Less Wrong is a community blog devoted to refining the art of human rationality. Please visit our About page for more information.

Setting up LW meetups in unlikely places: Positive Data Point

20 [deleted] 30 March 2012 09:19PM

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.
Are you travelling any time soon? Consider setting up a LW meetup group - it's easier than I thought! Having done this in Budapest, and judging from it being successful, I would encourage others to try setting up meetup groups in this way too. And please provide feedback on how it went! I am going to be in Rome next (in three weeks), so I will try something similar again.

UPDATE: The second meetup was also a success. A short summary by Katya Morgunova (katyusha):
"We met at the same caffée. Initially, there were just four of us, later on five. We had a fascinating discussion, the starting point of which was an article previously posted to the mailing list by one of the members. The topics of the resulting talk varied from why people in Uzbekistan buy corner reflectors to what the difference between English and Dutch auction is.
By the way, the language was Hungarian all the way through, unlike that of the first meetup.
Before some of us had to leave we discussed our future meetup-related plans, and agreed that we should have random conversations at the next few occasions, then it's a good idea to commence with the rationality training."

Comments (15)

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 31 March 2012 10:09:42AM *  11 points [-]

Hi, I am the guy from Bratislava, I was there with my girlfriend, and here is my feedback. Also big thanks for organizing an LW meetup in a place reachable by train from my home!

Choosing meetup time is difficult, there is probably no best time for everyone. For us, Sunday evening was not the best time, because we did not have any decent late-night train back home, so we had to sleep in Budapest and travel home early Monday morning. Luckily we both have work schedules flexible enough, so we did not have to take a day of vacation. On the other hand, I see the conflict of interests here, because if the meetup was in my city, I probably would prefer Sunday evening, because it does not disrupt weekend plans. Maybe a time like Sunday 16:00 -- 19/20:00 would be a reasonable compromise? I don't want that you change the time for me, because I don't plan to travel to Budapest every week, instead it is a remark for myself, that when I make a first meeting in Bratislava, if I make it sooner, it will be more accessible to foreign people.

Putting a sign "Less Wrong" on the table is an obviously good idea, and it should be announced on the internet in advance. I realized this when I stood in front of the cafe and was thinking like: ok, so I got to the right country, the right city, the right street, the right building, but that was the easy part -- now here is this huge building (two floors, dozen tables on the upper floor, dozen tables on the lower floor, half dozen tables outside) full of mostly young people talking, and I don't know anyone, and I am rather shy talking to strangers... well, after a few attempts we have noticed the sign; but I would be much less nervous if I knew in advance that the sign will be there (though I supposed that rational poeple would probably make one).

Choosing a place: I appreciated that it was possible to sit inside and talk for a few hours, having paid only one drink. On the other hand, the noise level was above pleasant, sometimes I had troubles understanding what the person on the other side of the group is saying. I understand that these two things are correlated, but isn't a better "cheap and quiet" solution possible? It doesn't have to be in the center of the city, just near to some Metro station. On the other hand, it was good that this solution was scalable, especially because there came more people than were expected, and this is also an important factor when choosing a meetup place.

Anyway, this isn't big criticism, because the meetup really was near-perfect, it's more like I am speaking loudly to myself, to remind myself of some choices to do when I will organize a meetup in my city.

EDIT: Anyone from Bratislava reading this? Send me a PM!

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 02 April 2012 11:19:19AM 1 point [-]

Tell people in advance that there's a Less Wrong sign and that they don't need to worry too much about finding the right people is a great suggestion. I added it to the meetup guide (the "Making the announcement" section):

Wherever it is that you are meeting, you’ll want to bring a sign from which people can recognize the right group of people. Mention the fact that you’ll have a sign in the meetup notice, or offer some other easy visual cue for recognizing the group! This way, people don’t need to be nervous about whether they’ll find you. This is especially recommended if you’re meeting in some large location.

Comment author: Nisan 31 March 2012 01:56:19AM 5 points [-]

Great! I'm going to try this in Copenhagen soon.

Comment author: Raemon 30 March 2012 09:51:35PM 5 points [-]

I like this, but I think the word "missionary" in the title adds unnecessarily complicated and/or wrong connotations.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2012 09:55:06PM 3 points [-]

It has crossed my mind... But I haven't been able to come up with a better word. Any suggestions?

Comment author: Raemon 30 March 2012 10:16:53PM 7 points [-]

"Setting up LW meetups in unlikely places: Positive Data Point." (I'm not sure whether I'd call this a case study)

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2012 10:26:59PM 1 point [-]

Thanks!

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 30 March 2012 10:16:33PM *  1 point [-]

How about titling your post "Starting a Less Wrong meetup is easier than I thought" or "Traveling? Consider starting a Less Wrong meetup". I'm not sure we need special jargon for this, but "pioneer" has better connotations if we do.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 March 2012 10:25:15PM 2 points [-]

Thanks for the suggestion! I incorporated this into the final paragraph but rather went for Raemon's version as the title.

Comment author: oliverbeatson 01 April 2012 08:22:06PM 4 points [-]

I'm not sure Eastbourne (or more likely, the nearest city Brighton) has a lot of LW readers, due to each of their typical demographics. However, due to this post, I am rather tempted to try it out. Indeed, worst that happens is sitting in a café with a book (which sounds like something I should be doing more of anyway).

Main purpose of comment: any Brighton- or nearby LW folk, call out! I might otherwise procrastinate about this prospect by a month or more.

Comment author: [deleted] 02 April 2012 08:40:09AM 2 points [-]

Same, made one in Graz, Austria.

Comment author: rlp10 31 March 2012 09:01:17AM 3 points [-]

Alexey, you related this experience to me when I visited Cambridge a couple of weeks back. I've taken your advice and setup a meetup in Norwich this weekend. I only posted a week earlier on the website though, so perhaps next time I should post more in advance.

So, that's another benefit of the Budepest meetup, it encouraged at least one other meetup in another city.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 02 April 2012 11:12:41AM *  2 points [-]

Great post!

Based on this post, I added a "Pioneering new meetups" section to the most recent (currently non-public) version of the meetup guide. It now reads as follows:

Pioneering new meetups

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. -- Alexey Morgunov, Setting up LW meetups in unlikely places: Positive Data Point

If you are traveling to a major city that doesn’t yet have an active meetup group, you may wish to try creating one there during your visit. This is especially the case if you’re already an experienced meetup organizer or participant, but you shouldn’t let a lack of experience deter you if you aren’t.

To pioneer a new group, start by picking a location and announcing the meetup on the site, as if you’d do when starting a meetup in your hometown. When you post the notice, be sure to mention the fact that you’re only visiting and won’t become a regular attendant - people are more likely to show up if they think they won’t get an opportunity to meet you again anytime soon. If you are not already familiar with the area, you may have to rely on someone local to choose the actual site of the meetup. Try to avoid a situation where you get stuck waiting for somebody to recommend a site, or for the locals to decide on the best place, however - you’ll want to make sure that you actually confirm the location of the meetup in time. In the worst case, search for a list of cafés in the region and just pick one that looks nice. Near the center of the city is usually optimal, but if you don’t know the city well and are worried about getting lost, near the place where you’re staying is better than nothing.

It might be that you’re unlucky and won’t get any people to attend. But if you do get participation, you don’t want the meetup to remain just an isolated incident. Try to identify one or two people who seem particularly active and talk to them about organizing future events. Get people’s e-mail addresses and create a mailing list. Use it to help with choosing a time, a venue, discussion topics and activity ideas for the next meetup. Announce it on the website. Get the chosen organisers to help you and gradually let them do it. Point them to this guide if they don’t know of it already. With some luck, the group will live on without you.

Also based on this post, I added the following to the "The First Meetup" section:

People may not know what to expect from a Less Wrong meetup, so you’ll probably need to lead the discussion in the beginning. Some questions which might be suitable for being discussed in the first meetup are:

  • How did you become interested in Less Wrong?
  • Which particular aspects of the range of Less Wrong topics are you the most interested in?
  • How does being a Less Wrong reader translate into your regular life?
Comment author: latanius 05 April 2012 08:58:59PM 1 point [-]

Indeed, the atmosphere of the second meetup was quite different from that of the first one, obviously as a result of the smaller count of participants. However, there were no less interesting topics and awesome discussions (concluded by three of us on a tram about timeless decision theory...)

Organizing when to have the next meetup is also in progress, mainly using Doodle polls by Katya. By the way, I really like the place, too (sofas & tables to sit at and a really nice, kind of international feeling to it).

Comment author: Nisan 26 May 2012 07:48:12PM 0 points [-]

I am reminded of the bit in Fight Club where glyre qheqra geniryf nebhaq fgnegvat svtug pyhof rireljurer.