[Meta] The Decline of Discussion: Now With Charts!

[Based on Alexan­dros’s ex­cel­lent dataset.]

I haven’t done any statis­ti­cal anal­y­sis, but look­ing at the charts I’m not sure it’s nec­es­sary. The dis­cus­sion sec­tion of LessWrong has been steadily de­clin­ing in par­ti­ci­pa­tion. My fairly messy spread­sheet is available if you want to check the data or do ad­di­tional anal­y­sis.

Enough talk, you’re here for the pretty pic­tures.

The num­ber of posts has been steadily de­clin­ing since 2011, though the trend over the last year is less clear. Note that I have ex­cluded all posts with 0 or nega­tive Karma from the dataset.

The to­tal Karma given out each month has similarly been in de­cline.

Is it pos­si­ble that there have been fewer posts, but of a higher qual­ity?

No, at least un­der ini­tial anal­y­sis the av­er­age Karma seems fairly steady. My prior here is that we’re just see­ing less vis­i­tors over­all, which leads to fewer votes be­ing dis­tributed among fewer posts for the same av­er­age value. I would have ex­pected the av­er­age karma to drop more than it did—to me that means that par­ti­ci­pa­tion has dropped more steeply than mere vis­i­ta­tion. Look­ing at the point val­ues of the top posts would be helpful here, but I haven’t done that anal­y­sis yet.

Th­ese are very dis­turb­ing to me, as some­one who has found LessWrong both use­ful and en­joy­able over the past few years. It raises sev­eral ques­tions:

  1. What should the pur­pose of this site be? Is it sup­posed to be build­ing a move­ment or fil­ter­ing down the best knowl­edge?

  2. How can we en­courage more par­ti­ci­pa­tion?

  3. What are the costs of var­i­ous means of en­courag­ing par­ti­ci­pa­tion—more ar­gu­ing, more mind­kil­ling, more rep­e­ti­tion, more off-topic threads, etc?

Here are a few strate­gies that come to mind:

Idea A: Ac­cept that LessWrong has fulfilled its pur­pose and should be left to fade away, or al­lowed to serve as a meetup co­or­di­na­tor and repos­i­tory of the high­est qual­ity ar­ti­cles. My sus­pi­cion is that with­out strong new con­tent and an on­line com­mu­nity, the strength of the in­di­vi­d­ual meetup com­mu­ni­ties may wane as fewer new peo­ple join them. This is less of an is­sue for es­tab­lished com­mu­ni­ties like Berkeley and New York, but more marginal ones may dis­ap­pear.

Idea B: Allow and en­courage sub­mis­sion of ra­tio­nal­ism, ar­tifi­cial in­tel­li­gence, tran­shu­man­ism etc re­lated ar­ti­cles from el­se­where, pos­si­bly as a sep­a­rate cat­e­gory. This is how a site like Hacker News stays high en­gage­ment, even though many of the dis­cus­sions are end­less loops of the same dis­cus­sion. It can be an­noy­ing for the old-timers, but new gen­er­a­tions may need to dis­cover things for them­selves. Some­times “put it all in one big FAQ” isn’t the most effi­cient method of teach­ing.

Idea C: Allow and en­courage posts on “poli­ti­cal” top­ics in Dis­cus­sion (but prob­a­bly NOT Main). The dan­gers here might be miti­gated by a ban on dis­cus­sion of cur­rent poli­ti­ci­ans, gov­ern­ments, and is­sues. “His­to­ri­ans need to have had a decade to mull it over be­fore you’re al­lowed to in­tro­duce it as ev­i­dence” could be a good heuris­tic. Another op­tion would be a ban on spe­cific top­ics that cause the worst mind­kil­ling. Ob­vi­ously this is over­all a dan­ger­ous road.

Idea D: Get rid of Open Threads and cre­ate a new norm that a dis­cus­sion post as short as a cou­ple sen­tences is ac­cept­able. Open threads get stag­nant within a day or two, and are harder to nav­i­gate than the dis­cus­sion page. Mov­ing dis­cus­sion from the Open Threads to the Dis­cus­sion sec­tion would in­crease par­ti­ci­pa­tion if users could be con­vinced thatit was okay to post ques­tions and partly-formed ideas there.

The challenge with any of these ideas is that they will re­quire strong mod­er­a­tion.

At any rate, this data is enough to con­vince me that some sort of change is go­ing to be needed in or­der to put the com­mu­nity on a growth tra­jec­tory. That is not nec­es­sar­ily the goal, but at its core LessWrong seems like it has the po­ten­tial to be a pow­er­ful tool for the spread­ing of ra­tio­nal thought. We just need to figure out how to get it started into its next evolu­tion.