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.