LessWrong 2.0

Alter­nate ti­tles: What Comes Next?, LessWrong is Dead, Long Live LessWrong!

You’ve seen the ar­ti­cles and com­ments about the de­cline of LessWrong. Why pay at­ten­tion to this one? Be­cause this time, I’ve talked to Nate at MIRI and Matt at Trike Apps about de­vel­op­ment for LW, and they’re will­ing to make changes and fund them. (I’ve even found a de­vel­oper will­ing to work on the LW code­base.) I’ve also talked to many of the promi­nent posters who’ve left about the de­cline of LW, and pointed out that the co­or­di­na­tion prob­lem could be de­liber­ately solved if ev­ery­one de­cided to come back at once. Every­one that re­sponded ex­pressed dis­plea­sure that LW had faded and in­ter­est in a co­or­di­nated re­turn, and of­ten had some ma­te­rial that they thought they could pre­pare and have ready.

But be­fore we leap into ac­tion, let’s re­view the prob­lem.

The peo­ple still on the LW site are not a rep­re­sen­ta­tive sam­ple of any­thing. With the ex­cep­tion of a few peo­ple like Stu­art Arm­strong, they’re some kind of pack of un­quiet spirits who have moved in to haunt it af­ter it got aban­doned by the found­ing com­mu­nity mem­bers. At this point it’s pretty much di­as­pora all the way down.

--Yvain on his Tum­blr.

One of the prob­lems is that peo­ple who con­trol the LW web­site are run­ning it in pure main­te­nance mode. LW was put out to pas­ture—there have been no changes to func­tion­al­ity in ages.

--Lumifer

LW’s strongest, most ded­i­cated writ­ers all seem to have moved on to other pro­jects or venues, as has the bet­ter part of its com­men­tariat.

In some ways, this is a good thing. There is now, for ex­am­ple, a wider ra­tio­nal­ist blo­go­sphere, in­clud­ing in­ter­est­ing peo­ple who were pre­vi­ously put off by idiosyn­crasies of Less Wrong. In other ways, it’s less good; LW is no longer a fo­cal point for this sort of ma­te­rial. I’m not sure if such a fo­cal point ex­ists any more.

--sixes_and_sevens

This dwindling con­tent can be seen most clearly in the “Top Con­trib­u­tors, 30 Days” dis­play. At the time I write this there are only seven posters with > 100 karma in the past 30 days, and it only takes 58 to ap­pear on the list of 15. Per­haps the ques­tion should not be whether the con­tent of LW should be re­or­ganised, but whether LW is fulfilling its de­sired pur­pose any longer.

As nearly all the core peo­ple who worked the hard­est to use this site to pro­mote ra­tio­nal­ity are no longer con­tribut­ing here, I won­der if this goal is still be­ing achieved by LW it­self. Is it still worth read­ing? Still worth com­ment­ing here?

--qsz

LW does seem dy­ing and mainly use­ful for its old con­tent. Any sug­ges­tions for a LW 2.0?

--signal

So let’s talk sug­ges­tions for a LW 2.0. But just be­cause we can restart LW doesn’t mean we should restart LW. It’s worth do­ing some goal fac­tor­ing first (see Sacha Chua’s ex­pla­na­tion and links here). Be­fore get­ting into my sum­mary, I’ll note that The Craft and the Com­mu­nity Se­quence re­mains pre­scient and well worth read­ing for think­ing about these is­sues. And be­fore we can get into what our goals and plans are, let’s talk some about:

What went wrong (or hor­ribly right):

So why did LessWrong fade? One short ver­sion is that LW was a booster rocket, de­signed to get its pay­load to a higher al­ti­tude then dis­carded. This is what I mean by what went hor­ribly right—MIRI now has a strong fund­ing base and as much pub­lic­ity as it wants. In­stead of writ­ing ma­te­rial to build sup­port and get more fund­ing, Eliezer (and a re­search team!) can do ac­tual work. Similarly, at some point in one’s per­sonal growth it is nec­es­sary to not just read about grow­ing. We should ex­pect peo­ple who aren’t ha­bit­ual fo­rum-posters to ‘grow out’ of heavy read­ing and post­ing on LW.

Another short ver­sion is that there was only so much to say about ra­tio­nal­ity (in 2012, at least), and once it was said, it wasn’t clear what to say next. Whether some­thing is on topic for LW and whether it be­longs in Main, Dis­cus­sion, or an Open Thread is un­clear and so less and less con­tent is cre­ated, and so less and less peo­ple visit, lead­ing to even less con­tent. The eas­iest ex­am­ple of fric­tion is whether or not ‘effec­tive al­tru­ism’ is a core LW topic; this com­ment by ice­man ex­presses the prob­lem bet­ter than I could.

Re­lat­edly, while ra­tio­nal­ity is the Com­mon In­ter­est of Many Causes, in that many differ­ent causes all po­ten­tially benefit from some­one com­ing to LessWrong and adopt­ing its wor­ld­view and thought pat­terns, LessWrong seems fla­vored enough by MIRI and Eliezer in par­tic­u­lar that we mostly see the Many Causes free rid­ing in­stead of con­tribut­ing to the up­keep of LW (in terms of con­tent, not host­ing funds). Even CFAR, the most closely re­lated of the Many Causes to LessWrong’s stated mis­sion, mostly over­laps with LW in­stead of sup­port­ing it. (To be clear, this is a de­ci­sion I en­dorse; CFAR has benefited from not be­ing tied to the idiosyn­crasies of LessWrong. CFAR staff are also some of the most fre­quent con­trib­u­tors left of the found­ing com­mu­nity mem­bers.)

I should elab­o­rate that by Many Causes I ex­plic­itly mean a broader tent than Effec­tive Altru­ism. Any­one who is sym­pa­thetic to the Neo-En­light­en­ment Eliezer talks about in Com­mon In­ter­est of Many Causes strikes me as enough of a fel­low trav­eler, re­gard­less of whether or not they have found some­thing to pro­tect or whether or not that some­thing to pro­tect is the kind of thing Givewell would con­sider al­tru­is­tic or a top pri­or­ity.

What roles LW served, and what could do it bet­ter:

First, some roles that LW (the web­site) doesn’t or can’t serve:

  • Get­ting di­rect work done. Open-sourc­ing things is pow­er­ful, but it re­mains true that money is the unit of car­ing. When peo­ple re­ally want some­thing done, they have an in­sti­tu­tion with an office and em­ploy­ees that get the thing done. Direct work on any of the Many Causes is go­ing to be done by peo­ple work­ing di­rectly on that task, not by posts on an in­ter­net fo­rum.

  • Phys­i­cal in­ter­ac­tion with like-minded peo­ple. You can or­ga­nize a meetup on LW, but you can’t at­tend one.

  • Prac­ti­cal ra­tio­nal­ity train­ing. The Se­quences are great at giv­ing peo­ple a philo­soph­i­cal foun­da­tion, but they can only do so much. There’s a rea­son why CFAR has work­shops in­stead of writ­ing ar­ti­cles and books.

Now let’s step through sev­eral roles that LW has his­tor­i­cally had:
  • Fo­cal Point /​ News Organization

  • Wel­com­ing Com­mit­tee /​ Ra­tion­al­ity Materials

  • Meetup Or­ga­nizer /​ So­cial Club

You are en­couraged to spend five min­utes think­ing about what you would do to fulfill any of those roles if LW sud­denly dis­ap­peared, or how you would mod­ify LW to bet­ter serve those roles, or if there’s a role miss­ing from the list.

Fo­cal Point /​ News Organization

If your val­ues and in­ter­ests are similar to a com­mu­nity’s, the main benefit you get out of the com­mu­nity and the com­mu­nity gets out of you have to do with cor­re­lat­ing your at­ten­tion. If some­thing of in­ter­est to me hap­pens, be it a blog post or a book or an event or a fundraiser, I won’t know un­less it en­ters one of my news streams. Given the high de­gree of shared in­ter­ests be­tween sup­port­ers of the Many Causes or by virtue of so­cial ties to the com­mu­nity, treat­ing the com­mu­nity’s at­ten­tion as a shared re­source makes great sense. (Every pro­moted post since Ju­lia Galef’s in April seems like an ex­am­ple of this sort of thing to me.) For ex­am­ple, MIRI’s Win­ter Fundraiser is go­ing on now. But there are Many Causes, not one cause, and as much as pos­si­ble the abil­ity to di­rect shared at­ten­tion should re­spect that.

Many peo­ple in the com­mu­nity also have in­ter­est­ing thoughts, which they typ­i­cally post to their blog (or twit­ter or tum­blr or …). Ag­gre­gat­ing those into one lo­ca­tion re­duces the to­tal at­ten­tion cost of keep­ing up with the com­mu­nity. (This is es­pe­cially im­por­tant if one wants to main­tain peo­ple who are time-limited be­cause they are work­ing hard on their Im­por­tant Pro­ject!) The ex­pe­rience of SSC seems to sug­gest that it’s way bet­ter for au­thors to have con­trol over their brand­ing. I sus­pect much of the main­stream at­ten­tion that Scott’s re­ceived is be­cause he’s post­ing to a one-man blog, and thus can be linked to much more safely than link­ing to LW.

So com­pared to when most things were ei­ther posted or cross­posted to LW, it seems like we cur­rently spend too lit­tle at­ten­tion on ag­gre­gat­ing and unify­ing con­tent spread across many differ­ent places. If most of the ac­tion is hap­pen­ing offsite, and all that needs to be done is link to it, Red­dit seems like the clear low-cost win­ner. Or per­haps it makes sense to try to do some­thing like an on­line mag­a­z­ine, with an ac­tual ed­i­tor. (See Viliam’s dis­cus­sion of the cen­sor role in an on­line com­mu­nity.) I note that FLI is hiring a news web­site ed­i­tor (but they’re likely more x-risk fo­cused than I’m imag­in­ing).

If we were go­ing to mod­ify LW to serve this role bet­ter, mul­ti­ple red­dits seems like the ob­vi­ous sug­ges­tion here (and a po­ten­tially in­ter­est­ing in­no­va­tion may be tag red­dits, where cat­e­gories are not ex­clu­sive). “Main” and “Dis­cus­sion” do not at all cap­ture the splits in what the au­di­ence wants to pay at­ten­tion to. In­te­grated com­ment­ing across mul­ti­ple sites, if pos­si­ble, seems like it might be a huge win but may be tech­ni­cally very difficult (or re­quire ev­ery­one to agree on a plat­form like Disqus).

Wel­com­ing Com­mit­tee /​ Ra­tion­al­ity Materials

Some­one is in­ter­ested in learn­ing more about think­ing bet­ter; prob­a­bly they have tons of con­fu­sion about philos­o­phy, how the world works, and their own goals and psy­chol­ogy. Some­one men­tions this LessWrong place, or links them par­tic­u­lar ar­ti­cles, or they read HPMoR and fol­low the links in the Author’s Notes.

But then they re­al­ize just how long Ra­tion­al­ity: From AI to Zom­bies is, or they don’t un­der­stand a par­tic­u­lar part. Without so­cial re­in­force­ment that it’s in­ter­est­ing and with­out other peo­ple to ask ques­tions of, they likely won’t get all that far or as much out of it as they could have.

And then there’s all the other things that some­one picks up by be­ing part of a com­mu­nity—who the var­i­ous peo­ple are, what they’re work­ing on, what op­tions are out there.

It seems to me that the the op­ti­mal soft­ware for some­thing like this is per­haps more like Wikipe­dia or Stack Overflow than it is like Red­dit. If we’re build­ing a gi­ant tree of ra­tio­nal­ity-re­lated con­cepts and skills, it doesn’t quite make sense to have in­di­vi­d­ual blog posts writ­ten by in­di­vi­d­ual au­thors, in­stead of com­mu­nity-main­tained wiki pages with ex­pla­na­tions and links.

Meetup Or­ga­nizer /​ So­cial Club

You can’t do the phys­i­cal meet­ing up on­line, but you can alert peo­ple to mee­tups near them. At time of writ­ing, ac­cord­ing to the map on the front page, one of the five clos­est mee­tups to me (in Austin, Texas) is in Brus­sels.

Part of that is groups mov­ing to other com­mu­ni­ca­tion chan­nels to or­ga­nize mee­tups. In Austin, for ex­am­ple, the email list is a much more re­li­able way to con­tact peo­ple—es­pe­cially since many of them don’t reg­u­larly check LW! But the lost ad­ver­tis­ing po­ten­tial seems sig­nifi­cant, and some­thing like the EA Hub seems like a bet­ter solu­tion.

There’s also a role to be played in colo­cat­ing ra­tio­nal­ists, ei­ther through helping form group houses and shared apart­ments or mov­ing sub­sidies /​ loans. It’s not clear it’s effi­cient for more peo­ple to move to the Bay Area rel­a­tive to sec­ondary or ter­tiary hubs, but it does seem likely that we should put re­sources to­wards grow­ing the phys­i­cal com­mu­nity.

There’s also a much longer con­ver­sa­tion that could be had about effec­tively em­ploy­ing more so­cial tech­nol­ogy to de­velop and strengthen the com­mu­nity, but I get the sense that most of those or­ga­ni­za­tions, be they for­mal in­sti­tu­tions or churches or fam­i­lies or mas­ter­mind groups or task­forces, are cat­e­gor­i­cally un­like on­line fo­rums, and the com­mu­nity they will be de­vel­op­ing and strength­en­ing will not be “LessWrong read­ers” so much as “meatspace ra­tio­nal­ists.” So I’ll ig­nore this for now as off topic, ex­cept to note that I am very in­ter­ested in this sub­ject and you should con­tact me if also in­ter­ested.

Why not have that and LW?

So far, I’ve talked about things that would serve var­i­ous roles bet­ter than LW, though per­haps not at the same time. One could eas­ily imag­ine them ex­ist­ing side by side: it’s not like Scott Alexan­der needed to shut down his Yvain ac­count to start post­ing at SSC, he just made the al­ter­na­tive and started post­ing to it. Similarly, a red­dit for the ra­tio­nal­ist di­as­pora already ex­ists (though it doesn’t see much use yet), as do two (well, one and a half) for SSC.

The trou­ble is the peo­ple who have no­ticed that peo­ple have left, but not where they’re go­ing, and the links to LessWrong over all the old ma­te­rial. If LessWrong is a ghost town that’s be­ing haunted by a pack of un­quiet spirits, well, bet­ter to be up­front about that than give peo­ple the wrong im­pres­sion about what ra­tio­nal­ists are like.

TL;DR

I think we should ei­ther de­velop a plan that makes LW fully func­tional at the three roles men­tioned above (and any oth­ers that are raised), or we should close down post­ing and com­ment­ing on LW (while main­tain­ing it as an archive). The shut­down could ei­ther hap­pen at the end of De­cem­ber, or March 5th to cor­re­spond to the open­ing of LW, but the most im­por­tant fac­tor is that there be re­place­ments to point peo­ple to. It seems likely we should leave open the LW wiki (and prob­a­bly make the LW land­ing page point to a wiki page, so it can be main­tained and up­dated to point to promi­nent parts of the di­as­pora). The Mee­tups func­tion­al­ity should prob­a­bly be aug­mented or re­placed (ei­ther static links to dy­namic ob­jects, like Face­book groups, or with func­tion­al­ity that makes it eas­ier on the or­ga­niz­ers, like re­cur­ring mee­tups).

(I wrote that as an ‘or’, but at pre­sent I lean heav­ily to­wards the ‘archive LW and em­brace the di­as­pora’ po­si­tion.)