Political topics attract participants inclined to use the norms of mainstream political debate, risking a tipping point to lower quality discussion

(I hope that is the least click-baity ti­tle ever.)

Poli­ti­cal top­ics elicit lower qual­ity par­ti­ci­pa­tion, hold­ing the set of par­ti­ci­pants fixed. This is the the­sis of “poli­tics is the mind-kil­ler”.

Here’s a sep­a­rate effect: Poli­ti­cal top­ics at­tract mind-kil­led par­ti­ci­pants. This can hap­pen even when the ini­tial par­ti­ci­pants are not mind-kil­led by the topic.

Since out­reach is im­por­tant, this could be a good thing. Raise the san­ity wa­ter line! But the sea of peo­ple ea­ger to en­ter poli­ti­cal dis­cus­sions is vast, and the epistemic prob­lems can run deep. Of course not ev­ery­one needs to come perfectly pre­al­igned with com­mu­nity norms, but any com­mu­nity will be limited in how ro­bustly it can han­dle an in­flux of par­ti­ci­pants ex­pect­ing a differ­ent set of norms. If you look at other fo­rums, it seems to take very lit­tle overt con­tem­po­rary poli­ti­cal dis­cus­sion be­fore the whole place is swamped, and poli­tics be­comes en­demic. As ap­peal­ing as “LW, but with slightly more con­tem­po­rary poli­tics” sounds, it’s prob­a­bly not even an op­tion. You have “LW, with poli­tics in ev­ery thread”, and “LW, with as lit­tle poli­tics as we can man­age”.

That said, most of the prob­lems are avoided by just not say­ing any­thing that pat­terns matches too eas­ily to cur­rent poli­ti­cal is­sues. From what I can tell, LW has always had tons of meta-poli­ti­cal con­tent, which doesn’t seem to cause prob­lems, as well as stan­dard poli­ti­cal points pre­sented in un­usual ways, and con­trar­ian poli­ti­cal opinions that are too marginal to raise con­cern. Frankly, if you have a “no poli­tics” norm, peo­ple will still talk about poli­tics, but to a limited de­gree. But if you don’t even half-heart­edly (or even hyp­o­crit­i­cally) dis­cour­age poli­tics, then a open-en­try site that ac­cepts gen­eral top­ics will risk spiral­ing too far in a poli­ti­cal di­rec­tion.

As an aside, I’m not apoli­ti­cal. Although some peo­ple ad­vance a more sweep­ing dis­mis­sal of the im­por­tance or util­ity of poli­ti­cal de­bate, this isn’t re­quired to jus­tify re­strict­ing poli­tics in cer­tain con­texts. The sort of the ar­gu­ment I’ve sketched (I don’t want LW to be swamped by the worse sorts of peo­ple who can be at­tracted to poli­ti­cal de­bate) is enough. There’s no hypocrisy in not want­ing poli­tics on LW, but ac­cept­ing poli­ti­cal talk (and the warts it en­tails) el­se­where. Of the top of my head, Yvain is one LW af­fili­ate who now largely writes about more poli­ti­cally charged top­ics on their own blog (SlateS­tarCodex), and there are some other pro­gres­sive blogs in that di­rec­tion. There are liber­tar­i­ans and right-lean­ing (re­ac­tionary? NRx-lbgt?) con­nec­tions. I would love a grand unifi­ca­tion as much as any­one, (of course, pro­vided we all re­al­ize that I’ve been right all along), but please let’s not tell the gen­er­als to bring their armies here for the ne­go­ti­a­tions.