Should people be writing more or fewer LW posts?

by [anonymous]2 min read14th Sep 201427 comments

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It's unlikely that by pure chance we are currently writing the correct number of LW posts.  So it might be useful to try to figure out if we're currently writing too few or too many LW posts.  If commenters are evenly divided on this question then we're probably close to the optimal number; otherwise we have an opportunity to improve.  Here's my case for why we should be writing more posts.

Let's say you came up with a new and useful life hack, you have a novel line of argument on an important topic, or you stumbled across some academic research that seems valuable and isn't frequently discussed on Less Wrong.  How valuable would it be for you to share your findings by writing up at post for Less Wrong?

Recently I visited a friend of mine and commented on the extremely bright lights he had in his room.  He referenced this LW post written over a year ago.  That got me thinking.  The bright lights in my friend's room make his life better every day, for a small upfront cost.  And my friend is probably just one of tens or hundreds of people to use bright lights this way as a result of that post.  Given that the technique seems to be effective, that number will probably continue going up, and will grow exponentially via word of mouth (useful memes tend to spread).  So by my reckoning, chaosmage has created and will create a lot of utility.  If they had kept that idea to themselves, I suspect they would have captured less than 1% of the total value to be had from the idea.

You can reach orders of magnitude more people writing an obscure Less Wrong comment than you can talking to a few people at a party in person.  For example, at least 100 logged in users read this fairly obscure comment of mine.  So if you're going to discuss an important topic, it's often best to do it online.  Given enough eyeballs, all bugs in human reasoning are shallow.

Yes, peoples' time does have opportunity costs.  But people are on Less Wrong because they need a break anyway.  (If you're a LW addict, you might try the technique I describe in this post for dealing with your addiction.  If you're dealing with serious cravings, for LW or video games or drugs or anything else, perhaps look at N-acetylcysteine... a variety of studies suggest it helps reduce cravings (behavioral addictions are pretty similar to drug addictions neurologically btw), it has a good safety profile, and you can buy it on Amazon.  Not prescribed by doctors because it's not approved by the FDA.  Yes, you could use willpower (it's worked so well in the past...) or you could hit the "stop craving things as much" button, and then try using willpower.  Amazing what you can learn on Less Wrong isn't it?)

And LW does a good job of indexing content by how much utility people are going to get out of it.  It's easy to look at a post's keywords and score and guess if it's worth reading.  If your post is bad it will vanish in to obscurity and few will be significantly harmed.  (Unless it's bad and inflammatory, or bad with a linkbait title... please don't write posts like that.)  If your post is good, it will spread virally on its own and you'll generate untold utility.

Given that above-average posts get read much more than below-average posts, if you're post's expected quality is average, sharing it on Less Wrong has a high positive expected utility.  Like Paul Graham, I think we should be spreading our net wide and trying to capture all of the winners we can.

I'm going to call out a particular subset of LW commenters in particular.  If you're a commenter and you (a) have at least 100 karma, (b) it's over 80% positive, and (c) you have a draft post with valuable new ideas you've been sitting on for a while, you should totally polish it off and share it with us!  In general, the better your track record, the more you should be inclined to share ideas that seem valuable.  Worst case you can delete your post and cut your losses.

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27 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 7:23 AM
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Regardless of whether we should have more or fewer posts, the problem you noticed is more precisely traced back to the lack of infrastructure aimed at collating the best output and resources produced or aggregated here. I got a lot of benefit from the "best textbooks" thread, the post(s) introducing Beeminder back in the day, the post by cousin_it on mutual screen-monitoring, and perhaps from a few other interventions (standing desks, nicotine) I picked up in the local memespace. I doubt I could find many of these as a newcomer, except by lurking around for long enough. Not proposing a solution so far, but this seems to be a common problem with big blogs that have lots of excellent content but even more chaff.

ETA: N-acetylcysteine is actually FDA-approved but only as an expectorant and as an antidote for APAP overdose.

[-][anonymous]6y 6

I've been working to solve this problem recently with my blog. What I've done is organize posts and resources into step by step guides that help you achieve specific goals, like this: http://selfmaderenegade.net/resource-page/how-to-get-a-job-without-experience/

This is similar to the approach that Eliezer took with the sequences, but much smaller and more focused on achieving specific things, rather than understanding concepts. I think that LW could do something similar with user curated guides votable guides that pull together the best posts into coherent step by step instructions.

Yep, I've been using this approach to construct algorithms for myself to follow in order to sleep better, overcome aversions, improve my mood, form habits, etc. Basically aggregating all the life hacks I read online and indexing them by the situations in my life in which I need them. It's been working pretty well, although it's a huge project I'm far from completing. My eventual goal is to algorithmitize my entire life and thus become automatically strategic.

this seems to be a common problem with big blogs that have lots of excellent content but even more chaff.

I'll go so far as to say that this is a massive unsolved problem: (Semi-)automatically seperating the noise from the signal in the space of documents. Voting systems partially solve this problem but don't scale, see for example Reddit's subreddits as they grow in size.

Subreddits are still pretty good in that when I am researching a new area, I can look for the top rated posts of all time in a particular subreddit and get some good information.

How to make people more interested in maintaining the wiki? (Preferably without having edit wars like Wikipedia.) Because wiki could be the infrastructure for the published information.

Hmm. A certain prominent wiki displays featured articles on the front page. That would reward efforts to maintain and extend the wiki, while also increasing the visibility of high-quality materials to newcomers.

Thanks for that. I really should take a closer look at all the content there (there seems to be some beneficial stuff I wasn't aware of), but the current format strikes me as pretty ill-suited to anyone but the most motivated aspiring rationalists and lifehackers. More to the point, I don't think relative newcomers are actually going to read the FAQ (this is just a hunch based on what I would do / what I did).

I agree with your point that we could produce more social value by encouraging more posts, especially on instrumental rationality topics. But I think we can do a lot more on the cheap by figuring out how to make existing high-quality content and resources more accessible to readers who weren't around when they were originally discussed.

You framed your post around life hacks and Alex's response is also about them. But the link you give here is almost entirely about other topics.

Edit: I changed the wiki, and now the lights that you mentioned and the textbooks that Alex mentioned show up, but the proportion of advice didn't change. Anyone actually looking for advice would give up before finding those examples.

...and where is the poll?

Here it is:

[pollid:767]

It's unlikely that by pure chance we are currently writing the correct number of LW posts.

So, the number of LW posts is determined by the balance of multiple forces. That suggests to me it isn't well described by 'pure chance,' and we're better off focusing on how to shift those forces than just observing that the current point isn't optimal.

That said, I'm glad this post exists, because it looks like it raises the perceived reward and lowers the perceived cost of posting to LW.

(My current draft is in editing mode; we'll see how long it takes til I'm happy with it, but my hope is not too long.)

the correct number of LW posts

"Correct" by which metric? and how do you estimate this "correctness"?

Should people be writing more or fewer LW posts?

More. But we also need some better filter. To be more precise, I need a better filter. I do care a lot about the lifehacks. I care about some formal math. I don't care at all about the altruistic stuff.

You pose the interesting question of "is there enough LW content?" and I tend to answer "no, most certainly not" as writing a post gives plenty of utility to plenty of people but this is a public good and those are almost certainly undersupplied. Maybe some kind of reward mechanism based on karma and donations can remedy that.

Edit: A sketch of an idea as an inspiration to people better skilled at designing these things: Posters get money out of a yearly/monthly/weekly fund in proportion to the karma they reap relative to all other posters in the same time frame. The fund itself then is filled by users willing to give some money in return for an option to (temporarily) hold a token title. This system is not perfect by far but should lead to more posts in general. Assuming we don't accidentally trigger market based norms and discourage people from writing as they start to see it as an extremely low paying job.

[-][anonymous]6y 9

Posters get money out of a yearly/monthly/weekly fund in proportion to the karma they reap relative to all other posters in the same time frame.

You don't want each LWer to have a monetary incentive for all other LWers to have less karma.

Assuming we don't accidentally trigger market based norms and discourage people from writing as they start to see it as an extremely low paying job

Why should that assumption hold?

If you give volunteers monetary compensation they tend to perform worse than when they do their work for free - except when they get paid quite a sum of money. That's why you see doctors doing work for free but not for a nominal amount of money - or they do work for full price.

Yes, I know. The interesting question is why you assume that it doesn't apply in this case.

No good reason, I just did it for the sake of argument.

[-][anonymous]6y 4

If you're a commenter and you (a) have at least 100 karma, (b) it's over 80% positive...

That's how you construct echo chambers. I'm more interested in the dissenting voices. What do they think?

I agree dissenting voices are valuable and should be encouraged. Have we thought about having a "what's your contrarian viewpoint" thread? I know there have been the "irrationality game" threads but I feel like they're not optimal for serious contrarian discussion. If people hesitate to share their contrarian views because they fear social disapproval (that's why I hesitate to share my contrarian views), having it be explicitly sanctioned seems valuable.

[-][anonymous]6y 3

People holding contrarian views don't see them as irrational. Honestly the thought of posting to that thread hadn't occurred to me.

I think a thread for contrarian views would be a very healthy thing to do.

I think that we should have fewer meta posts like this. We spend too much time trying to optimize our use of this website, and not enough time actually just using the website.

I make it a habit to check LessWrong once a day for just a few minutes, along with a number of other websites.

There are so few new posts that I hardly even have to scroll to find were I left off the day before. Considering that the usual quality of the posts here is far above that on other websites, having more posts would definitely be a good thing. Even if it turned out that all the most important things are already being written about with no exception, the less interesting posts here are still interesting enough compared to other websites. This is especially true considering that one can just scan the forums and look only at posts above some threshold rating if one is in a hurry.

It's unlikely that by pure chance we are currently writing the correct number of LW posts.

But it's possible that the number of posts versus benefit curve is fairly flat. If so, while it may be unlikely that we are writing exactly the correct number of LW posts, we could, with high likelihood, be writing a number of LW posts with effects extremely close to the effect of the correct number.

(c) you have a draft post with valuable new ideas you've been sitting on for a while I imagine most of the draft posts being sat upon are being sat upon because the authors are uncertain how valuable and new the ideas are. I'd weaken that condition for the exhortation to be effective.

Having (a), about (b) and long held intention to post instead of (c) I wrote an article. I am undecided whether lack of textual communicaton skills was a good reason to withhold doing it.