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John_Maxwell_IV comments on On the importance of Less Wrong, or another single conversational locus - Less Wrong

82 Post author: AnnaSalamon 27 November 2016 05:13PM

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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