Becoming a Better Community

So I’ve been fol­low­ing Pro­ject Hufflepuff, the efforts of the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity to be­come, rather than bet­ter ra­tio­nal­ists (per se), but a bet­ter com­mu­nity. I re­cently read the sum­mary of the re­cent Pro­ject Hufflepuff Un­con­fer­ence, and I had a thought.

The Problem

LessWrong And Guardedness

I can only speak to my own ex­pe­riences in join­ing the com­mu­nity, but I have always felt that the ra­tio­nal­ist com­mu­nity holds its mem­bers to a very high stan­dard. This isn’t a bad thing but it cre­ates, at least in me, a sense of guard­ed­ness. I don’t want to be the ra­tio­nal­ist who sounds stupid or the one who con­tributes less to the con­ver­sa­tion.

Every post I’ve made here on LessWrong (not that there have been many), has been re­viewed and ed­ited with the same kind of dili­gence that I nor­mally re­serve for graded es­says or busi­ness doc­u­men­ta­tion. Other on­line com­mu­ni­ties I’m a part of (and meatspace com­mu­ni­ties) re­quire far less dili­gence from me as a con­trib­u­tor. (Note: This isn’t a value judge­ment, rather a de­scrip­tion of my ex­pe­rience.)

How­ever, my best ex­pe­riences in com­mu­ni­ties and friend­ships have gen­er­ally oc­curred in very un­guarded at­mo­spheres. Not that my friends and I aren’t smart or can’t be smart, but most of the fun I’ve had with them hap­pens when we’re play­ing card or board or video games, or just hang­ing out and talk­ing. Do­ing things like go­ing out to eat, play­ing ping-pong, and talk­ing about bad TV shows have led to some of the strongest re­la­tion­ships in my life.

So Where Is The Fun?

So—where is this in the Ra­tion­al­ist Com­mu­nity? Now, it is very pos­si­ble that the fun is there and I’m sim­ply miss­ing it. I haven’t been to any mee­tups, I don’t live in the bay area, and I don’t even know any ra­tio­nal­ists in meatspace. But if it is, aside from the oc­ca­sional meetup, I don’t see any ev­i­dence of it.

I tried to do some re­search on how friend­ships and com­mu­ni­ties are formed, and there seemed to be lit­tle con­sen­sus in the field. A New York Times ar­ti­cle on mak­ing friend­ships as an adult men­tions three fac­tors:

As ex­ter­nal con­di­tions change, it be­comes tougher to meet the three con­di­tions that so­ciol­o­gists since the 1950s have con­sid­ered cru­cial to mak­ing close friends: prox­im­ity; re­peated, un­planned in­ter­ac­tions; and a set­ting that en­courages peo­ple to let their guard down and con­fide in each other, said Re­becca G. Adams, a pro­fes­sor of so­ciol­ogy and geron­tol­ogy at the Univer­sity of North Carolina at Greens­boro. This is why so many peo­ple meet their lifelong friends in col­lege, she added.

I was un­able to find this in an ac­tual pa­per, but a brief pe­rusal of the Stan­ford En­cy­clo­pe­dia of Philos­o­phy’s page on friend­ship at least shows that peo­ple who think about the topic seem to agree that there has to be some kind of in­ti­macy in­volved in a friend­ship. And while there are cer­tainly ra­tio­nal­ists who are friends, for me be­com­ing a ra­tio­nal­ist and join­ing the com­mu­nity has not yet ma­te­ri­al­ized into any spe­cific friend­ships. While that is on my shoulders, I be­lieve it high­lights a dis­tinc­tion I want to make.

If what we have in com­mon, as Ra­tion­al­ists, is a shared way of think­ing and a shared set of goals (e.g. save the world, im­prove the ra­tio­nal­ity wa­ter­line, etc.), then the re­la­tion­ship I share with the com­mu­nity strikes me as more as an al­li­ance than a friend­ship.

Allies want the same goals, and may use similar method­olo­gies to achieve them, but they are not friends. I wouldn’t tell my ally about an em­bar­rass­ing dream I had, or get drunk with them and make fun of bad movies.

I don’t mean to get hung up on mean­ings—the words them­selves aren’t im­por­tant. But from what I have seen, the com­mu­nity, es­pe­cially those out­side the Bay Area, lack the un­guarded in­ti­macy I see in my close friend­ships, and that I think are a key com­po­nent of com­mu­nity-build­ing. I’d be will­ing to bet that even in mee­tups, many (>20%) of Ra­tion­al­ists feel the weight of the high stan­dards of the com­mu­nity, and are thus more guarded than they are in re­la­tion­ships with less ex­pec­ta­tions.

What I’m try­ing to get at is that I haven’t ex­pe­rienced an un­guarded in­ter­ac­tion with a ra­tio­nal­ist, on­line or in meatspace. I always want to be at the top of my game, always try­ing to rea­son bet­ter, and re­mem­ber all the things I’ve learned about bi­ases and prob­a­bil­ity the­ory. And I sus­pect that low-stan­dards un­guarded in­ter­ac­tions have some­thing to do with grow­ing friend­ships and com­mu­ni­ties.

So, for an East-coaster with a com­puter:

Where is the fun? Where are the ra­tio­nal­ist video game tour­na­ments? Robot fights? Words with Friends who are ra­tio­nal­ists?

Where is the chilling and watch­ing all the Lord of the Rings movies to­gether? The ab­surd Dun­geons and Dragons cam­paigns be­cause ev­ery­one is a plot­ter and there are too many plots?

A Few Suggested Solutions

Every­one in the Ra­tion­al­ist com­mu­nity wants to help. We want to save the world, and that’s great. But...not ev­ery­thing has to be about sav­ing the world. If the goal of an ac­tivity is com­mu­nity/​friend­ship build­ing, why can’t it be oth­er­wise pointless? Why can’t it be silly and inane and ut­terly ir­ra­tional?

So, in the in­ter­ests of Pro­ject Hufflepuff, I spent some time think­ing about ways to im­prove/​change the situ­a­tion.

The Hero/​Side­kick/​Dragon Project

There was a se­ries of posts in 2015 that had to do with differ­ent peo­ple want­ing to take differ­ent roles in pro­jects, be it the hero, the side­kick, the dragon, etc. An effort was made to match peo­ple up, but as far as I can tell, it pe­tered out, be­cause I haven’t seen any­thing to do with it since then (I would be happy to be wrong about this). I’ll link the posts here; the first is, in par­tic­u­lar, ex­cel­lent: the is­sue in gen­eral, an at­tempt at match­mak­ing, and a dis­cus­sion of match­mak­ing meth­ods.

I might sug­gest an open thread that func­tions as a clas­sified ad, e.g. Help Wanted, must be able to XYZ, or Side­kick In Need of Hero, must live in X area, etc.

I’d also like to men­tion that the pro­ject in ques­tion shouldn’t have to be about friendly AI or effec­tive al­tru­ism; I think that de­vel­op­ing an effec­tive part­ner­ship is valuable by it­self.

On­line Gaming

Is there a rea­son that mem­bers of the com­mu­nity can’t game to­gether on­line? This post on Over­watch pro­vides at least a small amount of ev­i­dence that the com­mu­nity would have enough mem­bers in­ter­ested to form teams, and team-build­ing seems to be one of the goals.

Fun Pro­jects

I can think of plenty of challeng­ing pro­jects that re­quire a team that I’d love to do, but that have al­most noth­ing to do with world-sav­ing at any scale. Things like mak­ing a robot, or cod­ing a game, or writ­ing a book or play. Does this hap­pen in the com­mu­nity? If not, I think it might help. Again, the goal would be to cre­ate an un­guarded at­mo­sphere to foster friend­ships and team-build­ing.

Ra­tion­al­ist Buddy System

I’d like to dis­t­in­guish this from the Hero/​Side­kick idea above. I know that I could use a ra­tio­nal­ist buddy to pair up with. Many mo­ti­va­tional and anti-akra­sia tech­niques re­quire so­cial com­mit­ment, and Bee­minder can only go so far. Hav­ing a per­son to talk things through, ex­per­i­ment with anti-akrasi tech­niques, or just to in­spire and be in­spired by would be in­sanely helpful for me, and I sus­pect for many of us. I’m vaguely re­minded of the 12-step pro­gram’s spon­sors, if only in the way they sup­port peo­ple go­ing through the pro­gram.

I’m not sure how to ex­e­cute this, but I think it has the po­ten­tial to be use­ful enough to be worth try­ing.

Ra­tion­al­ist Big/​Lit­tle Program

One of the things I got out of the Pro­ject Hufflepuff Un­con­fer­ence Notes was that mak­ing new­com­ers feel wel­come was an is­sue. An idea to change this was a “wel­com­ing com­mit­tee”:

Wel­com­ing Com­mit­tee (Mandy Souza, Tessa Alex­a­nian)

Of­ten­times at events you’ll see peo­ple who are new, or who don’t seem com­fortable get­ting in­volved with the con­ver­sa­tion. Many suc­cess­ful com­mu­ni­ties do a good job of ex­plic­itly wel­com­ing those peo­ple. Some peo­ple at the un­con­fer­ence de­cided to put to­gether a for­mal group for mak­ing sure this hap­pens more.

I would like to sug­gest some ver­sion of the Big/​Lit­tle pro­gram. For those who don’t know, the idea is that es­tab­lished mem­bers of the com­mu­nity vol­un­teer to be “Bigs,” and when a new­comer ap­pears (a “Lit­tle”) they are matched with a Big. The Big then takes on the role of a guide, pro­vid­ing the Lit­tle an eas­ier in­tro­duc­tion to the com­mu­nity. This idea has been used in many differ­ent en­vi­ron­ments, and has helped me per­son­ally in the past.

Per­haps peo­ple could sign up on some sort of per­ma­nent thread that they’re will­ing to be Bigs, and then lurk­ers and first-time posters could be en­couraged to PM them?

In Conclusion

It seems to me as though the high stan­dards of the Ra­tion­al­ist com­mu­nity pro­mote a guarded at­mo­sphere, which ham­pers the de­vel­op­ment of close friend­ships and the com­mu­nity. I’ve out­lined a few ways that may help cre­ate places within the com­mu­nity where stan­dards can be low­ered and guards re­laxed with­out (hope­fully) com­pro­mis­ing its high stan­dards el­se­where.

I re­al­ize that most of this post is based upon my per­sonal ob­ser­va­tions and ex­pe­riences, which are anec­do­tal ev­i­dence and thus Not To Be Trusted. I am pre­pared to be wrong, and would wel­come the cor­rec­tion.

Let me know what you think.