Effective Altruism : An idea repository

by Onemorenickname3 min read25th Jun 201719 comments


Personal Blog

Metainformations :

Personal Introduction

I came to define myself as a non-standard Effective Altruist. I’ve always been interested in Effective Altruism, way before I’ve even heard of EA. When I was younger, I simply thought I was altruist, and that what people did was … noise at best. Basically, naive ways to relieve one’s conscience and perpetuate one’s culture.

Since primary school I thought about global problems and solutions to these problems. So much so that the word “project” internally connotes “project solving some global problems”. As such, EA should have interested me.

However, it didn’t. The main reason was that I saw EA as some other charitists. I’ve always been skeptical toward charity, the reason being “They think too small” and “There are too much funding in standard solutions rather than in finding new ones”.

I think this exemplifies a problem about EA’s communication.

A Communication Problem

Most people I know got to know Effective Altruism through EffectiveAltruism.org.

Because of that website, these people see EA as a closed organization that help people to direct funds to better charities and find better careers.

That was my opinion of EA until I saw the grant offer : a closed organization with already defined solutions wouldn’t fund new ideas. As such, I changed my outlook of EA. I researched a bit more about it, and found an open and diverse community.

But I am busy person, therefore I have to use filters before putting more time in researching about something. I made my impression from :

What convinced me of that impression was the website’s content :

  • The tabs are “About, Blog, Donate, Effectively, Resources, Grants, Get Involved”. This looks like a standard showcase website of a closed organization with a call to donate.

  • The first four reading suggestions after the introduction are about charity and career choice. This leads people to thinking that EA is solely about that.

  • In the introduction, the three main questions are “Which cause/career/charity ?”.

I didn’t stop there, and I read more of that website, but it was along those same lines.

Counting me, my friends and people I met on LW and SSC, this directly led to losing 10-15 potential altruists in the community. Given that we were already interested in applying rationality to changing the world and my situation is not isolated (the aforementioned website is the first hit for “Effective Altruism” on Google), I do think that it is an important issue to EA.


Well, about the website :

  • Adding a tab “Open Ideas”/“Open projects”, “Forum” and/or “Communities”. The “Get Involved” is the only tab that offers (and only implicitly) some interaction. The new Involvement Guide is an action in the right direction.

  • Putting emphasis on the different communities and approaches. Digging, I’ve seen that there are several communities. However, the most prominent discriminating factor was the location. It would be nice to see a presentation of various approaches of EA, especially in the first resources new members get in touch with.

But more than changing the website, I think that lacking to EA is a platform dedicated to collective thinking about new ideas.

Projects don’t happen magically : people think, come to an idea, think more about that idea, criticize it, and if all goes well, maybe build a plan out of it, gather, and begin a project together. If we truly want new projects to emerge, having such a platform is of utmost importance.

The current forum doesn’t cut it : it isn’t meant to that end. It’s easier to build a forum dedicated to that than try to artificially support a balance between “New Ideas” posts and “Information Sharing” posts so that none of these get overshadowed. The same problem applies to existing reddit boards and facebook groups.

That platform should contain at least the following :

  • A place where new ideas are posted and criticized. A Reddit board, a Fecebook group, a forum.

  • A place where ideas are discussed interactively. An IRC channel, a web chat, a Discord server.

  • A place where ideas/projects are improved collectively and incrementally. A web pad, a Google doc, a Git repository.

  • A basic method to deal with new ideas / project collaboration. Some formatting, some questions that every idea should answer (What problem does it solve ?, How critical is it ?, What’s the solution variance ?), content deletion policy. A sticky-post on the forum, an other Google Doc.


  • Do you think such a platform would be useful ? Why ?

  • Would you be interested in building such a platform ? Either technically (by setting up the required tools), marketing-ly (by gathering people) or content-ly (by posting and criticizing ideas).


19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 6:29 PM
New Comment

If you want casual feedback, probably the best location currently is: https://www.facebook.com/groups/eahangout/.

I definitely think it would be useful, the problem is that building such a platform would probably take significant effort.

There are a huge number of "ideas" startups out there. I would suggest taking a look at them for inspiration.

I don't think about building a product from scratch, more about coordinating a Discord server, a Reddit board a Google doc for instance.

The website linked by @lifelonglearner is particularly good, even though it will be deleted by July.

Additionally, how come you posted here instead of on the Effective Altruism forum: http://effective-altruism.com/?

I initially needed an editor I was used to to link a post to someone on the EA Discord Server.

I thought I might as well do it on LW to gather input from LWians.

There's an existing EA Discord server. Someone posted about it in the 'Effective Altruism' Facebook group, and it was the first mention I'd seen of an EA Discord anywhere, so it's probably the only/primary one existing. There's nothing "official" about the EA Discord, but it's the biggest and best you'll find if that's what you're looking for. I can send you an invite if you want.

Posting on behalf of my coworker Sam Deere (who didn't have enough karma to post):

"Thanks for the feedback. It's good to know that this is something people are thinking about — we think a lot about how to make EA's online presence best serve the needs of the community too.

For context, I'm head of tech at CEA, which runs EffectiveAltruism.org. (I have less to do with the content and structure of the site these days, but had a hand in putting it up, and am involved in a lot of decision making about which projects to priorities.)

There seem to be a few concerns, one about functionality, one about discoverability, and one about content. That is, EA needs better discussion spaces, the ones it has are too hard to find, and the easiest-to-find content doesn't represent the breadth of EA really well.

In general we agree that EA needs good discussion spaces, and that the current ones could be improved (e.g. by separating concerns of content discovery and content creation etc). This is something that's in CEA's longer-term tech projects roadmap, but we don't have the capacity to prioritise this right now. This is doubly true when there are fairly good discussion spaces available, in particular the EA Forum. However, we're working on building out more features, on top of the EffectiveAltruism.org webapp (which at the moment is functionally just EA Funds).

Individual projects will have their own coordination needs so at this point it hasn't made sense to try to build a be-all/end-all platform that encompasses all of them. You've suggested a number of tools that such a platform could draw inspiration from — in many cases people do just use these tools to coordinate on projects. The EA Forum serves a useful role to announce project ideas and seek collaborators, and this isn't the only place in the community where projects/collaboration happens — EA Grants and the .impact Hackpads were already mentioned. Another example is Effective Altruism Global, which allows people to discuss these projects and ideas in person, which is much higher bandwidth.

(It's also important to get the balance right between shiny new things that work better and continuity — there's always a new platform, a new tool that we could use that will be an improvement on existing processes. But if it doesn't complement existing tools and processes people use, then it risks either not gaining adoption, or splitting the user base. Developer time and energy is a scarce resource, and like everything, needs to be prioritised. Many projects of this scope fall into disuse.)

Regarding discoverability, as others have suggested, it's not clear that the solution is to make things more discoverable. Online communities are very hard to get right — there's a constant tension between preserving the culture and norms that make the culture great, while keeping it open and accessible to newer members who want to get involved. Newer members have less context for certain discussions (which makes people feel they can't be as open for fear of alienating newcomers), newer members may ask lots of basic questions etc (see the Eternal September effect). The solution is never perfect, but it's important to have ways for people to get involved with the community incrementally, so that they can acquire that context as they go — this necessitates having some more introductory content on places like EffectiveAltruism.org, and the selection effects of the effort required to learn a bit more about the community are likely a feature, not a bug.

In general we observe that people start reading introductory content, then those that are hooked do a deep dive and discover the rest of the community in the process. However, it's a useful data point to know that you felt that as someone who was already potentially on board, that the introductory stuff was off-putting, and we'll keep that in mind as we're considering what other content needs to be on EffectiveAltruism.org.

Regarding content breadth, CEA is currently working on a project to make the content covered on EffectiveAltruism.org more comprehensive and representative of the broader spectrum of ideas that get discussed within the community (partly building on the existing Effective Altruism Concepts project, and also drawing inspiration from things like the LW sequences — more details will be announced in time).

As with everything, we're massively constrained by staff and volunteer time. At the moment we're hiring for a number of roles that should speed up the development of some of these features (hint hint...). As someone noted, it would perhaps have been worthwhile to post this on the EA Forum to see if there are more ideas in this vein, or if others in the community are working on something like this."

Posting on behalf of my coworker Sam Deere (who didn't have enough karma to post):

I registered this account today and couldn't post, so I figured I had to verify an email associated with this account and now it works. :)

Thought I had, turns out you need to verify separately for the wiki and the forum. Thanks Julia for posting.

Thank you for your thorough answer. :)

Onemorenickname: have you found anything like this? My nonprofit may be interested in building something similar and would love to connect.

Have you seen the dot impact hackpad? Seems to probably fit some of your requirements.

Haven't seen it.

It makes the technical aspect easier, as a big part of the technical part already exists. What's left is :

  • The interactive place
  • A native commenting option
  • A more precise method than a suggested template

But it is really good. Where did you hear about it ? Giving that website more reach would be nice.

Also ...

I’m writing to let you know we’ll be shutting down Hackpad on July 19. I’m so grateful for all the

EDIT : There is more on their website

I found about them fairly early on when I was poking around on one of the EA FB pages and I was asking about places I could volunteer. Someone linked me the site.

Online interaction can be costly. You start by providing an interactive forum, and before you notice, you are spending your time nitpicking the latest proposal for comment deletion policy, instead of doing what you wanted to do in the first place.

Internet debates with low cost of entry attract people with too much free time. Those are usually neither effective nor altruists.

I think I don't understand your point :

  • There are already many functioning places for EA online interactions, and these work quite well.

  • Do you mean that, in the case the user base grows unexpectedly, high costs of entry should be put in order to deal with that problem ?

Both. Christian posted 2 FB groups, 1 subreddit, and one separate page; that seems quite enough to me, for general discussion. How much would you consider optimal?

If the user base grows, that is a good thing, but if the communication costs grow, that is a bad thing. So the communication needs to be organized effectively. I will assume there is a usual distribution that a few core people are doing most of the work, and the majority of people is mostly or exclusively there to chat. Two ways how things could go wrong:

1) The more channels and the more debate there is, the more time will the important people spend participating in the discussion, and the less time will be left for their work.

2) The important people will not participate in some of the discussions, which means someone else (perhaps the person with most free time, or most loud voice) will take over, not necessarily in a good way.

As an example of the latter, there was a FB group called "Less Wrong" where Eliezer didn't have time to participate, and it evolved into something... uhm, not representative of LW... so at the end Eliezer asked them to change their name, because the association seemed harmful for LW.

I am not asking for a general discussion place, but for an idea repository with dedicated discussion places.

From the post :

The current forum doesn’t cut it : it isn’t meant to that end. It’s easier to build a forum dedicated to that than try to artificially support a balance between “New Ideas” posts and “Information Sharing” posts so that none of these get overshadowed. The same problem applies to existing reddit boards and facebook groups.

Also, regular discussion places (reddit, fb), aren't really meant as thread repository : pinning more and more threads is a nuisance to the discussion part.

There are already plenty of different channels for communication: http://effective-altruism.com/ https://www.reddit.com/r/EffectiveAltruism/ https://www.facebook.com/groups/effective.altruists/ https://www.facebook.com/groups/eahangout/

Then there are also plenty more specialized channels. Both for causes and for geographical locations. Given your presentation I don't see what your suggestion adds to the existing structures.

From the post

The current forum doesn’t cut it : it isn’t meant to that end. It’s easier to build a forum dedicated to that than try to artificially support a balance between “New Ideas” posts and “Information Sharing” posts so that none of these get overshadowed. The same problem applies to existing reddit boards and facebook groups.

Also, regular discussion places (reddit, fb), aren't really meant as thread repository : pinning more and more threads is a nuisance to the discussion part.