Consider paying for literature or book reviews using bounties and dominant assurance contracts

Cross-posted to the EA Forum here.

In September 2021, a LessWrong pilot program paid $500 for high-quality book reviews related to “science, history, and rationality.” They got 36 submissions (they don’t say how many were rejected for low quality, but at least 9 were accepted) and a bunch of them were popular on the forum.

There’s a bounty tag on LW (and on the EA Forum) but it isn’t used much. A culture of posting bounties—either individually or in groups of people interested in the same information—has benefits for patrons, writers, and the community generally:

  • For patrons—If there’s a question you want investigated or a book you want reviewed, you can save your valuable time by tossing the question into the LW void and waiting for a piece that’s worth accepting. Others probably want the same thing and can contribute to a pool. Ambitious patrons can also influence the direction of the community by sponsoring posts on topics they think people should think about more. You don’t have to worry about filtering for visible credentials and writers don’t have to worry about having any.

  • For writers—Bounties motivate people to write both through a direct monetary incentive, but also because a lot of people dissuade themselves from writing on the Internet to avoid looking vain or self-important. Bounties cover for this awkwardness by providing non-status-related reasons to post.

  • For the community—This whole exchange provides a positive externality to the lurkers who can read more posts for free.

The simplest way this could work is for people to post individual bounties of e.g. $500 for posts drawing conclusions that would have taken them just too long to justify at the hourly value of their time. These bounties can guide writers who may be looking for things to read and write about anyway.

An obstacle to bounty markets is that writers incur the risk of being outshone by a better post written around the same time. They could also be snubbed by picky benefactors. If most bounties are posted by a small group of people who post many individual bounties, then reputation effects can manage this. Group bounties could be difficult to coordinate since people aren’t motivated to post “I’d contribute $100 to a post analyzing the top 10 writing advice books for insights” if the bounty is unlikely ever to be fulfilled. And they’re not motivated to join existing pools when they could free-ride instead.

One solution is to use the opposite direction: Kickstarter-style writing proposals. In monthly threads, users post advertisements for book reviews/​literature reviews/​investigations that they’d be willing to produce at some price and specifications. This puts the reputational demands on the writers and the risk on the sponsors who might pay for a poor product.

In theory, writers could kickstart posts using dominant assurance contracts. An example (this is a real offer): If you send $20 to arjun.panickssery at Gmail via PayPal by noon New York time on January 21st, I’ll send you back $25 if fewer than 10 people sent me money. If 10 or more people send me money, I’ll post a review of Steven Pinker’s The Sense of Style: The Thinking Person’s Guide to Writing in the 21st Century by the end of the month. I’m not sure whether I’m just giving away free money right now.