Explore/​Exploit for Conversations

Some­thing sta­tus: I’ve started to try on an ex­plore/​ex­ploit lens for think­ing about con­ver­sa­tion, and I like it. Here’s some rough ideas. On the edit­ing pass of this, a feel like I haven’t prop­erly sep­a­rated the im­por­tant ideas ex­plic­itly enough, but it’s fine.

You are in ex­plore mode if you are in­tro­duc­ing ideas/​top­ics to the con­ver­sa­tion and aren’t sure how much the oth­ers will en­joy them. You are in ex­ploit mode if you are talk­ing about stuff that you already know ev­ery­one will en­joy.

Be­ing in ex­plore mode re­quires feel­ing “com­fortable” with your group, and be­ing in ex­ploit mode re­quires hav­ing Com­mon Knowl­edge (CK) of Com­mon In­ter­ests (CI).


  • Explore

    • In your anime club’s board meet­ing you talk about the meta of how board meet­ings usu­aly go.

    • You got to a LW meetup and talk about a new beat-box­ing tech­nique you’ve been prac­tic­ing.

    • You tell your grandma about this heavy metal band you’re get­ting into.

  • Exploit

    • In your anime club’s board meet­ing you talk about what new shows you want to watch at club meet­ings.

    • You got to a LW meetup and talk about x-risk.

    • You tell your grandma about how school/​work/​fam­ily is go­ing.

I tried to pick ex­am­ples that weren’t se­cretly say­ing “One of these is way bet­ter than the other!” I also want to be clear that be­ing in ex­plore mode doesn’t have to be su­per edgy or out there. It just needs to be a situ­a­tion where you don’t know what re­sponse peo­ple will have be­fore you go there.

Claim: For a group (2+) of peo­ple to have good con­ver­sa­tion, you ei­ther need to have Com­mon Knowl­edge of juicy Com­mon In­ter­ests to ex­ploit, or you need to be com­fortable spend­ing time in ex­plore mode.

Ex­plore Mode

I think most peo­ple ex­pe­rience that it is eas­ier to have ex­plore mode con­ver­sa­tion with smaller groups, and with peo­ple that they know well.

I claim that it feels com­fortable to be in ex­plore mode if ev­ery group mem­ber has:

A) Rea­son to be­lieve they won’t get trapped in a bor­ing con­ver­sa­tion. (i.e any­one can steer the con­ver­sa­tion some­where new)

B) Rea­son to be­lieve that if they are bor­ing peo­ple, some­one will let them know in a non-hurt­ful way.

If A) and B) hold for the group, I’m go­ing to say your group has “ex­plore-trust”. Try­ing to ex­plore when you don’t have ex­plore-trust can lead to prob­lems:

  • Some­one starts rant­ing about some­thing far out­side the realm of CI, I start to get bored, and I also don’t feel com­fortable chang­ing the topic. If this hap­pens fre­quently, I don’t want to chat with this group of peo­ple.

  • I’ve been in groups where it seemed like ev­ery­one was so wor­ried that they might be bor­ing peo­ple, that no one talked for more than three sen­tences in a row. This lead to lots of things I was in­ter­ested in not get­ting ex­plored.

  • If on sev­eral oc­ca­sions me bring­ing in a new idea is met with, “That’s bor­ing as shit dude,” and I don’t take it well, I’m go­ing to stop try­ing to ex­plore.

Hav­ing ex­plore-trust seems to re­quire the group mem­bers hav­ing some knowl­edge of and ex­pe­rience with each other. You can’t just de­clare, “We all have ex­plore-trust now!”

Say you tell new mem­bers, “We have a rule were if you’re ever re­ally bored of the cur­rent topic, just blurt out that you’re bored.” Even if the new mem­ber sees some other peo­ple act­ing on that rule, you haven’t nec­es­sar­ily con­vinced them it’s safe for them to try it. It could to­tally be the case that there’s some weird sta­tus thing where the peo­ple are us­ing the “i’m bored” rule are the ones no one wants to offend, but if the new per­son uses the “i’m bored” rule they won’t get as wel­come a re­cep­tion.

Claim: The big­ger the group, the harder it is build ex­plore-trust.

From my per­sonal ex­pe­rience, it seems like there is an amor­phous chang­ing point at which a group goes from, “some peo­ple hang­ing out” to be­ing A Group

When deal­ing with A Group I feel ex­tra nega­tive pres­sure away from steer­ing “too much”. This varies tons based on the situ­a­tion. I’m gen­er­ally cool with steer­ing if I’m in an ex­plicit leader po­si­tion. I’m also more in­clined try and steer if I get a sense that “no one else is go­ing to”, but it’s still easy for small in­fer­ences on the group (“wait, Joe is frown­ing, is that cause he doesn’t like that we didn’t vote?”) to make me more hes­i­tant.

(Rough guess, I get the sense that many self iden­ti­fied ra­tio­nal­ists are ei­ther ex­tra-oblivi­ous, or ex­tra sen­si­tive to “groupy­ness”)

Ex­ploit Mode

If you’re do­ing con­ver­sa­tion in ex­ploit mode, some­how you’ve cre­ated Com­mon Knowl­edge of Com­mon In­ter­ests. This could have hap­pened be­cause your group formed un­der a strong self se­lect­ing con­text. If I post an add on meetup.com for “peo­ple who like to make figurines of the char­ac­ters from Fight Club out of match sticks” odds are that if any­one shows up, I’ll have some very spe­cific Com­mon In­ter­ests with them, and it will be Com­mon Knowl­edge by the fact we are both at this meetup.

Ex­cept, it’s not quite that easy to make Com­mon Knowl­edge. It’s to­tally pos­si­ble for some­one to show up at my figurine meetup for rea­sons other than, “I have a pas­sion for mak­ing Fight Club match stick figurines”.

  • “I like figurines in gen­eral and there are no other figurine mak­ing mee­tups”

  • “I re­ally like Fight Club”

  • “I wanted to check if this was ac­tu­ally a real meetup”

You could also have ei­ther some struc­ture or a leader that main­tains a con­sis­tent con­ver­sa­tion ex­pe­rience, and over time group mem­bers will self se­lect and the one’s still a part of the group will likely have pretty good Com­mon Knowl­edge of Com­mon In­ter­ests sup­ported by the struc­ture/​leader.

You also have Com­mon Knowl­edge cre­ated from past ex­plore mode con­ver­sa­tions your group has had.

The last thing I want to say about ex­ploit mode is that you always have some level of CK about your CI with any group of peo­ple, so re­ally it’s a mat­ter of cre­at­ing suffi­ciently strong CK about suffi­ciently in­ter­est­ing CI to have a good group. With any per­son on the street you have CK about about your CI of not starv­ing to death to­mor­row. You just prob­a­bly aren’t go­ing to be mak­ing a club about it any time soon.

The above idea makes me think about in­ter­faces, and speci­fi­cally the Melt­ing Asphalt post on the per­son­hood in­ter­face. In­ter­act­ing with some­one via the per­son­hood in­ter­face is less re­ward­ing than in­ter­act­ing via the best-friend in­ter­face, but it has the benefit that you can use it with al­most any per­son you meet.

One Par­tic­u­lar Failure Mode

Ra­tion­al­ity is not one thing, and peo­ple have wildly differ­ing goals. I’d peg the ra­tio­nal­ist in­ter­face as, “vaguely in­tel­lec­tual/​in­sight­ful/​clever, prob­a­bly con­trar­ian, pos­si­ble re­la­tion to tech, some facet of nerdi­ness to them”.

I re­cently at­tended a meetup where it felt like we never built any more spe­cific CI. Con­ver­sa­tion at the level of ex­ploit­ing the ra­tio­nal­ist-in­ter­face has a feel­ing of, “ooh, what’s some clever vaguely rele­vant thing I can say next to pre­vent a long awk­ward pause?”

This can get real old real fast. When I no­ticed what was hap­pen­ing, I had the thought to try to make an ex­plicit steer­ing move to have us make some CK about more in­ter­est­ing CI, but I felt a bit too un­sure about if I would be step­ping on the toes of the host of the meetup. The host also was do­ing any steer­ing, I’m as­sum­ing be­cause they didn’t like the idea of forc­ing a struc­ture on peo­ple.

Ques­tions to Explore

  • Do you have strong enough Com­mon Knowl­edge about suffi­ciently in­ter­est­ing Com­mon In­ter­ests for your group to be en­joy­able with no ex­plore mode?

  • Does your group have ex­plore trust? If you think you’re group has ex­plore trust, would oth­ers in the group think you have ex­plore-trust?

  • If you’re bring­ing a new group into ex­is­tence, be ready to ap­peal to some struc­ture, or maybe at least some struc­tured ex­plore to find some sort of CI to ex­ploit. If you find that peo­ple have more ex­plore-trust than you ex­pected, ease back on the struc­ture.

  • Think about your tra­jec­tory. Does it feel like your group will build more and more ex­plore trust over time? If not, what could you do to change that?