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.