Weighted Voting Delenda Est

Unlike a number of other issues, this one I didn’t call in advance, though in retrospect it’s, if anything, much more obvious than other things I did call out. Weighted voting on LW, at minimum the ability for it to be visible and preferably the ability for it to affect anything at all except, at most, the number displayed next to a user on their profile page, is a catastrophic failure in progress and must be destroyed.

I’ve said in the past that

The Hamming problem of group rationality, and possibly the Hamming problem of rationality generally, is how to preserve epistemic rationality under the inherent political pressures existing in a group produces.

It is the Hamming problem because if it isn’t solved, everything else, including all the progress made on individual rationality, is doomed to become utterly worthless. We are not designed to be rational, and this is most harmful in group contexts, where the elephants in our brains take the most control from the riders and we have the least idea of what goals we are actually working towards.

And, closely connected but somewhat separable:

Most things we do are status-motivated, even when we think we have a clear picture of what our motivations are and status is not included in that picture. Our picture of what the truth looks like is fundamentally warped by status in ways that are very hard to fully adjust for.

I also said, particularly for the latter, that “the moderation policies of new LessWrong double down on this”. I stand by that, but I missed a bigger issue: the voting system, where higher karma grants a bigger vote, also doubles down on it. Big names are overrepresented on the front page, at the top of the comments section, and everywhere else you can discover new LW content. This was somewhat understandable when LW was working itself out of its doldrums and influential people were making an effort to put good content here, but if that was the driver, it would have gotten less noticeable over time, and instead it has gotten more blatant.

Individuals can opt-out of seeing these votes, but to a first approximation that’s useless. Everybody knows that everyone can see the strength of votes, even if that isn’t strictly true; social proof is stronger than abstract inference. Social proof is bad, very bad, at best something to be used like someone carrying around two slightly-subcritical uranium masses in their pocket, where a small slip could make them fit together and kick off a chain reaction. It is Dark Arts at their most insidious because, like the Unbreakable Vow, it’s tightly integrated into society, extremely useful for some goals we endorse, and very difficult to stop using. And we can each opt out of individually seeing this signal, but we can’t opt out of the community seeing and displaying social proof and ‘everybody knowing’ that, if not them, everybody else is doing so. Even if, in point of fact, 90% of users are opting out of seeing vote totals*, each user ‘knows’ that everyone, or nearly everyone, other than themself, sees them, and knows that everyone else sees them, and knows that they know, etc., etc.; social proof is a very effective means of establishing common knowledge, which makes it extremely useful, except that it is virtually just as effective at establishing inaccurate common knowledge as it is for accurate.

The medium… is the mess.

It is not sufficient, for establishing common knowledge of a fact, that the fact be true. But it is also, crucially, not necessary. There’s a party game called ‘Hive Mind’: you get a prompt, and write down six things that fit it. You get points based on how many other people wrote them down. If the prompt is “insect”, one of the six should say “spider”. You know a spider is not an insect; probably so does everyone else around the table. But everybody knows that a spider is a bug and a bug is an insect, so everybody knows “spider” belongs on the list. Never mind that it’s false; a spider is not an insect but there’s no common knowledge of that fact, and there is common knowledge of its opposite.

So, much like the spider: everybody knows that the big names are more correct than the little fish. Just about everyone can, and occasionally sometimes does, notice and remind themself that this is not inherently true, and the big names should get more weight only because they have demonstrated the ability to generate past good ideas and thereby earned a big name. But there is no common knowledge of that, because the voting system is structured to promote common knowledge that the big names are always right. This is a catastrophe, even if the big names are almost-always right.

Possible solutions, in ascending order of estimated usefulness starting from the mildest:

  • All sorting order which sort by vote score sort only by the unweighted vote (but may still display the weighted vote)

  • Comments cease to count toward weight-increasing karma

  • All users who have not deliberately opted in to the weighted-vote system see only unweighted votes

  • Comments no longer are possible to vote strongly on and all votes on them revert to 1 vote per person

  • ...also apply this to all posts outside Meta

  • … …and to those within Meta

  • Remove all capacity to cast votes at all

  • Remove weighted voting from comments and posts, plus remove the capacity to manually curate ‘Frontpage’

  • Impossible to cast votes on comments, period, votes are exclusively for top-level posts

  • ...also include some amount of removing the ability to cast weighted votes for posts

  • ...and default to sorting comments randomly, or by size of their subtree (‘sort by activity’)

  • … …plus removing weighted votes, i.e. combine all those last three

I don’t really expect any of this to be done. No one seems to be willing to treat small-group politics or status-corrupting instincts as important, and people who are respected much more than me are actively working in the opposite direction in the name of instrumental rationality. But it needs to be said.

* I do not believe this; I would guess about 5% of users opt out. I would be interested to learn the true number.