Meetups: Climbing uphill, flowing downhill, and the Uncanny Summit

by Raemon3 min read21st Sep 20195 comments


Local Community Theory/PracticeCommunity
Personal Blog

Epistemic status: rough partial-model formed from... well, basically a single conversation, but which resonated with several years of vague accumulated impressions. Curious if it resonates or anti-resonates with others.

In the comments of Mingyuan's "Meetups as Institutions for Intellectual Progress", Bendini notes:

The current format is not ideal for accomplishing anything, so much so that I've stepped down from organising mine because they were providing so little value. It's a sad state of affairs, but from what I can tell the majority are content with them being low-effort social groups.

In my experience this is fairly common – most people who show up to meetups are just sorta there to hangout. If you get 20 people, maybe 3 of them will be driven to proactively "do stuff."

I was chatting with a friend recently who said [paraphrased] "Honestly I'd rather go to a social gathering where I can just hang out than one where we're doing a bunch of effortful stuff... but I enjoy those meetups more when they're filled with the sort of people who do do effortful stuff (even if they're not right now). They're more... alive and interesting."

And this matched a couple years experience running the NY meetups – it seemed like what most people wanted, most of the time, was fun social gatherings.

On any given meetup night, most of the value was not in "the presentation on Bayes Theorem" or whatever that gathered people together – it was the chatting afterwards and talking about whatever else was interesting. If you ask someone "would you rather just skip to the part where we hang out and chat, rather than do a workshop or listen to a presentation", many people would say "yes."

Nonetheless... in eras when the NYC meetup swerved towards "mostly social hangouts", attendance dropped, and the vibrance faded. There's a lot to do in NYC and "just hang out" isn't an exciting enough option to compete with many alternatives (including "rousing yourself out of your house in the first place", which requires activation energy).

And I suspect this might be fairly common... at any given level of "amount of effortful stuff you do." [1]

"Hanging out" is a valuable, important part of a healthy lifestyle. And the phrase "hanging out" implies not trying hard to build a new thing or learn a new skill. If you hang an object out, you're draping it over a clothesline or couch or something and the object is not doing anything effortful.

A model here might be something like:

  • People enjoy chill social spaces where they can relax and flow downhill. Do whatever is easy and fun.
  • But, when flowing downhill, the amount of "reward points" you get is proportionate to your altitude at the moment of flow. i.e. if you've climbed 20 meters up, you get 20-chill-hangout-points for flowing down for one meter's worth of time. Then 19, for the next one, etc.
  • Therefore, even though at any given time one might prefer to chill, a healthy meetup needs to do dedicate time to climbing uphill, in the form of actions that are effortful but build up the overall ambition and interestingness of the social space.

[1] Footnote that turned out to be an alternate model:

For people naturally motivated to "do stuff", I think there's a weird... "uncanny summit" (contrasted with uncanny valley) of people-who-"do stuff"-in-a-community context.

Romeostevens made a provocative claim in response to Scott Alexander's "What are the Open Problems in Human Rationality?" answer:

I think communities are typically about avoiding responsibility for making personal progress. People who choose to take a more central role in a community typically have emotional problems they are trying to work out via the dynamics in the community. The whole is typically much less than the sum of its parts.

Something about this felt true, although I'm not sure I agree on the terms that Romeo meant to convey. I think what I have to say here is mostly a different model, but felt enough like a response to Romeo that it seemed worth including the link back.

My subjective experience feels less like "Meetups were a way to resolve emotional problems", and more like:

  • Meetups were a way to meet basic emotional needs (i.e. feel valued)
  • Meetups were a reward signal I could attach to a project that I wanted to do, but was a bit lonely to work on by myself. i.e if I did some research, or thought a bunch of thoughts about a thing, it was nice to be able to give a presentation to a bunch of people and have them say "thanks!" at the end, rather than have it just sit in my mind or bring it up casually.
  • Meetups were a source of... well, guinea pigs for random social experiments.

(I imagine Romeo looking at all of this through a different lens, part of which involves detaching from the particular social reward structure at play here, but I don't have a good enough sense of where he was coming from to respond within his frame)

The Uncanny Summit of Meetups

If you have zero people-who-do-stuff, you have a chill hangout space that lasts as long as it provides social value to the people involved.

If you have a few "do-ers", whose projects and excitements aren't directly synergistic with each other, you have a space where do-ers show up and provide excitement and value, which acts as a social reward for the do-er doing their thing, and/or providing guinea-pigs if the do-er likes running social experiments.

This works so long as you have do-ers who are motivated to do things at "meetup scale", who get social reward from the group. (This can last indefinitely depending on the do-er's goals and whether they're legit friends with people in the group, which depends in turn on social chemistry)

If you have a critical mass of do-ers who are interesting in the same thing, you have a brief window where it makes sense for the do-ers to do things together through the community. The community serves the sort of role that I think a lot of people come away from The Craft and the Community sequence expecting.[2]

But frequently, do-ers end up with ambitions for their Things to Do that are larger or more intense than meetup-scale, which lead to forming orgs or teams, or even just solo projects that just aren't really amenable to "present your thing at the local group." And these don't fit neatly into the "community that you can easily join" bucket. They require actually hiring people, which is a different sort of thing.

I have some sense that some people (including myself) had a particular vision of meetups that actually only works in a narrow set of circumstances. And rather than thinking of meetups as a place where Good Work Gets Done, it's better to think of meetups as part of an ecosystem where people flow, depending on where they are in life and what their goals are.

[2] I don't think Eliezer actually meant people to come away from The Craft and the Community expecting community, in the way that some people (myself included) have tacitly assumed.


5 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 1:29 PM
New Comment

I wonder how many people are primarily interested in doing effortful things at meetup-ish events, rather than hanging out. I, for one, would actually go to meetups if they weren't just social clubs, but I have near-zero interest in a social club.

I'm sure people have divergent interests in terms of what effortful things they'd like to do, but on the other hand I'd personally be interested in a pretty wide range of possibilities if there were other interested people and it actually involved doing something substantive. Anyone else?

Lightning talks could be one potential compromise. You listen to one person for 5 minutes or two people for ten minutes and then you can get on with the socialising. You then have an additional conversation topic, something to market the event with and a reason why this social will be different.

At REACH we have a meditation meetup every Tuesday. Early on we decided the format should be a combination of doing the thing, talking about the thing, and talking with each other in that order. We experimented a bit before we settled on it, and basically found it was the format that seemed to work best, for some subjective, non-explicit measure of "best".

I think it works because first you have to show up and do the thing we are here to do. Then there is time to have directed conversation within a more limited scope so everyone has the opportunity to participate. Finally we come to the socializing, and it comes at the end for multiple reasons (would get in the way of the goal of the meetup; able to scale longer or shorter with the conditions of the week). So in your model it's climbing up high first, then slowly coming down in a way that lets you coast down to the valley of hanging out, all in one meetup so even if it's your first time you get the whole experience.

I'm not sure how well this can generalize since we are lucky that we are showing up every week to do the same activity, but it might be extensible to other sorts of meetups, rationalist or EA or not.

if you've climbed 20 meters up, you get 20-chill-hangout-points for flowing down for one meter's worth of time. Then 19, for the next one, etc.

This resembles a process I've been caught up in recently: independent game developer scenes.

Once a month, we gather and talk about what we've been making and what we want to make. We then spend the ensuing month struggling to make something worth talking about at the next meetup (this month, I will talk about character art, worldbuilding, and a card game I want to develop collaboratively with anyone who's interested). It creates the perfect kind of accountability. Nobody is telling you what to do, but some of them are very interested in it. They don't have power over you, but they are very cool and you find that you want to impress them.

It occurs to me now that many people might live their entire lives this way. Excelling in life until they have built up enough self-esteem to show up at the local pub and brag it out (it might be called "celebration", instead of bragging. the model now seems to be claiming providence of the word "celebrity". "A Celebrity," it says, "Is a person who always has something to brag about. So that they are welcome at any party").

The somewhat cynical take is that open attendance events ( and LW) are like group projects where organizers are competing for attendees. This makes organizing events a servant role rather than a leadership role, meaning that if you expend the resources to put on an interesting talk and offer free pizza people will think they've done their bit by showing up and adding entropy. Like the way people balk at paying for software now that Google et all have figured out that it's more efficient to take it out of your back pocket via advertising, people treat meetups the same way because organizers have zero leverage when attendees can go to some other meetup with free pizza because it's a recruitment funnel for a tech company.

Fixing this will require more than words alone. Informing attendees that the meetup is a "take it seriously" meetup does not cause them to take it seriously because there's no way at present to give those words credibility.

(Unrelated: I stumbled on this post by happenstance only to see a comment I made form a key part of it. This seems exactly like the sort of thing that should go in a user's notifications)