Forum participation as a research strategy

Pre­vi­ously: On­line dis­cus­sion is bet­ter than pre-pub­li­ca­tion peer re­view, Dis­in­cen­tives for par­ti­ci­pat­ing on LW/​AF

Re­cently I’ve no­ticed a cog­ni­tive dis­so­nance in my­self, where I can see that my best ideas have come from par­ti­ci­pat­ing on var­i­ous mailing lists and fo­rums (such as cypher­punks, ex­tropi­ans, SL4, ev­ery­thing-list, LessWrong and AI Align­ment Fo­rum), and I’ve re­ceived a cer­tain amount of recog­ni­tion as a re­sult, but when some­one asks me what I ac­tu­ally do as an “in­de­pen­dent re­searcher”, I’m em­bar­rassed to say that I mostly com­ment on other peo­ple’s posts, par­ti­ci­pate in on­line dis­cus­sions, and oc­ca­sion­ally a new idea pops into my head and I write it down as a blog/​fo­rum post of my own. I guess that’s be­cause I imag­ine it doesn’t fit most peo­ple’s image of what a re­searcher’s work con­sists of.

Once I no­ticed this, the ten­sion is easy to re­solve—in this post I’m go­ing to pro­claim/​en­dorse fo­rum par­ti­ci­pa­tion (aka com­ment­ing) as a pro­duc­tive re­search strat­egy that I’ve man­aged to stum­ble upon, and recom­mend it to oth­ers (at least to try). Note that this is differ­ent from say­ing that fo­rum/​blog posts are a good way for a re­search com­mu­nity to com­mu­ni­cate. It’s about in­di­vi­d­u­ally do­ing bet­ter as re­searchers.

Benefits of Fo­rum Par­ti­ci­pa­tion (FP)

FP takes lit­tle effort /​ will power

In other words it feels more like play than work, which means I rarely have is­sues with not want­ing to do some­thing that I think is im­por­tant to do (i.e., akra­sia), the only ex­cep­tion be­ing that writ­ing posts seems to take more effort so oc­ca­sion­ally I spend my time writ­ing com­ments when I per­haps should write posts in­stead. (This is the part of this post that I think may be least likely to gen­er­al­ize to other peo­ple. It could be that I’m an ex­treme out­lier in find­ing FP so low-effort. How­ever it might also be the case that it be­comes low effort for most peo­ple to write com­ments once they’ve had enough prac­tice in it.)

FP is a good way to no­tice miss­ing back­ground knowl­edge and pro­vides in­cen­tives to learn miss­ing knowledge

If you read a post with an in­ten­tion to ques­tion or com­ment on it, it’s pretty easy to no­tice that it as­sumes some back­ground knowl­edge that you lack. The de­sire to not ask a “stupid” ques­tion or make a “stupid” com­ment pro­vides pow­er­ful in­cen­tive to learn the miss knowl­edge.

FP is a good way to stay up to date on ev­ery­one else’s lat­est research

It’s of­ten a good idea to stay up to date on other peo­ple’s re­search, but some­times one isn’t highly mo­ti­vated to do so. FP seems to make that eas­ier. For ex­am­ple, I wasn’t fol­low­ing Stu­art’s re­search on coun­ter­fac­tual or­a­cles, un­til the re­cent con­test drew my at­ten­tion and de­sire to par­ti­ci­pate, and I ended up read­ing the lat­est posts on CO in or­der to un­der­stand the cur­rent state of the art on that topic, which turned out to be pretty in­ter­est­ing.

Ar­gu­ments that are gen­er­ated in re­ac­tion to some spe­cific post or dis­cus­sion can be of gen­eral value

It’s not in­fre­quent that I come up with an ar­gu­ment in re­sponse to some post or dis­cus­sion thread, and later ex­pand or fol­low up that ar­gu­ment into a post be­cause it seems to ap­ply more gen­er­ally than to just that post/​dis­cus­sion. Here is one such ex­am­ple.

FP gen­er­ates new ideas via cross-fertilization

FP in­cen­tivizes one to think deeply about many threads of re­search, and of­ten (at least for me) an idea pops into my head that seems to com­bine var­i­ous par­tial ideas float­ing in the ether into a co­her­ent or semi-co­her­ent whole (e.g., UDT), or is the re­sult of ap­ply­ing or analo­giz­ing some­one else’s lat­est idea to a differ­ent topic (e.g., “hu­man safety prob­lem”, “philos­o­phy as high com­plex­ity class”).

FP helps pre­pare for effi­ciently com­mu­ni­cat­ing new ideas

FP is a good way to build mod­els of other peo­ple’s epistemic states, and also a good way to prac­tice com­mu­ni­cat­ing with fel­low re­searchers, both of which are good prepa­ra­tion for effi­ciently com­mu­ni­cat­ing one’s own new ideas.

My Recommendations

Com­ment more

To ob­tain the above benefits, one just has to write more com­ments. It may be nec­es­sary to first over­come dis­in­cen­tives to par­ti­ci­pate. If you can’t, please speak up and maybe the fo­rum ad­mins will do some­thing to help ad­dress what­ever ob­sta­cle you’re hav­ing trou­ble with.

Prac­tice makes better

If it seems hard to write good com­ments, prac­tice might make it eas­ier even­tu­ally.

Think of FP as some­thing to do for yourself

Some peo­ple might think of com­ment­ing as pri­mar­ily pro­vid­ing a ser­vice to other re­searchers or to the re­search com­mu­nity. I sug­gest also think­ing of it as pro­vid­ing a benefit to your­self (for the above rea­sons).

En­courage and sup­port re­searchers who adopt FP as their pri­mary re­search strategy

I’m not aware of any or­ga­ni­za­tions that ex­plic­itly en­courage and sup­port re­searchers to spend most or much of their time com­ment­ing on fo­rum posts. But per­haps they should, if it ac­tu­ally is (or has the po­ten­tial to be) a pro­duc­tive re­search strat­egy? For ex­am­ple this could be done by pro­vid­ing fi­nan­cial sup­port and/​or sta­tus re­wards for effec­tive fo­rum par­ti­ci­pa­tion.