I'm not really a very old user, maybe three years (and after becoming more active in real-life meetups I switched to an alt that used my real name, so I'm not as inactive as I look, though still pretty inactive these days). But I have to say, it subjectively feels like the quality of everything on lesswrong is lower than it was when I joined.

And I'll tell you what I perceive the difference to be:

1) All my favorite writers stopped writing here. I have to go elsewhere to find their content. Previously, I felt that most of the stuff I read here was at a level above me in terms of insightfulness and level of philosophical rigor... and now, with a few exceptions, I don't.

2) The user-base shifted such that it was no longer a homogeneous entity which I labeled as an in-group. People here don't just automatically share my outlook on morality, epistemology, "free will", consciousness, and even politics anymore. Previously, the core sequences were pretty in-line with what I initially believed, and the entire userbase shared those views. That's not to say I don't value diversity of opinion, but there is something special about a group that agrees with you on every core issue. The inferential distance just keeps growing wider and wider.

3) I can't quite put my finger on it, but somehow commenting here gradually began to feel more like I was arguing a viewpoint, rather than cooperative mutual discovery, If I want to argue with people who are wrong on the internet,(heh, username) I can go do that anywhere.

Of course, this doesn't mean LW is objectively worse. I was fairly impressed when i first started reading, so this might simply be regression to the mean (as in, maybe LW was always a random walk and I first joined because it hit the right buttons for me at some point in that walk, and now it's moving away from that point.) Or it might just be rosy retrospection.

I've kind of accepted A...lesswrong kind of began "dying" for me a year ago. But I don't recommended it as an action...it's an unfortunate thing to happen.

I like option B the best. A lot of the good stuff I find here these days tends to be links to other things. C and D will probably increase the numbers we're measuring, but won't actually raise the content quality. With respect to C, Political discussion is wonderful on its own but has the side effect of causing the types of people who are primarily interested in talking about politics (as opposed to science or philosophy) to speak up more often, which drives down quality. With respect to D, that's not changing anything other than the location of the activity. Who cares if it's all in one thread or not? I think I disagree about it being harder to navigate.

I just want to second point (3) that you made. Constructive commenting, where you acknowledge the strengths of the post, and then point out the flaws and also suggest how to fix the flaws might go a long way in incentivizing discussion.

[Meta] The Decline of Discussion: Now With Charts!

by Gavin 2 min read4th Jun 2014105 comments


[Based on Alexandros's excellent dataset.]

I haven't done any statistical analysis, but looking at the charts I'm not sure it's necessary. The discussion section of LessWrong has been steadily declining in participation. My fairly messy spreadsheet is available if you want to check the data or do additional analysis.

Enough talk, you're here for the pretty pictures.

The number of posts has been steadily declining since 2011, though the trend over the last year is less clear. Note that I have excluded all posts with 0 or negative Karma from the dataset.


The total Karma given out each month has similarly been in decline.

Is it possible that there have been fewer posts, but of a higher quality?

No, at least under initial analysis the average Karma seems fairly steady. My prior here is that we're just seeing less visitors overall, which leads to fewer votes being distributed among fewer posts for the same average value. I would have expected the average karma to drop more than it did--to me that means that participation has dropped more steeply than mere visitation. Looking at the point values of the top posts would be helpful here, but I haven't done that analysis yet.

These are very disturbing to me, as someone who has found LessWrong both useful and enjoyable over the past few years. It raises several questions:


  1. What should the purpose of this site be? Is it supposed to be building a movement or filtering down the best knowledge?
  2. How can we encourage more participation?
  3. What are the costs of various means of encouraging participation--more arguing, more mindkilling, more repetition, more off-topic threads, etc?


Here are a few strategies that come to mind:

Idea A: Accept that LessWrong has fulfilled its purpose and should be left to fade away, or allowed to serve as a meetup coordinator and repository of the highest quality articles. My suspicion is that without strong new content and an online community, the strength of the individual meetup communities may wane as fewer new people join them. This is less of an issue for established communities like Berkeley and New York, but more marginal ones may disappear.

Idea B: Allow and encourage submission of rationalism, artificial intelligence, transhumanism etc related articles from elsewhere, possibly as a separate category. This is how a site like Hacker News stays high engagement, even though many of the discussions are endless loops of the same discussion. It can be annoying for the old-timers, but new generations may need to discover things for themselves. Sometimes "put it all in one big FAQ" isn't the most efficient method of teaching.

Idea C: Allow and encourage posts on "political" topics in Discussion (but probably NOT Main). The dangers here might be mitigated by a ban on discussion of current politicians, governments, and issues. "Historians need to have had a decade to mull it over before you're allowed to introduce it as evidence" could be a good heuristic. Another option would be a ban on specific topics that cause the worst mindkilling. Obviously this is overall a dangerous road.

Idea D: Get rid of Open Threads and create a new norm that a discussion post as short as a couple sentences is acceptable. Open threads get stagnant within a day or two, and are harder to navigate than the discussion page. Moving discussion from the Open Threads to the Discussion section would increase participation if users could be convinced thatit was okay to post questions and partly-formed ideas there.

The challenge with any of these ideas is that they will require strong moderation. 

At any rate, this data is enough to convince me that some sort of change is going to be needed in order to put the community on a growth trajectory. That is not necessarily the goal, but at its core LessWrong seems like it has the potential to be a powerful tool for the spreading of rational thought. We just need to figure out how to get it started into its next evolution.