Related: How to Run a Successful LW Meetup
(posted to lw-organizers and Lesswrong discussion)
I want more discussion of meetup organization tactics, failures, successes, and ideas. We are not going to build an awesome network of rationality dojos without sharing momentum with each other.
Towards that end, here's some useful stuff that I learned from trying to make the vancouver meetup more awesome.
First of all, I'll second everything in the NYC case study. A lot of the stuff in this post is going to be rehashed stuff from that post, but I still had to learn it the hard way. Maybe if we repeat it enough, it will stick and someone won't have to learn it the hard way.
When I started going to the Vancouver meetup, it wasn't really happening. I got inspired by the "communities need heroes" thing and started to just make it happen. It worked. You really do need someone holding the bottom line. When I fail to make things happen, other people don't reliably step in, things just stop happening. This one keeps getting drilled into me. I still seem to have an aversion to seizing power and stepping on toes, but I'm starting to see that it's really ok. Go ahead and seize power. Be the benevolent dictator. People like it.
For a while, we tried to do group readings of The Sequences and some books like "How to Win Friends and Influence People". It didn't really work. To quote some Web 2.0 troll: "Users don't read". Not only do people not read, they feel like they shouldn't come if they haven't read the stuff, even if you insist it doesn't matter. What does work is one person reading something, summarizing it, and preparing a presentation of it. It's more work, but you get better discussion and more value.
Another thing that works well is presentations and led activities on any interesting topic. This is even better than "book review" type stuff. We've had wonderful talks on how to make a lot of money, basics of decision and probability theory, some material from the CFAR minicamps. It's all gone over really well, and we get interesting discussions and lots of learning. Talks and lectures work really well. People can just come in and receive value with no effort on their part. This is good.
The other day, no one prepared anything to present, and we ended up just having unfocused discussion. It sucked. We talked about inconsequential stuff and didn't learn anything valuable and didn't have fun.
What especially sucks is metaphysics/definitions/philosophy-landmines discussion. Stuff like realism and so on. I didn't used to like shminux's obnoxious instrumentalism and taboo requests, but then I realized that zealously applying instrumentalism and taboo and positivism prevents a lot of crap discussions.
I'm still really uncomfortable with being a hard-ass moderator and killing tangents, keeping things on topic, and so on, but it has to be done. Some people will go on and on without adding much value if you don't cut them off. Others won't get a chance to talk at all, even if they have something to say, unless you notice this and prompt them. Sometimes the group will get sniped by less-valuable tangents. Some people are a lot more dominant, and others are really shy; someone has to step in an adjust for this. Again, I haven't quite come to terms with this stuff, but it seems really important.
Sometimes informal discussion can turn out well. Yesterday we had a really good discussion about the properties of utility functions, dealing with moral uncertainty, aggregating preferences, and so on. I think it turned out well because there were at least two of us with substantial knowledge on the subject, and everyone else was at least interested. Maybe that's not it though. I don't know how to reliably make informal discussions high-signal like that, so I like to steer clear of them.
Scheduling meetups reliably is good. We do ours every Thursday at 18:00, usually downtown in a public lobby or private office sometimes at a house I have access to. It reduces a lot of thinking to have it be reliable like that.
Be specific about meta. One time, we all wrote out and decided what we wanted for the meetup. Great, now we had a bunch of goals to optimize. Except we never saw those goals again. More recently, we had a meta discussion about specific proposals for what to do with meetup time. This was more valuable, and now we have some really good ideas to try.
Up until a while ago, we were sharing our personal goals and commitments, and getting feedback and social pressure to help us. That was mildly effective, but it got tedious and took up too much time to justify it.
So that's a quick tour of what I've learned the hard way, and the sorts of things we've been doing. I noticed a definite theme in the above (authoritarianism is good) which might just be a product of my mood and thoughts right now. This is all anecdotal and half of it is probably wrong, but stories from the battle front are always valuable.
We recently had a discussion of the direction we want to take the meetup. Here's some of the big cool stuff we decided we should be doing more of. If anyone has tried these or has good ideas about them, speak up.
More rationality testing and exercise. We've been focusing a lot on theory and social stuff, but we'd like to move more towards practice and such.
We want to find ways to do rationality-sparring, where we can figure out how good we are at rationality and see ourselves getting better. One of the most promising ideas for this is the Case Study Game, like they do in business school. The idea is that the Dungeon Master presents some case materials outlining some problem or situation, and the players break into groups and spend a while coming up with their best solution. At the end, the DM judges solutions. Possibly by testing, by comparing against their superior knowledge, etc. Everyone learns something, and case study problems could call on a lot of rationality skills. We haven't tested this at all, but we're itching to, and we're pretty sure there's something valuable in this space.
Some of us were really excited about doing projects with other members. Another member and I have had some success making each other write stuff. Some of the other projects discussed have been stuff like amateur science (quantified self style), profit motivated mini-businesses (like personal decision coach stuff, or tutoring on craigslist). There's potentially a lot of value here, as LW meetups tend to have lots of awesome smart people.
If any other meetups have done awesome stuff that worked well for the practical self-improvement/rationality-dojo vibe, please do describe. Anyways, these are some idea's we're toying with, which may or may not go anywhere.
There's a few things we haven't been able to do, or that I want to improve.
Member retention. We get a reasonable stream of first-timers who never come back. I worry that we're not awesome enough or something. Also, sometime members stop coming. Sending intermittent people direct emails to get them to come out seems to work really well.
More members. We'd like even more first-timers. OKCupid, Meetup.com, LW posts, and friend referrals have been good, but we have a lot to learn.
Gender ratio. We have two regular women, and neither has been coming reliably in the last while. Without them, we are reliably white, male, middle class, young, and somewhat geeky. Getting a more diverse crowd would really improve things, but I only know what people like me like, so I don't know what to do to get other types out.
There's more, but that's all for now. Any comments, advice, similar stories, copycat posts, dangerous heroics, or other helpful things is greatly appreciated.
I think I will make a habit of posting reports on what we've been doing, what has worked, and what we've learned more often so that it doesn't build up into such a huge essay. Sorry about the length.