Followup To: New York City, Case Study of a Successful Rationalist Chapter; Epistle to the New York Less Wrongians
Last week, the New York Less Wrong group hosted the Summer Solstice Megameetup. Everyone had a huge amount of fun, and we met a lot of new people who didn't normally come to meetups. I've recently moved to New York, and we all enjoyed the solstice events so much that I'd like to host more of them.
So, in addition to the regular Tuesday evening New York meetups, I'm going to start hosting Saturday afternoon meetups - it seems a lot of people are free on the weekends, but can't come to events during the work week. We also plan to host larger parties once a month or so, to just have fun, talk, and blow off steam. Parties are also useful as a Schelling point for those who are interested, but live far away or otherwise can't come every week.
If anyone here lives in New York, but doesn't come to local meetups, we'd like to meet you! You can contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org.
New York events this July, and relevant contact info:
Pool Party, Saturday, July 7th
Location: New Jersey, about an hour west of Manhattan by train
(Some of us are meeting up in Manhattan, and taking the train together)
Contact: Geoff Cameron, email@example.com
Hiking and Camping Trip, Saturday, July 14th and Sunday, July 15th
Location: Undecided, but likely the woods of New Jersey or Connecticut
(Meet up Saturday in Manhattan before heading out)
Contact: Raymond Arnold, firstname.lastname@example.org
Nomic Game and Evening Dance Party, Saturday, July 21st
Location: Private residence, midtown Manhattan, New York, NY
Nomic game and discussion will start at 3 PM, party will start at 7 PM
Contact: Tom McCabe, email@example.com
Tuesday Evening Meetups, and General Questions
Contact: Zvi Mowshowitz, firstname.lastname@example.org
On a longer term basis, we're thinking about the question of how to grow the group well beyond its present size. Once things get big enough, like in the Bay Area, you start to get bigger than Dunbar's Number and lose the "everyone knows everyone else" feel. But that can happen in a good way (smaller groups form, and each one is its own tight-knit community) or a bad way (a swamp of people forms, and people lose close connections to each other). The Less Wrong Meetup Guide has a lot of extremely useful info on how to create and maintain a meetup, but we still need to tackle the question of how to grow a meetup beyond Dunbar size if we want to take over the world.
Some problems that we've had to face in New York, the Bay Area, or both are:
Forming close connections. In a room with five people, it's pretty easy to learn other people's names, faces, interests and personalities. But with fifty people it's difficult, and with five hundred it's impossible. Moreover, since non-distinct memories fade much faster than distinct ones, having regular meetups with five people will result in learning more and more about them, while having regular conferences with five hundred probably won't give you deeper relationships with any of the five hundred.
The limits of the LW audience. Less Wrong gets a decent amount of traffic, but it's fairly small compared to major websites like Reddit, or even Hacker News. Hence, beyond a certain point, getting bigger will have to mean either growing LW itself, or including non-rationalists as part of the target audience.
Preventing color politics. We've mostly avoided this so far, but with size comes more status hierarchy, and with status hierarchy comes more fighting and polarization. (Large events like Burning Man don't have strong status hierarchies, but I think that's mostly by virtue of being temporary, as opposed to permanent communities.) Leadership of a ten-person group is largely about whose apartment is most comfortable to host stuff in, but leadership (especially explicit leadership) of a thousand-person group easily becomes a prize to be fought over.
Group dilution. Years ago, it was prophesized that the Singularity (if marketed heavily enough) would come to mean a new, more advanced form of toothpaste. We're not quite there yet, but the day seems to be approaching inexorably, just as it did for "nanotechnology". Beware degeneration to the lowest common denominator - Well-Kept Gardens Die By Pacifism applies to in-person groups, too.
In the spirit of Paul Graham, here are a bunch of thoughts I have on solutions, but I don't know which ones will work and which won't. Some are probably bad ideas for reasons I just haven't thought of yet, but for others, we'll probably just have to try and see.
Idea: Create a private group Wiki, with pages on discussion topics, meetups, and people's faces and contact info.
Advantages: Encourages socializing with other group members outside of meetups. Technically, faces, interests, and contact info are usually on Facebook... but there's so much other stuff on Facebook that it's usually impossible to find. Several times, I've wanted to hang out with "that person who looked like X, and was interested in Y", but didn't pursue it, because there was no simple way to find them.
Disadvantages: This likely requires someone to actively maintain it, or it'll just become abandoned.
Idea: Promote the Less Wrong group within other, related groups, like skeptics, atheists, scientists, and so on.
Advantages: Will introduce a lot of intelligent people to rationality and other related concepts.
Disadvantages: Might lead to having less of a community feel, if lots of random people join.
Idea: Have lots of members hold their own meetups, at their own apartments or other locations.
Advantages: Creates a lot more total group activity. Avoids overcrowding, since people might want to go to meetup A but not meetup B. Specialization of labor, since different groups can focus on different things.
Disadvantages: People usually only have a few hours a week to dedicate to one social group. Hence, if you have too many meetups, the quality of the best meetups might drop, because the other meetups draw away too many good people.
Idea: Formally incorporate the group, either as a profit or non-profit.
Advantages: Makes it easier to collect money from members, and then use that money to advance the group's interests.
Disadvantages: Probably increases the risk of color politics and other social unpleasantness. Anything formalized is more likely to be fought over, by virtue of being more explicit.
Idea: Have formal group membership and membership dues.
Advantages: Once the group is sufficiently large, it allows you to keep individual meetups below Dunbar's Number, by making them members-only.
Disadvantages: Might introduce more color politics about the money, or the membership criteria. Might also make it a lot harder to get cool new people, by creating trivial inconveniences.
Idea: Hold joint meetups with other groups.
Advantages: Lots of new people get introduced to rationality simultaneously.
Disadvantages: It's distressingly common for people at big meetups to only talk to the other people they know, largely eliminating the point.
Idea: Print "rationality group business cards" that can be passed out, with a leader's contact info and a brief description of the group.
Advantages: A quick, easy form of advertising, and an easy followup mechanism for those who have expressed interest.
Disadvantages: Someone has to answer the emails, and then decide how to allocate time between contacts.
I'd like to conclude by emphasizing that a successful large group will probably be different in character than existing groups, not just more of the same. The New York group originally wasn't just bigger or more active, but different in kind than predecessor groups - physical contact? karaoke? the outdoors? What does that have to do with rationality? Genuine progress requires Weirdtopia, not just Eutopia.