could go around demanding that people implement their thing, everything would quickly fall apart. (Random side note: this is one of the main failure modes of school reform in the US - there are so many new initiatives forced upon teachers that they never have time to get used to them, develop their own style, or even do their job). This is why I'm trying to be careful this time around. I also hope that my response to your top-level comment helped you understand where I'm coming from here.

I'm not trying to convince you of anything, but I am curious: The bounty page says the bounty was discontinued as of March 2020 due to Coronavirus. Are there plans to bring it back at any point?

What happened to the Facebook group? I'd like to snag an invite if possible.