As you are probably already aware, many internet forums experience a phenomenon known as "eternal September". Named after a temporary effect where the influx of college freshmen would throw off a group's culture every September, eternal September is essentially what happens when standards of discourse and behavior degrade in a group to the point where the group loses it's original culture. I began focusing on solving this problem and offered to volunteer my professional web services to get it done because:
- When I explained that LessWrong could grow a lot and volunteered to help with growth, various users expressed concerns about growth not always being good because having too many new users at once can degrade the culture.
- There has been concern from Eliezer about the site "going to hell" because of trolling.
- Eliezer has documented a phenomenon that subcultures know as infiltration by "poseurs" happening in the rationalist community. He explains that rationalists are beginning to be inundated by "undiscriminating skeptics" and has stated that it's bad enough that he needed to change his method of determining who is a rationalist. The appearance of poseurs doesn't guarantee that a culture will be washed away by main-streamers, but may signal that a culture is headed in that direction, and it does confirm that a loss of culture is a possibility - especially if there got to be so many undiscriminating skeptics as to form their own culture and become the new majority at LessWrong.
My plan to prevent eternal September sparked a debate about whether eternal September protection is warranted. Lukeprog, being the decision maker whose decision is needed for me to be allowed to do this as a volunteer, requested that I debate this with him because he was not convinced but might change his mind.
Here are some theories about why eternal September happens:
1. New to old user ratio imbalance:
New users need time to adjust to a forum's culture. Getting too many new users too fast will throw off the ratio of new to old users, meaning that most new users will interact with each other rather than with older users, changing the culture permanently.
2. Groups tend to trend toward the mainstream:
Imagine some people want to start a group. Why are they breaking away from the mainstream? Because their needs are served there? Probably not. They most likely have some kind of difference that makes them want to start their own group. Of course not everyone fits nicely into "different" and "mainstream", no matter what type of difference you look at. So, as a forum grows, instead of attracting people who fit nicely into the "different" category, you attract people who are similar to those in the different category. People way on the mainstream end of the spectrum generally are not attracted to things that are very different. But imagine how this progresses over time. I'll create a scale between green and purple. We'll say the green people are different and the purple people are mainstream. So, some of the most green folks make a green forum. Now, people who are green and similar - those with an extra tinge of red or blue or yellow join. People in the mainstream still aren't attracted, however, since there are still more in-between people than solid green or purple people, the most greenish in-between people begin to dominate. They and the original green people still enjoy conversation - they're similar enough to share the culture and enjoy mutual activities. But the greenish in-between people start to attract in-between people that are neither more purple or more green. There are more in-between people than greenish in-between or green people, because purple people dominate in their larger culture, so in-between people quickly outnumber the green people. This may still be fine because they may adjust to the culture and enjoy it, finding it a refreshing alternative to purple culture. But the in-between people attract people who are more purplish in-betweeners than greenish in-betweeners. There are more of those than the in-between people, so the culture now shifts to be closer to mainstream purple than different green. At this point, it begins to attract the attention of the solid purple main streamers. "Oh! Our culture, but with a twist!" They think. Now, droves of purple main stream people deluge the place looking for "something a little different". Instead of valuing the culture and wanting to assimilate, they just want to enjoy novelty. So, they demand changes to things they don't like to make it suit them better. They justify this by saying that they're the majority. At that point, they are.
3. Too many trolls scare away good people and throw off the balance.
Which theory is right?
All of them likely play a role.
I've seen for myself that trolls can scare the best people out of a forum, ruining the culture.
I've heard time and time again that subculture movements have problems with being watered down by mainstream folks until their cultures die and don't feel worth it anymore to the original participators. A lot of you have probably heard of the term "poseurs". With poseurs in a subculture, it's not that too many new people joined at once, but that the wrong sort of people joined. The view is that there are people who are different enough to "get" their movement, and people who are not. Those who aren't similar decided to try to appear like them even though they're not like them on the inside. Essentially, a large number of people much nearer to the mainstream got involved, so the group was no longer a haven for people with their differences.
And I think it's a no-brainer that if a group gets enough newbies at once, old members can't help them adjust to the culture, and the newbies will form a new culture and become a new majority.
Also, I think all of these can combine together, create feedback loops, and multiply the others.
Theory about cause and effect interactions that lead to endless September:
1. A group of people who are very different break away from the mainstream and form a group.
2. People who are similarly different but not AS different join the group.
3. People who are similar to the similarly different people, but even less similar to the different people join the group.
4. It goes on this way for a while. Since there are necessarily more people who are mainstream than different, new generations of new users may be less and less like the core group.
5. The group of different people begins to feel alienated with the new people who are joining.
6. The group of different people begin to ignore the new people.
7. The new people form their own culture with one another, excluding old people, because the old people are ignoring them.
8. Old people begin to anticipate alienation and start to see new users through tinted lenses, expecting annoyance.
9. New people feel alienated by the insulting misinterpretations that are caused by the expectation that they're going to be annoying.
10. The unwelcoming environment selects for thick-skinned people. A higher proportion of people like trolls, leaders, spammers, debate junkies, etc are active.
11. Enough new people who are ignored and failed to acculturate accumulate, resulting in a new majority. If trolls are kept under control, the new culture will be a watered down version of the original culture, possibly not much different from mainstream culture. If not, see the final possibility.
12. If a critical mass of trolls, spammers and other alienating thick-skinned types is reached due to an imbalance or inadequate methods of dealing with them, they might ward off old users, exacerbating the imbalance that draws a disproportionate number of thick-skinned types in a feedback loop and then take over the forum. (Why fourchan /b isn't known for having sweet little girls and old ladies.)
Is LessWrong at risk?
1. Eliezer has written about rationalists being infiltrated by main-streamers who don't get it, aka "poseurs".
Eliezer explains in Undiscriminating Skeptics that he can no longer determine who is a rationalist based on how they react to the prospect of religious debates, and now he has to determine who is a rationalist based on who is thinking for themselves. This is the exact same problem other subcultures have - they say the new people aren't thinking for themselves. We might argue "but we want to spread the wonderful gift of rational thought to the mainstream!" and I would agree with that. However, if all they're able to take away from joining is that there are certain things skeptics always believe, all they'll be taking away from us is an appeal to skepticism. That's the kind of thing that happens when subcultures are over-run by mainstream folks. They do not adopt the core values. Instead, they run roughshod over them. If we want undiscriminating skeptics to get benefits from refining the art of rationality, we have to do something more than hang out in the same place. Telling them that they are poseurs doesn't work for subcultures, and I don't think Eliezer telling them that they're undiscriminating skeptics will solve the problem. Getting people to think for themselves is a challenge that should not be undertaken lightly. To really get it, and actually base your life on rationality, you've either got to be the right type, a "natural" who "just gets it" (like Eliezer who showed signs as a child when he found a tarnished silver amulet inscribed with Bayes's Theorem) or you have to be really dedicated to self-improvement.
2. I have witnessed a fast-growing forum actually go exponential. Nothing special was being done to advertise the forum.
Obviously, this risks deluging old members in a sea of newbies that would be large enough to create a newbie culture and form a new majority.
3. LessWrong is growing fast and it's much bigger than I think everyone realizes.
I made a LessWrong growth bar graph showing how LessWrong has gained over 13,000 members in under 3 years (Nov 2009 - Aug 2012). LessWrong had over 3 million visits in the last year. The most popular post has gotten over 200,000 views. Yes I mean there are posts on here that are over 1/5 of their way to a million views, I did not mistype. This is not a tiny community website anymore. I see signs that people are still acting that way, like when people post their email addresses on the forum. People don't seem to realize how big LessWrong has gotten. Since this happened in a short time, we should be wondering how much further it will go, and planning for the contingency that could become huge.
4. LessWrong has experienced at least one wild spike in membership. Spikes can happen again.
We can't control the ups and downs in visitors to the site. That could happen again. It could last for longer than a month. According to Vladmir, using wget, we've got something like 600 - 1000 active users posting per month. We've got about 300 users joining per month from the registration statistics. What would happen if we got 900 each month for a few months in a row? A random spike could conceivably overwhelm the members.
5. Considering how many readers it has, LessWrong could get Slashdotted by somebody big.
If you've ever read about the Slashdot effect, you'll know that all it might take to get a deluge bigger than we can handle is to be linked to by somebody big. What if Slashdot links to LessWrong? Or somebody even bigger? We have at least one article on LessWrong that got about half as many visits as a hall of fame level Slashdot article. The article "Scientologists Force Comment Off Slashdot" got 383692 visits on Slashdot, compared with LessWrong's most popular article at 211,000 visits. (Cite: Slashdot hall of fame.) LessWrong is gaining popularity fast. It's not a small site anymore. And there are a lot of places that could Slashdot us. I may be just a matter of time before somebody pays attention, does an article on LessWrong, and it gets flooded.
6. We all want to grow LessWrong, and people may cause rapid growth before thinking about the consequences.
What if people start growing LessWrong and wildly succeed? I would like to be helping LessWrong grow but I don't want to do it until I feel the culture is well-protected.
7. Some combination of these things might happen and deluge old people with new people.
Does LessWrong need additional eternal September protection?
Lukeprog's main argument is that we don't have to worry about eternal September because we have vote downs. Here's why vote downs are not going to protect LessWrong:
1. If the new to old user ratio becomes unbalanced, or the site is filled with main streamers who take over the culture, who is going to get voted down most? The new users, or the old ones? The old members will be outnumbered, so it will likely be old members.
2. This doesn't prevent new users from interacting primarily with new users. If enough people join, there may not be enough old users doing vote downs to discourage them anymore. That means if the new to old user ratio were to become unbalanced, new users may still interact primarily with new users and form their own, larger culture, a new majority.
3. Let's say Fourchan /b decides to visit. A hundred trolls descend upon LessWrong. The trolls, like everybody else, have the ability to vote down anything they want. The trolls of course will enjoy harassing us endlessly with vote downs. They will especially enjoy the fact that it only takes three of them to censor somebody. They will find it a really, really special treat that we've made it so that anybody who responds to a censored person ends up getting points deducted. From a security perspective, this is probably one of the worst things that you could do. I came up with an idea for a much improved vote down plan.
Possibly more important: What happens if we DO prevent an eternal September?
What we are deciding here is not simply "do we want to protect this specific website from cultural collapse?" but "How do we want to introduce the art of refining rationality to the mainstream public?"
Why do main streamers deluge new cultures and what happens after that? What do they get out of it? How does it affect them in the long-term? Might being deluged by main streamers make it more likely for main streamers to become better at rational thought, like a first taste makes you want more?
If we kept them from doing that, what would happen, then?
Say we don't have a plan. LessWrong is hit by more users than it can handle. Undiscriminating skeptics are voting down every worthwhile disagreement. So, as an emergency measure, registrations are shut off, the number of visits to the website grows and then falls. We succeed in keeping out people who don't get it. After it has peaked, the fad is over. Worse, we've put them off and they're offended. Or, we don't shut off registrations, we're deluged, and now everyone thinks that a "rationalist" an "undiscriminating skeptic". We've lost the opportunity to get through to them, possibly for good. Will they ever become more rational? LessWrong wants to make the world a more rational place. An opportunity to accomplish that goal could happen. Eliezer figured out a way to make rationality popular. Millions of people have read his work. This could go even bigger.
This is why I suggested two discussion areas - then we get to keep this culture and also have an opportunity to experiment with ways for the people who are not naturals at it to learn faster. If we succeed in figuring out how to get through to them, we will know that the deluge will be constructive, if one happens. Then, we can even invite one on purpose. We can even advertise for that and I'd be happy to help. But if we don't start with eternal September protection, we could lose all this progress, lose our chance to get through to the mainstream, and pass like a fad.
For that reason, even if eternal September doesn't look likely to you after everything that I've explained above, I say it is still worthwhile to develop a tested technique to preserve LessWrong culture against a deluge and get through to those who are not naturals. Not doing so takes a risk with something important.
Your honest assessments of my ideas are welcome, always.