In Defence of Meta
The current mods of the Less Wrong community seem to believe that meta (I'm using meta in a broad sense to mean meta + community) discussion and community discussion are both things that need to be heavily discouraged. In part, we can see this inspired by Elizier's post Less Meta and a general tendency for the regular inside internet communities to gradually end up spend more and more of their time in meta, instead of in the site itself. It's generally considered rude to unilaterally end a discussion, so it's not easy for someone to say, "Everyone, everyone, this issue really isn't that important, let's just move onto things that are more productive". This is definitely a dynamic to be aware of.
However, Less Meta came at the end of entire sequence of posts about how he thought that the community should develop. Elizier wasn't denying the value of meta discussion and, as I am arguing, neither should we. Instead, I think we should be asking two questions:
- Is our meta discussion important?
- Is our meta discussion productive?
1 asks whether resolving the question would significantly benefit the community. 2 asks whether further discussion is likely to push the community forward on that issue. If the community seems unable to make progress on a particular topic, it may be best wait in the hope that the community changes and resolution becomes possible in the future. If we let this guide us, then I believe we can find the middle path that ensures necessary discussion occurs without it becoming a time sink.
Three reasons why meta discussion is important at this stage:
- Meaningful meta discussion is now possible again for the first time in a number of years. I seem to have been getting the impression that for a while, online meta discussion was sub-ordinate to the in person discussions happening in the bay area. Many key people within the community stopped following LW. Discussions on LW had no impact because the key players weren't on LW. Now that LW is actually being used again, discussions which were unproductive before, may be productive now. In fact, there's likely a bit of a backlog that has developed of important topics we need to discuss as a community.
- A lot has happened in the community since Elizier wrote the Craft and the Community. It seems like we might need a new vision for our community and understanding of who we want to be and how we will get there. At the very least, at the very least, it seems that we need some kind of retrospective discussion to think about how we might update our framework given all of our new information.
- We saw that the community was in a steep decline until recently, despite the fact that many rationalists wanted the community to thrive. This can only be seen as a failure of rationality. How can this inspire us to improve? I'm not just talking about patching the particular failure modes as disussed in the LW 2.0 Strategic Overview like making Vaniver BDFL, that's making this exercise too easy on ourselves. If this was the solution, why didn't we try this sooner? Was it that we needed someone with high political capital to post in order to make things actually happen? We were lucky enough to survive this time, but the decline still inflicted significant damage on the rationality community. We may not be lucky enough to survive next time. Indeed, we can see that many other communities like the technocracy movement and the humanist movement have lost much of their influence.
I don't disagree that we should try to limit meta discussion in the long term given decreasing marginal utility, but in the short term I believe there are some really important discussion to be had.
Update: Anyway, I should clarify that I'm not suggesting making meta any more visible. I'm just trying to encourage people to consider the most important meta topics and start conversations on them. Not all at once though, as we don't want to flood the site. I suspect that this kind of thinking is neglected; people tend to think, "What is frustrating me?", not, "What is the most important discussion we should consider having?".
Meta Meta Meta Comment: Please keep the conversation in the comments about meta discussion in general and try to avoid having the specific object level meta discussions I mentioned below. These discussions are important, but this post is not the best location for this discussion to happen.