Should you try to do good work on LW?

by cousin_it1 min read5th Jul 201232 comments

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I used to advocate trying to do good work on LW. Now I'm not sure, let me explain why.

It's certainly true that good work stays valuable no matter where you're doing it. Unfortunately, the standards of "good work" are largely defined by where you're doing it. If you're in academia, your work is good or bad by scientific standards. If you're on LW, your work is good or bad compared to other LW posts. Internalizing that standard may harm you if you're capable of more.

When you come to a place like Project Euler and solve some problems, or come to OpenStreetMap and upload some GPS tracks, or come to academia and publish a paper, that makes you a participant and you know exactly where you stand, relative to others. But LW is not a task-focused community and is unlikely to ever become one. LW evolved from the basic activity "let's comment on something Eliezer wrote". We inherited our standard of quality from that. As a result, when someone posts their work here, that doesn't necessarily help them improve.

For example, Yvain is a great contributor to LW and has the potential to be a star writer, but it seems to me that writing on LW doesn't test his limits, compared to trying new audiences. Likewise, my own work on decision theory math would've been held to a higher standard if the primary audience were mathematicians (though I hope to remedy that). Of course there have been many examples of seemingly good work posted to LW. Homestuck fandom also has a lot of nice-looking art, but it doesn't get fandoms of its own.

In conclusion, if you want to do important work, cross-post it if you must, but don't do it for LW exclusively. Big fish in a small pond always looks kinda sad.

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It seems important to note, however, that doing good work on LW is superior to not doing good work at all.

Edit:

In conclusion, if you want to do important work, cross-post it if you must, but don't do it for LW exclusively. Big fish in a small pond always looks kinda sad.

Most places that would be cross-posted with LW would be even smaller ponds. So I'm not sure this supports your point here.

Yvain is a great contributor to LW and has the potential to be a star writer, but it seems to me that writing on LW doesn't test his limits, compared to trying new audiences. Likewise, my own work on decision theory math would've been held to a higher standard if the primary audience were mathematicians (though I hope to remedy that).

But would either of you have worked on them at all outside LW's confines? Ceteris paribus, it'd be better to work in as high-status rigorous a community as possible, but ceteris is never paribus.

Good point, I agree with RobertLumley and you that doing good work on LW is better than doing nothing. But if you're already doing good work by LW standards (and you are!), it probably makes sense to move beyond.

Thank you for the compliments. I don't know much about mathematics, but if you've really proven a new insight into Godel's theorem that sounds very impressive and you should certainly try to get it published formally. But I'm not sure what you're suggesting I should do. I mean, I've been talking to Luke about maybe helping with some SIAI literature, but that's probably in the same category as here.

My career plan is medicine. I blog as a hobby. One day I would like to write about medicine, but I need a job and some experience before I can do that credibly. If you or anyone else have anything else specific and interesting/important you think I should be (or even could be) doing, please let me know. Bonus points if it involves getting paid.

This is too abstract for me. What exactly means "good work"? Let's say that I wrote some article, or just plan to write an article, and I ask myself -- is LW the right place to publish it?

Well, it depends on the topic, on the style of writing, and what kind of audience / reaction do I want. There are more things to consider than just "good" or "bad". Is it a Nobel price winning material? Then I send it to a prestigious scientific journal. Is it just a new idea I want feedback on? Then I guess whether I get better feedback on LW or somewhere else; again, the choices depend on topic. Something personal? I put it on my blog. Etc. Use your judgement.

It is also possible to write to a scientific journal and post a hyperlink on LW, or to write a concept on LW, collect feedback, improve the article and send it somewhere else.

Yes, if the work is optimized for LW, it is not optimized for . Different audiences require different styles. Maybe LW could have a subsection where the articles must be written using the scientific lingo (preferably in a two-column, single-spaced format), or maybe we are OK with drafts. I prefer legibility, journals prefer brevity, other people may prefer something else.

Yvain's stuff is highly linkable elsewhere. His article is the go-to link for typical mind fallacy, for example.

It starts awesome, with imagination stuff, but then goes down addressing the local PUA crap. The comments, some are very insightful on the imagination and such, but the top is about the PUA crap. I actually recall I wanted to link it few years back, before I started posting much, but searched for some other link because I did not want the PUA crap.

Honestly, it would have been a lot better if Yvain started his own blog, and over time built up reader base. But few people have, i dunno, arrogance to do that (I recall he wrote that he underestimates himself, that may be why) and so we are stuck with primarily the people that overestimate themselves blogging, starting communities, etc.

I'm not sure I know of a better place to do philosophy (as Paul Graham defines it) than LW:

let's try to answer the question

Of all the useful things we can say, which are the most general?

...

One drawback of this approach is that it won't produce the sort of writing that gets you tenure.

(PG's example of a useful general idea is that of a controlled experiment.)

What specific new audiences do you think Yvain should try out?

Likewise, my own work on decision theory math would've been held to a higher standard if the primary audience were mathematicians (though I hope to remedy that).

Furthermore non mathematicians tend to hold work to some different standards. Focussing, for instance, on the verbal match of your verbal description of what goes on (the filler between equations), with the verbal descriptions in the cited papers, which tends to get irritating in the advanced and/or confusing subjects. Additionally the mathematicians would easily find something tailored to non-mathematicians overly verbose but very insufficiently formal, which drops their expected utility from reading the text. (Instead of having the description of what you are actually doing with equations, designed to help understand your intent, you end up having, in parallel, a handwaved argument with the same conclusion)

Some veterans who do good work here could do in another place, if it's valuable enough. In that sense, the initial project was create people with strength to intervene effectively in the world. This community already have people with that level.

Big fish in a small pond always looks kinda sad.

Well, it's often helpful for the smaller fish - perhaps the fish and pond metaphor is a bit misleading in this way. And, since we're here for many reasons, not just one ("size"), people may be big fish along some dimensions and smaller fish along others.

Homestuck fandom also has a lot of nice-looking art, but it doesn't get fandoms of its own

I've been thinking about this for a while, and while I originally agreed with it I don't think I do anymore. Prequel has its own fandom now, and I think has significantly pushed the boundaries of the medium with its recent updates. Similarly, Fallout: Equestria has a fandom of its own; HPMOR has its own fandom, and though I hate to mention it in the same breath as those, so does 50 Shades of Grey.