Creating A Kickstarter for Coordinated Action

In the writing of this I realized I’d organized my thoughts poorly/​discovered new, more relevant thoughts. If I set about to rewrite it, I don’t know when if ever it’d be finished, so instead I will just move the main point of the post to the second paragraph thereof.

It wouldn’t take six people six months to create a working Kickstarter for Inadequate Equilibria, and I’m trying to coordinate those six-ish people. (Someone had to and no one else will.) Ideally we’ll have three to ten contributors with passing knowledge of web-design/​UX. If you want to be one of those people, we would love to have your help. We are coordinating in the comments section of the LessWrong version of this post.

I

Salutations, friends!

I am the Lumpyproletariat. I’m crossposting this from the EA Forum/​crossposting this from LessWrong because it seemed relevant to your interests. This is my first post on LessWrong—though I’m a long time lurker—five years a lurker, since I was fourteen—, so hello everyone! If I flagrantly break any community standards, bring them up; I’m a learning machine.

Lately people have been talking a lot about The Coordination Problem, and about Inadequate Equilibria. This isn’t the place to go into depth about the subject—that link is to a proper explanation (among other things)—I’m nothing much in the way of an explainer or an evangelizer, and so necessarily I preach to those who others convert. The basic idea is this: suppose you want to vote for a third party candidate, but know they have no chance of winning unless others vote with you; suppose you want to squeeze short sellers, but don’t have the funds for it alone; or suppose you want to migrate to a better platform for something, but need people to move with you; suppose you want to demand reform the FDA, but the lizards in office won’t do anything unless a critical mass of people demand it.

In many cases people are incapable of useful unilateral action. If they could all agree to take action if a sufficient number of them also agreed to take action, and if they could trust each other to follow through, these problems would be much more easily solved.

I think it would be hard to overstate how nice it would be if these things could be better coordinated.

II

What should be done about it?

Obviously, someone should make an online tool where people can coordinate. This has been proposed by a good handful of canny folk. It is fruit which hangs so low, the demons of Hell could bend over to pick it. Several people have expressed interest in doing it themselves. I’ve spoken in private with two separate people who’ve expressed some level of interest in doing the thing themselves. I’ve expressed my own level of interest to both of them. I’d be surprised to hear that other people weren’t having similar conversations in rooms I can’t overhear.

The coordination website even kind of already exists—there’s a list of coordination tools/​projects found here. None of them do what we need, though.

This seems like a tractable problem with potentially large benefits—despite possible difficulties getting it off the ground, which we’ll talk about later (and I encourage people to bring up other problems in the comments, so we can try and route around them). It seems worth giving it a try, since it’s yet to be done, there’s so much interest in the doing of it, and there’s so much interest in it having been done.

In the interest of not adding another flop to the Cause Prioritization Wiki’s list of Things Which Exist in that Space but Aren’t Useful Solutions, let’s take a minute to discuss The Minimum Viable Product.

Here’s an exchange recorded in Inadequate Equilibrium:

STARTUP FOUNDER 1: I want to get (primitive version of the product) in front of users as fast as possible, to see whether they want to use it or not.

ELIEZER: I predict users will not want to use this version.

FOUNDER 1: Well, from the things I’ve read about startups, it’s important to test as early as possible whether users like your product, and not to overengineer things.

ELIEZER: The concept of a “minimum viable product” isn’t the mimimum product that compiles. It’s the least product that is the best tool in the world for some particular task or workflow. If you don’t have an MVP in that sense, of course the users won’t switch. So you don’t have a testable hypothesis. So you’re not really learning anything when the users don’t want to use your product.

FOUNDER 1: No battle plan survives contact with reality. The important thing is just to get the product in front of users as quickly as possible, so you can see what they think. That’s why I’m disheartened that (group of users) did not want to use (early version of product).

/​quote

It seems clear that the existing conditional-threshold-coordinated-action tools fail to be the best tools for their task. If I want to organize something important, I would not consider using Actuator nor Collaction.

So my question for you, dear reader, is, what is the Minimum Viable Product which you would use and find useful?

First, let’s define the (small, immediately tractable) problem we’re trying to solve.

Sometimes people would prefer it if X were done, but can’t make much progress as an individual—there’s a threshold number of bodies or a variety of skill sets required to solve the problem. If the coordinateable group is small and local, these things are easily worked out. If lacking one property or the other, coordination becomes more difficult, and people turn to what are currently the best tools for resolving these sorts of problems—email, Facebook, LessWrong, r/​WallStreetBets.

Some values of X can be solved using only the efforts and numbers of the Rationalsphere/​EA community, so we should make a tool which makes those sorts of problems easier to solve. That’s our minimum viable product, which we can iterate improvements on.

Some examples of the sorts of problems we could solve with such a tool can be found here.

What is required to make a better tool for this than currently exists? The current best tool for those sorts of problems is someone posting a thread on a forum—we need to be at least that useful. But we don’t get there by mimicking the forums which already exist; I think we can (and should) piggyback off of the existing forums and social media. The Minimum Viable Product doesn’t yet need any native message board; people can post links.

(I don’t think it’d be wise to limit this tool’s reach prematurely by integrating it too closely into one forum or another—the power of coordination is limited only by the people coordinating. I’d considered this idea and dismissed it during writing, but it was brought up by my proofreader so I thought I’d make my reasoning explicit.)

Having given it some thought, there are two things which I think the tool would need (if these functionalities wouldn’t be enough to make this a useful tool for you and the problems you want solved, please explain in the comments what it lacks):

Users need to be able to post problems along with the conditions necessary to solve them. Sometimes all which is needed is a sufficient mass of people in a community or institution to do one thing or say one thing or cease doing or saying one thing (since the MVP is interested mainly in EA/​rationalsphere problems, we can push off the tricky problem of verifying people until later—if verification is needed it can be done through whichever forum, blog, or social media site the page was linked from); sometimes the problems requires some number of people to perform particular costly tasks they’d be unwilling to do if they didn’t think enough others would help for it to pan out. On the webpage, people need to be able to put there names down for jobs.

There needs to be a way to hold people to their commitments. A proposal I’ve heard is taking people’s money and only returning it when they follow through or the project flops. I’m not a fan of this solution; some people aren’t in a place where they can conveniently lend money, even if it’d be paid back with interest. I think a better proposal would be automatically charging people if they fail to follow through. (I began writing this before r/​WallStreetBets happened. Think about how wonderfully this second idea would work for coordinating them, though!) If other people have brilliant proposals for holding people to their commitments, share them in the comments!

I think that’s the required functionality for the Minimum Viable Product. If it wouldn’t work for you and your project, bring up your problems and solutions.

III

In part two we outlined our goals for the project. In part three we’ll talk about why anyone trying to move reality to that better state won’t be given their due, and in part four we’ll talk about doing it anyway.

My friend tells me that the actual coding of the site “doesn’t sound difficult”—she estimates that a team of three to seven people to make it in three to twelve months. I defer to her admittedly dubious expertise; I know nothing about computer programming. At any rate, it would be difficult for me; someone else will need to do it. Secure in that knowledge, a weaker man might have said, “gee, then I hope someone else does so,” and gotten on with their life. But I’m not the sort of person who’s easily stymied by the bystander effect. (That’s a lie. I am trivially easy to defeat with the bystander effect (or any other effect one cares to name); this entire episode is wildly out of character for me.)

The first problem to overcome in creating the darn thing is funding the darn thing. I’ve been told that web hosting takes green, and that computer programmers require money for food for sustenance—though I can’t personally attest to either of those assertions; I know nothing about computer programming.

I used to imagine that creating a coordination tool was a good contender for a successful startup—demand exists, people would benefit from it tremendously, and it has the potential to be societally transformative. But the first question any startup has to ask is, how will doing this generate income? And in asking that question I realized it was a thorny one indeed.

I think it might be theoretically impossible to make economic profits from an online tool like the one proposed.

Imagine that someone creates a tool like the one outlined. They’re trying to monetize it, perhaps with a subscription or with adds or by leaving it in a deliberately inconvenient state unless one pays for the “full product” or any other means of parting users from their dollars. In our pretend world, this monetization pays for overhead and than some! The creators walk home from the office every night merrily whistling, such is their joy.

Now suppose that someone else enters the industry, except their product is cheaper or better. Now, all isn’t lost—the network effect will keep users using the slightly inferior or more costly product. But, wait. Someone (heaven knows why) just solved the network effect, at least for the target demo of online coordination software users.

I think it might be theoretically impossible to make economic gains from an online tool like the one proposed; theory and practice are, in practice, distinct—I think the product could plausibly pay for it’s own hosting through charging those people who default on their commitments (though perhaps everyone would migrate to a website where those organizing the projects get to keep the money from defaulters?), but probably one shouldn’t rest too much hope on it being wildly profitable.

(Here’s an aside. I was moved to finish baking my half-baked ideas—a process which led to this post—when I was emailed by my school about an Entrepreneurial Challenge with a prize pot of $40k. Forty thousand dollars would put me through college and pay for my food and rent for half of a decade—talk about slack! Or it could be donated, lump-sum, to GiveWell; I’d feel pretty good in either case. Despite being unprofitable, I think this project could do well on the Entrepreneurial Challenge rubric. Obviously this is small potatoes compared to the potential utility of a working coordination tool reaching the public, and shouldn’t be anyone’s second priority besides mine. I’d still appreciate help making the contest entry look shiny, if anyone has help to offer.)

So, having abandoned the model of the entrepreneurial startup, what are we left with?

We’re left with a proposal to create a public good, which everyone would benefit from, the creation of which would require the efforts and time of highly skilled individuals, the creation of which would likely never be very well compensated. Ironic. But it’s a small project, which will require few people—this is eminently solvable with the best tools we currently have.

IV

I’ve said it before and will again: I know nothing about coding computers. There is not a single fact related to that field kicking around in my admittedly rather empty head. Despite this I’ve created a GitHub page for the project on the assumption that having a Schelling point for where to meet would be useful to people interested in the endeavor, if this assumption was false disregard it; here is is: https://​​github.com/​​Lumpyproletariat/​​effective-waffle

From the more technically minded people I know, I’ve gotten the impression that creating the Minimum Viable Product would take one competent coder no longer than a few months. (Since people are busy with things which put money on tables, perhaps it will take longer? But we hope to have more than one coder contributing.) This seems like an astonishingly low bar to create a technology with any probability of transforming society on any level, but that seems to be where we are.

I was advised to create an itemized list of things necessary to make the Minimum Viable Product a reality; I know nothing about making websites, but the risk of losing momentum on account of people who’d be excited to help not having something to do seems smaller to me than the risk that I’d set people in the wrong direction in a way which couldn’t be fixed while en route. Here’s my actionable list; others should edit or add to it in the comments.

The website needs to be hosted somewhere. I’m told that web hosting can be free, but is it safe to send money over those? Would LessWrong or the EA Forum be willing to host the tool?

The website needs a name. That’ll probably cost someone a few dollars? A few dollars to choose the name of the project, seems like a good deal to me.

The project probably needs a team of people who will be personally invested in it’s success/​be able to direct things while they’re moving.

The website needs a board to post causes on. Users need to be able to add new causes to the board.

Clicking on a cause from the board should take you to a page written by the person who made the cause. There should be different degrees of support available (perhaps you’d be willing to crusade if enough others were willing to crusade and enough people would do logistics, perhaps you’d only be willing to help with logistics).

Some tiers of support should require you to give your credit card info, so you can be billed if you don’t follow through. We should hash out in the comments where the money from those billed goes—my inclination is to pay for hosting and give whatever is left to GiveWell.

And I think that would serve for the Minimum Viable Product.

Help me hash things out in the comments below! If you’re able and willing to help, tell us what you’re able and willing to do.

(For the sake of keeping the conversation in one place, I’d like to ask people to only comment on the LessWrong version.)