Concrete Ways You Can Help Make the Community Better
There is a TLDR at the bottom
Lots of people really value the lesswrong community but aren’t sure how to contribute. The rationalist community can be intimidating. We have a lot of very smart people and the standards can be high. Nonetheless there are lots of concrete ways a normal rationalist can help improve the community. I will focus on two areas—engaging with content and a list of shovel ready projects you can get involved in. I will also briefly mention some more speculative ideas at the end of the post.
1) Engaging with Content:
I have spoken to many people I consider great content creators (ex: Zvi, Putanumonit, tristanm). It’s very common to wish their articles got more comments and engagement. The easiest thing you can do is make a lesswrong account and use the upvote button. Seeing upvotes really does motivate good writers. This only works for lesswrong/reddit but it makes a difference. I can think of several lw articles with less upvotes than people who have personally told me the article was great (ex: norm-one-principle by tristanm ).
Good comments tend to be even more appreciated than upvotes, and comments can be left on blog posts. If a post has few comments, then almost any decent quality comment is likely to be appreciated by the author. If you have a question or concern, just ask. Many great authors read all their comments, at least those left in the first few days, and often respond to them. Lots of readers comment very rarely, if at all. 95.1% of people who took the SSC survey comment less than once a month and 73.6% never comment at all . The survey showed that survey takers were a highly engaged group who had read lots of posts. If a blog has very few comments I think you should update heavily towards “it’s a good idea for me to post my comment”.
However, what is most lacking in the rational-sphere is positive engagement with non-controversial content you enjoyed. Recently the SSC sub-reddit found that about 95% of recent content was either in the culture-war thread or contained in a few threads the community considered low quality (based on vote counts) . You can see a similar effect on lesswrong by considering the Dragon Army post . Most good articles posted recently to lesswrong get around 10 comments or less. The Dragon Army post got over 550. I am explicitly not asking people to avoid posting in controversial threads; doing so would be asking a lot of people. But “engagement” is an important reward mechanism for content creators. I do think we should reward more of the writers we find valuable by responding to them with positive engagement.
It’s often difficult to write a comment on a post that you agree with that isn’t just “+1 nice post.” Here are some strategies I have found useful:
- If the post is somewhat theoretical try to apply it in a concrete case. Talk about what difficulties you run into and what seems to work well.
- Talk about how the ideas in the post have helped you personally. For example you can say that never understood concept X until you read the post.
- Connect the post to other articles or essays. It’s usually not optimal to just post a link. Either summarize the other article or include a relevant, possibly extended, quote. Reading articles takes time.
- Speculate a little on how the ideas in the article could be extended further.
It’s not just article writers who enjoy people engaging with their work. People who write comments also appreciate getting good responses. Posting high quality comments, including responses to other comments, encourages other people to engage more. You can personally help get a virtuous cycle going. As a side note I am unsure about the relative values of posting a comment directly on a blog vs reposting the blogpost to lesswrong and commenting there. Currently lesswrong is not that inundated with reposts but it could get more crowded in the future. In addition, I think article authors are less likely to read lesswrong comments about their post, but I am not confident in the effect size.
2) Shovel Ready Projects:
-- Set up an online Lesswrong gaming group/server, ideally for a popular game. I have talked to people and Overwatch seems to have a lot of interest. People seemed to think it would really be a blast to play Overwatch with four other rationalists. Another popular idea is Dungeons and Dragons. I am not a gaming expert and lots of games could probably work but I wanted to share the feedback I got. Notably there is already a factorio server .
-- Help ‘aggregate’ a best of rationalist_tumblr effort posts. Rat_Tumblr is very big and hard to follow. Effort posts are mixed in with lots of random things. One could also include the best responses. There is no need to do this on a daily basis. You could just have a blog that only reblogs high-quality effort posts. I would personally follow this blog and would be willing to cooperate in whatever ways I could. I also think this blog would bring some “equality” to rat_Tumb. The structure of tumblr implies that it’s very hard to get readers unless a popular blog interacts with you. People report getting a “year’s worth of activity in a day” when someone like Eliezer or Ozy signal boosts them. An aggregator would be a useful way for less well known blogs to get attention.
-- Help the lesswrong wiki. Currently a decent fraction of lw-wiki posts are fairly out of date. In general the wiki could be doing some exciting thing such as: a distillation of Lesswrong. Fully indexing the diaspora. A list of communities. Spreading rationalist ideas. Rationalist Research. There is currently a project to modernize the wiki . Even if you don’t get involved in the more ambitious parts of the wiki you could re-write an article. Re-writing an article doesn’t require much commitment and would provide a concrete benefit to the community. The wiki is prominently linked and the community would get a lot of good PR from a polished wiki.
-- Get involved with effective altruism. The Center for Effective Altruism recent posted a very high quality involvement guide . It’s a huge list of concrete actions you can take to get involved. Every action has a brief description and a link to an article. Each article rates the action on time commitment, duration, familiarity and occupation. Very well put together.
-- Get more involved in your local irl rationalist group. Many group leaders (ex: Vanier) have suggested that it can be very hard to get members to lead things. If you are interested in leadership and have a decent reputation your local community might need your help.
I would be very interested in comments suggesting other projects/activities rationalists can get involved with.
As a brief aside I want to mention that I considered writing about outreach. But I don’t have tons of experience at outreach and I couldn’t really process the data on effective outreach. The subject seems quite complicated. Perhaps someone else has already worked through the evidence. I will however recommend this old article by Paul Christiano (now at open AI) . Notably the camp discussed in this pos did come eventually come into being. It’s not a comprehensive article but it has some good ideas. This guide to “How to Run a Successful Less Wrong Meetup”  is extremely polished and has some interesting material related to outreach and attracting new members.
It’s easy to think your actions can’t make a difference in the community, but they can. A surprisingly large number of people see comments on lesswrong or r/SSC. Good comments are highly appreciated. The person you befriend and convince to stick around on lesswrong might be the next Scott Alexander. Unfortunately, a lot of the time gratitude and appreciation never gets expressed; I am personally very guilty on this metric. But we are all in this together and this article only covers a small sample of the ways you can help make the community better.
If you have feedback or want any advice/help and don’t want to post in public I would be super happy to get your private messages.
- Write more comments on blog posts and non-controversial posts on lw and r/SSC
- Especially consider commenting on posts you agree with
- People are more likely to comment if other people are posting high quality comments.
- Projects: Gaming Server, aggregate tumblr effort-posts, improve lesswrong wiki, leadership local rationalist group