LessWrong Is Not about Forum Software, LessWrong Is about Posts (Or: How to Immanentize the LW 2.0 Eschaton in 2.5 Easy Steps!)

by enye-word1 min read15th Jul 201724 comments


Personal Blog

[epistemic status: I was going to do a lot of research for this post, but I decided not to as there are no sources on the internet so I'd have to interview people directly and I'd rather have this post be imperfect than never exist.]

Many words have been written about how LessWrong is now shit. Opinions vary about how shit exactly it is. I refer you to http://lesswrong.com/lw/n0l/lesswrong_20/ and http://lesswrong.com/lw/o5z/on_the_importance_of_less_wrong_or_another_single/ for more comments about LessWrong being shit and the LessWrong diaspora being suboptimal.

However, how to make LessWrong stop being shit seems remarkably simple to me. Here are the steps to resurrect it:

1. Get Eliezer: The lifeblood of LessWrong is Eliezer Yudkowsky's writing. If you don't have that, what's the point of being on this website? Currently Eliezer is posting his writings on Facebook, (https://www.facebook.com/groups/674486385982694/) which I consider foolish, for the same reasons I would consider it foolish to house the Mona Lisa in a run-down motel.

2. Get Scott: Once you have Eliezer back, and you sound the alarm that LW is coming back, I'm fairly certain that Scott "Yvain" Alexander will begin posting on LessWrong again. As far as I can tell he's never wanted to have to moderate a comment section, and the growing pains are stressing his website at the seams. He's even mused publicly about arbitrarily splitting the Slate Star Codex comment section in two (http://slatestarcodex.com/2017/04/09/ot73-i-lik-the-thred/) which is a crazy idea on its own but completely reasonable in the context of (cross)posting to LW. Once you have Yudkowsky and Yvain, you have about 80% of what made LessWrong not shit.

3. Get Gwern: I don't read many of Gwern's posts; I just like having him around. Luckily for us, he never left!

After this is done, everyone else should wander back in, more or less.

Possible objections, with replies:

Objection: Most SSC articles and Yudkowsky essays are not on the subject of rationality and thus for your plan to work LessWrong's focus would have to subtly shift.

Reply: Shift away, then! It's LessWrong 2! We no longer have to be a community dedicated to reading Rationality: From AI to Zombies as it's written in real time; we can now be a community that takes Rationality: From AI to Zombies as a starting point and discusses whatever we find interesting! Thus the demarcation between 1.0 and 2.0!

Objection: People on LessWrong are mean and I do not like them.

Reply: The influx of new readers from the Yudkowsky-Yvain in-migration should make the tone on this website more upbeat and positive. Failing that, I don't know, ban the problem children, I guess. I don't know if it's poor form to declare this but I'd rather have a LessWrong Principate than a LessWrong Ruins. See also: http://lesswrong.com/lw/c1/against_online_pacifism/

Objection: I'd prefer, for various reasons, to just let LessWrong die.

Reply: Then kill it with your own hands! Don't let it lie here on the ground, bleeding out! Make a post called "The discussion thread at the end of the universe" that reads "LessWrong is over, piss off to r/SlateStarCodex", disallow new submissions, and be done with it! Let it end with dignity and bring a close to its history for good.


24 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:18 AM
New Comment

The importance of Eliezer and Yvain has not escaped us. My suspicion is that in fact one of the important differences between LW and Facebook is forum software; one of the reasons why Eliezer prefers Facebook is because he can moderate more easily with less pushback.

After this is done, everyone else should wander back in, more or less.

This seems unclear to me. A major factor in drawing people here before was new Eliezer content; even if Eliezer posts here instead of to Facebook, most new Eliezer content is not at the same level of general interest as R:AZ or HPMOR, and the frequency of general interest content is lower. The community is actually doing different work these days than it was five years ago.

Internet communities have lifecycles; you need fresh new blood to replace old blood for lots of reasons. (One of the things that's interesting about LW's history is that many of the people who were promising new blood got hired to do work which, presumably, cut into their posting; overall this seems good because the community has real-world goals, but is also the sort of thing that didn't get worked around in time.)

I agree with you that it makes sense to shift focus, and that there are steps we can take to moderate more effectively (many of which route through forum software!). I also agree that it's better to lock LW down than have it continue in a bad state, but think we should give revitalization a serious try first.

one of the important differences between LW and Facebook is forum software

Software is merely a tool, the issue is control, in particular over your audience, and EY clearly prefers the degree of control he gets in a walled garden over the rough-and-tumble manners of the open 'net.

You can't have control without the necessary tools. Eliezer's preference for gardens over the usual screaming insanity was never a secret.

The first question is whether you want control. Not all people prefer manicured gardens.

People who want to get things done in real life usually do.

Unmoderated debates are typically dominated by people who spend a lot of time online, which are usually not the most productive ones. (Yes, that would also include me.)

People who want to get things done in real life usually do.

Sometimes. It depends.

Unmoderated debates are typically dominated by people who spend a lot of time online

By volume, yes. But volume is not domination.

Besides, ALL online debates are dominated by people who don't make good use of their time :-P

It's not clear why Yudkowsky or Scott would want to come back and post here, I guess. The current incentives don't really encourage them to post. LW has a decreasing readership, and engagement on their own platforms (FB and SSC) is likely higher.

Also, I think there's additional baggage associated with the LW name, and this is likely a turnoff for, say, some of Scott's readers.

Plus, I don't Yudkowsky / Scott coming back is exactly the goal at this point. I think tristanm said it well when he pointed out that:

“[Also,] it seems that they very best content creators spend some time writing and making information freely available, detailing their goals and so on, and then eventually go off to pursue those goals more concretely, and the content creation on the site goes down.”

At this point, I think that there's additional real-work that's important outside of just writing new articles. While it's certainly often instrumental to work on things like communication and staying publicly transparent, I think that merely asking them to come back is pushing on the wrong side of the causal chain. It feels a little like cargo culting, I think.

Yeah, some processes may not be reversible. For someone who doesn't have a blog yet, posting on LW is simpler than setting up their own blog and discussion. But once they have their own blog and discussion ready and working, there is no longer a reason to post on LW. To attract LW readers, it is enough to post a link here.

That doesn't sound like me! That's tristanm.

These days I think our problem is not enough people willing to disregard practicality and focus on interesting writing :-)

I believe that a network independent bloggers [0] who are not tied to a single forum centered on discussing E.Y.'s writing would be an improvement: Intellectually more versatile and thus healthy; can avoid echo-chamber effects. I wasn't active on LW at the time pf peak activity, but I've understood that one of the objectives of LW was that "rationality" (whatever is meant by the word) would spread outside a single corner of the internet.

However, the problem is finding all those interesting, rationality-adjacent bloggers: if there's no any central place where you can find those people and their contributions, it's not a network: it's just random unfindable people.

[0] Or FB / etc writers, but I have preference for public, open web.

The LW List of Blogs might be a good place to start. Zvi also has a nice post where he mentions his blogroll / invites others to post.

Your advice is essentially "call back the old celebrities".

A big problem of LW 1.0, before the downvotes were banned, was the infamous sockpuppet master using his fake accounts to downvote whoever he didn't like. I suspect he drove off a few potential "new celebrities". Either by downvoting them directly; or because they realize they don't really want to publish on a website where one idiot can single-handedly censor their content.

I am not saying that those people were on the level of Eliezer, Yvain, or Gwern, just that, given chance, perhaps a small fraction of them could enter the pantheon.

If LW 2.0 will be able to prevent similar personal vendettas, and if there will be a way to make higher-quality content available for a longer time (as opposed to now having all Discussion content scrolling off the first page at the same speed), I hope we will gradually get some high-quality content back.

A big problem of LW 1.0, before the downvotes were banned, was the infamous sockpuppet master

I disagree that it was a big problem. Eugine was a garden-variety malcontent/troll, any internet community with open registration has to deal with people like that.

I would probably say that the big problem was the inability (and I mean cultural, not technical) of LW to deal with Eugine.

Well, it was both. With better culture, solving the technical problems would be easier and faster. With better tools, moderators would be able to solve some problems single-handedly.

For example, if there would be a one-click functionality to "ban this user and revert all votes made by him", removing the sockpuppets and their effect would take less time than creating them. To detect the sockpuppets, it would be helpful to have a tool "show me all users that have zero comments, and yet somehow have karma high enough to downvote, and are actually using it to downvote".

But of course, with better culture, these problems would take orders of magnitude less time to solve. Instead we got a near-mode example of how one barbarian can single-handedly tear down the supposed central hub of aspiring rationalists worldwide. Which provides an important reality check on something, I guess.

Well, it was both.

I guess. The problem was technical because appropriate tools would have made dealing with it much easier, I agree. But that's the less interesting part. The more interesting part is that the lack of these tools exposed LW to some stress and it was the reaction to stress that was more important.

Which provides an important reality check on something, I guess.

The word you might be looking at is "resilience". Or maybe even "competence" :-/

Most forum software has better tools to catch banned people who reregister.

Not those possessing the minimal technical skills to mask their IP.

In an environment where most new users don't mask their IP, going through the effort of masking your IP is a sign that's something is fishy.

How would the forum know whether I'm masking my IP or not?

If you for example Google the IP of an Tor exit note you can usually learn that it's a Tor exit node.

Yep, that's a pretty good TL;DR.

So, what I'm getting from your comment is that yall've tried to ban the problem child(ren), but couldn't make it stick? Mmm. Well, I wish you the best of luck on that front!

It was one guy, but quite persistent. Unfortunately, he used a strategy the existing moderating tools were not good for. (The tools are focused on moderating content, not vote manipulation and sockpuppet creation.) And the Reddit codebase (which LW uses) is very difficult to work with; even very simple ideas for new moderating tools took forever to develop. In long term it will be easier to switch to a completely new code, which is what LW 2.0 is (also) about.

Maybe LW could evolve into something new and awesome with better (forum) software?