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

84 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 (362)

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: RyanCarey 27 November 2016 06:43:11AM *  12 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: TheAltar 27 November 2016 08:06:52AM *  4 points [-]

A separate action that could be taken by bloggers who are interested in it (especially people just starting new blogs) is to continue posting where they do, but disable comments on their posts and link people to corresponding LW link post to comment on. This is far less ideal, but allows them to post elsewhere and to have the comments content appear here on LW.

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:21:45AM 9 points [-]

This is a nontrivial cost. I'm considering it myself, and am noticing that I'm a bit put off, given that some of my (loyal and reflective) readers/commenters are people who don't like LW, and it feels premature to drag them here until I can promise them a better environment. Plus, it adds an extra barrier (creating an account) to commenting, which might frequently lead to no outside comments at all.

A lighter-weight version of this (for now), might be just linking to discussion on LW, without disabling blog comments.

Comment author: FeepingCreature 29 November 2016 12:28:47PM 1 point [-]

Would you use the LW comments section if it was embeddable, like Disqus is?

Comment author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 08:17:29AM *  14 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: RyanCarey 27 November 2016 09:05:12AM 1 point [-]

I agree that this is great.

I meant to propose something even more specific. Using for example a Google Form, you collect a list of people who agree to post on LW if and only if that list surpasses 200 names.

Once it gets to 200, you email everybody and tell them LW is relaunching.

Do I think it'd work? Maybe.

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: casebash 27 November 2016 02:23:53PM 0 points [-]

I thought ii) had been discussed in the past and was supposedly happening, but nothing ever came from it.

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.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 05:37:04PM 10 points [-]

Eh, one thing I've noticed about SSC is a number of deeply bad comments, which I don't think I've seen on LW. Yes, there are also good comments, but I can imagine someone five years ago looking at the state of SSC commenting now and saying "and this is why we need to ban politics" instead of seeing it as a positive change.

Comment author: Rubix 27 November 2016 07:16:55AM 2 points [-]

I'm up for doing this, because I think you're right; I notice that commenting/posting on LessWrong has less draw for me than it did in 2011/2012, but it's also much less intimidating, which seems useful.

Comment author: PeerGynt 27 November 2016 09:02:00AM -2 points [-]
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: 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: 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: 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: Morendil 27 November 2016 10:38:52AM 2 points [-]

Yes, and this would be a general trend - affecting all community blogs to some extent. I was looking for an explanation for the downfall of LessWrong specifically, but I suppose it's also interesting to consider general trends.

Would you say that LessWrong is particularly prone to this effect, and if so because of what properties?

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:52:41AM 25 points [-]

Specifically, I think that LW declined from its peak by losing its top bloggers to new projects. Eliezer went to do AI research full-time at MIRI, Anna started running CFAR, various others started to work on those two organizations or others (I went to work at MetaMed). There was a sudden exodus of talent, which reduced posting frequency, and took the wind out of the sails.

One trend I dislike is that highly competent people invariably stop hanging out with the less-high-status, less-accomplished, often younger, members of their group. VIPs have a strong temptation to retreat to a "VIP island" -- which leaves everyone else short of role models and stars, and ultimately kills communities. (I'm genuinely not accusing anybody of nefarious behavior, I'm just noting a normal human pattern.) Like -- obviously it's not fair to reward competence with extra burdens, I'm not that much of a collectivist. But I think that potentially human group dynamics won't work without something like "community-spiritedness" -- there are benefits to having a community of hundreds or thousands, for instance, that you cannot accrue if you only give your time and attention to your ten best friends.

Comment author: Morendil 27 November 2016 11:11:26AM 5 points [-]

There was a sudden exodus of talent, which reduced posting frequency, and took the wind out of the sails.

I'd be wary of post hoc ergo propter hoc in this context. You might also have expected that by leaving for other projects these posters would create a vacuum for others to fill. It could be worth looking at why that didn't happen.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 27 November 2016 05:50:24PM 12 points [-]

One interesting thing is that at one point post-Eliezer, there were two "rising stars" on LW who were regularly producing lots of fascinating content: lukeprog and So8res. Both stopped regularly posting here some time after they were recruited by MIRI and their priorities shifted.

Comment author: kechpaja 27 November 2016 11:48:15AM 8 points [-]

To expand on what sarahconstantin said, there's a lot more this community could be doing to neutralize status differences. I personally find it extremely intimidating and alienating that some community members are elevated to near godlike status (to the point where, at times, I simply cannot read i.e. SSC or anything by Eliezer — I'm very, very celebrity-averse).

I've often fantasized about a LW-like community blog that was entirely anonymous (or nearly so), so that ideas could be considered without being influenced by people's perceptions of their originators (if we could solve the moderation/trolling problem, that is, to prevent it from becoming just another 4chan). A step in the right direction that might be a bit easier to implement would be to revamp the karma system so that the number of points conferred by each up or down vote was inversely proportional to the number of points that the author of the post/comment in question had already accrued.

The thing is, in the absence of something like what I just described, I'm skeptical that it would be possible to prevent the conversation from quickly becoming centered around a few VIPs, with everyone else limited to commenting on those individuals' posts or interacting with their own small circles of friends.

Comment author: Vaniver 27 November 2016 05:31:57PM 14 points [-]

But I think that potentially human group dynamics won't work without something like "community-spiritedness" -- there are benefits to having a community of hundreds or thousands, for instance, that you cannot accrue if you only give your time and attention to your ten best friends.

As for why this is a problem for LW specifically, I would probably point at age. The full explanation is too long for this comment, and so may become a post, but the basic idea is that 'career consolidation' is a developmental task that comes before 'generativity', or focusing mostly on shepherding the next generation, which comes before 'guardianship', or focusing mostly on preserving the important pieces of the past.

The community seems to have mostly retracted because people took the correct step of focusing on the next stage of their development, but because there hadn't been enough people who had finished previous stages of their development, we didn't have enough guardians. We may be able to build more directly, but it might only work the long way.

Comment author: Alexei 27 November 2016 06:24:09PM 7 points [-]

Sounds interesting. I'd love to read the post.

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: 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: 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: 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: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 03:39:31AM *  9 points [-]

One thought that occurs to me re: why this discussion tends to fail, and why Less Wrong has trouble getting things done in general, is the forum structure. On lots of forums, contributing to a thread will cause the thread to be "bumped", which gives it additional visibility. This means if a topic is one that many people are interested in, you can have a sustained discussion that does not need to continually be restarted from scratch. Which creates the possibility of planning out and executing a project. (I imagine the linear structure of an old school forum thread is also better for building up knowledge, because you can assume that the person reading your post has already read all the previous posts in the thread.)

A downside of the "bump" mechanic is that controversial threads which attract a lot of comments will receive more attention than they deserve. So perhaps an explicit "sticky" mechanic is better. (Has anyone ever seen a forum where users could vote on what posts to "sticky"?)

Comment author: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:14:51AM 35 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: 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: 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: 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: alyssavance 27 November 2016 10:39:26AM 32 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: ciphergoth 27 November 2016 07:02:44PM 0 points [-]

If we built it, would they come? You make a strong case that the workforce wasn't made able to do the job; if that were fixed, would the workforce show up?

Comment author: Alexandros 27 November 2016 10:40:52AM *  66 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: sdr 28 November 2016 06:25:28AM *  14 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 05:18:43PM 27 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: casebash 28 November 2016 12:12:50AM 5 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: 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: ciphergoth 27 November 2016 06:49:06PM 4 points [-]

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

Comment author: nshepperd 27 November 2016 07:06:01PM 14 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: gwillen 27 November 2016 10:59:00PM *  7 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: 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: Kaj_Sotala 29 November 2016 10:44:47AM 2 points [-]

Too many for me to quickly count?

Name three, then. :)

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: TheAncientGeek 29 November 2016 01:59:44PM -2 points [-]

Is that a joke?

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 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: 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 28 November 2016 04:10:32AM *  5 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: 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: 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: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 10:29:20PM *  35 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: SatvikBeri 27 November 2016 10:42:41PM 11 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: sarahconstantin 27 November 2016 10:50:11PM 6 points [-]

I also vote for Vaniver as BDFL.

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

I agree that Vaniver should be.

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

Throwing in another vote for Vaniver.

Comment author: ingres 28 November 2016 09:10:59PM *  7 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: NatashaRostova 28 November 2016 10:02:53PM -1 points [-]

Further, I am fairly certain that LW as a community blog is bound to fail. Strong writers enjoy their independence.

That's true. LW isn't bringing back yvain/Scott or other similar figures. However, it is a cool training ground/incubator for aspiring writers. As of now I'm a 'no one.' I'd like to try to see if I can become 'some one.' SSC comments don't foster this. LW is a cool place to try, it's not like anyone is currently reading my own site/blog.

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: 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: 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: RobinHanson 27 November 2016 06:31:46PM 20 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: 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: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 05:46:45AM *  6 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: TheAncientGeek 28 November 2016 02:24:13PM 0 points [-]

Is the fact that economists mostly cite each other evidence of "cultish in-group favoring biases"?

The behaviour of the Austrian School certainly is.

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: rayalez 27 November 2016 09:59:36PM *  0 points [-]

I am working on a project with the similar 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.

If you find it interesting and can offer some feedback - I would really appreciate it!

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: 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: 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: Elo 28 November 2016 02:29:45AM 0 points [-]

yes, and if someone wants to join and get up to speed by reading the sequences and general discussion posts on LW, they won't ever read crony beliefs because it was not posted here other than by link post.

Comment author: Vaniver 28 November 2016 06:12:58AM 2 points [-]

It seems to me like durable concepts are referred to frequently, and the typical behavior is to link to the source when using a jargony term, so I'm not too worried about that.

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: Elo 28 November 2016 02:39:52AM -2 points [-]

percolate

What are you using this word to mean? At a guess it sounds like, "ideas will float to the surface" but also it does not always mean that, as used in "has percolated". Percolate relates to filtering of a substance like coffee, to get the good bits from the bad. Can you repeat the above without using this word?

Are we looking to separate and elevate good ideas from the general noise on the interwebs, or are we looking to ensure ideas filter through the diaspora to every little sub group that exists? Or are we looking to filter something else? I am not sure which you are trying to describe.


If you want to describe an earlier post that is well know, and well spread, it should be enough to describe the name of the concept, i.e. crony beliefs. If you want to reference a less well known concept; it should be enough to name the author and link to their post, like if I wanted to refer to the list of common human goals and talk about things that relate to it.

I don't see the gravity of the problem you are trying to describe with your concerns.

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: 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: 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: 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: Elo 28 November 2016 02:28:42AM -1 points [-]

personally without the coding skill

Clarification: I am not a coder any more. I had skill in a few languages but I can't code any more mostly I Frankenstein my own arduino projects out of other people's projects. This means I can now read code and understand it; but not write it. It's not that bad because I read every line of the codebase to get my head around how it works. It's not that bad because when I was trying to explain a fix I could come up with the code for it:

https://github.com/tricycle/lesswrong/issues/574

I just can't check my work or create a pull request.

It's not that bad in that it still definitely works fine, and does not crash very often and doesn't have security leaks despite having an open code base and is readable to someone with very little code skill.

Comment author: John_Maxwell_IV 28 November 2016 04:17:33AM *  0 points [-]

I'm disappointed that Elo's comment hasn't gotten more upvotes. He put a lot of work into fixing LW, and it seems to me that we should be very eager to listen & learn from him.

(I'm also disappointed that rayalez's comments are being ignored. His previous comment about his project was at -1 until I upvoted it. Seeing this kind of thing makes me cynical. Sometimes it seems like status in the LW community is more about who you know than what you've accomplished or what you're doing for the community.)

Arbital seems like the least half-arsed effort at fixing LW thus far. Maybe we should converge around advising Alexei & team?

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

This is being done.

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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: 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: NatashaRostova 28 November 2016 09:52:01PM -1 points [-]

I've known about Less Wrong for about two full years. A few weeks ago I started coming here regularly. A week ago I made an account -- right before this post and others like it.

My own poetic feeling is there is a change in the winds, and the demand for a good community is growing. SSC has no real community. Facebook is falling apart with fake news and awful political memes. People are losing control of their emotions w.r.t politics. And calm scientific rationalist approaches are falling apart.

I deactivated my FB, made an account here, and have done my best, despite not (yet) being anyone well known, to keep it going.

I think there is a change that is drawing people here again. But it needs to be encouraged. The rules for rationalist discussion 5 years ago aren't the ones of today. Get rid of the stupid no politics rule, and just enforce good scientific discussion. Scott Alexander's Trump post has received 200k+ views. The demand for a well written post like that was incredible, and the original 'rationalist' heart of the internet wouldn't let it be written. Is that not silly?

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: 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: VipulNaik 29 November 2016 02:23:05AM *  8 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.