My friend kytael (not his real name, but his Less Wrong handle) has been on Less Wrong since 2010, has been a volunteer for the CFAR, and lived in the Bay Area for several months as part of the meatspace rationalist community there. For a couple of years, I was only a lurker on Less Wrong, and occasionally read some posts. I didn't bother to read the Sequences, but I already studied cognitive science, and I attended lots of meetups where the Sequences were discussed, so I understand much of the canon material of Less Wrong rationality, even if I wouldn't use the same words to describe the comments. It's only in the last year, and a bit, that I got more involved in my local meetup, which motivated me to get involved in the site. I find myself agreeing with lots of the older Sequence posts, and the highest quality posters (lukeprog, Yvain, gwern, etc.) from a few years ago, but I too am deeply concerned about the decline of vitality on Less Wrong, as I have only started to get excited about it's online aspects.

Anyway, when I too asked kytael:

What should the purpose of this site be? Is it supposed to be building a movement or filtering down the best knowledge?

(I asked him more, or less, the same question)

He replied: "I think the best way to view Less Wrong is as an archive."

Since he was tapped into the Bay Area rationalist community, but was a user of Less Wrong from outside of it as well, he was in an especially good position to provide better hypotheses as to why use on this website has declined, due to his observation.

First of all, the most prominent figures of Less Wrong have spread their discussions across more websites than this one, where much discussion from those popular users who used to spend more time on Less Wrong now discuss things. Scott's/Yvain's Slate Star Codex is probably the best example of this, another being the Rationalist Masterlist. Following a plethora of blogs is much more difficult than just going through this one site, so for newer users to Less Wrong, or those of us who haven't had the opportunity to know users of this site more personally, following all this discussion is difficult.

Second of all, the most popular, and common, users of Less Wrong have integrated publicly more, and now use social media. Ever since the inception of the CFAR workshops, users of Less Wrong have flocked to the Bay Area in throngs. They all became fast friends, because the atmosphere of CFAR workshops tends to do that (re: anecdata from my attendance there, and that of my friends). So, everyone connects via the private CFAR mailing lists, or Facebook, or Twitter, or they start businesses together, or form group homes in the Bay Area. Suddenly, once these people can integrate their favorite online community, and subculture, with the rest of their personal lives, there isn't a need to only communicate with others via the lesswrong.com, the awkward blog/forum-site.

Finally, since the inception of Less Wrong, Eliezer Yudkowsky, and others, started Less Wrong having already reached the conclusion that the best, 'most rational' thing for them to do was to reduce existential risk. Eliezer Yudkowsky wrote the Sequences as an exercise for himself to re-invent clear thinking to the point where he would be strong enough to start tackling the issue of existential risk reduction, because he wasn't yet prepared for it in 2009. Secondarily, he hoped the Sequences would serve as a way for others to catch up his speed, and approach his level of epistemology, or whatever. The instrumental goal of this intent was obviously to get more people to become awesome enough to tackle existential risk alongside him. That was five years ago. As a community goal, Less Wrong was founded as dedicated to 'refining the art [and (cognitive) science of human rationality'. However, the personal goal for its founders from what was the SIAI, and is now the MIRI, is provide a platform, a springboard, for getting people to care about existential risk reduction. Now, as MIRI enters its phase of greatest growth, the vision of a practical 'rationality dojo' finally exists in the CFAR, and with increased mutual collaboration with the Future of Humanity Institute, the effective altruism community, and global catastrophic risk think tanks, those who were the heroes of Less Wrong use the website less as they've gotten busier, and their priorities have shifted.

They wanted to start a community around rationality, to improve their own lives, and those of others. Now they have it. So, those of us remaining can join these other communities, or try something new. The tools for those who want this website to flourish again remain here in the old posts: Eliezer, Luke, and Scott, among others, laid the groundwork for us to level up as they have. So, aside from everything else, a second generation, a revival of Less Wrong, where new topics that aren't mind-killing, either, can be explored. If those caring among us do the hard work to become the new paragon users of Less Wrong, we can reverse its Eternal September.

After this primary exodus from Less Wrong, others occurred as well. I personally know one user who had some of the most upvoted, and some featured, posts on Less Wrong until he stopped using this website, and deleted his account. Now, he interacts with other rationalists via Twitter, and is more involved with the online Neoreaction community. It seems like a lot of Less Wrong users have joined that community. My friend mentioned that he's read the Sequences, and feels like what he is thinking about is beyond the level of thinking occurring on Less Wrong, so he no longer found the site useful. Another example of a different community is MetaMed: Michael Vassar is probably quite busy with that, and brought a lot of users of Less Wrong with him in that business. They probably prioritize their long hours there, and their personal lives, over taking time to write blog posts here.

Personally, my friends from the local Less Wrong meetup, and I, are starting our own outside projects, which also involve students from the local university, and the local transhumanist, and skeptic, communities as well. Send me a private message if you're interested in what's up with us.

Isn't there something inherently self-destructive about a website that teaches "winning"? I mean, when people start winning in their lives, they probably spend less time debating online...

If someone starts a startup, they have less time to debate online. If someone joins a rationalist community in their area, they also spend less time online, because they spend more time in personal interactions. Even if you just decide to exercise 10 minutes every day, and you succeed, that's 10 minutes less to spend online.

(I don't consider myself very successf... (read more)

4eggman6y[WARNING: GOOEY PERSONAL DETAILS BELOW] I became part of much of the meatspace rationalist community before I started more frequently using Less Wrong, so I integrate my personal experience into how I comment on here. That's not to mean that I use my personal anecdotes as evidence for advice for other users of this site; I know that would be stupid. However, if you check my user history on Less Wrong, you'll notice that I primarily use Less Wrong myself as a source for advice for myself (and my friends, too, who don't bother to post here, but I believe should). Anyway, Less Wrong has been surprisingly helpful, and insightful. This has been all since 2012-13, mostly, well after when it seems most of you consider Less Wrong to have started declining. So, I'm more optimistic about Less Wrong's future, but my subjective frame of reference is having good experiences with it after it hits its historical peak of awesomeness. So, maybe the rest of you users here concerned (rightfully so, in my opinion) about the decline of discussion on Less Wrong have hopped on a hedonic treadmill that I haven't hopped on yet. I believe the good news from this is that I feel excited, and invigorated, to boost Less Wrong Discussion in my spare time. I like these meta-posts focused on solving the Less Wrong decline/identity-crisis/whatever-this-problem-is, and I want to help. In the next week, I'll curate another meta-post summarizing, and linking to, all the best posts in Discussion in the last year. Please reply to me if this idea seems bad, or unnecessary, to stop me from wasting my time writing it up, if you believe that's the case.

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

by Gavin 2 min read4th Jun 2014105 comments

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[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.

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