You are reading this post on LessWrong. If you're like most of my rationalist friends, you believe that LessWrong's culture of decoupled and straightforward communication and focus on timeless issues of rationality and world-optimization has created a community of like-minded people that you enjoy interacting with and learn a lot from. Once in a while, I tell my LessWrong friends that they should get on Twitter, that the culture of memes and half-joking deeply contextualized and obscure banter on the latest breaking news and culture war topics has also created a wonderful community of like-minded people you can learn a lot from. My rationalist friends are horrified at the suggestion.
They're almost as horrified as people who've tweeted for years about sex and astrology and pineal glands are to discover that half their mutuals are actually LessWrongers.
So, what the hell is going on? Is rationalist twitter a thing and if so, why? Are postrats just rats who post? And am I writing this off the cuff with little editing because that faithfully communicates my Twitter style or because it's Goodheart week? Read on to find out!
The problems with Twitter are obvious on the surface:
- It mostly consists of partisans of competing culture war tribes fighting over polarizing object-level topics with no desire or ability to go meta.
- No matter how clearly you express yourself, people will misunderstand it in the least charitable way.
- There's no way to enforce barriers to entry, any rando can comment on anything.
- But well-known journalists and other bluechecks are even worse, using Twitter either to parrot the same coordinated narrative or to viciously settle personal scores.
- The nuggets of vital breaking info and true deep insight are buried under a torrent of bullshit.
- Anonymity + audience + zero personal stake in relationships = people being total fuckwads.
But also Twitter is the place where Elon Musk challenges Vladimir Putin to hand to hand combat for the future of Ukraine. People don't want to miss out on that.
To get the best parts of Twitter without the worst, you'd want to join as part of a community with norms that defuse and ameliorate Twitter's worst tendencies. A community where:
- Object-level pontificating is looked-down upon, and partisanship is outright scorned.
- Illegibility to outsiders is prized, so that only those who have followed you for a while and share a context will understand what you mean while everyone else couldn't even parse it enough to get mad or start a mob against you.
- Everyone is encouraged not only to post takes but to socialize, play silly games, flirt, and make friends.
- Bluechecks and celebrities are treated with suspicion. The highest status members are (often anonymous) posters who grew their audience on Twitter alone.
- The community retweets are a filter surfacing the best nuggets from the rest of Twitter.
- The only rule strongly enforced is being cordial in replies and otherwise abiding by Twitter etiquette, violators are blocked.
- Members in good standing come hang out in a 400+ attendee in-person summer camp.
This is postrat Twitter, aka TCOT/TPOT (this corner/part of Twitter), aka — my favorite name for the multiple levels of irony and meaning — simply "the ingroup". The ingroup doesn't have a unifying theme or explicit purpose. Most importantly, it doesn't have an outgroup. A couple of sympathetic journalists tried to understand what the ingroup is and only managed to conclude that we’re really weird and that “this is the exact opposite of media Twitter, which is defined exclusively by who you hate”.
The Twitter ingroup is based on who you read and who you're friends on Twitter with, with the fuzziness and porousness of boundaries this implies. In this way it’s a lot like the rationalist community: no one hands out membership cards, but you can tell if someone’s in it or not in 3 minutes of conversation.
What does it have to do with Post-rationality?
About a decade ago, post-rationality emerged as a coherent intellectual movement that was, at least in part, explicitly a reaction to LessWrong. It included writers like David Chapman, Venkatesh Rao, Sarah Perry, and a spectrum of others from spiritually-focused monastics to red-pilled neoreactionaries. These writers are widely read by both LessWrongers and the Twitter ingroup, but they’re not central at all to the latter.
Closer to the core is the fact that many prominent ingroupers have bounced off the self-improvement approach of LessWrong, finding that it only exacerbated their personal struggles. These self-identified “postrats” often tweet about trauma, therapy, meditation, “just vibing”, physical exercise, and religion. Their challenge to rationalists is: if you’re so smart, why aren’t you happy? But of course, these topics are covered extensively on LessWrong itself by writers like Kaj Sotala — this isn’t something rationalists are opposed to addressing at all.
I think the main reason people on Twitter call themselves “postrats” is to piss off rationalists, given the whiff of superiority conveyed by the “post- “ prefix. At this point “post-rationality” is mostly an internet community characterized by an unusually high number of regular rationalists. And that’s a good thing!
But how does shitposting lead to the pursuit of truth?
It's probably obvious, but when Q talks about a "cabal of pedophile elites" it's not literal. They're talking about structures of power and oppression that "fuck over" the young generation. They're talking about the patriarchy. True feminists understand this.
This is one of my tweets I’m proudest of, and when I shared it to Facebook no less than three rationalist friends wrote me angry replies expressing their frustration with my dumb shitposting and would it kill me to add a /s tag at the end to make it clear that I’m joking.
But I’m not joking. There are several important topics today that are nearly impossible to discuss directly for both individual and social reasons. The best way to approach them is with “shitposting” that expresses a real opinion but doesn’t immediately bind the writer to a legible object-level position that could be attacked.
I could have written:
Some extreme takes under the “feminism” umbrella are as crazy as Q Anon
But that’s not really what I meant or what I believe, and writing that explicitly could also get me in trouble.
What I actually wanted to say is:
Many people on all sides of the political spectrum hold truly radical and insane beliefs, but this is often ignored because they’re “sanewashed” by some adjacent less-radical position that is palatable to the mainstream. It’s a social motte-and-bailey in which the radicals’ excesses are covered by sympathetic moderates who explain that “they only mean this metaphorically” and that “you should take them seriously but not literally”. Q Anon is the exception that proves this rule because there are no palatable “bailey” positions adjacent to it, and it is thus considered (wrongly) a singular example of collective insanity.
I could write this essay on my blog, and 750 people would read it. But 75,000 chuckled at my tweet and hopefully more than 1% of them went hmmm afterward and asked themselves why this is funny and what it means.
Even if you carefully curate your timeline, very little of it will be insightful. The vast majority of everything is shit, and this is undoubtedly true of shitposts. But there are some truths that can only be approached through the shitpost side gate. There have been several memes by the ingroup that “escaped containment” and reached a huge audience. I think that none of them are accidental, they are all expressions of important truths that could not be spread except by this format.
I don’t want to suggest that Twitter is a replacement for LessWrong, which I think is a more unique and special space. The Twitter ingroup is also a village without a mission, and I do believe in the importance of the mission. But I think Twitter is a great compliment to LessWrong for anyone pursuing the art of rationality. It trains you to play with ideas, to improv, read between the lines, make the shadow visible. It allows you to make friends with people who know deep and important things and will never communicate those things to you in a LessWrong-legible way. It teaches you to express yourself outside the constraints of epistemic statuses and acceptable topics of discussion. It teaches you to filter truth from bullshit in the real memetic jungle, real-life rationality under fire.
Also it doesn’t censor titties.
I liked this in an anthropological sort of way.
I do feel like it sort of hovered around a level of "explaining the twitter postrat scene" that would not be super helpful for people coming from two almost opposing standpoints:
Reading between the lines a little bit, I think this is probably intentional.
On the other hand, it feels like it it is helpful explaining to people who already have some sort of idea that the scene exists and posts and already have some sort of at least slightly negative opinion about it.
As someone in this bucket, Jacob's post was weird to read, and so I'm surprised to see that you believe I'm the intended audience (I expect a better audience to be someone who has heard about it but had a slightly positive opinion on it). My main takeaway from the post was that I want nothing to do with the postrat scene, and while that's valuable information it doesn't seem like what you had expected someone like me to take away from the post. Reading through the post, it felt like most of the negative sentiment towards the postrat scene had a valid basis, and I didn't find any of the ameliorating factors compelling.
For instance, I would characterize the primary defense (possibly unfairly) as "It's just shitposting (except it's not)". When discussing the QAnon tweet, I far prefer the expanded explanation that Jacob describes as "what [he] actually wanted to say". It's an interesting idea and it's presented in a way that I can engage with. The tweet, in contrast, is like an advertisement in that it's intended to wash over me and induce a particular haze of sentiment. I find Times Square kinda gross, and that disgust is similar to what I expect to experience on postrat twitter.
Hmm. So, what I was attempting to say was not that Jacob's post would convince you to like the postrat scene.
More that it would help you to understand the postrat scene.
Moreover, I can imagine two categories of people who have negative opinions about the scene:
I'd say that when I said:
I was saying that it feels like the post would be most effective at moving people from category 1 to category 2.
FWIW, I'm mostly of the same opinion as you WRT to stuff like the QAnon tweet though I would express my emotional reaction more as indifference/you-do-you than disgust.
What I find interesting is that when I was in my teens through my twenties, I would have reveled in this ingroup type of stuff. I did revel in it! Now that I'm in my mid 40s I have an almost allergic reaction to it.
I see, thanks for clarifying. I think it helped me understand the postrat scene (although I have no interest in verifying that), so in that sense the post was successful.
I'm somewhat confused on what you actually feel here, since "allergic reaction" seems very similar to my reaction: aversive for yourself. To be clear, I'm perfectly happy with the postrat scene doing its thing so long as it leaves the things I care about alone. I'm a strong supporter of liberalism in the sense of letting others do whatever they want so long as it isn't directly harmful to people who are not themselves involved.
If I was to immerse myself in postrat, I would not like it because I prefer to be doing things that I enjoy and think are good and useful. If I was forced to be immersed in postrat I'd be bored, bemused, indifferent. I have a hard time thinking of a way that the word "disgust" would be used to describe my reaction.
I'm allergic to being bored.
>Who do I follow, what buttons do I click...
Twitter shows you not only what someone posted, but also who they follow and a list of the tweets they liked. You can start from there for me or the people I linked to, find enough follows to at least entertain you while you learn the norms and see if you like the vibe enough to stay long-term. You won't find a clearer set of instructions for joining something as nebulous as the Twitter ingroup than what I wrote up here.
I made the parent comment while sick and tired. This morning I'm just sick and while in the shower I started worrying that maybe the comment I made while being sick and tired didn't make any sense or would be taken as an attack.
This morning I'm relieved to see it wasn't downvoted into oblivion.
Note that David Chapman has repeatedly said that he does not really understand LW rationality and that while he has occasionally criticized it, his stuff is explicitly not a response to LW. E.g. [1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6].
In the sense that "theres no there there"
| They're almost as horrified as people who've tweeted for years about sex and astrology and pineal glands are to discover that half their mutuals are actually LessWrongers.
I cracked up at that
Ok, but are postrats actually happy?
You mention postrats being able to coordinate a 400 person summer camp, once. Rats coordinate events about that big once or twice a year (solstice). Same with EA (EAG).
When I picture a social group created by people who churned from Rationality/EA because it wasn't fun enough, I imagine:
- more parties per capita
- more families per capita
- more not-eating-alone per capita
- more group houses per capita
- more holidays
- understanding romance on a gears level to, like, get over your ex by taking OCD meds
- understanding sex on a gears level to, like, have more pleasurable sex
- writing good fiction
If not this, then do postrats succeed at anything just as impressive?
I think the idea is they don't have to be happier than others if they're not claiming to be smarter than others.
For anyone wanting to see what postrat twitter is all about but doesn't know where to start, I made of list of the people I was able to identify as ingroup, and I regularly add people. You can follow it here: https://twitter.com/i/lists/1502790013725163524
I don't know that anyone has tried, but I'm surprised to learn if LessWrong censors like this, though I would understand if it wouldn't show up on the front page.
If I correctly understand the argument in "But how does shitposting lead to the pursuit of truth", I see three somewhat independent lines of reasoning:
I'm not sure I agree that this is preventing the pursuit of truth, because topics like feminism and QAnon and collective insanity aren't impossible to discuss with other people who are interested in pursuing truth. They are only impossible to discuss with people playing status games. But it didn't benefit your understanding very much to discuss them with those people anyway.
I think one crux is -- is it really true that if 75k people read that tweet, 1% of them go "hmmm" and ask themselves why it's funny and what it means? I think that's incredibly overoptimistic. I would expect a handful at best to end up anywhere near the reasoning that you typed out. You ought to know better than me, since you use Twitter, and I don't, but 1% seems unbelievable. I barely seriously reflect on 1% of LW comments I read.
This is related to the point above. I get why "shitposting" (is "shitposting" different than "comedy"?) might get more people to read what you wrote, since you made it shorter and funnier. But I don't get why it would make people have a more open mind about their preconceptions, or think harder, or think in a useful different direction. Maybe it can "raise the sanity waterline" a tiny bit by putting a very simplistic good idea in a lot of people's heads, although I am skeptical that your example tweet would accomplish that.
Those sound like good fun things to do which are not really about the art of rationality, except insofar as going out and doing anything at all can teach you something. They sound like basically the same things that would happen if you hung out talking to people at a random bar, or on a random Discord server, or at work.
>if you hung out talking to people at a random bar, or on a random Discord server, or at work
The difference is that the Twitter ingroup has much more variety and quality (as evidenced by the big LW contingent) than your local bar, since it selects from a huge pool of people in large part for the ability to come up with cool ideas and takes. It's also much more conducive to open conversation on any and every topic whatsoever in a way that your workplace clearly isn't (nor should be, you have work to do!)
Of course, your local bar or server or workplace may just happen to be a unique scene that's even better, I'm not claiming that the Twitter ingroup is somehow ideal or optimal. But most people's local bars aren't like that, while Twitter is easily available for everyone everywhere to try out.
Consider also that activities you find you enjoy, such as LW or Twitter posting, are likely to be judged by you as more useful than they are. Agree that LW-style is not the only one to think in. Authors here could give more weight to being easily understood than showing off.
I liked your Qanon-feminist tweet, but we have to remember that something that upsets people by creating dissonance around the mistake you intend (even if they can't pin down the intent) is not as good as actually correcting the mistake. It's certainly easier to create an emotionally jarring contrast around a mistaken belief than to get people to understand+accept an explicit correction, so I can see why you'd enjoy creating the easy+viral.
Twitter is about as perfect a medium for the Ingroup, but
how about a Discord server?
None of those are actually good or important. They're nonsense.
This is, again, actively bad. Learning to bullshit effectively is in no way a good thing.
Post-rationalists are just non-rationalists with funny hats.