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

On the importance of Less Wrong, or another single conversational locus

82 Post author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 05:13PM
Epistemic status: My actual best bet.  But I used to think differently; and I don't know how to fully explicate the updating I did (I'm not sure what fully formed argument I could give my past self, that would cause her to update), so you should probably be somewhat suspicious of this until explicated.  And/or you should help me explicate it.

It seems to me that:
  1. The world is locked right now in a deadly puzzle, and needs something like a miracle of good thought if it is to have the survival odds one might wish the world to have.

  2. Despite all priors and appearances, our little community (the "aspiring rationality" community; the "effective altruist" project; efforts to create an existential win; etc.) has a shot at seriously helping with this puzzle.  This sounds like hubris, but it is at this point at least partially a matter of track record.[1]

  3. To aid in solving this puzzle, we must probably find a way to think together, accumulatively. We need to think about technical problems in AI safety, but also about the full surrounding context -- everything to do with understanding what the heck kind of a place the world is, such that that kind of place may contain cheat codes and trap doors toward achieving an existential win. We probably also need to think about "ways of thinking" -- both the individual thinking skills, and the community conversational norms, that can cause our puzzle-solving to work better. [2]

  4. One feature that is pretty helpful here, is if we somehow maintain a single "conversation", rather than a bunch of people separately having thoughts and sometimes taking inspiration from one another.  By "a conversation", I mean a space where people can e.g. reply to one another; rely on shared jargon/shorthand/concepts; build on arguments that have been established in common as probably-valid; point out apparent errors and then have that pointing-out be actually taken into account or else replied-to).

  5. One feature that really helps things be "a conversation" in this way, is if there is a single Schelling set of posts/etc. that people (in the relevant community/conversation) are supposed to read, and can be assumed to have read.  Less Wrong used to be a such place; right now there is no such place; it seems to me highly desirable to form a new such place if we can.

  6. We have lately ceased to have a "single conversation" in this way.  Good content is still being produced across these communities, but there is no single locus of conversation, such that if you're in a gathering of e.g. five aspiring rationalists, you can take for granted that of course everyone has read posts such-and-such.  There is no one place you can post to, where, if enough people upvote your writing, people will reliably read and respond (rather than ignore), and where others will call them out if they later post reasoning that ignores your evidence.  Without such a locus, it is hard for conversation to build in the correct way.  (And hard for it to turn into arguments and replies, rather than a series of non sequiturs.)


It seems to me, moreover, that Less Wrong used to be such a locus, and that it is worth seeing whether Less Wrong or some similar such place[3] may be a viable locus again.  I will try to post and comment here more often, at least for a while, while we see if we can get this going.  Sarah Constantin, Ben Hoffman, Valentine Smith, and various others have recently mentioned planning to do the same.

I suspect that most of the value generation from having a single shared conversational locus is not captured by the individual generating the value (I suspect there is much distributed value from having "a conversation" with better structural integrity / more coherence, but that the value created thereby is pretty distributed).  Insofar as there are "externalized benefits" to be had by blogging/commenting/reading from a common platform, it may make sense to regard oneself as exercising civic virtue by doing so, and to deliberately do so as one of the uses of one's "make the world better" effort.  (At least if we can build up toward in fact having a single locus.)

If you believe this is so, I invite you to join with us.  (And if you believe it isn't so, I invite you to explain why, and to thereby help explicate a shared body of arguments as to how to actually think usefully in common!)



[1] By track record, I have in mind most obviously that AI risk is now relatively credible and mainstream, and that this seems to have been due largely to (the direct + indirect effects of) Eliezer, Nick Bostrom, and others who were poking around the general aspiring rationality and effective altruist space in 2008 or so, with significant help from the extended communities that eventually grew up around this space.  More controversially, it seems to me that this set of people has probably (though not indubitably) helped with locating specific angles of traction around these problems that are worth pursuing; with locating other angles on existential risk; and with locating techniques for forecasting/prediction (e.g., there seems to be similarity between the techniques already being practiced in this community, and those Philip Tetlock documented as working).

[2] Again, it may seem somewhat hubristic to claim that that a relatively small community can usefully add to the world's analysis across a broad array of topics (such as the summed topics that bear on "How do we create an existential win?").  But it is generally smallish groups (rather than widely dispersed millions of people) that can actually bring analysis together; history has often involved relatively small intellectual circles that make concerted progress; and even if things are already known that bear on how to create an existential win, one must probably still combine and synthesize that understanding into a smallish set of people that can apply the understanding to AI (or what have you).

It seems worth a serious try to see if we can become (or continue to be) such an intellectually generative circle; and it seems worth asking what institutions (such as a shared blogging platform) may increase our success odds.

[3]  I am curious whether Arbital may become useful in this way; making conversation and debate work well seems to be near their central mission.  The Effective Altruism Forum is another plausible candidate, but I find myself substantially more excited about Less Wrong in this regard; it seems to me one must be free to speak about a broad array of topics to succeed, and this feels easier to do here.  The presence and easy linkability of Eliezer's Less Wrong Sequences also seems like an advantage of LW.

Thanks to Michael Arc (formerly Michael Vassar) and Davis Kingsley for pushing this/related points in conversation.

Comments (331)

Sort By: Popular
Comment author: nimim-k-m 07 December 2016 06:57:34PM *  2 points [-]

SSC linked to this LW post (here http://slatestarcodex.com/2016/12/06/links-1216-site-makes-right/ ). I suspect it might be of some use to you if explain my reasons why I'm interested in reading and commenting on SSC but not very much on LW.

First of all, the blog interface is confusing, more so than regular blogs or sub-reddits or blog-link-aggregators.

Also, to use LW terminology, I have pretty negative prior on LW. (Some other might say the LW has not a very good brand.) I'm still not convinced that AI risk is very important (nor that decision theory is going to be useful when it comes to mitigating AI risk (I work in ML)). The sequences and list of top posts on LW are mostly about AI risk, which to me seems quite tangential to the attempt at modern rekindling of the Western tradition of rational thought (which I do consider a worthy goal). It feels like (mind you, this is my initial impression) this particular rationalist community tries to sell me the idea that there's this very important thing about AI risk and it's very important that you learn about it and then donate to MIRI (or whatever it's called today). Also, you can learn rationality in workshops, too! It's resembles just bit too much (and not a small bit) either a) the certain religions that have people stopping me on the street or ringing my doorbell and insisting on how it's most important thing in the world that I listen to them and read their leaflet, or b) the whole big wahoonie that is self-help industry. On both counts, my instincts tell me: stay clear out of it.

And yes, most of the all the important things to have a discussion about involve or at least touch politics.

Finally, I disliked the HPMOR. Both as fiction and and as presentation of certain arguments. I was disappointed when I found out HPMOR and LW were related.

On the other hand, I still welcome the occasional interesting content that happens to be posted on LW and makes ripples in the wider internet (and who knows maybe I'll comment now that I bothered to make an account). But I ask you to reconsider if the LW is actually the healthiest part of the rationalist community, or if the more general cause of "advancement of more rational discourse in public life" would be better served by something else (for example, a number of semi-related communities such blogs and forums and meat-space communities in academia). Not all rationalism needs to be LW style rationalism.

edit. explained arguments more

Comment author: remmelt 30 November 2016 10:38:35PM *  2 points [-]

I oversee a list of Facebook groups so if there's any way I can help support this, please let me know and your arguments: https://www.facebook.com/EffectiveGroups/

Here's some intuitions I have:

  1. It will be really hard to work against the network effects and ease of Facebook but I think its social role should be emphasised instead. Likewise for EA Forum but maybe this can take on a specific role like being more friendly to new people / more of a place to share information and do announcements.

  2. If you position LW as setting the gold standard of conversations on rationality and ethics and not just give anyone on the internet the ability to join in most conversations, that will give authors an incentive to cross-post or adapt their Facebook posts for it. Otherwise, there's no clear distinction and no reason to go to one place instead of the other. However, you can still include layers of access to communication.

  3. Taking Anna's first point on the deadly puzzle, I think this should be a place for people of high merit and specialised knowledge to focus on solving it. I wouldn't know what the best meritocracy mechanisms for this would be that don't create bad side-effects. "The world is locked right now in a deadly puzzle, and needs something like a miracle of good thought if it is to have the survival odds one might wish the world to have."

  4. Maybe external blog and Facebook comments can be a first filter for thinking. If the commenters feel that their texts are of high enough quality, they can post a better version on them on the LW article. This would mean as an example that a blog like Slate Star Codex would have a LW icon link that allows a commenter to also post a cleaner version on the crossposted LW article if it meets the standards and he or she have the access. Having different usernames on different platforms may make this process less transparant.

  5. To summarise, I would optimise for the quality of the people, not the quantity of them. A small group can make a major difference but gets hindered by the noise of the crowd. There are plenty of other places on the internet for people to pleasantly discuss bias, get into intriguing debates and one-up each other.

  6. I don't mean this comment to sound elitist or arrogant. I probably wouldn't make the cut.

  7. I read lots of good suggestions for improving this website. They risk making the plans too complicated and difficult to execute though. The fact that LW's structure has been stagnant for several years indicates to me that this is a much more difficult problem to solve than an inside view would suggest. I think starting with fundamentals for engaging people like above should be the priority and likely means making some hard decisions.

For the rest, I think I don't have much of use to contribute to this discussion as a newbie. Please mention where you think I'm wrong here.

Comment author: VipulNaik 29 November 2016 02:23:05AM *  7 points [-]

I might have missed it, but reading through the comment thread here I don't see prominent links to past discussions. There's LessWrong 2.0 by Vaniver last year, and, more recently, there is LessWrong use, successorship, and diaspora. Quoting from the section on rejoin conditions in the latter:

A significant fraction of people say they'd be interested in an improved version of the site. And of course there were write ins for conditions to rejoin, what did people say they'd need to rejoin the site?

(links to rejoin condition write-ins)

Feel free to read these yourselves (they're not long), but I'll go ahead and summarize: It's all about the content. Content, content, content. No amount of usability improvements, A/B testing or clever trickery will let you get around content. People are overwhelmingly clear about this; they need a reason to come to the site and right now they don't feel like they have one. That means priority number one for somebody trying to revitalize LessWrong is how you deal with this.

Comment author: VipulNaik 29 November 2016 02:43:19AM *  11 points [-]

The impression I form based on this is that the main blocker to LessWrong revitalization is people writing sufficiently attractive posts. This seems to mostly agree with the emerging consensus in the comments, but the empirical backing from the survey is nice. Also, it's good to know that software or interface improvements aren't a big blocker.

As for what's blocking content creators from contributing to LessWrong, here are a few hypotheses that don't seem to have been given as much attention as I'd like:

  1. Contributing novel content becomes harder as people's knowledge base and expectations grow: Shooting off a speculative missive no longer works in 2016 the way it might have worked in 2011 -- people have already seen a lot of the basic speculation, and need something more substantive to catch their attention. But the flip side is that something that's truly substantive is going to require a lot of work to research and write, and then even more work to simplify and explain elegantly. This problem is stronger on LessWrong because of the asymmetric nature of rewards. On Facebook, you can still shoot off a speculative missive -- it's your own Facebook post -- and you won't get blasted for being unoriginal or boring. A lot of people will like, comment, and share your status if you're famous enough or witty enough. On LessWrong, you'll be blasted more.
  2. Negative reception and/or lack of reception is more obvious on LessWrong: Due to the karma system of LessWrong, it's brutally obvious when your posts aren't liked enough by people, and/or don't get enough comments. On personal blogs, this is a little harder for outsiders to make out (unless the blogger explicitly makes the signals obvious) and even then, harder to compare with other people's posts. This means that when people are posting things they have heavy personal investment in (e.g., they've spent months working on the stuff) they may feel reluctant to post it on LW and find it upvoted less than a random post that fits more closely in LW norms. The effects are mediated purely through psychological impact on the author. For most starting authors, the audience one reaches through LW, and the diversity of feedback one gets, is still way larger than that one would get on one's own blog (though social media circulation has lessened the gap). But the psychological sense of having gotten "only" three net upvotes compared to the 66 of the top-voted post, can make people hesitant. I remember a discussion with somebody who was disheartened about the lack of positive response but I pointed out that in absolute terms it was still more than a personal blog.
  3. Commenters' confidence often exceeds their competence, but the commenters still sound prima facie reasonable: On newspaper and magazine blogs, the comments are terrible, but they're usually obviously terrible. Readers can see them and shrug them off. On LessWrong, star power commenters often make confident comments that seem prima facie reasonable yet misunderstand the post. This is particularly the case as we move beyond LW's strong areas and into related domains, which any forum dedicated to applying rationality to the real world should be able to do. The blame here isn't solely on the commenters who make the mistaken assertions but also on the original post for not being clear enough, and on upvoters for not evaluating things carefully enough. Still, this does add to the burden of the original poster, who now has to deal with potential misconceptions and misguided but confident putdowns that aren't prima facie wrong. Hacker News has a similar problem though the comments on HN are more obviously bad (obviously ill-informed uncharitable criticism) so it might be less of a problem there.
  4. Commitment to topics beyond pet rationality topics isn't strong and clear enough: LessWrong is fairly unique as a forum with the potential for reasonably high quality discussion of just about any topic (except maybe politics and porn and sex stuff). But people posting on non-pet topics aren't totally sure how much their post belongs on LessWrong. A more clear embrace of "all topics under the sun" -- along with more cooperative help from commenters to people who post on non-conventional topics -- can help.
Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 29 November 2016 11:25:04AM 4 points [-]

I compiled some previous discussion here, but the troll downvoted it below visibility (he's been very active in this thread).

Crazy idea to address point #2: What if posts were made anonymously by default, and only became nonymous once they were upvoted past a certain threshold? This lets you take credit if your post is well-received while lessening the punishment if your post is poorly received.

Comment author: VipulNaik 29 November 2016 06:38:51PM 1 point [-]

Whoops, sorry for missing that. Upvoted, hopefully it gets to zero and resurfaces.

Comment author: Lumifer 29 November 2016 05:59:41PM 1 point [-]

Commenters' confidence often exceeds their competence

Sometimes that's deliberate. It it well known that the best way to get teh internets to explain things to you is not to ask for an explanation, but to make a confident though erroneous claim.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 30 November 2016 12:45:14PM 12 points [-]

It it well known that the best way to get teh internets to explain things to you is not to ask for an explanation, but to make a confident though erroneous claim.

I've noticed you using this strategy in the past. It makes me frustrated with you, but I want to uphold LW's norms of politeness in conversation, so I grit my teeth through the frustration and politely explain why you're wrong. This drains my energy and makes me significantly less enthusiastic about using LW.

Please stop.

Comment author: Lumifer 30 November 2016 03:35:46PM 5 points [-]

I don't make deliberately erroneous claims (unless I'm trolling which happens very rarely on LW and is obvious). I sometimes make claims without describing my confidence in them which, I think, is pretty normal. Offering an observation or an assertion up for debate so that it may be confirmed or debunked is one of the standard ways of how conversations work.

I am not sure what do you want me to do. My comments are already peppered with "I think...", and "seems to me...", and other expressions like that. Would you like me to make no errors? I would gladly oblige if only you show me how.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 01 December 2016 09:25:49AM 4 points [-]

I'll try to give you more specific feedback if I get frustrated by your comments again in the future.

Comment author: VipulNaik 29 November 2016 06:38:22PM 6 points [-]

It could also be a good way for the Internets to give up on trying to talk in a forum where you are around.

Comment author: Lumifer 29 November 2016 08:53:23PM *  1 point [-]

Why would teh internets be scared by the presence of lil' ol' me? I am very ignorable and have no desire to sealion. Not wanting to talk to me is perfectly fine.

Comment author: Jacobian 30 November 2016 06:51:07PM *  6 points [-]

Because we're talking about the quality of discussion on LW and how to encourage people to post more good stuff. Whether or not you're OK with people ignoring your trollishness, trollishness lowers the quality of discussion and discourages people from posting. If you persist at it, you are choosing personal gain (whether provocation or learning stuff) over communally beneficial norms. And you're not "lil' ol' me" when you're in top 5 of commentors month in and month out.

"Feel free to ignore me" IS sealioning, because when people react to you in a way you didn't want (for example, they get angry or frustrated) you accept no blame or responsibility for it. The first comment I got to a post about empathy and altruism was you telling me that my recommendation leads to kulaks, ghettos and witch burning (I'm being uncharitable, but not untruthful). If I am then discouraged from posting new stuff, will you say that it's entirely my fault for being too sensitive and not ignoring you?

Comment author: g_pepper 30 November 2016 08:08:28PM 1 point [-]

you are choosing personal gain ... over communally beneficial norms. ... And you're not "lil' ol' me" when you're in top 5 of commentors month in and month out.

By the same token, doesn't being in the top 5 of commentators regularly suggest that a person is not really too far outside of community norms?

IMO there is a difference between trolling and blunt but rational commentary, and the example you linked to above (involving kulaks and the like) is blunt but rational commentary (and frankly, it was not excessively blunt); there is a good case to be made for emotional human empathy acting as a check on utilitarianism running awry. The 20th century provides several examples of utopian projects ending badly, and it seems to me useful to ask if removing emotional empathy from the moral calculation is a good idea.

If I am then discouraged from posting new stuff, will you say that it's entirely my fault for being too sensitive and not ignoring you?

IMO, that is a false dichotomy - (being discouraged from posting new stuff vs. ignoring disagreeing posts). A third option is to read the disagreeing post, think about it, respond to it if you deem doing so worthwhile, and move on, while recognizing that divergent viewpoints exist.

My fear is that if comments like Lumifer's Kulak comment are discouraged for fear of discouraging future postings, LW is at risk of becoming an echo chamber.

Comment author: Jacobian 30 November 2016 11:05:12PM *  3 points [-]

As you've noticed in that thread, I didn't cry that Lumifer offended me. I replied to his comment and we ended up having a semi-productive discussion on empathy, coercion and unintended consequences. If bringing that specific example up reads as concern trolling on my part, I apologize.

I wanted to make a more general point: I do recognize that there's a trade off to be made between criticism and niceness, both of which are needed for a good discussion. I'm also OK if you think LW is too nice and the comments should be harsher. The directness of criticism is one of my favorite things about LW, along with overall commitment to free speech. But I also care about practical outcomes on discussion quality, not abstract ideology.

I think that there's an important distinction between the following two positions:

  1. "I made a blunt comment because I judged that criticism is more important than niceness in this specific case."
  2. "I made a blunt comment and niceness is not my concern at all, because other people are free to ignore me."

I think that an environment where people hold #1 produces better discussion. And unless I'm corrected, it seems like Lumifer espouses #2.

Comment author: g_pepper 01 December 2016 01:33:34AM 1 point [-]

As you've noticed in that thread, I didn't cry that Lumifer offended me. I replied to his comment and we ended up having a semi-productive discussion on empathy, coercion and unintended consequences.

Yes I did notice. That is why that particular exchange was a great example of how one need neither ignore nor be discouraged by a comment like Lumifer's kulak comment; instead, allow the comment to engender a useful dialog.

I'm also OK if you think LW is too nice and the comments should be harsher.

No, I don't think that. I really like the quality of the comments on LW, that is why I come here. However, I think that Lumifer's comments are within the range of LW community norms. One thing I like about LW is that there exists a diversity of commenting styles just as it has a diversity of viewpoints on various subjects. An example of another high-karma commentator with a style (and opinions) that are quite different from Lumifer's is gjm. IMO both commentators make thoughtful, valuable contributions to LW, albeit their styles are quite different; I think that LW benefits from both commentators' styles and opinions, and the distinct styles and opinions of many others as well. Note that I am in favor of community norms, but I feel that Lumifer's comments are within those norms.

I think that there's an important distinction between the following two positions... And unless I'm corrected, it seems like Lumifer espouses #2

IMO, Lumifer is not in category 2. Using the kulak comment again as an illustrative example, it seems to me that the comment was in no way a personal attack on you or anyone else and was not what I would classify as "not nice". It seems to me that the specific examples he chose did bring clarity to the discussion in a way that voicing an abstract objection or a less extreme example would not have. IMO Stalin's dekulakization (which is I suppose what Lumifer was referring to) really is the sort of thing that can happen more easily when an idealized (albeit flawed) utilitarian goal is pursued in the absence of emotional empathy. In short, I suspect that the examples were selected because they effectively made the point that Lumifer intended to make rather than because Lumifer was trying to offend or troll.

Comment author: gjm 30 November 2016 11:46:31AM 2 points [-]

Who said anything about scared? Or for that matter about you?

Someone in the habit of making confident erroneous claims may start to get ignored for being a blowhard even if no one is scared of them.

Comment author: CronoDAS 28 November 2016 09:56:47PM 7 points [-]

I just want Eliezer to write stuff again. All I see from him now are Facebook posts.

Comment author: Raemon 28 November 2016 04:12:55PM 14 points [-]

Quick note: Having finally gotten used to using discussion as the primary forum, I totally missed this post as a "promoted" post and would not have seen it if it hadn't been linked on Facebook, ironically enough.

I realize this was an important post that deserved to be promoted in any objective sense, but am not sure promoting things is the best way to do that by this point.

Comment author: TheAltar 28 November 2016 11:25:44PM 4 points [-]

Having the best posts be taken away from the area where people can easily see them is certainly a terrible idea architecture wise.

The solution to this is what all normal subreddit do: sticky and change the color of the title so that it both stands out and is in the same visual range as everything.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2016 04:58:27PM 2 points [-]

I realize this was an important post that deserved to be promoted in any objective sense, but am not sure promoting things is the best way to do that by this point.

Promoting posts gets them into the RSS feed. Making it possible to promote Discussion posts, or having promoted posts appear in Discussion also, or some other similar approach seems worthwhile.

Comment author: CronoDAS 28 November 2016 09:56:21PM 2 points [-]

I follow the DIscussion RSS feed but stopped following the Main RSS feed after Main shut down.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2016 11:02:20PM 4 points [-]

According to Feedly, 96 users are following the discussion RSS and 11k are following the Main RSS.

(Feedly is probably not the only place I should be checking to compare those two, but the effect size seems pretty huge. The main problem is missing people who actually check the website every day, but go to discussion/new instead of all/new.)

Comment author: Raemon 28 November 2016 05:20:20PM 1 point [-]

Gotcha. Agreed. Do you have any sense of how big a change that is?

Sometime after Solstice I can hopefully dedicate more time to hacking on Less Wrong.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2016 07:38:14PM 1 point [-]

Do you have any sense of how big a change that is?

I haven't looked at the code that generates the subreddit pages, so not really. It seems like it'd likely be a one-line change in an eligibility function somewhere, but finding that line seems rough.

Comment author: whpearson 29 November 2016 01:05:39AM 1 point [-]

My 2 cents. We are not at a stage to have a useful singular discussion. We need to collect evidence about how agents can or cannot be implemented before we can start to have a single useful discussion. Each world view needs their own space.

My space is currently my own head and I'll be testing my ideas against the world, rather than other people in discussion. If they hold up I'll come back here.

Comment author: Morendil 28 November 2016 06:41:50PM 2 points [-]

I realize I haven't given a direct answer yet, so here it is: I'm in, if I'm wanted, and if some of the changes discussed here take place. (What it would take to get me onboard is, at the least, an explicit editorial policy and people in charge of enforcing it.)

Comment author: Daniel_Burfoot 28 November 2016 01:09:44AM 12 points [-]

There are lots of diverse opinions here, but you are not going to get anywhere just by talking. I recommend you do the following:

  1. Get together a small "LW 2.0" committee that has the authority to make serious changes
  2. Have committee members debate possible changes and hash out a plan. General community members should have a place to voice their feedback, but shouldn't get a vote per se.
  3. Once the plan is decided, implement it. Then reconvene the committee every 3 or 6 months to review the status and make incremental fixes.

To say it in a different way: success or failure depends much more on building and empowering a small group of dedicated individuals, than on getting buy-in from a large diffuse group of participants.

Comment author: sarahconstantin 28 November 2016 03:17:28PM 10 points [-]

This is being done.

Comment author: casebash 01 December 2016 09:55:27PM 2 points [-]

Can you tell us who the committee members are?

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 06:16:07AM *  2 points [-]

This is how most companies work: there are employees of the company working full-time on making users as happy as possible. (In this case, I'd guess the users to focus on are users who have a history of making valuable contributions.)

Comment author: RobinHanson 27 November 2016 06:31:46PM 18 points [-]

I have serious doubts about the basic claim that "the rationalist community" is so smart and wise and on to good stuff compared to everyone else that it should focus on reading and talking to each other at the expense of reading others and participating in other conversations. There are obviously cultish in-group favoring biases pushing this way, and I'd want strong evidence before I attributed this push to anything else.

Comment author: ingres 28 November 2016 08:38:10PM 4 points [-]

Spot on in my opinion, and one of the many points I was trying to get at with the 2016 LW Survey. For example, this community seems to have basically ignored Tetlock's latest research, relegating it to the status of a "good book" that SSC reviewed. I wish I'd included a 'never heard of it' button on the communities question because I suspect the vast majority of LessWrongers have never heard of the Good Judgement Project.

I've long felt that Eliezer Yudkowsky's sequences could use somebody going over them with a highlighter and filling in the citations for all the books and papers he borrowed from.

Comment author: Raemon 12 December 2016 02:41:44AM 4 points [-]

I've long felt that Eliezer Yudkowsky's sequences could use somebody going over them with a highlighter and filling in the citations for all the books and papers he borrowed from.

This happened, FYI, in the sequences ebook.

Comment author: scarcegreengrass 28 November 2016 07:26:51PM 4 points [-]

I have similar uncertainty about the large-scale benefits of lesswrong.com, but on smaller scales i do think the site was very valuable. I've never seen a discussion forum as polite, detailed, charitable, & rigorous as the old Less Wrong.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 05:46:45AM *  5 points [-]

I see Anna making the same complaint that you yourself have made a few times: namely, that most online discussions are structured in a way that makes the accumulation of knowledge difficult. (My explanation: no one has an incentive to fix this.)

Is the fact that economists mostly cite each other evidence of "cultish in-group favoring biases"? Probably to some degree. But this hasn't fatally wounded economics.

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 06:53:31PM 15 points [-]

I don't think that a reboot/revival of LW necessarily has to consist entirely of the people who were in the community before. If we produce good stuff, we can attract new people. A totally new site with new branding might get rid of some of the negative baggage of the past, but is also less likely to get off the ground in the first place. Making use of what already exists is the conservative choice.

I hear you as saying that people here should focus on learning rather than leadership. I think both are valuable, but that there's a lack of leadership online, and my intuition is to trust "forward momentum", carrying something forward even if I do not think I am optimally qualified. He who hesitates is lost, etc.

Comment author: Vladimir_Nesov 27 November 2016 05:37:31PM *  20 points [-]

Successful conversations usually happen as a result of selection circumstances that make it more likely that interesting people participate. Early LessWrong was interesting because of the posts, then there was a phase when many were still learning, and so were motivated to participate, to tutor one another, and to post more. But most don't want to stay in school forever, so activity faded, and the steady stream of new readers has different characteristics.

It's possible to maintain a high quality blog roll, or an edited stream of posts. But with comments, the problem is that there are too many of them, and bad comments start bad conversations that should be prevented rather than stopped, thus pre-moderation, which slows things down. Controlling their quality individually would require a lot of moderators, who must themselves be assessed for quality of their moderation decisions, which is not always revealed by the moderators' own posts. It would also require the absence of drama around moderation decisions, which might be even harder. Unfortunately, many of these natural steps have bad side effects or are hard to manage, so should be avoided when possible. I expect the problem can be solved either by clever algorithms that predict quality of votes, or by focusing more on moderating people (both as voters and as commenters), instead of moderating comments.

On Stack Exchange, there is a threshold for commenting (not just asking or answering), a threshold for voting, and a separate place ("meta" forum) for discussing moderation decisions. Here's my guess at a feature set sufficient for maintaining good conversations when the participants didn't happen to be selected for generating good content by other circumstances:

  • All votes are tagged by the voters, it's possible to roll back the effect of all votes by any user.
  • There are three tiers of users: moderators, full members, and regular users. The number of moderators is a significant fraction of the number of full members, so there probably should be a few admins who are outside this system.
  • Full members can reply to comments without pre-moderation, while regular users can only leave top-level comments and require pre-moderation. There must be a norm against regular users posting top-level comments to reply to another comment. This is the goal of the whole system, to enable good conversations between full members, while allowing new users to signal quality of their contributions without interfering with the ongoing conversations.
  • Full members and moderators are selected and demoted based on voting by moderators (both upvoting and downvoting, kept separate). The voting is an ongoing process (like for comments, posts) and weighs recent votes more (so that changes in behavior can be addressed). The moderators vote on users, not just on their comments or posts. Each user has two separate ratings, one that can make them a full member, and the other that can make them a moderator, provided they are a full member.
  • Moderators see who votes how, both on users and comments, and can use these observations to decide who to vote for/against being a moderator. By default, when a user becomes a full member, they also become a moderator, but can then be demoted to just a full member if other moderators don't like how they vote. All votes by demoted moderators and the effects of those votes, including on membership status of other users, are automatically retracted.
  • A separate meta forum for moderators, and a norm against discussing changes in membership status etc. on the main site.

This seems hopelessly overcomplicated, but the existence of Stack Exchange is encouraging.

Comment author: Alexandros 27 November 2016 10:40:52AM *  63 points [-]

Hi Anna,

Please consider a few gremlins that are weighing down LW currently:

  1. Eliezer's ghost -- He set the culture of the place, his posts are central material, has punctuated its existence with his explosions (and refusal to apologise), and then, upped and left the community, without actually acknowledging that his experiment (well kept gardens etc) has failed. As far as I know he is still the "owner" of this website, retains ultimate veto on a bunch of stuff, etc. If that has changed, there is no clarity on who the owner is (I see three logos on the top banner, is it them?), who the moderators are, who is working on it in general. I know tricycle are helping with development, but a part-time team is only marginally better than no-team, and at least no-team is an invitation for a team to step up.

  2. the no politics rule (related to #1) -- We claim to have some of the sharpest thinkers in the world, but for some reason shun discussing politics. Too difficult, we're told. A mindkiller! This cost us Yvain/Scott who cited it as one of his reasons for starting slatestarcodex, which now dwarfs LW. Oddly enough I recently saw it linked from the front page of realclearpolitics.com, which means that not only has discussing politics not harmed SSC, it may actually be drawing in people who care about genuine insights in this extremely complex space that is of very high interest.

  3. the "original content"/central hub approach (related to #1) -- This should have been an aggregator since day 1. Instead it was built as a "community blog". In other words, people had to host their stuff here or not have it discussed here at all. This cost us Robin Hanson on day 1, which should have been a pretty big warning sign.

  4. The codebase, this website carries tons of complexity related to the reddit codebase. Weird rules about responding to downvoted comments have been implemented in there, nobody can make heads or tails with it. Use something modern, and make it easy to contribute to. (telescope seems decent these days).

  5. Brand rust. Lesswrong is now kinda like myspace or yahoo. It used to be cool, but once a brand takes a turn for the worse, it's really hard to turn around. People have painful associations with it (basilisk!) It needs burning of ships, clear focus on the future, and as much support as possible from as many interested parties, but only to the extent that they don't dillute the focus.

In the spirit of the above, I consider Alexei's hints that Arbital is "working on something" to be a really bad idea, though I recognise the good intention. Efforts like this need critical mass and clarity, and diffusing yet another wave of people wanting to do something about LW with vague promises of something nice in the future (that still suffers from problem #1 AFAICT) is exactly what I would do if I wanted to maintain the status quo for a few more years.

Any serious attempt at revitalising lesswrong.com should focus on defining ownership and plan clearly. A post by EY himself recognising that his vision for lw 1.0 failed and passing the batton to a generally-accepted BDFL would be nice, but i'm not holding my breath. Further, I am fairly certain that LW as a community blog is bound to fail. Strong writers enjoy their independence. LW as an aggregator-first (with perhaps ability to host content if people wish to, like hn) is fine. HN may have degraded over time, but much less so than LW, and we should be able to improve on their pattern.

I think if you want to unify the community, what needs to be done is the creation of a hn-style aggregator, with a clear, accepted, willing, opinionated, involved BDFL, input from the prominent writers in the community (scott, robin, eliezer, nick bostrom, others), and for the current lesswrong.com to be archived in favour of that new aggregator. But even if it's something else, it will not succeed without the three basic ingredients: clear ownership, dedicated leadership, and as broad support as possible to a simple, well-articulated vision. Lesswrong tried to be too many things with too little in the way of backing.

Comment author: roland 02 December 2016 03:58:26PM 3 points [-]

What explosions from EY are you referring to? Could you please clarify? Just curious.

Comment author: Lumifer 30 November 2016 03:40:02PM 4 points [-]

If I were NRx, I would feel very amused at the idea of LW people coming to believe that they need to invite an all-powerful dictator to save them from decay and ruin... :-D

Comment author: skeptical_lurker 01 December 2016 12:23:05AM *  2 points [-]

What's hilariously ironic is that our problem immigrants are Eugine's sockpuppets, when Eugine is NRx and anti-immigrant.

That Eugine is so much of a problem is actually evidence in favour of some of his politics.

Comment author: Viliam 12 December 2016 12:17:17PM *  2 points [-]

And when the dictator stops Eugine, it will also prove that Cthulhu always swims left.

(Meanwhile, in a different tribe: "So, they have a dictator now, and of course it's a white male. That validates our beliefs!")

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 November 2016 06:11:28PM *  7 points [-]

BDFL

For the benefit of anyone else who'd need to Google: Benevolent Dictator For Life

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 10:29:20PM *  33 points [-]

Re: 1, I vote for Vaniver as LW's BDFL, with authority to decree community norms (re: politics or anything else), decide on changes for the site; conduct fundraisers on behalf of the site; etc. (He already has the technical admin powers, and has been playing some of this role in a low key way; but I suspect he's been deferring a lot to other parties who spend little time on LW, and that an authorized sole dictatorship might be better.)

Anyone want to join me in this, or else make a counterproposal?

Comment author: moridinamael 30 November 2016 03:02:11PM 2 points [-]

I concur with placing Vaniver in charge. Mainly, we need a leader and a decision maker empowered to execute on suggestions.

Comment author: Alexandros 29 November 2016 10:55:56AM 7 points [-]

Who is empowered to set Vaniver or anyone else as the BDFL of the site? It would be great to get into a discusion of "who" but I wonder how much weight there will be behind this person. Where would the BDFL's authority eminate from? Would he be granted, for instance, ownership of the lesswrong.com domain? That would be a sufficient gesture.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 29 November 2016 06:16:33PM 13 points [-]

I'm empowered to hunt down the relevant people and start conversations about it that are themselves empowered to make the shift. (E.g. to talk to Nate/Eliezer/MIRI, and Matt Fallshaw who runs Trike Apps.).

I like the idea of granting domain ownership if we in fact go down the BDFL route.

Comment author: Alexandros 30 November 2016 04:22:57AM 1 point [-]

that's awesome. I'm starting to hope something may come of this effort.

Comment author: Lumifer 29 November 2016 06:00:50PM *  3 points [-]

An additional point is that you you can only grant the DFL part. The B part cannot be granted but can only be hoped for.

Comment author: ingres 28 November 2016 09:10:59PM *  6 points [-]

I'm concerned that we're only voting for Vaniver because he's well known, but I'll throw in a tentative vote for him.

Who are our other options?

Comment author: btrettel 30 November 2016 04:19:20PM *  5 points [-]

I'll second the suggestion that we should consider other options. While I know Vaniver personally and believe he would do an excellent job, I think Vaniver would agree that considering other candidates too would be a wise choice. (Narrow framing is one of the "villians" of decision making in a book on decision making he suggested to me, Decisive.) Plus, I scanned this thread and I haven't seen Vaniver say he is okay with such a role.

Comment author: Vaniver 30 November 2016 05:45:08PM 3 points [-]

I think Vaniver would agree that considering other candidates too would be a wise choice.

I do agree; one of the reasons why I haven't accepted yet is to give other people time to see this, think about it, and come up with other options.

(I considered setting up a way for people to anonymously suggest others, but ended up thinking that it would be difficult to find a way to make it credibly anonymous if I were the person that set it up, and username2 already exists.)

Comment author: Viliam 28 November 2016 09:49:16PM *  5 points [-]

I'm concerned that we're only voting for Vaniver because he's well known

Also because he already is a moderator (one of a few moderators), so he already was trusted with some power, and here we just saying that it seems okay to give him more powers. And because he already did some useful things while moderating.

Comment author: casebash 28 November 2016 10:46:16AM 3 points [-]

It would be good to know what he thinks the direction of LW should be, but I would really like to see a new BDFL.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 05:28:55AM 5 points [-]

Do we know anyone who actually has experience doing product management? (Or has the sort of resume that the best companies like to see when they hire for product management roles. Which is not necessarily what you might expect.)

Comment author: Alexandros 30 November 2016 04:24:31AM 6 points [-]

I've done my fair bit of product management, mostly on resin.io and related projects (etcher.io and resinos.io) and can offer some help in re-imagining the vision behind lw.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 28 November 2016 05:39:46AM *  6 points [-]

I do. I was a product manager for about a year, then founder for a while, and am now manager for a data science team, where part of my responsibilities are basically product management for the things related to the team.

That said, I don't think I was great at it, and suspect most of the lessons I learned are easily transferred.

Edit: I actually suspect that I've learned more from working with really good product managers than I have from doing any part of the job myself. It really seems to be a job where experience is relatively unimportant, but a certain set of general cognitive patterns is extremely important.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 05:51:15AM *  2 points [-]

OK, I vote for Satvik as the person to choose who the BDFL is :D

Comment author: philh 28 November 2016 11:35:02AM 1 point [-]

Throwing in another vote for Vaniver.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 10:42:41PM 9 points [-]

Agree with both the sole dictatorship and Vaniver as the BDFL, assuming he's up for it. His posts here also show a strong understanding of the problems affecting less wrong on multiple fronts.

Comment author: alyssavance 30 November 2016 01:12:31AM 2 points [-]

Seconding Anna and Satvik

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:50:11PM 6 points [-]

I also vote for Vaniver as BDFL.

Comment author: Viliam 28 November 2016 12:18:52AM 3 points [-]

I agree, assuming that "technical admin powers" really include access to everything he might need for his work (database, code, logs, whatever).

Comment author: RyanCarey 28 November 2016 12:07:04AM 3 points [-]

I agree that Vaniver should be.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 03:17:52AM *  6 points [-]

Re: #2, it seems like most of the politics discussion places online quickly become dominated by one view or another. If you wanted to solve this problem, one idea is

  1. Start an apolitical discussion board.

  2. Gather lots of members. Try to make your members a representative cross-section of smart people.

  3. Start discussing politics, but with strong norms in place to guard against the failure mode where people whose view is in the minority leave the board.

I explained here why I think reducing political polarization through this sort of project could be high-impact.

Re: #3, I explain why I think this is wrong in this post. "Strong writers enjoy their independence" - I'm not sure what you're pointing at with this. I see lots of people who seem like strong writers writing for Medium.com or doing newspaper columns or even contributing to Less Wrong (back in the day).

(I largely agree otherwise.)

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 05:18:43PM 26 points [-]

On the idea of a vision for a future, if I were starting a site from scratch, I would love to see it focus on something like "discussions on any topic, but with extremely high intellectual standards". Some ideas:

  • In addition to allowing self-posts, a major type of post would be a link to a piece of content with an initial seed for discussion
  • Refine upvotes/downvotes to make it easier to provide commentary on a post, e.g. "agree with the conclusion but disagree with the argument", or "accurate points, but ad-hominem tone".
  • A fairly strict and clearly stated set of site norms, with regular updates, and a process for proposing changes
  • Site erring on the side of being over-opinionated. It doesn't necessarily need to be the community hub
  • Votes from highly-voted users count for more.
  • Integration with predictionbook or something similar, to show a user's track record in addition to upvotes/downvotes. Emphasis on getting many people to vote on the same set of standardized predictions
  • A very strong bent on applications of rationality/clear thought, as opposed to a focus on rationality itself. I would love to see more posts on "here is how I solved a problem I or other people were struggling with"
  • No main/discussion split. There are probably other divisions that make sense (e.g. by topic), but this mostly causes a lot of confusion
  • Better notifications around new posts, or new comments in a thread. Eg I usually want to see all replies to a comment I've made, not just the top level
  • Built-in argument mapping tools for comments
  • Shadowbanning, a la Hacker News
  • Initially restricted growth, e.g. by invitation only
Comment author: gucciCharles 13 December 2016 08:57:55AM 1 point [-]

On that topic how you upvote? I've never been able to figure it out. I can't find any upvote button. Does anyone know where the button is?

Comment author: arundelo 13 December 2016 06:30:17PM 3 points [-]

It's a thumbs-up that is in the lower left corner of a comment or post (next to a thumbs-down). It looks like the top of these two thumbs-ups (or the bottom one after you've clicked it):

thumbs-ups

If you don't see it, it may be that they've turned off voting for new or low-karma accounts.

Comment author: gucciCharles 17 December 2016 06:30:28AM 2 points [-]

Ya, that must be it. I've been on here for like 3 years (not with this account though) but only after the diaspora. Really excited that things are getting posted again. One major issue with such a system is that I now feel pressure to post popular content. A major feature of this community is that nothing is dismissed out of hand. You can propose anything you want so long as it's supported by a sophisticated argument. The problem with only giving voting privileges to >x karma accounts is that people, like myself, will feel a pressure to post things that are generally accepted.

Now to be clear I'm not opposed to such a filter. I've personally noticed that for example, slatestarcodex doesn't have the same consistently high quality comments as lesswrong. For example people will have comments like "what's falsification?"etc. So I acknowledge that such a filter might be useful. At the same time however I'm pointing out one potential flaw with such a filter, that it lends itself to creating an echo-chamber.

Comment author: btrettel 30 November 2016 04:25:48PM *  1 point [-]

Integration with predictionbook or something similar, to show a user's track record in addition to upvotes/downvotes. Emphasis on getting many people to vote on the same set of standardized predictions

This would be a top recommendation of mine as well. There are quite a few prediction tracking websites now: PredictionBook, Metaculus, and Good Judgement Open come to mind immediately, and that's not considering the various prediction markets too.

I've started writing a command line prediction tracker which will integrate with these sites and some others (eventually, at least). PredictionBook and Metaculus both seem to have APIs which would make the integration rather easy. So integration with LessWrong should not be particularly difficult. (The API for Metaculus is not documented best I can tell, but by snooping around the code you can figure things out...)

Comment author: ESRogs 28 November 2016 10:19:44PM 1 point [-]

Built-in argument mapping tools for comments

Could you say more about what you have in mind here?

Comment author: casebash 28 November 2016 12:12:50AM 4 points [-]

"Refine upvotes/downvotes to make it easier to provide commentary on a post, e.g. "agree with the conclusion but disagree with the argument", or "accurate points, but ad-hominem tone"." - this seems complex and better done via a comment

Comment author: berekuk 01 December 2016 01:51:18AM *  16 points [-]

For the Russian LessWrong slack chat we agreed on the following emoji semantics:

  • :+1: means "I want to see more messages like this"
  • :-1: means "I want to see less messages like this"
  • :plus: means "I agree with a position expressed here"
  • :minus: means "I disagree"
  • :same: means "it's the same for me" and is used for impressions, subjective experiences and preferences, but without approval connotations
  • :delta: means "I have changed my mind/updated"

We also have 25 custom :fallacy_*: emoji for pointing out fallacies, and a few other custom emoji for other low-effort, low-noise signaling.

It all works quite well and after using it for a few months the idea of going back to simple upvotes/downvotes feels like a significant regression.

Comment author: oooo 06 December 2016 02:24:47AM *  1 point [-]

It all works quite well and after using it for a few months the idea of going back to simple upvotes/downvotes feels like a significant regression.

This Slack-specific emoji capability is akin to Facebook Reactions; namely a wider array of aggregated post/comment actions.

Comment author: btrettel 30 November 2016 04:31:24PM 2 points [-]

Some sort of emoticon could work, like what Facebook does.

Personally, I find the lack of feedback from an upvote or downvote to be discouraging. I understand that many people don't want to take the time to provide a quick comment, but personally I think that's silly as a 10 second comment could help a lot in many cases. If there is a possibility for a 1 second feedback method to allow a little more information than up or down, I think it's worth trying.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 30 November 2016 08:27:26PM 2 points [-]

I'm reminded of Slashdot. Not that you necessarily want to copy that, but that's some preexisting work in that direction.

Comment author: rayalez 27 November 2016 10:08:19PM *  9 points [-]

I am working on a project with this purpose, and I think you will find it interesting:

http://metamind.pro

It is intended to be a community for intelligent discussion about rationality and related subjects. It is still a beta version, and has not launched yet, but after seeing this topic, I have decided to share it with you now.

It is based on the open source platform that I'm building:

https://github.com/raymestalez/nexus

This platform will address most of the issues discussed in this thread. It can be used both like a publishing/discussion platform, and as a link aggregator, because it supports both twitter-like discussion, reddit-like communities, and medium-like long form articles.

This platform is in active development, and I'm very interested in your feedback. If LessWrong community needs any specific functionality that is not implemented yet - I will be happy to add it. Let me know what you think!

Comment author: nshepperd 27 November 2016 07:06:01PM 13 points [-]

I think you're right that wherever we go next needs to be a clear schelling point. But I disagree on some details.

  1. I do think it's important to have someone clearly "running the place". A BDFL, if you like.

  2. Please no. The comments on SSC are for me a case study in exactly why we don't want to discuss politics.

  3. Something like reddit/hn involving humans posting links seems ok. Such a thing would still be subject to moderation. "Auto-aggregation" would be bad however.

  4. Sure. But if you want to replace the karma system, be sure to replace it with something better, not worse. SatvikBeri's suggestions below seem reasonable. The focus should be on maintaining high standards and certainly not encouraging growth in new users at any cost.

  5. I don't believe that the basilisk is the primary reason for LW's brand rust. As I see it, we squandered our "capital outlay" of readers interested in actually learning rationality (which we obtained due to the site initially being nothing but the sequences) by doing essentially nothing about a large influx of new users interested only in "debating philosophy" who do not even read the sequences (Eternal November). I, personally, have almost completely stopped commenting since quite a while, because doing so is no longer rewarding.

Comment author: Sniffnoy 30 November 2016 08:39:31AM *  10 points [-]

doing essentially nothing about a large influx of new users interested only in "debating philosophy" who do not even read the sequences (Eternal November).

This is important. One of the great things about LW is/was the "LW consensus", so that we don't constantly have to spend time rehashing the basics. (I dunno that I agree with everything in the "LW consensus", but then, I don't think anyone entirely did except Eliezer himself. When I say "the basics", I mean, I guess, a more universally agreed-on stripped down core of it.) Someone shows up saying "But what if nothing is real?", we don't have to debate them. That's the sort of thing it's useful to just downvote (or otherwise discourage, if we're making a new system), no matter how nicely it may be said, because no productive discussion can come of it. People complained about how people would say "read the sequences", but seriously, it saved a lot of trouble.

There were occasional interesting and original objections to the basics. I can't find it now but there was an interesting series of posts responding to this post of mine on Savage's theorem; this response argued for the proposition that no, we shouldn't use probability (something that others had often asserted, but with much less reason). It is indeed possible to come up with intelligent objections to what we consider the basics here. But most of the objections that came up were just unoriginal and uninformed, and could, in fact, correctly be answered with "read the sequences".

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 04 December 2016 01:12:34PM *  5 points [-]

That's the sort of thing it's useful to just downvote (or otherwise discourage, if we're making a new system), no matter how nicely it may be said, because no productive discussion can come of it.

When it's useful it's useful, when it's damaging it's damaging, It's damaging when the sequences don't actually solve the problem. The outside view is that all too often one is directed to the sequences only to find that the selfsame objection one has made has also been made in the comments and has not been answered. It's just too easy to silently downvote, or write "read the sequences". In an alternative universe there is a LW where people don't RTFS unless they have carefully checked that the problem has really been resolved, rather than superficially pattern matching. And the overuse of RTFS is precisely what feeds the impression that LW is a cult...that's where the damage is coming from.

Unfortunately, although all of that is fixable, it cannot be fixed without "debating philosophy".

ETA

Most of the suggestions here have been about changing the social organisation of LW, or changing the technology. There is a third option which is much bolder than than of those: redoing rationality. Treat the sequences as a version 0.0 in need of improvement. That's a big project which will provide focus, and send a costly signal of anti-cultishness, because cults don't revise doctrine.

Comment author: Alexei 05 December 2016 11:19:19PM 2 points [-]

Good point. I actually think this can be fixed with software. StackExchange features are part of the answer.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 06 December 2016 08:54:26AM 1 point [-]

I'm not sure so what you mean. Developing Sequences 0.1 can be done with the help of technology, but it can't be done without community effort, and without a rethink of the status of the sequences.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 28 November 2016 02:05:23PM 3 points [-]

"debating philosophy

As opposed to what? Memorising the One true Philosophy?

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2016 05:07:44PM 5 points [-]

As opposed to what? Memorising the One true Philosophy?

The quotes signify that they're using that specifically as a label; in context, it looks like they're pointing to the failure mode of preferring arguments as verbal performance to arguments as issue resolution mechanism. There's a sort of philosophy that wants to endlessly hash out the big questions, and there's another sort of philosophy that wants to reduce them to empirical tests and formal models, and we lean towards the second sort of philosophy.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 28 November 2016 06:16:14PM 2 points [-]

How many problems has the second sort solved?

Have you considered that there may be a lot of endless hashing out, not because some people have a preference for it, but because the problems are genuinely difficult?

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2016 08:04:10PM *  5 points [-]

How many problems has the second sort solved?

Too many for me to quickly count?

Have you considered that there may be a lot of endless hashing out, not because some people have a preference for it, but because the problems are genuinely difficult?

Yes. It seems to me that both of those factors drive discussions, and most conversations about philosophical problems can be easily classified as mostly driven by one or the other, and that it makes sense to separate out conversations where the difficulty is natural or manufactured.

I think a fairly large part of the difference between LWers and similarly intelligent people elsewhere is the sense that it is possible to differentiate conversations based on the underlying factors, and that it isn't always useful to manufacture difficulty as an opportunity to display intelligence.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 29 November 2016 03:16:48PM 1 point [-]

to Too many for me to quickly count?

The last time I counted I came up with two and a half.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 29 November 2016 10:44:47AM 2 points [-]

Too many for me to quickly count?

Name three, then. :)

Comment author: Vaniver 29 November 2016 04:18:16PM 3 points [-]

What I have in mind there is basically 'approaching philosophy like a scientist', and so under some views you could chalk up most scientific discoveries there. But focusing on things that seem more 'philosophical' than not:

How to determine causality from observational data; where the perception that humans have free will comes from; where human moral intuitions come from.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 04 December 2016 01:01:10PM *  2 points [-]

Approaching philosophy as science is not new. It has had a few spectacular successes, such as the wholesale transfer of cosmology from science to philosophy, and a lot of failures, judging by the long list of unanswered philosophical questions (about 200, according to wikipedia). It also has the special pitfall of philosophically uninformed scientists answering the wrong question:-

How to determine causality from observational data;

What causality is is the correct question/.

where the perception that humans have free will comes from;

Whether humans have the power of free will is the correct question.

where human moral intuitions come from.

Whether human moral intuitions are correct is the correct question.

Comment author: Vaniver 04 December 2016 09:46:56PM 2 points [-]

What causality is is the correct question/.

Oh, if you count that one as a question, then let's call that one solved too.

Whether humans have the power of free will is the correct question.

Disagree; I think this is what it looks like to get the question of where the perception comes from wrong.

Whether human moral intuitions are correct is the correct question.

Disagree for roughly the same reason; the question of where the word "correct" comes from in this statement seems like the actual query, and is part of the broader question of where human moral intuitions come from.

Comment author: MugaSofer 29 November 2016 12:02:42PM *  3 points [-]

Off the top of my head: Fermat's Last Theorem, whether slavery is licit in the United States of America, and the origin of species.

Comment author: gwillen 27 November 2016 10:59:00PM *  6 points [-]

I think the basilisk is at least a very significant contributor to LW's brand rust. In fact, guilt by association with the basilisk via LW is the reason I don't like to tell people I went to a CFAR workshop (because rationality -> "those basilisk people, right?")

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 03:26:11AM *  2 points [-]

Reputations seem to be very fragile on the Internet. I wonder if there's anything we could do about that? The one crazy idea I had was (rot13'd so you'll try to come up with your own idea first): znxr n fvgr jurer nyy qvfphffvba vf cevingr, naq gb znxr vg vzcbffvoyr gb funer perqvoyr fperrafubgf bs gur qvfphffvba, perngr n gbby gung nyybjf nalbar gb znxr n snxr fperrafubg bs nalbar fnlvat nalguvat.

Comment author: ingres 28 November 2016 09:22:05PM 2 points [-]

Ooh, your idea is interesting. Mine was to perngr n jro bs gehfg sbe erchgngvba fb gung lbh pna ng n tynapr xabj jung snpgvbaf guvax bs fvgrf/pbzzhavgvrf/rgp, gung jnl lbh'yy xabj jung gur crbcyr lbh pner nobhg guvax nf bccbfrq gb univat gb rinyhngr gur perqvovyvgl bs enaqbz crbcyr jvgu n zrtncubar.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 04:59:00PM 7 points [-]

On (4), does anyone have a sense of how much it would cost to improve the code base? Eg would it be approximately $1k, $10k, or $100k (or more)? Wondering if it makes sense to try and raise funds and/or recruit volunteers to do this.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 05:17:21PM 6 points [-]

I think a good estimate is close to $10k. Expect to pay about $100/hr for developer time, and something like 100 hours of work to get from where we are to where we want to be doesn't seem like a crazy estimate. Historically, the trouble has been finding people willing to do the work, not the money to fund people willing to do the work.

If you can find volunteers who want to do this, we would love code contributions, and you can point them towards here to see what needs to be worked on.

Comment author: WalterL 01 December 2016 08:39:45PM *  2 points [-]

Not trolling here, genuine question.

How is the LW codebase so awful? What makes it so much more complicated than just a typical blog, + karma? I feel like I must be missing something.

From a UI perspective it is text boxes and buttons. The data structure that you need to track doesn't SEEM too complicated (Users have names, karma totals, passwords and roles? What am I not taking into account?

Comment author: Vaniver 01 December 2016 09:20:27PM 4 points [-]

How is the LW codebase so awful?

Age, mostly. My understanding is Reddit was one of the first of its kind, and so when building it they didn't have a good sense of what they were actually making. One of the benefits of switching to something new is not just that it's using technology people are more likely to be using in their day jobs, but also that the data arrangement is more aligned with how the data is actually used and thought about.

Comment author: Viliam 27 November 2016 09:50:29PM *  23 points [-]

I think you are underestimating this, and a better estimate is "$100k or more". With an emphasis on the "or more" part.

Historically, the trouble has been finding people willing to do the work, not the money to fund people willing to do the work.

Having "trouble to find people willing to do the work" usually means you are not paying enough to solve the problem. Market price, by definition, is a price at which you can actually buy a product or service, not a price that seems like it should be enough but you just can't find anyone able and/or willing to accept the deal.

The problem with volunteers is that LW codebase needs too much highly specialized knowledge. Python and Ruby just to get a chance, and then study the code which was optimized for perfomance and backwards compatibility, at the expense of legibility and extensibility. (Database-in-the-database antipattern; values precomputed and cached everywhere.) Most of the professional programmers are simply unable to contribute, without spending a lot of time studying something they will never use again. For a person who has the necessary skills, $10k is about their monthly salary (if you include taxes), and one month feels like too short time to understand the mess of the Reddit code, and implement everything that needs to be done. And the next time, if you need another upgrade, and the same person isn't available, you need another person to spend the same time to understand the Reddit code.

I believe in long term it would be better to rewrite the code from scratch, but that's definitely going to take more than one month.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 10:28:58PM 3 points [-]

Having "trouble to find people willing to do the work" usually means you are not paying enough to solve the problem.

I had difficulties finding people without mentioning a price; I'm pretty sure the defect was in where and how I was looking for people.

I also agree that it makes more sense to have a small number of programmers make extensive changes, rather than having a large number of people become familiar with how to deal with LW's code.

I believe in long term it would be better to rewrite the code from scratch, but that's definitely going to take more than one month.

I will point out there's no strong opposition to replacing the current LW codebase with something different, so long as we can transfer over all the old posts without breaking any links. The main reason we haven't been approaching it that way is that it's harder to make small moves and test their results; either you switch over, or you don't, and no potential replacement was obviously superior.

Comment author: ananda 29 November 2016 05:31:53PM 18 points [-]

I'm new and came here from Sarah Constantin's blog. I'd like to build a new infrastructure for LW, from scratch. I'm in a somewhat unique position to do so because I'm (1) currently searching for an open source project to do, and (2) taking a few months off before starting my next job, granting the bandwidth to contribute significantly to this project. As it stands right now, I can commit to working full time on this project for the next three months. At that point, I will continue to work on the project part time and it will be robust enough to be used in an alpha or beta state, and attract devs to contribute to further development.

Here is how I envision the basic architecture of this project:

  1. A server that manages all business logic (i.e. posting, moderation, analytics) and interfaces with the frontend (2) and database (3).
  2. A standalone, modular frontend (probably built with React, maybe reusing components provided by Telescope) that is modern, beautiful, and easily extensible/composable from a dev perspective.
  3. A database, possibly NoSql given the nature of the data that needs to be stored (posts, comments, etc). The first concern is security, all others predicated on that.

I will kickstart all three parts and bring them to a good place. After this threshold, I will need help with the frontend - this is not my forte and will be better executed by someone passionate about it.

I'm not asking for any compensation for my work. My incentive is to create a project that is actually immediately useful to someone; open-sourcing it and extending that usability is also nice. I also sympathize with the LW community and the goals laid out in this post.

I considered another approach: reverse-engineer HackerNews and use that as the foundation to be adapted to LW's unique needs. If this approach would be of greater utility to LW, I'd be happy to take it.

Comment author: Vaniver 29 November 2016 08:19:06PM 5 points [-]

Thanks for the offer! Maybe we should talk by email? (this username @ gmail.com)

Comment author: Gram_Stone 29 November 2016 05:41:21PM 2 points [-]

If you don't get a proper response, it may be worthwhile to make this into its own post, if you have the karma. (Open thread is another option.)

Comment author: Viliam 27 November 2016 10:57:09PM *  9 points [-]

Well, if someone would be willing me to pay for one year of full-time work, I would be happy to rewrite the LW code from scratch. Maybe one year is an overestimate, but maybe not -- there is this thing known as planning fallacy. That would cost somewhat less than $100k. Let's say $100k, and that included a reserves for occassionally paying someone else to help me with some specific thing, if needed.

I am not saying that paying me for this job is a rational thing to do; let's just take this as an approximate estimate of the upper bound. (The lower bound is hoping that one day someone will appear and do it for free. Probably also not a rational thing to do.)

Maybe it was a mistake that I didn't mention this option sooner... but hearing all the talk about "some volunteers doing it for free in their free time" made me believe that this offer would be seen as exaggerated. (Maybe I was wrong. Sorry, can't change the past.)

I certainly couldn't do this in my free time. And trying to fix the existing code would probably take just as much time, the difference being that at the end, instead of new easily maintainable and extensible code, we would have the same old code with a few patches.

And there is also a risk that I am overestimating my abilities here. I never did a project of this scale alone. I mean, I feel quite confident that I could do it in a given time frame, but maybe there would be problems with performance, or some kind of black swan.

I will point out there's no strong opposition to replacing the current LW codebase with something different, so long as we can transfer over all the old posts without breaking any links.

I would probably try to solve it as a separate step. First, make the new website, as good as possible. Second, import the old content, and redirect the links. Only worry about the import when the new site works as expected.

Or maybe don't even import the old stuff, and keep the old website frozen. Just static pages, without ability to edit anything. All we lose is the ability to vote or comment on a years-old content. At the moment of transition, open officially the new website, block the ability to post new articles on the old one, but still allow people to post comments on the old one for the following three months. At the end, all old links will work, read-only.

Comment author: alyssavance 27 November 2016 05:37:29PM 2 points [-]

If the money is there, why not just pay a freelancer via Gigster or Toptal?

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 05:55:46PM *  6 points [-]

Historically, the answers have been things like a desire to keep it in the community (given the number of software devs floating around), the hope that volunteer effort would come through, and me not having much experience with sites like those and thus relatively low affordance for that option. But I think if we pay for another major wave of changes, we'll hire a freelancer through one of those sites.

(Right now we're discussing how much we're willing to pay for various changes that could be made, and once I have that list I think it'll be easy to contact freelancers, see if they're cheap enough, and then get done the things that make sense to do.)

[edit] I missed one--until I started doing some coordination work, there wasn't shared knowledge of what sort of changes should actually be bought. The people who felt like they had the authority to design changes didn't feel like they had the authority to spend money, but the people who felt like they had the authority to spend money didn't feel like they had the authority to design changes, and both of them had more important things to be working on.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 03:23:15AM *  5 points [-]

The people who felt like they had the authority to design changes didn't feel like they had the authority to spend money, but the people who felt like they had the authority to spend money didn't feel like they had the authority to design changes, and both of them had more important things to be working on.

This sort of leadership vacuum seems to be a common problem in the LW community. Feels to me like people can err more on the side of assuming they have the authority to do things.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 28 November 2016 03:50:08AM 5 points [-]

Yeah, a good default is the UNODIR pattern ("I will do X at Y time unless otherwise directed")

Comment author: FourFire 27 November 2016 07:29:53PM *  4 points [-]
  1. I agree completely.

  2. Politics has most certainly damaged the potential of SSC. Notably, far fewer useful insights have resulted from the site and readership than was the case with LessWrong at it's peak, but that is how Yvain wanted it I suppose. The comment section has, according to my understanding become a haven for NRx and other types considered unsavoury by much of the rationalist community, and the quality of the discussion is substantially lower in general than it could have been.

  3. Sure.

  4. Codebase, just start over, but carry over the useful ideas implemented, such as disincentivizing flamewars by making responses to downvoted comments cost karma, zero initial karma awarded for posting, and any other rational discussion fostering mechanics which have become apparent since then.

  5. I agree, make this site read only, use it and the wiki as a knowledge base, and start over somewhere else.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 03:30:38AM 5 points [-]

disincentivizing flamewars by making responses to downvoted comments cost karma

I think Hacker News has a better solution to that problem (if you reply to someone who replied to you, your reply gets delayed--the deeper the thread, the longer the delay).

Comment author: SatvikBeri 28 November 2016 03:45:39AM 2 points [-]

I wonder if the correct answer is essentially to fork Hacker News, rather than Reddit (Hacker News isn't open source, but I'm thinking about a site that takes Hacker News's decisions as the default, unless there seems to be a good reason for something different.)

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 04 December 2016 05:42:21PM 2 points [-]
Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 04:46:19AM *  5 points [-]

Well, there's a vanilla version of HN that comes with the Arc distribution. It doesn't look like any of the files in the Arc distribution have been modified since Aug 4, 2009. I just got it running on my machine (only took a minute) and submitted a link. Unsure what features are missing. Relevant HN discussion.

If someone knows Paul Graham, we might be able to get a more recent version of the code, minus spam prevention features & such? BTW, I believe Y Combinator is hiring hackers. (Consider applying!)

Arc isn't really used for anything besides Hacker News. But it's designed to enable "exploratory programming". That seems ideal if you wanted to do a lot of hands-on experimentation with features to facilitate quality online discussion. (My other comment explains why there might be low-hanging fruit here.)

Comment author: SatvikBeri 28 November 2016 05:52:49AM 3 points [-]

Hacker News was rewritten in something other than Arc ~2-3 years ago IIRC, and it was only after that that they managed to add a lot of the interesting moderation features.

There are probably better technologies to build an HN clone in today–Clojure seems strictly better than Arc, for instance–the parts of HN that are interesting to copy are the various discussion and moderation features, and my sense of what they are mostly comes from having observed the site and seeing comments here and there over the years.

Comment author: toner 29 November 2016 09:12:06AM 2 points [-]

Here is some alternative code for building an HN clone: https://github.com/jcs/lobsters (see https://lobste.rs/about for differences to HN).

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 04:10:32AM *  4 points [-]

Yes, I think Hacker News is plausibly the best general-purpose online discussion forum right now. It would not surprise me if it's possible to do much better, though. As far as I can tell, most online discussion software is designed to maximize ad revenue (or some proxy like user growth/user engagement) rather than quality discussions. Hacker News is an exception because the entire site is essentially a giant advertisement to get people applying for Y Combinator, and higher-quality discussions make it a better-quality advertisement.

Comment author: Error 27 November 2016 04:20:37PM 7 points [-]

Strong writers enjoy their independence.

This is, I think, the largest social obstacle to reconstitution. Crossposting blog posts from the diaspora is a decent workaround, though -- if more than a few can be convinced to do it.

Comment author: sdr 28 November 2016 06:25:28AM *  13 points [-]

Speaking as a writer for different communities, there are 2 problems with this:

  • Duplicate content: unless explicitly canonized via headers, Google is ambiguous about which version should rank for keywords. This hits small & upcoming authors like a ton of bricks, because by default, the LW version is going to get ranked (on basis of authority), and their own content will be marked both as a duplicate, and as spam, and their domain deranked as a result.

  • "An audience of your own": if a reasonable reader can reasonably assume, that "all good content will also be cross-posted to LW anyways", that strongly eliminates the reason why one should have the small blogger in their RSS reader / checking once a day in the first place.

The HN "link aggregator" model works, because by directly linking to a thing, you will bump their ranking; if it ranks up to the main page, it drives an audience there, who can be captured (via RSS, or newsletters); and therefore have limited downside of participation.

Comment author: atucker 27 November 2016 11:50:03PM 3 points [-]

"Strong LW diaspora writers" is a small enough group that it should be straightforward to ask them what they think about all of this.

Comment author: Jacobian 29 November 2016 06:41:14PM 6 points [-]

My willingness to cross post from Putanumonit will depend on the standards of quality and tone in LW 2.0. One of my favorite things about LW was the consistency of the writing: the subject matter, the way the posts were structured , the language used and the overall quality. Posting on LW was intimidating, but I didn't necessarily consider it a bad thing because it meant that almost every post was gold.

In the diaspora, everyone sets their own standards. I consider myself very much a rationality blogger and get linked from r/LessWrong and r/slatestarcodex, but my posts are often about things like NBA stats or Pokemon, I use a lot of pictures and a lighter tone, and I don't have a list of 50 academic citations at the bottom of each post. I feel that my much writing isn't a good fit for G Wiley's budding rationalist community blog, let alone old LW.

I guess what I'm saying is that there's a tradeoff between catching more of the diaspora and having consistent standards. The scale goes from old LW standards (strictest) -> cross posting -> links with centralized discussion -> blogroll (loosest). Any point on the scale could work, but it's important to recognize the tradeoff and also to make the standards extremely clear so that each writer can decide whether they're in or out.

Comment author: sarahconstantin 28 November 2016 03:10:48PM 5 points [-]

I have been doing exactly this. My short-term goal is to get something like 5-10 writers posting here. So far, some people are willing, and some have some objections which we're going to have to figure out how to address.

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 November 2016 06:44:50PM 2 points [-]

The big downside of this is that it divides the discussion.

Comment author: gworley 27 November 2016 09:42:24PM 3 points [-]

But what's so bad about divided discussion? In some ways it helps by increasing the surface area to which the relevant ideas are exposed.

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 November 2016 06:49:06PM 4 points [-]

This is the platform Alexandros is talking about: http://www.telescopeapp.org/

Comment author: steven0461 27 November 2016 10:17:38PM 7 points [-]

I agree with your comments on small intellectually generative circles and wonder if the optimal size there might not be substantially smaller than LW. It's my sense that LW has been good for dissemination, but most of the generation of thoughts has been done in smaller IRL circles. A set of people more selected for the ability and will to focus on the problem you describe in 1-3, if gathered in some internet space outside LW, might be able to be a lot more effective.

Comment author: JonahSinick 27 November 2016 08:20:23PM 10 points [-]

Brian Tomasik's article Why I Prefer Public Conversations is relevant to

I suspect that most of the value generation from having a single shared conversational locus is not captured by the individual generating the value (I suspect there is much distributed value from having "a conversation" with better structural integrity / more coherence, but that the value created thereby is pretty distributed). Insofar as there are "externalized benefits" to be had by blogging/commenting/reading from a common platform, it may make sense to regard oneself as exercising civic virtue by doing so, and to deliberately do so as one of the uses of one's "make the world better" effort. (At least if we can build up toward in fact having a single locus.)

Comment author: shev 27 November 2016 08:14:31PM *  7 points [-]

Here's an opinion on this that I haven't seen voiced yet:

I have trouble being excited about the 'rationalist community' because it turns out it's actually the "AI doomsday cult", and never seems to get very far away from that.

As a person who thinks we have far bigger fish to fry than impending existential AI risk - like problems with how irrational most people everywhere (including us) are, or how divorced rationality is from our political discussions / collective decision making progress, or how climate change or war might destroy our relatively-peaceful global state before AI even exists - I find that I have little desire to try to contribute here. Being a member of this community seems to requiring buying into the AI-thing, and I don't so I don't feel like a member.

(I'm not saying that AI stuff shouldn't be discussed. I'd like it to dominate the discussion a lot less.)

I think this community would have an easier time keeping members, not alienating potential members, and getting more useful discussion done, if the discussions were more located around rationality and effectiveness in general, instead of the esteemed founder's pet obsession.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 09:03:23PM *  13 points [-]

Being a member of this community seems to requiring buying into the AI-thing, and I don't so I don't feel like a member.

I don't think that it's true that you need to buy into the AI-thing to be a member of the community, and so I think that it seems that way is a problem.

But I think you do need to be able to buy into the non-weirdness of caring about the AI-thing, and that we may need to be somewhat explicit about the difference between those two things.

[This isn't specific to AI; I think this holds for lots of positions. Cryonics is probably an easy one to point at that disproportionately many LWers endorse but is seen as deeply weird by society at large.]

Comment author: Error 27 November 2016 04:12:37PM *  14 points [-]

Sarah Constantin, Ben Hoffman, Valentine Smith, and various others have recently mentioned planning to do the same.

Prediction: If they do, we will see a substantial pickup in discussion here. If they don't, we won't.

People go where the content is. The diaspora left LW a ghost town not because nobody liked LW but because all the best content -- which is ever and always created by a relatively small number of people -- went elsewhere. I read SSC, and post on SSC, not because it is better than LW (it's not, its interface makes me want to hit babies with concrete blocks) but because that's where Yvain writes. LW's train wreck of a technical state is not as much of a handicap as it seems.

I like LW-ish content, so I approve of this effort -- but it will only work to the extent that the Royals return.

Comment author: Danny_Hintze 27 November 2016 07:00:42PM 8 points [-]

I think we need to put our money and investment where our mouths are on this. Either Less Wrong (or another centralized discussion platform) are very valuable and worth tens of thousands of dollars in investment and moderation, or they are not that important and not worth it. It seems that every time we have a conversation about Less Wrong and the importance of it, the problem is that we expect everyone to do things on a volunteer basis and things will just magically get going again. It seems like Less Wrong was going great back when there was active and constant investment in it by MIRI and CFAR, and once that investment stopped things collapsed.

Otherwise we are just in a situation like that of Jaguar with the cupholders, where everyone is posting on forums for 10 years about how we need cupholders, but there is no one whose actual, paid job is to get cupholders in the cars.

Comment author: RyanCarey 27 November 2016 09:48:12PM 6 points [-]

The list of plausibly worthwhile changes that would help to revitalize LessWrong is long:

  1. redesigning LW's appearance
  2. cleaning up the codebase
  3. forming a new moderation team
  4. producing a bunch of new content
  5. removing the main/discussion distinction
  6. choosing one or more people to take full leadership of the project
  7. (maybe) recentering the list of topics for discussion to include more about EA, tech or politics
  8. (maybe) allow more links, rather than just posts
  9. rebranding. x) getting many people join at once.

Effort might be superlinear here - once you commit to a few, you might just want to bite the bullet a build a new damned site.

That's going to cost time and dollars - maybe hundreds of thousands, but if it's what has to be done...

Comment author: gworley 27 November 2016 09:31:49PM 5 points [-]

As someone who is actively doing something in this direction at Map and Territory, a couple thoughts.

A single source is weak in several ways. In particular although it may sound nice and convenient from the inside, no major movement that affects a significant portion of the population has a single source. It may have its seed in a single source, but it is spread and diffuse and made up of thousands of voices saying different things. There's no one play to go for social justice or neoreaction or anything else, but there are lots of voices saying lots of things in lots of places. Some voices are louder and more respected than others, true, but success at spreading ideas means loss of centralization of the conversation.

A single source also restricts you to the choices of that source. Don't like the editorial choices and you don't have anywhere else to go. The only way to include everyone is to be like reddit and federate editorial power.

If I'm totally honest I think most desire to revitalize LW is about a nostalgia for what LW once was. I freely admit I even played on this nostalgia in the announcement of Map and Territory.

http://lesswrong.com/lw/o0u/map_and_territory_a_new_rationalist_group_blog/

I also suspect there is a certain amount of desire for personal glory. Wouldn't it be high status to be the person who was the new center of the rationalists community? So as much as people may not like to admit it, I suspect these kinds of calls for a new, unified thing play at least a little bit on people's status seeking desires. I have nothing against this if it creates the outcomes you want, but it's worth considering if it's also prohibiting coordination.

What seems to matter is spreading ideas that we/you believe will make the world better (though to be clear I don't personally care about that: I just like when my own thinking is influential on others). To this end having more content on LW is helpful, but only in so far as more content is helpful in general. Visibility for that content is probably even more important than the self-judged quality of the content itself.

I agree with Anna's sentiment, but I'd encourage you not to spin your wheels trying to recreate the LessWrong that once existed. Create new things you want to exist to spread the ideas you want to see others take up.

Comment author: Jacobian 30 November 2016 07:06:13PM 2 points [-]

I also suspect there is a certain amount of desire for personal glory. Wouldn't it be high status to be the person who was the new center of the rationalists community? So as much as people may not like to admit it, I suspect these kinds of calls for a new, unified thing play at least a little bit on people's status seeking desires.

That's a good point, but I also want to offer that I don't personally see this as a huge problem for LW. Maybe it's because I'm a latecomer, but I never really cared or kept track of who was high status on LW. First of all, I imagine that a lot of the status hierarchy is settled in real-life interactions and not by counting karma. We're all in Eliezer's shadow anyway.

I just want LW to be great again. I don't mind donating money to a small group of people who will take responsibility for making it great again. I certainly don't mind letting this small group get glory and status, especially if getting paid in status will get us a discount on the monetary cost :)

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 09:53:35PM 9 points [-]

100% centralization is obviously not correct, but 100% decentralization seems to have major flaws as well–for example, it makes discovery, onboarding, and progress in discussion a lot harder.

On the last point: I think the LW community has discovered ways to have better conversations, such as tabooing words. Being able to talk to someone who has the same set of prerequisites allows for much faster, much more interesting conversation, at least on certain topics. The lack of any centralization means that we're not building up a set of prerequisites, so we're stuck at conversation level 2 when we need to achieve level 10.

Comment author: Bo102010 28 November 2016 02:24:26AM 2 points [-]

Others have made these points, but here are my top comments:

  • The site was best when there was a new, high-quality post from a respected community member every day or two.
  • The ban on politics means that a lot of interesting discussion migrates elsewhere, e.g. to Scott's blog.
  • The site's current structure - posts vs. comments seems dated. I'd like to try something like discourse.org?
Comment author: alyssavance 27 November 2016 10:39:26AM 31 points [-]

I appreciate the effort, and I agree with most of the points made, but I think resurrect-LW projects are probably doomed unless we can get a proactive, responsive admin/moderation team. Nick Tarleton talked about this a bit last year:

"A tangential note on third-party technical contributions to LW (if that's a thing you care about): the uncertainty about whether changes will be accepted, uncertainty about and lack of visibility into how that decision is made or even who makes it, and lack of a known process for making pull requests or getting feedback on ideas are incredibly anti-motivating." (http://lesswrong.com/lw/n0l/lesswrong_20/cy8e)

That's obviously problematic, but I think it goes way beyond just contributing code. As far as I know, right now, there's no one person with both the technical and moral authority to:

  • set the rules that all participants have to abide by, and enforce them
  • decide principles for what's on-topic and what's off-topic
  • receive reports of trolls, and warn or ban them
  • respond to complaints about the site not working well
  • decide what the site features should be, and implement the high-priority ones

Pretty much any successful subreddit, even smallish ones, will have a team of admins who handle this stuff, and who can be trusted to look at things that pop up within a day or so (at least collectively). The highest intellectual-quality subreddit I know of, /r/AskHistorians, has extremely active and rigorous moderation, to the extent that a majority of comments are often deleted. Since we aren't on Reddit itself, I don't think we need to go quite that far, but there has to be something in place.

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:14:51AM 33 points [-]

I applaud this and am already participating by crossposting from my blog and discussing.

One thing that I like about using LW as a home base is that everyone knows what it is, for good and for ill. This has the practical benefit of not needing further software development before we can get started on the hard problem of attracting high-quality users. It also has the signaling benefit of indicating clearly that we're "embracing our roots", including reclaiming the negative stereotypes of LessWrongers. (Nitpicky, nerdy, utopian, etc.)

I am unusual in this community in taking "the passions" really seriously, rather than identifying as being too rational to be caught up in them. One of my more eccentric positions has long been that we ought to be a tribe. For all but a few unusual individuals, humans really want to belong to groups. If the group of people who explicitly value reason is the one group that refuses to have "civic pride" or similar community-spirited emotions, then this is not good news for reason. Pride in who we are as a community, pride in our distinctive characteristics, seems to be a necessity, in a cluster of people who aspire to do better than the general public; it's important to have ways to socially reinforce and maintain that higher standard.

Having a website of "our" own is useful for practical purposes, but it also has the value of reinforcing an online locus for the community, which defines, unifies, and distinguishes us. Ideally, our defining "place" will also be a good website where good discussion happens. I think this is a better outcome than group membership being defined by "what parties in Berkeley you get invited to" or "whose FB-friends list you're on" or the other informal social means that have been used as stopgap proxy measures for ingroupiness. People are going to choose demarcations. Why not try to steer the form of those demarcations towards something like "virtue"?

Comment author: Elo 27 November 2016 10:19:37PM 2 points [-]

"It is dangerous to be half a rationalist."

It is dangerous to half-arse this and every other attempt at recovering lesswrong (again).

I take into account the comments before mine which accurately mention several reasons for the problems on lw.

The codebase is not that bad. I know how many people have looked at it; and it's reasonably easy to fix it. I even know how to fix it; but I am personally without the coding skill to implement the specific changes. We are without volunteers willing to make changes; and without funds to pay someone to do them. Trust me. I collated all comments on all of the several times we have tried to collate ideas. We are unfortunately busy people. Working on other goals and other projects.

I think you are wrong about the need for a single Schelling point and I submit as evidence: Crony Beliefs. We have a mesh network where valuable articles do get around. Lesswrong is very much visited by many (as evidence by the comments on this post). When individuals judge information worthy; it makes its way around the network and is added to our history.

A year from now; crony beliefs may not be easy to find on lesswrong because it was never explicitly posted here in text, but it will still be in the minds of anyone active in the diaspora.


Having said all that; I am more than willing to talk to anyone who wants to work on changes or progress via skype. PM me to make a time. @Anna that includes you.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 28 November 2016 10:29:02AM 5 points [-]

It's true that articles pass around the rationalist network, and if you happen to be in it, you're likely to see some such articles. But if you have something that you'd specifically want the rationalist community to see, and you're not already in the network, it's very hard.

Some time back, I had a friend ask me how to promote their book which they thought might be of interest to the rationalist community. My answer was basically "you could start out by posting about it on LW, but not that many people read LW anymore so after that I can help you out by leveraging my position in the community". If they didn't know me, or another insider, they'd have a lot harder time even figuring out what they needed to do.

"The rationalist network" is composed of a large number of people and sites, scattered over Tumblr blogs, Facebook groups and profiles, various individual blogs, and so on. If you want to speak to the whole network, you can't just make a post on LW anymore. Instead you need to spend time to figure out who the right people are, get to know them, and hope that you either get into the inner circle, or that enough insiders agree with your message and take up spreading it.

Heck, even though I count myself as "an insider", I've also frequently wanted a way to specifically address the "rationalist community" about various topics, and then not knowing how. I mean, a lot of people in the community read my Facebook posts so I could just post something on Facebook, but that's not quite the same thing.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 11:24:35PM 15 points [-]

I think you are wrong about the need for a single Schelling point and I submit as evidence: Crony Beliefs. We have a mesh network where valuable articles do get around. Lesswrong is very much visited by many (as evidence by the comments on this post). When individuals judge information worthy; it makes its way around the network and is added to our history.

So: this is subtle. But to my mind, the main issue isn't that ideas won't mostly-percolate. (Yes, lots of folks seem to be referring to Crony Beliefs. Yes, Molloch. Yes, etc.) It's rather that there isn't a process for: creating common knowledge that an idea has percolated; having people feel empowered to author a reply to an idea (e.g., pointing out an apparent error in its arguments) while having faith that if their argument is clear and correct, others will force the original author to eventually reply; creating a common core of people who have a common core of arguments/analysis/evidence they can take for granted (as with Eliezer's Sequences), etc.

I'm not sure how to fully explicitly model it. But it's not mostly about the odds that a given post will spread (let's call that probability "p"). It's more about a bunch of second-order effects from thingies requiring that p^4 or something be large (e.g., that you will both have read the post I want to reference (p), and I'll know you'll have read it (~p^2), and that that'll be true for a large enough fraction of my audience that I don't have to painfully write my post to avoid being misunderstood by the people who haven't read that one post (maybe ~p^3 or something, depending on threshold proportion), for each of the "that one posts" that I want to reference (again, some slightly higher conjunctive requirement, with the probability correspondingly going down)...

I wish I knew how to model this more coherently.

Comment author: Viliam 28 November 2016 01:06:14PM *  2 points [-]

I think I understand what you mean. On one hand it is great to have this fluid network of rationalist websites where everyone chooses the content they prefer to read. We don't have a single point of failure. We can try different writing styles, different moderation styles, etc. The rationalist community can survive and generate new interesting content even when LW is dying and infested by downvoting sockpuppets, and Eliezer keeps posting kitten videos on Facebook (just kidding).

On the other hand, it is also great to have a shared vocabulary; a list of words I can use freely without having to explain them. Because inferential distance is a thing. (For example, LW allows me to type "inferential distance" without having to explain. Maybe I could just use a hyperlink to the origin of the term. But doing it outside of LW includes a risk of people starting to debate the concept of the "inferential distance" itself, derailing the discussion.) The opposite of public knowledge is the Eternal September.

Maybe "Moloch" is an example that meaningful terms will spread across rationalist websites. (Natural selection of rationalist memes?) Maybe hyperlinking the original source is all it takes; linking to SSC is not more difficult than linking to LW Sequences, or Wikipedia. That is, assuming that the concept is clearly explained in one self-contained article. Which is not always the case.

Consider "motte and bailey". I consider it a critical rationalist concept, almost as important as "a map is not the territory". (Technically speaking, it is a narrower version of "a map is not the territory".) I believe it helps me to see more clearly through most political debates, but it can also be applied outside of politics. And what is the canonical link? Oh, this. So, imagine that I am talking with people who are not regular SSC readers, and we are debating something either unrelated to politics, or at least unrelated to the part of politics that the SSC article talks about, but somehow there appears to be a confusion, which could be easily solved by pointing out that this is yet another instance of the "motte and bailey" fallacy, so I just use these words in a sentence, and provide a hyperlink-explanation to the SSC article. What could possibly go wrong? How could it possibly derail the whole debate?

Okay, maybe the situation with "motte and bailey" could be solved by writing a more neutral article (containing a link to the original article) afterwards, and referring to the neutral article. More generally, maybe we could just maintain a separate Dictionary of Terms Generally Considered Useful by the Rationalist Community. Or maybe the dictionary would suffer the same fate as the Sequences; it would exist, but most new people would completely ignore it, simply because it isn't standing in the middle of the traffic.

So I guess there needs to be a community which has a community norm of "you must read this information, or else you are not a valid member of this community". Sounds ugly, when I put it like this, but the opposite is the information just being somewhere without people being able to use it freely in a debate.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 28 November 2016 04:08:50PM 3 points [-]

My problem with the "shared vocabulary" is that as you note yourself here, it implies that something has already been thought through, and it assumes that you have understood the thing properly. So for example if you reject an argument because "that's an example of a motte and bailey fallacy", then this only works if it is in fact correct to reject arguments for that reason.

And I don't think it is correct. One reason why people use a motte and bailey is that they are looking for some common ground with their interlocutor. Take one of Scott's examples, with this motte and bailey:

  1. God is just the order and love in the universe
  2. God is an extremely powerful supernatural being who punishes my enemies

When the person asserts #1, it is not because they do not believe #2. It is because they are looking for some partial expression of their belief that the other person might accept. In their understanding, the two statements do not contradict one another, even though obviously the second claims a good deal more than the first.

Now Scott says that #1 is "useless," namely that even if he could theoretically accept the word "God" as applying to this, there is no reason for him to do this, because there is nowhere to go from there. And this might be true. But the fact that #2 is false does not prove that it is true. Most likely, if you work hard, you can find some #3, stronger than #1, but weaker than #2, which will also be defensible.

And it would be right to tell them to do the work that is needed. But it would be wrong to simply say, "Oh, that's a motte and bailey" and walk away.

This is not merely a criticism of this bit of shared vocabulary, so that it would just be a question of getting the right shared vocabulary. A similar criticism will apply to virtually any possible piece of shared vocabulary -- you are always assuming things just by using the vocabulary, and you might be wrong in those assumptions.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 28 November 2016 04:28:05PM 1 point [-]

Making shared vocabulary common and explicit usually makes it faster to iterate. For example, the EA community converged on the idea of replaceability as an important heuristic for career decisions for a while, and then realized that they'd been putting too much emphasis there and explicitly toned it down. But the general concept had been floating around in discussion space already, giving it a name just made it easier to explicitly think about.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 29 November 2016 03:17:26AM 2 points [-]

I think I agree with this in one sense and disagree in another. In particular, in regard to "giving it a name just made it easier to explicitly think about" :

  1. I agree that this makes it easier to reason about, and therefore you might come to conclusions faster and so on, even correctly.

  2. I don't agree that we really made it easier to think about. What we actually did is make it less necessary to think about it at all, in order to come to conclusions. You can see how this works in mathematics, for example. One of the main purpose of the symbols is to abbreviate complicated concepts so that you don't have to think through them every time they come up.

I think the second point here is also related to my objection in the previous comment. However, overall, the first point might be overall more important, so that the benefit outweighs the costs, especially in terms of benefit to a community.

Comment author: TheAncientGeek 28 November 2016 01:44:18PM 4 points [-]

And what is the canonical link? Oh, this.

No, this:

http://philpapers.org/archive/SHATVO-2.pdf

Comment author: ciphergoth 27 November 2016 11:56:45PM 7 points [-]

I don't think you can say both

The codebase is not that bad.

and

I am personally without the coding skill [...]

If I don't have the skills to fix a codebase, I'm pretty handicapped in assessing it. I might still manage to spot some bad things, but I'm in no shape to pronounce it good, or "not that bad".

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 10:38:04PM 1 point [-]

A year from now; crony beliefs may not be easy to find on lesswrong because it was never explicitly posted here in text, but it will still be in the minds of anyone active in the diaspora.

Hmm, in that if you forget the name but remember an example from the post, you won't be able to search for it, because the LW page only has the title and comments, as opposed to the full text?

Comment author: casebash 27 November 2016 02:39:46PM *  8 points [-]

I know that there have been several attempts at reviving Less Wrong in the past, but these haven't succeeded because a site needs content to succeed and generating high quality content is both extremely hard and extremely time intensive.

I agree with Alexandros that Eliezer's ghost is holding this site back - you need to talk to Eliezer and ask if he would be willing to transfer control of this site to CFAR. What we need at the moment is clear leadership, a vision and resources to rebuild the site.

If you produced a compelling vision of what Less Wrong should become, I believe that there would be people would be willing to chip in to make this happen.

EDIT: The fact that this got promoted to main seems to indicate that there is a higher probability of this working than previous attempts at starting this discussion.

Comment author: Alexei 27 November 2016 06:42:19AM 21 points [-]

I strongly agree with this sentiment, and currently Arbital's course is to address this problem. I realize there have been several discussions on LW about bringing LW back / doing LW 2.0, and Arbital has often come up. Up until two weeks ago we were focusing on "Arbital as the platform for intuitive math explanations", but that proved to be harder to scale than we thought. We now pivoted to a more discussion-oriented truth-seeking north star, which was our long-term goal all along. We are going to need innovation and experimentation both on the software and the community levels, but I'm looking forward to the challenge. :)

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 05:21:05AM *  5 points [-]

We now pivoted to a more discussion-oriented truth-seeking north star, which was our long-term goal all along.

Exciting stuff!

Are you planning to engage with the LW community to figure out what features to implement?

I know that Eliezer was heavily involved with Arbital's product management. But I think it's a mistake to make him the BDFL for LW 2.0, because LW 1.0 failed, and this was plausibly due to actions he took. Beware the halo effect: someone can simultaneously be a great blogger and a lousy product manager/forum moderator. I think we should let someone else like Vaniver have a try.

If you're planning to engage with the community (which I would strongly recommend--ignoring their userbase is the kind of thing failed startups do), I suggest waiting a bit and then creating a new thread about this, to simulate the effect of a sticky.

Comment author: Alexei 30 November 2016 04:33:03PM 2 points [-]

Are you planning to engage with the LW community to figure out what features to implement?

Eric R and I read all the comments in this thread. We've also met with multiple people in person to discuss exactly what the platform should look like. So the broad answer is "yes", but if you have a specific mode of engagement in mind, then it might be "no".

I know that Eliezer was heavily involved with Arbital's product management.

He is an adviser. There are no advocates to make him a BDFL as far as I know.

I suggest waiting a bit and then creating a new thread about this, to simulate the effect of a sticky.

I expect we'll have a public beta ready in two weeks. I plan to write a blog post of my own to explain Arbital in more details.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 07:01:11AM *  17 points [-]

I am extremely excited about this. I suspect we should proceed trying to reboot Less Wrong, without waiting, while also attempting to aid Arbital in any ways that can help (test users, etc.).

Comment author: RyanCarey 27 November 2016 09:45:15PM *  9 points [-]

If half-hearted attempts are doomed (plausible), or more generally we're operating in a region where expected returns on invested effort are superlinear (plausible), then it might be best to commit hard to projects (>1 full-time programmer) sequentially.

Comment author: malcolmocean 27 November 2016 01:32:22PM 5 points [-]

I'm very excited to have an Arbital-shaped discussion and writing platform. I've been thinking for awhile that I want some of my online writing to become less blog-like, more wiki-like, but I don't actually want to use a wiki because... yeah. Wikis.

Arbital seems way better. Is it at the point now where I could start posting some writing/models to it?

Comment author: Alexei 27 November 2016 05:55:03PM 1 point [-]

Not yet; hence Anna's comment above.

Comment author: casebash 27 November 2016 06:00:56PM 1 point [-]

If Arbital provides a solution, then that would be great, but I think it is best to have multiple projects operating at the same time.

Comment author: Alexei 28 November 2016 12:28:49AM 4 points [-]

Why?

Comment author: casebash 28 November 2016 02:13:37PM 2 points [-]

Gives us two changes to succeed.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 30 November 2016 07:50:02PM 4 points [-]

But also weakens both options' ability to be a Schelling point.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 06:07:50AM 16 points [-]

I think this is completely correct, and have been thinking along similar lines lately.

The way I would describe the problem is that truth-tracking is simply not the default in conversation: people have a lot of other goals, such as signaling alliances, managing status games, and so on. Thus, you need substantial effort to develop a conversational place where truth tracking actually is the norm.

The two main things I see Less Wrong (or another forum) needing to succeed at this are good intellectual content and active moderation. The need for good content seems fairly self-explanatory. Active moderation can provide a tighter feedback loop pushing people towards pro-intellectual norms, e.g. warning people when an argument uses the noncentral fallacy (upvotes & downvotes work fairly poorly for this.)

I'll try to post more content here too, and would be happy to volunteer to moderate if people feel that's useful/needed.

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 14 December 2016 11:56:19AM 3 points [-]

I've been using the Effective Altruism Forum more frequently than I have LessWrong for at least the past year. I've noticed it's not particularly heavily moderated. I mean, one thing is effective altruism is mediated both primarily through in-person communities, and social media. So, most of the drama occurring in EA occurs there, and works itself out before it gets to the EA Forum.

Still, though, the EA Forum seems to have a high level of quality content, but without as much active moderation necessary. The site doesn't get as much traffic as LW ever did. The topics covered are much more diverse: while LW covered things like AI safety, metacognition and transhumanism, all that and every other cause in EA is game for the EA Forum[1]. From my perspective, though, it's far and away host to the highest-quality content in the EA community. So, if anyone else here also finds that to be the case: what makes EA unlike LW in not needing as many moderators on its forum.

(Personally, I expect most of the explanatory power comes from the hypothesis the sorts of discussions which would need to be moderated are filtered out before they get to the EA Forum, and the academic tone set in EA conduce people to posting more detailed writing.)

[1] I abbreviate "Effective Altruism Forum" as "EA Forum", rather than "EAF", as EAF is the acronym of the Effective Altruism Foundation, an organization based out of Switzerland. I don't want people to get confused between the two.

Comment author: steven0461 15 December 2016 04:37:04PM 4 points [-]

Some guesses:

  • The EA forum has less of a reputation, so knowing about it selects better for various virtues
  • Interest in altruism probably correlates with pro-social behavior in general, e.g. netiquette
  • The EA forum doesn't have the "this site is about rationality, I have opinions and I agree with them, so they're rational, so I should post about them here" problem
Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 06:25:03AM 17 points [-]

Active moderation can provide a tighter feedback loop pushing people towards pro-intellectual norms, e.g. warning people when an argument uses the noncentral fallacy (upvotes & downvotes work fairly poorly for this.)

This seems right to me. It seems to me that "moderation" in this sense is perhaps better phrased as "active enforcement of community norms of good discourse", not necessarily by folks with admin privileges as such. Also simply explicating what norms are expected, or hashing out in common what norms there should be. (E.g., perhaps there should be a norm of posting all "arguments you want the community to be aware of" to Less Wrong or another central place, and of keeping up with all highly upvoted / promoted / otherwise "single point of coordination-marked" posts to LW.)

I used to do this a lot on Less Wrong; then I started thinking I should do work that was somehow "more important". In hindsight, I think I undervalued the importance of pointing out minor reasoning/content errors on Less Wrong. "Someone is wrong on less wrong" seems to me to be an actually worth fixing; it seems like that's how we make a community that is capable of vetting arguments.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 November 2016 01:02:16PM *  25 points [-]

I used to do this a lot on Less Wrong; then I started thinking I should do work that was somehow "more important". In hindsight, I think I undervalued the importance of pointing out minor reasoning/content errors on Less Wrong. "Someone is wrong on less wrong" seems to me to be an actually worth fixing; it seems like that's how we make a community that is capable of vetting arguments.

Participating in online discussions tends to reduce one's attention span. There's the variable reinforcement factor. There's also the fact that a person who comes to a discussion earlier gets more visibility. This incentivizes checking for new discussions frequently. (These two factors exacerbate one another.)

These effects are so strong that if I stay away from the internet for a few days ("internet fast"), my attention span increases dramatically. And if I've posted comments online yesterday, it's hard for me to focus today--there's always something in the back of my mind that wants to check & see if anyone's responded. I need to refrain from making new comments for several days before I can really focus.

Lots of people have noticed that online discussions sap their productivity this way. And due to the affect heuristic, they downgrade the importance & usefulness of online discussions in general. I think this inspired Patri's Self-Improvement or Shiny Distraction post. Like video games, Less Wrong can be distracting... so if video games are a distracting waste of time, Less Wrong must also be, right?

Except that doesn't follow. Online content can be really valuable to read. Bloggers don't have an incentive to pad their ideas the way book authors do. And they write simply instead of unnecessarily obfuscating like academics. (Some related discussion.)

Participating in discussions online is often high leverage. The ratio of readers to participants in online discussions can be quite high. Some numbers from the LW-sphere that back this up:

  • In 2010, Kevin created a thread where he asked lurkers to say hi. The thread generated 617 comments.

  • 77% of respondents to the Less Wrong survey have never posted a comment. (And this is a population of readers who were sufficiently engaged to take the survey!)

  • Here's a relatively obscure comment of mine that was voted to +2. But it was read by at least 135 logged-in users. Since 54+% of the LW readership has never registered an account, this obscure comment was likely read by 270+ people. A similar case study--deeply threaded comment posted 4 days after a top-level post, read by at least 22 logged-in users.

Based on this line of reasoning, I'm currently working on the problem of preserving focus while participating in online discussions. I've got some ideas, but I'd love to hear thoughts from anyone who wants to spend a minute brainstorming.

Comment author: adamzerner 29 November 2016 07:53:55AM *  6 points [-]

Regarding the idea that online discussion hurts attention span and productivity, I agree for the reasons you say. The book Deep Work (my review) talks more about it. I'm not too familiar with the actual research, but my mind seems to recall that the research supports this idea. Time Well Spent is a movement that deals with this topic and has some good content/resources.

I think it's important to separate internet time from non-internet time. The author talks about this in Deep Work. He recommends that internet time be scheduled in advance, that way you're not internetting mindlessly out of impulse. If willpower is an issue, try Self Control, or going somewhere without internet. I sometimes find it useful to lock my phone in the mailbox downstairs.

I'm no expert, but suspect that LW could do a better job designing for Time Well Spent.

  • Remove things on the sidebar like "Recent Posts" and "Recent Comments" (first item on Time Well Spent checklist). They tempt you to click around and stay on longer. If you want to see new posts or comments, you could deliberately choose to click on a link that takes you to a new webpage that shows you those things, rather than always having them shoved in your face.
  • Give users the option of "only be able to see things in your inbox once per day". That way, you're not tempted to constantly be checking it. (second item on checklist; letting users disconnect)
  • I think it'd be cool to let people display their productivity goals on their profile. Eg. "I check LW Tuesday and Thursday nights, and Sunday mornings. I intend to be working during these hours." That way perhaps you won't feel obligated to respond to people when you should be working. Furthermore, there's the social reward/punishment aspect of it - "Hey! You posted this comment at 4:30 on a Wednesday - weren't you supposed to be working then?"

These are just some initial thoughts. I know that we can come up with much more.

Tangential comment: a big thought of mine has always been that LW (and online forums in general) lead to the same conversation threads being repeated. Ie. the topic of "how to reduce internet distractions" surely has been discussed here before. It'd be cool if there was a central place for that discussion, it was organized well into some type of community wiki. I envision there being much less "duplication" this way. I also envision a lot more time being spent on "organizing current thoughts" as opposed to "thinking new thoughts". (These thoughts are very rough and not well composed.)

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 28 November 2016 05:23:53AM 6 points [-]

I think this inspired Patri's Self-Improvement or Shiny Distraction post. Like video games, Less Wrong can be distracting... so if video games are a distracting waste of time, Less Wrong must also be, right?

I've been thinking about Patri's post for a long time, because I've found the question puzzling. The friends of mine who feel similar to Patri then are ones who look to rationality as a tool for effective egoism/self-care, entrepreneurship insights, and lifehacks. They're focused on individual rationality, and improved heuristics for improving things in their own life fast. Doing things by yourself allows for quicker decision-making and tighter feedback loops. It's easier to tell if what you're doing works sooner.

That's often referred to as instrumental rationality, and that the Sequences tended to focus more on epistemic rationality. But I think a lot of what Eliezer wrote about how to create a rational community which can go on form to project teams and build intellectual movements was instrumental rationality. It's just taken longer to tell if that's succeeded.

Patri's post was written in 2010. A lot has changed since then. The Future of Life Institute (FLI) is an organization which is responsible along with Superintelligence for boosting AI safety to the mainstream. FLI was founded by community members whose meeting originated on LessWrong, so that's value added to advancing AI safety that wouldn't have existed if LW never started. CFAR didn't exist in 2010. Effective altruism (EA) has blown up, and I think LW doesn't get enough credit for generating the meme pool which spawned it. Whatever one thinks of EA, it has achieved measurable progress on its own goals like how much money is moved not only through Givewell, but by a foundation with an endowment over $9 billion.

What I've read is the LW community aspiring to do better than science is currently done in new ways, or to apply rationality to new domains and make headway on your goals. Impressive progress has been made on many community goals.

Comment author: gworley 27 November 2016 09:39:10PM 2 points [-]

I tend to find discussions in comments unhelpful, but enjoy discussions spread out over responding posts. If someone takes the time to write something of length and quality sufficient that they are willing to write it as a top-level post to their blog/etc. then it's more often worth reading to me. My time is valuable, comments are cheap, so I rather read things the author invested thought in writing.

(I recognize the irony that I'm participating in this discussion right now, but this particular discussion seems an unusually good chance to spread my thinking on this topic.)

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 27 November 2016 02:42:35PM *  2 points [-]

If anyone wants to collaborate in tackling the focus problem, send me a personal message with info on how to contact you. Maybe we can get some kind of randomized trial going.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 04:33:57PM 3 points [-]

Thinking about this more, I think that moderator status matters more than specific moderator privilege. Without one or more people like this, it's pretty difficult to actually converge on new norms. I could make some posts suggesting new norms for e.g. posting to main vs. discussion, but without someone taking an ownership role in the site there's no way to cause that to happen.

I suspect one of the reasons people have moved discussions to their own blogs or walls is because they feel like they actually can affect the norms there. Unofficial status works (cf. Eliezer, Yvain) but is not very scalable–it requires people willing to spend a lot of time writing content as well as thinking about, discussing, and advocating for community norms. I think you, Ben, Sarah etc. committing to posting here makes a lesswrong revival more likely to succeed, and would place even higher odds if 1 or more people committed to spending a significant amount of time on work such as:

  • Clarifying what type of content is encouraged on less wrong, and what belongs in discussion vs. main
  • Writing up a set of discussion norms that people can link to when saying "please do X"
  • Talking to people and observing the state of the community in order to improve the norms
  • Regularly reaching out to other writers/cross-posting relevant content, along with the seeds of a discussion
  • Actually ban trolls
  • Manage some ongoing development to improve site features
Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 05:50:12PM 14 points [-]

Thinking about this more, I think that moderator status matters more than specific moderator privilege. Without one or more people like this, it's pretty difficult to actually converge on new norms. I could make some posts suggesting new norms for e.g. posting to main vs. discussion, but without someone taking an ownership role in the site there's no way to cause that to happen.

One idea that I had, that I still think is good, is essentially something like the Sunshine Regiment. The minimal elements are:

  1. A bat-signal where you can flag a comment for attention by someone in the Sunshine Regiment.

  2. That shows up in an inbox of everyone in the SR until one of them clicks an "I've got this" button.

  3. The person who took on the post writes an explanation of how they could have written the post better / more in line with community norms.

The basic idea here is that lots of people have the ability to stage these interventions / do these corrections, but (a) it's draining and not the sort of thing that a lot of people want to do more than X times a month, and (b) not the sort of thing low-status but norm-acclimated members of the community feel comfortable doing unless they're given a badge.

A similar system is something like Stack Overflow's review queue, which gives users the ability to review more complicated things as their karma gets higher, and thus offloads basic administrative duties to users in a way that scales fairly well. But while SO is mostly concerned with making sure edits aren't vandalizing the post and garbage gets cleaned up, I think LW benefits from taking a more transformative approach towards posters. (If we have a lot of material that identifies errors of thought and can correct those, then let's use it!)

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 06:34:29PM 9 points [-]

Happy to join Sunshine Regiment if you can set it up.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 07:06:55PM 10 points [-]

Also happy to join. And I'm happy to commit to a significant amount of moderation (e.g. 10/hours a week for the next 3 months) if you think it's useful.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 10:09:13AM 4 points [-]

This seems right to me. It seems to me that "moderation" in this sense is perhaps better phrased as "active enforcement of community norms of good discourse", not necessarily by folks with admin privileges as such. Also simply explicating what norms are expected, or hashing out in common what norms there should be.

I agree that there should be much more active enforcement of good norms than heavy-handed moderation (banning etc.), but I have a cached thought that lack of such moderation was a significant part of why I lost interest in lesswrong.com, though I don't remember specific examples.

In hindsight, I think I undervalued the importance of pointing out minor reasoning/content errors on Less Wrong. "Someone is wrong on less wrong" seems to me to be an actually worth fixing; it seems like that's how we make a community that is capable of vetting arguments.

Completely agree. One particularly important mechanism, IMO, is that brains tend to pay substantially more attention to things they perceive other humans caring about. I know I write substantially better code when someone I respect will be reviewing it in detail, and that I have trouble rousing the same motivation without that.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 08:39:16AM 5 points [-]

good intellectual content

Yes. I wonder if there are somehow spreadable habits of thinking (or of "reading while digesting/synethesizing/blog posting", or ...) that could themselves be written up, in order to create more ability from more folks to add good content.

Probably too meta / too clever an idea, but may be worth some individual brainstorms?

Comment author: owencb 27 November 2016 10:16:17AM *  7 points [-]

I think I disagree with your conclusion here, although I'd agree with something in its vicinity.

One of the strengths of a larger community is the potential to explore multiple areas in moderate amounts of depth. We want to be able to have detailed conversations on each of: e.g. good epistemic habits; implications of AI; distributions of cost-effectiveness; personal productivity; technical AI safety; ...

It asks too much for everyone to keep up with each of these conversations, particularly when each of them can spawn many detailed sub-conversations. But if they're all located in the same place, it's hard to browse through to find the parts that you're actually trying to keep up with.

So I think that we want two things:

  1. Separate conversational loci for each topic
  2. A way of finding the best material to get up to speed on a given topic

For the first, I find myself thinking back to days of sub-forums on bulletin boards (lack of nested comments obviously a big problem there). That way you could have the different loci gathered together. For the second, I suspect careful curation is actually the right way to identify this content, but I'm not sure what the best way to set up infrastructure for this is.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 09:11:52PM 6 points [-]

It seems to me that for larger communities, there should be both: (a) a central core that everyone keeps up on, regardless of subtopical interest; and (b) topical centers that build in themselves, and that those contributing to that topical center are expected to be up on, but that members of other topical centers are not necessarily up on. (So that folks contributing to a given subtopical center should be expected to be keeping up with both that subtopic, and the central cannon.)

It seems to me that (a) probably should be located on LW or similar, and that, if/as the community grows, the number of posts within (a) can remain capped by some "keep up withable" number, with quality standards raising as needed.

Comment author: owencb 27 November 2016 10:39:09PM 3 points [-]

Your (a) / (b) division basically makes sense to me.[*] I think we're already at the point where we need this fracturing.

However, I don't think that the LW format makes sense for (a). I'd probably prefer curated aggregation of good content for (a), with fairly clear lines about what's in or out. It's very unclear what the threshold for keeping up on LW should be.

Also, I quite like the idea of the topical centres being hosted in the same place as the core, so that they're easy to find.

[*] A possible caveat is dealing with new community members nicely; I haven't thought about this enough so I'm just dropping a flag here.

Comment author: Benito 28 November 2016 03:45:42PM *  2 points [-]

I quite like the idea of the topical centres being hosted in the same place as the core, so that they're easy to find.

Also it makes it easy for mods to enforce the distinction. Instead of "I think this post and discussion is not suited for this place, could you delete it and take it elsewhere?" it can just be "This should actually be over in sub-forum X, so I've moved it there."

Comment author: owencb 27 November 2016 10:22:08AM 5 points [-]

In general if we don't explicitly design institutions that will work well with a much larger community, we shouldn't be surprised if things break down when the community grows.

Comment author: Fluttershy 27 November 2016 09:40:27AM *  7 points [-]

It was good of you to write this post out of a sense of civic virtue, Anna. I'd like to share a few thoughts on the incentives of potential content creators.

Most humans, and most of us, appreciate being associated with prestigious groups, and receiving praise. However, when people speak about LessWrong being dead, or LessWrong having been taken over by new folks, or about LessWrong simply not being fun, this socially implies that the people saying these things hold LessWrong posters in low esteem. You could reasonably expect that replacing these sorts of remarks with discourse that affirmed the worth of LessWrong posters would incentiveize more collaboration on this site.

I'm not sure if this implies that we should shift to a platform that doesn't have the taint of "LessWrong is dead" associated with it. Maybe we'll be ok if a selection of contributors who are highly regarded in the community begin or resume posting on the site. Or, perhaps this implies that the content creators who come to whatever locus of discussion is chosen should be praised for being virtuous by contributing directly to a central hub of knowledge. I'm sure that you all can think of even better ideas along these lines.

Comment author: RyanCarey 27 November 2016 06:43:11AM *  11 points [-]

Thanks for addressing what I think is one of the central issues for the future of the rationalist community.

I agree that we would be in a much better situation if rationalist discussion was centralized and that we are instead in a tragedy of the commons - more people would post here if they knew that others would. However, I contend that we're further from that desired equilibrium that you acknowledge. Until we fix the following problems, our efforts to attract writers will be pushing uphill against a strong incentive gradient:

  1. Posts on LessWrong are far less aesthetically pleasing than is now possible with modern web design, such as on Medium. The design is also slightly worse than on the EA Forum and SSC.
  2. Posts on LessWrong are much less likely to get shared / go viral than posts on Medium and so have lower expected views. This is mostly because of (1). (Although posts on LW do reliably get at least a handful of comments and views)
  3. Comments on LessWrong are more critical and less polite than comments on other sites.
  4. Posts on LessWrong are held in lower regard academic communities like ML and policy than posts elsewhere, including on Medium.

The incentive that pushes in our favor is that writers can correctly perceive that by writing here, they are participating in a community that develops very well-informed and considered opinions on academic and future-oriented topics. But that it not enough.

To put this more precisely, it seems to me that the incentive gradient is currently pointing far too steeply away from LessWrong for 'I [and several friends] will try and post and comment here more often...' to be anything like a viable solution.

However, I would not go as far as to say that the whole project is necessarily doomed. I would give the following counterproposals:

  • i) Wait for Arbital to build something that serves this purpose,thereby fixing (1)-(4)
  • ii) Build a long list of bloggers who will move back (for some reasonable definition) to LessWrong, or some other such site, if >n other bloggers do. It's the "free state project" type approach where once >n people commit, you "trigger the move", thereby fixing the tragedy of the commons dynamic. Maybe one can independently patch (3) in this context by using this as a Schelling point to improve on community norms.
  • iii) Raise funds for a couple of competent developers to make a new LessWrong in order to fix (1) and (2).

I think (i) or (ii) would have some reasonable hope of working. Maybe we should wait to figure out whether (i) will occur, and if not, then proceed with (ii) with or without (iii)?

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 08:17:29AM *  13 points [-]

Thoughts on RyanCarey's problems list, point by point:

Until we fix the following problems, our efforts to attract writers will be pushing uphill against a strong incentive gradient:

Not sure all of them are "problems", exactly. I agree that incentive gradients matter, though.

Comments on the specific "problems":

1 Posts on LessWrong are far less aesthetically pleasing than is now possible with modern web design, such as on Medium. The design is also slightly worse than on the EA Forum and SSC.

Insofar as 1 is true, it seems like a genuine and simple bug that is probably worth fixing. Matt Graves is I believe the person to talk to if one has ideas or $ to contribute to this. (Or the Arbital crew, insofar as they're taking suggestions.)

2 Posts on LessWrong are much less likely to get shared / go viral than posts on Medium and so have lower expected views. [snip]

The extent to which this is a bug depends on the extent to which posts are aimed at "going viral" / getting shared. If our aim is intellectual generativity, then we do want to attract the best minds of the internet to come think with us, and that does require sometimes having posts go viral. But it doesn't require optimizing the average post for that; it in fact almost benefits from having most posts exist in the relative quiet of a stable community, a community (ideally) with deep intellectual context with which to digest that particular post, such that one can often speak to that community without worrying about whether one's points will be intelligible or palatable to newcomers.

Insofar as writers expect on a visceral level that "number of shares" is the useful thing... people will be pulling against an incentive gradient when choosing LW over Facebook. Insofar as writers come to expect on a visceral level that “adding to this centralized conversational project” tracks value, and that number of shares (from parties who don’t then join the conversation, and who don’t carry on their own good intellectual work elsewhere) is mostly a distraction or blinking light… the incentive may actually come to feel different.

People do sometimes do what is hard when they perceive it to be useful.

3 Comments on LessWrong are more critical and less polite than comments on other sites.

I feel there’s an avoidable part of this, which we should avoid; and then an actually useful part of this, which we should keep (and should endeavor to develop positive affect around — when one accurately perceives the usefulness of a thing, it can sometimes come to feel better). See Sarah’s recent post: On Trying Not To Be Wrong

4 Posts on LessWrong are held in lower regard academic communities like ML and policy than posts elsewhere, including on Medium.

This seems like a bad sign, though I am not sure what to do about it. I don’t think it’s worth compromising the integrity of our conversation for the sake of outside palatability; cross-posting seems plausible; I’d also like to understand it more.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 05:41:07PM 5 points [-]

Matt Graves is I believe the person to talk to if one has ideas or $ to contribute to this.

Yep, message me about this, either here or by email (this username at gmail).

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 08:30:43AM *  8 points [-]

(ii) seems good, and worth adding more hands and voices to; it seems to me we can do it in a distributed fashion, and just start adding to LW and going for momentum, though.

sarahconstantin and some others have in fact been doing something like (ii), and was I suspect a partial cause of e.g. this post of mine, and of:

Efforts to add to (ii) would I think be extremely welcome; it is a good idea, and I may do more of it as well.

If anyone reading has a desire to revitalize LW, reading some of these or other posts and adding a substantive (or appreciative) comment is another way to encourage thoughtful posting.

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:19:12AM 11 points [-]

I also support (ii) and have been trying to recruit more good bloggers.

I'll note that good writers tend to be low on "civic virtue" -- creative work tends to cut against that as a motivation. I'm still trying to think of good ways to smooth the incentive gradient for writers.

One possibility is to get some people to spend a weekend together -- rent a place in Big Sur or something -- and brainstorm/hype up some LW-specific ideas together, which will be posted in real time.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 05:38:45PM 5 points [-]

One possibility is to get some people to spend a weekend together -- rent a place in Big Sur or something -- and brainstorm/hype up some LW-specific ideas together, which will be posted in real time.

This sounds like an excellent idea.

Comment author: Morendil 27 November 2016 09:49:58AM 3 points [-]

We have lately ceased to have a "single conversation" in this way.

Can we hope to address this without understanding why it happened?

What are y'all's theories of why it happened?

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:27:46AM 18 points [-]

1: the general move of the internet away from blogs and forums and towards social media.

In particular, there seems to be a mental move that people make, that I've seen people write about quite frequently, of wanting to avoid the more "official"-seeming forms of online discussion, and towards more informal places. From blogging to FB, from FB to Tumblr and Twitter, and thence to Snapchat and other stuff I'm too old for. Basically, people say that they're intimidated to talk on the more official, public channels. I get a sense of people feeling hassled by unfriendly commenters, and also a sense of something like "kids wanting to hang out where the grownups aren't", except that the "kids" here are often adults themselves. A sense that you'll be judged if you do your honest best to write what you actually believe, in front of people who might critique it, and so that it's safer to do something that leaves you less exposed, like sharing memes.

I think the "hide, go in the darkness, do things that you can't do by daylight" Dionysian kind of impulse is not totally irrational (a lot of people do have judgmental employers or families) but it's really counterproductive to discourse, which is inherently an Apollonian, daylight kind of activity.

Comment author: steven0461 27 November 2016 09:31:15PM 3 points [-]

To me, the major advantage of social media is they make it easy to choose whose content to read. A version of LW where only my 25 favorite posters were visible would be exciting where the current version is boring. (I don't think that's a feasible change, but maybe it's another data point that helps people understand the problem.)

Comment author: Evan_Gaensbauer 28 November 2016 06:10:03AM 7 points [-]

You can already do this. If you click on a user's profile, there will be a little box in the top right corner. Click on the button that says "add to friends" there. When you "friend" someone on LessWrong, it just means you follow them. If you go to www.lesswrong.com/r/friends, there's a feed with submissions from only the other users you're following.

Comment author: steven0461 28 November 2016 06:17:38AM 3 points [-]

Cool, thanks, but it looks like that's posts only, not comments.

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 10:23:15PM 2 points [-]

Ignoring the feasibility question for a minute, I'm confused about whether it would be desirable (if feasible). There are some obvious advantages to making it easy for people to choose what to read. And as a general heuristic, making it easy for people to do things they want to do seems usually good/cooperative. But there are also strong advantages to having common knowledge of particular content/arguments (a cannon; a single thread of assumed "yes that's okay to assume and build on"); and making user displays individual (as e.g. Facebook does) cuts heavily against that.

(I realize you weren't talking about what was all-things-considered desirable, only about what feels exciting/boring.)

Comment author: steven0461 27 November 2016 10:39:38PM *  1 point [-]

That seems an important set of concerns, but also I'm not sure how much people are letting lack of canonicity bother them in choosing what to cite and reply to, and popular content will become canon through other mechanisms than the front page, and the more canon there exists, the harder it will be to take it as common knowledge. User-picked content is to some extent also compatible with canon, e.g. through social pressure to read a general "best of" feed. (Just to be clear, though, I don't think this is probably the way we should go / the best use of resources.)

Comment author: gworley 27 November 2016 09:49:13PM 1 point [-]

This is why I very much like Medium. I think of it as Twitter for people who want to write/read long things rather than short things. It's also much nicer than Twitter in my experience.

Comment author: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 09:59:52AM 4 points [-]

My theory is that the main things that matter are content and enforcement of strong intellectual norms, and both degraded around the time a few major high-status members of the community mostly stopped posting (e.g. Eliezer and Yvain.)

The problem with lack of content is obvious, the problem with lack of enforcement is that most discussions are not very good, and it takes a significant amount of feedback to make them better. But it's hard for people to get away with giving subtle criticism unless they're already a high-status member of a community, and upvotes/downvotes are just not sufficiently granular.

Comment author: Morendil 27 November 2016 10:33:22AM 8 points [-]

This feels like a good start but one that needs significant improvement too.

For instance, I'm wondering how much of the situation Anna laments is a result of LW lacking an explicit editorial policy. I for one never quite felt sure what was or wasn't relevant for LW - what had a shot at being promoted - and the few posts I wrote here had a tentative aspect to them because of this. I can't yet articulate why I stopped posting, but it may have had something to do with my writing a bunch of substantive posts that were never promoted to Main.

If you look at the home page only (recent articles in Main) you could draw the inference that the main topics on LessWrong are MIRI, CFAR, FHI, "the LessWrong community", with a side dish of AI safety and startup founder psychology. This doesn't feel aligned with "refining the art of human rationality", it makes LessWrong feel like more of a corporate blog.

Comment author: entirelyuseless 27 November 2016 06:58:57AM 5 points [-]

I disagree with #1 and #2, and I don't identify as a rationalist (or for that matter, much as a member of any community), but I think it is true that Less Wrong has been abandoned without being replaced by anything equally good, and that is a sad thing. In that sense I would be happy to see attempts to revive it.

I definitely disagree with the comment that SSC has a better layout, however; I think people moved there because there were no upvotes and downvotes. The layout for comments there is awful, and it has a very limited number of levels, which after a few comments prevents you from responding directly to anything.

Comment author: Benito 27 November 2016 12:15:30PM *  7 points [-]

Gonna chip in a +1 regarding SSC's comment system. There are good comments, but this seems in spite of the comment mechanism, not because.