Why don’t long running conversations happen on LessWrong?

Here is how things currently work:

  • Someone writes a post.

  • It lingers around the front page for a few days. During this time, conversations emerge in the comments section.

  • After a few days, the post no longer persists on the front page and conversations largely fizzle out.

For some types of posts, this works. For other types of posts, it doesn’t.

For example, Two Definitions of Generalization seems like the type of post where the status quo wouldn’t work (edit: What is the most effective way to donate to AGI XRisk Mitigation is another good example). Instead, to make meaningful progress on the question of what generalization really is, I think you’d want something closer to academia, where there are various scientists interested in the same research question, and they have a long running conversation about it. A few days of back and forth just doesn’t cut it. You need a lot more back and forth.

In a recent interview I had with Professor Quirrell, I asked him for his take on this. Here is what he had to say:

Mister Zerner… a lesser version of myself would find your naivety amusing. Unfortunately, this current version merely finds it annoying.

The issue with your idea is the premise that John Does on the internet want to engage on the same level as academic researchers. They don’t. They are just killing time, looking for instant gratification.

You are going to object that members of LessWrong are not average Joes. Again, I find your naivety annoying. While it is true that LessWrongers, as you fondly refer to them, are a step up from the rest, it is just that: a step. Getting people to engage seriously in long running conversations would require something more akin to a leap. Merely being “less wrong” is not sufficient.

I think that there is a lot of truth to what Professor Quirrell is saying. However, I am also not convinced that it has to be this way.

Here’s a thought. Consider the Two Definitions of Generalization post. Imagine that I invested a bunch of time reading up on the topic, thinking about it, and commenting on the post. The likely outcome is that I get a reply or two, and maybe a discussion emerges for a few days. But after that it will fizzle out. And then the topic of the day will move to whatever new posts happen to have made the front page.

That is demotivating. It’d be nice if I knew that if I invest the time on a post, I can depend on there being an eg. month long period of time where people will continue to engage with it.

What would this look like? You could have users precommit to engaging for a certain period of time. Maybe you measure the engagement by number of comments or something, maybe you don’t. Maybe you use the honor system, maybe you penalize people who didn’t engage enough by taking away karma. Maybe you just award extra karma, utilizing the carrot instead of the stick. Maybe you have people pledge real money (integrate with Beeminder?). Maybe instead of a normal precommittment you structure it more like a kickstarter, where you’d only be committing to engaging with the post if X number of other people engage with it as well.

Perhaps an MVP for this could simply be something like a “posts for the month” space on the front page, where eg. three posts are guaranteed to stay on the front page for a full month. The curated posts that we currently have sorta do this, but it’s not quite the same thing. For me at least, when I look at the curated posts, it doesn’t evoke too strong a feeling of “this will remain here for a long time”.

To be clear, I am not saying that every post should be long running. There is definitely a place for short running posts. However, IMHO, there is also a place for long running posts.