Writing That Provokes Comments

Epistemic Effort: Thought about it for a year. Solic­ited feed­back. Checked my last few posts’ com­ment count to make sure I wasn’t *ob­vi­ously* wrong.

A thing that hap­pens to me, and per­haps to you:

Some­one writes a beau­tiful es­say that I agree with, that sheds new light on some­thing im­por­tant.

I don’t have any­thing re­ally to say about it. I don’t want to just say “I agree!”. So in­stead of com­ment­ing, I give it an up­vote and move on.

This feels bad for a few rea­sons:

  • I like com­ment­ing.

  • I like get­ting com­ments when I write things that (I hope!) are in­sight­ful, beau­tiful and true. It’s a stronger sig­nal that peo­ple care.

  • Com­ments cor­re­late with some­thing stay­ing in the pub­lic sphere of at­ten­tion. A highly up­voted post even­tu­ally fades be­hind newer up­voted posts. But a post with lots of com­ments keeps peo­ple pay­ing at­ten­tion (with new peo­ple con­stantly check­ing in to see what the hub­bub is about)

  • I don’t trust (as a reader or a writer) that peo­ple who read a post, give it an up­vote, and move on, are re­ally learn­ing any­thing. I think that talk­ing through an a new con­cept and figur­ing out how to ap­ply is where much of the learn­ing hap­pens.

I’ve been im­pressed with how much qual­ity writ­ing has been go­ing on on LW2.0 so far. There has been some but not as much com­ment­ing as I’d like.

I’ve got­ten a sense of what in­spires in­ter­est­ing, meaty dis­cus­sion.

Un­for­tu­nately, most of it seems… kinda bad?

Things That Get Peo­ple To Comment

1. Be Wrong—It has been said: if google fails you, the fastest way to get a ques­tion an­swered is to post a wrong an­swer on red­dit. This will re­sult in a lot of flood of peo­ple ex­plain­ing things to you.

2. Be Con­tro­ver­sial—Even bet­ter, post some­thing that some peo­ple think are wrong. Then you get a bunch of peo­ple com­ment­ing to cor­rect you, and then other peo­ple who dis­agree cor­rect­ing them! The ar­gu­ments per­pet­u­ate them­selves from there. You won’t even have to do any com­ment­ing work your­self to keep it go­ing!

[BTW, these are ob­ser­va­tions, not recom­men­da­tions. This list is op­ti­mized to an­swer the ques­tion “what causes com­ments” not “how to make the world bet­ter.”]

3. Write About Things Peo­ple Feel Qual­ified to Have Opinions On—If you write a post on ma­chine learn­ing, and post it some­where where no­body re­ally un­der­stands ma­chine learn­ing, it doesn’t mat­ter if you’re wrong or con­tro­ver­sial! No­body will un­der­stand enough to care, or feel con­fi­dent enough to ar­gue. Some con­sid­er­a­tions:

  • It’s not nec­es­sary for peo­ple to be qual­ified. They just need to feel like they are.

  • If you write more in­for­mally (or in in­for­mal fo­rums), peo­ple feel more en­ti­tled to re­spond.

  • You can ei­ther tai­lor your topic to an ex­ist­ing au­di­ence, or proac­tively try to get an ex­ist­ing au­di­ence who un­der­stands your weird niche topic to read your post.

4. In­voke So­cial Real­ity—Peo­ple pay more at­ten­tion when you’re talk­ing about so­cial norms, or about chang­ing coal­i­tions of peo­ple, or ar­gu­ing that some peo­ple are Bad and Wrong. This is for two rea­sons:

  • So­cial Real­ity is pow­er­ful and scary. A per­son’s sense of so­cial safety is one of the most im­por­tant things to them. Peo­ple like to know who is Bad and Wrong so that they can be on the other side. Peo­ple like mak­ing sure that if so­cial norms chang­ing, they are chang­ing in ways they un­der­stand and like (so that no­body later de­cides they are Bad and Wrong).

  • So­cial Real­ity al­most always has some­thing con­fus­ing and dumb go­ing on that needs fix­ing, that peo­ple think is worth think­ing about.

  • Peo­ple un­der­stand So­cial Real­ity. Or, they think they do. (See #3)

  • So­cial Real­ity is of­ten con­tro­ver­sial! (See #2)

5. Be So In­spiring That Peo­ple Create En­tire Fan­doms of Your Work—This worked for Eliezer and ar­guably Scott. It can prob­a­bly be bro­ken down into smaller steps. It’s pretty hard though. And a bunch of peo­ple try­ing but failing to do this can be an­noy­ing. (I’ve tried/​failed to do this some­times)


And then there’s...

6. Leave Peo­ple With An Un­solved Prob­lem That They Care About—This is re­lated to “they feel qual­ified to have opinions”, with the fol­lowup step of “there is ac­tual use­ful think­ing they can con­tribute to, ei­ther to solve your prob­lem, or to ap­ply your idea to solve their prob­lems.”

Things I’ve No­ticed My­self Doing

Since com­ments are so­cially val­i­dat­ing, I’ve no­ticed a ten­dency for me to end up writ­ing:

  • Face­book posts, where peo­ple feel a lower bar­rier to en­try. (If the short­form sec­tion of LessWrong were up, I might do that in­stead)

  • Un­finished thoughts, where there’s a good chance that I’m wrong about a few things (but not all things, and not wrong on pur­pose to be provoca­tive which would feel skeezy), and where there’s still an un­solved prob­lem that peo­ple will feel qual­ified to help out figure out.

  • Posts en­gag­ing with so­cial norms (which peo­ple feel ex­cited to weigh in on and/​or afraid not to)

  • Posts en­gag­ing with per­sonal habits that peo­ple can eas­ily ap­ply to their own life.

This doesn’t all seem bad, nec­es­sar­ily. But I’ve no­ticed other peo­ple that seem to be do­ing similar things. I’ve also no­ticed some peo­ple who tried to get peo­ple to talk about im­por­tant things, and failed, and grad­u­ally re­sorted to writ­ing more provoca­tive things to get peo­ple to pay at­ten­tion (which suc­ceeded!).

It seems like a ra­tio­nal­ity com­mu­nity warped by those in­cen­tives isn’t go­ing to ac­com­plish the things it needs to.

So, some open prob­lems I’m think­ing about, which maybe are rele­vant to you:

  • I’d like feel in­cen­tivized to re­search things I don’t un­der­stand as much (which I don’t ex­pect other peo­ple to un­der­stand as much ei­ther), to ex­pand my (and our col­lec­tive) do­mains of ex­per­tise.

  • In­so­far as peo­ple do end up writ­ing the sorts of posts listed above, I think it’d be good if peo­ple thought more con­sciously and care­fully about which tools they’re em­ploy­ing. #6 at the very least seemed fine, and some of the oth­ers seem fine in some con­texts.

  • I’d like to learn how to be a bet­ter com­menter, on posts that don’t go out of their way to make it easy to com­ment. I have a sense that if I took the step of ac­tu­ally stop­ping to think for a half-hour about pos­si­ble ram­ifi­ca­tions of a given post, I could prob­a­bly think of some­thing worth say­ing, and that it might get eas­ier with time. (I’ve been think­ing about that for the past week or two, but keep end up spend­ing that time mostly writ­ing my own posts, or en­gag­ing with other com­menters who did more heavy lift­ing of ini­ti­at­ing dis­cus­sion)

  • I’d like peo­ple who have im­por­tant things to say to be able to trust that peo­ple will listen, with­out fal­ling into an at­ten­tional arms race that leads in­evitably to Buz­zFeed. But right now I have trou­ble pay­ing at­ten­tion to things that are im­por­tant but non-drama-laden, so I can’t rea­son­ably ex­pect peo­ple to trust in that.

That’s all I got for now.