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How important is it that LW has an unlimited supply of karma?

by jacobjacob2 min read11th Feb 20199 comments


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LessWrong users can up/downvote posts and comments, which then receive a karma boost (capped by the voters own karma). There is no limit to how many different posts and comments one can do this to. In this sense there is an unlimited supply of karma to be handed out. (This is also the case for Facebook, YouTube, Instagram, HackerNews(?), Medium, ...)

Is this important? That is, does it have non-trivial medium or long-term effects on the “LessWrong economy" -- the kind and amount of content that gets produced?

Rough Thoughts

Here are some quick thoughts I wrote down. I publish this question despite them being unfinished, instead of letting them wither deep in my Google Drive.

Under the current system…

  • Over time, it’s not clear whether karma is inflationary or deflationary. It depends at least on whether the rate of growth of content is slower or faster than the rate of increase of karma production.
  • The only way to get a large amount of karma is to produce content that appeals to many users, or produce a large amount of content that appeals to at least some users. One cannot get high karma by producing a small amount of content that a small number of users likes a lot.
    • If the real economy was like this, there wouldn’t exist businesses like SpaceX, Palantir or Boeing.
      • Something seems very broken about LW, if, were the big world to run on LW principles, people wouldn’t be able to fly as a means of travel. Lots of people want to fly. But very few are able to pay for the construction of a 747. So we only have airtravel because there can exist intermediaries who can make that payment, and in turn get rewarded by collecting all the little flight desires of very many people kind-of-keen to fly.
      • Currently, there cannot be any such intermediaries on LessWrong. A concrete example of a LessWrong Boeing might be something like: CFAR really wants someone to write a 40-page literature review of X. No one else really cares, apart from the fact that were CFAR to get that review, their workshops would improve pretty significantly for most attendees.
  • There are fewer free-rider problems. Despite content being non-excludable and publicly available, users have an incentive to upvote things, because Alice doing so instead of Bob does not cost Alice anything (we’re assuming they both end up consuming the content, so attention and time costs are the same).
    • This seems very important, and like something that could offset the "Boeing problem" mentioned above.

If instead of the current system each karma point given was taken from your own score, then…

  • One could not indefinitely keep up/down-voting content without producing new content oneself. In practice, one could do this if one had created one beacon of amazing work in the past.
  • Over time, as the same amount of karma gets spread across more and more content, the value of a karma point increases (because the opportunity cost of what else that karma point could have been used for increases).
  • There might be even more deflationary pressure on karma if users produce great content but then leave the site.
  • There is a disconnect between content karma and user karma. A user who has produced much high-quality content might not have a corresponding amount of karma, having given it away.

Some uncertainties

  • A salient implementation is that an upvote costs exactly the amount of karma that’s being awarded to the content. But how much karma should downvotes cost?
  • It is unclear how a limited karma supply interfaces with a limited maximal upvote size
  • There might be lessons from macroeconomics and monetary policy relevant to this. I don’t know, because I know something-that-rounds-to-nothing about those fields.


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2 Answers

Let us consider such a conserved karma system. For every group of users that gets upvoted by outsiders more than they upvote outsiders, their karma is going to increase until the increase to their voting power produces an equilibrium. Consider such a powerful group that tends to upvote each other a lot, no conspiracy required. Their posts are going to be more visible without the group spending any of their collective power to make it happen. More visible posts will get more upvotes, compounding the group's power with interest. There are combinatorially many potential groups, and this karma system would naturally seek out the groups that best fit the above story, and grant them power.

Karma cannot be spent. It's not an economy, it's just an indicator of popularity. I don't know how to measure, but I strongly expect that most of the information content about post quality/prefer-ability/whatever is conveyed between -2 and +10 total votes, and anything outside that range is valueless.

7 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 2:18 AM

Worth noting that Old LessWrong did something somewhat different – if I recall, downvoting didn't cost karma, but you could only downvote a number of times proportional to how much karma you had.

Do you have details on when and why that was removed? Or past posts discussing that system?

I suspect that if voting reduced your own karma, some people wouldn't vote. As it becomes obvious that this is happening, more people stop voting, until karma just stops flowing at all. (The people who persistently vote anyway all run out of karma.)

In the broader economy, it's not the case that "If buying things reduced your income, people stop buying things, and eventually money stops flowing altogether".

So the only way that makes sense to me is if you model content as a public good which no user is incentivised to contribute to maintaining.

Speculatively, this might be avoided if votes were public: because then voting would be a costly signal of one's epistemic values or other things.

There is no limit to how many different posts and comments one can do this to. In this sense there is an unlimited supply of karma to be handed out.

So infinite posts * 1 sock puppet = infinite karma.

One cannot get high karma by producing a small amount of content that a small number of users likes a lot.

Aside from the fact that both posts and comments can be upvoted, there's double upvoting (though I'm not sure how that is calculateed from one's karma) so:

One can get high karma from a small amount of content that a small number of sufficiently high karma users double up vote. (Though sequence length may be rewarded more than brevity, and while there may be a loose correlation (longer sequence requires more time) we might suppose there is a correlation going the other way - more time is required to make what would otherwise be longer posts shorter, and the same may be said of sequences.)

though I'm not sure how that is calculateed from one's karma

I believe it's proportional to the log of your user karma. But I'm not sure.

One can get high karma from a small amount of content that a small number of sufficiently high karma users that double up vote it.

There is still an incentive gradient towards "least publishable units".

Suppose you have a piece of work worth 18 karma to high-karma user U. However, U's strong upvote is only worth 8 karma.

If you just post one piece of work, you get 8 karma. If you split your work into three pieces, each of which U values at 6 karma, you're better off. U might strong-upvote all of them (they'd rather allocate a little too much karma than way too little), and you get 24 karma.

To the extend the metaphor in the original question: maybe if the world economy ran on the equivalent of strong upvotes there would still be cars around, yet no one could buy airplanes.

I'd leave the current system mostly as is, but let people use their own karma to up/down-vote a post or comment they like/dislike, beyond the free level.