Meeting fellow LessWrongians in meat space is a great opportunity to participate in interesting discussions and to make new friends. But there aren't that many places in the world (hopefully, yet) where regularly active meetup groups exist. Here is a story of how I realised that setting up LW meetup groups is much easier than I thought; and an idea of an approach to help build more LW communities in real life.
When I co-organised the LW meetup group in Cambridge, there was already a group of friends irregularly discussing LW related topics. Strangely, it took us some time before we actually realised that we should announce a meetup on the LW website. Once we did that, our group exploded in numbers and we have had regular meetups almost every week.
Of course, Cambridge, UK is a place where we expected to be successful in forming a meetup group. It is small and the concentration of usual target audience of LW is extremely high. I thought we were lucky with the location that creating a regular meetup group proved to be so easy.
Then I had an idea of an experiment. I was travelling to Budapest last week for 3 days to visit my family and I thought that I would simply try to organise a meetup there. In the worst case, I would spend a couple of hours in a cafe reading a book. My guesstimate was that 3-4 of my friends (whom I reminded several times) and maybe 1-3 people I don't actually know would turn up.
I was surprised to find that 14 people attended the meetup, two of them travelling all the way from Bratislava to Budapest. We spent almost 4 hours in a fantastic discussion, a mailing list was created, and a second meetup is happening tomorrow. My experiment produced a result I didn't expect.
One data point is not sufficient to draw conclusions, but this result suggests that further experiments should be tried. It may just be that many cities have reached a critical number of active LessWrongians and regular meetups can start happening. Which is trivially of positive net effect.
Therefore, I would encourage people to consider getting out there and trying to set up meetup groups in their areas. But since this requires individuals actually willing to assume the role of organisers, this may not be as easy as it sounds. Fortunately, there is a document currently in development that aims to provide some help with this: http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/bak/draft_how_to_run_a_successful_less_wrong_meetup/. But there might be something else that can be done - a pioneering approach.
If you have some experience of attending/organising LW meetups, next time you are in a different city (even if only for a couple of days!) try to devote a couple of hours to organising a meetup there. Be a "pioneer". Here is what I learnt from the meetup in Budapest:
- Announce the meetup on the website well in advance.
- Choose a weekend evening, a public place in the centre - a cafe or equivalent, with some food and drinks works well.
- Bring some friends with you if there are any in the area, even if they are not very actively LessWrongian.
- Arrive earlier than the announced time - some people may turn up early.
- Get a sign saying "Less Wrong" and put it on the table.
- Get people to do some introductions first.
- It is possible that some people turning up might not be speaking the local language so switching to English may be necessary.
- People don't know what to expect from a LW meetup, so the organiser has to feel confident leading the discussion in the beginning. It probably will take off when people relax into it. Taking turns in answering some basic questions can lead to interesting discussion. Examples of questions: How did you become interested in Less Wrong? Which particular aspects of the range of LW topics you are most interested in? How does being a LessWrongian translate into your everyday life?
- If the group becomes too large, divide it into two. Optimal size is probably between 4-7. Move between groups, to encourage active discussion and participation (some groups may get stuck not knowing what to talk about). Rotate some people between groups from time to time.
- Circulate a piece of paper to get people's email addresses, create a mailing list and sign them up to it.
- Identifying one or two very active and keen members and talk to them about helping you with organising some further events.
- Even if you don't expect to be back in the area in the near future, help with choosing a time, a venue, discussion topics and activity ideas for the next meetup through the mailing list. Announce it on the website. Get the chosen organisers to help you and gradually let them do it.
- Refer the people on the mailing list to http://lesswrong.com/r/discussion/lw/bak/draft_how_to_run_a_successful_less_wrong_meetup/.
- Hope that the group lives on.