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What we learned about Less Wrong from Cognito Mentoring advising

20 Post author: VipulNaik 06 March 2014 09:40PM

In late December 2013, Jonah, my collaborator at Cognito Mentoring, announced the service on LessWrong. Information about the service was also circulated in other venues with high concentrations of gifted and intellectually curious people. Since then, we're received ~70 emails asking for mentoring from learners across all ages, plus a few parents. At least 40 of our advisees heard of us through LessWrong, and the number is probably around 50. Of the 23 who responded to our advisee satisfaction survey, 16 filled in information on where they'd heard of us, and 14 of those 16 had heard of us from LessWrong. The vast majority of student advisees with whom we had substantive interactions, and the ones we felt we were able to help the most, came from LessWrong (we got some parents through the Davidson Forum post, but that's a very different sort of advising).

In this post, I discuss some common themes that emerged from our interaction with these advisees. Obviously, this isn't a comprehensive picture of the LessWrong community the way that Yvain's 2013 survey results were.

  • A significant fraction of the people who contacted us via LessWrong aren't active LessWrong participants, and many don't even have user accounts on LessWrong. The prototypical advisees we got through LessWrong don't have many distinctive LessWrongian beliefs. Many of them use LessWrong primarily as a source of interesting stuff to read, rather than a community to be part of.
  • About 25% of the advisees we got through LessWrong were female, and a slightly higher proportion of the advisees with whom we had substantive interaction (and subjectively feel we helped a lot) were female. You can see this by looking at the sex distribution of the public reviews of us from students.
  • Our advisees included people in high school (typically, grades 11 and 12) and college. Our advisees in high school tended to be interested in mathematics, computer science, physics, engineering, and entrepreneurship. We did have a few who were interested in economics, philosophy, and the social sciences as well, but this was rarer. Our advisees in college and graduate school were also interested in the above subjects but skewed a bit more in the direction of being interested in philosophy, psychology, and economics.
  • Somewhat surprisingly and endearingly, many of our advisees were interested in effective altruism and social impact. Some had already heard of the cluster of effective altruist ideas. Others were interested in generating social impact through entrepreneurship or choosing an impactful career, even though they weren't familiar with effective altruism until we pointed them to it. Of those who had heard of effective altruism as a cluster of ideas, some had either already consulted with or were planning to consult with 80,000 Hours, and were connecting with us largely to get a second opinion or to get opinion on matters other than career choice.
  • Some of our advisees had had some sort of past involvement with MIRI/CFAR/FHI. Some were seriously considering working in existential risk reduction or on artificial intelligence. The two subsets overlapped considerably.
  • Our advisees were somewhat better educated about rationality issues than we'd expect others of similar academic accomplishment to be, and more than the advisees we got from sources other than LessWrong. That's obviously not a surprise at all.
  • We hadn't been expecting it, but many advisees asked us questions related to procrastination, social skills, and other life skills. We were initially somewhat ill-equipped to handle these, but we've built a base of recommendations, with some help from LessWrong and other sources.
  • One thing that surprised me personally is that many of these people had never spent time exploring Quora. I'd have expected Quora to be much more widely known and used by the sort of people who were sufficiently aware of the Internet to know LessWrong. But it's possible there's not that much overlap.

My overall takeaway is that LessWrong seems to still be one of the foremost places that smart and curious young people interested in epistemic rationality visit. I'm not sure of the exact reason, though HPMOR probably gets a significant fraction of the credit. As long as things stay this way, LessWrong remains a great way to influence a subset of the young population today that's likely to be disproportionately represented among the decision-makers a few years down the line.

It's not clear to me why they don't participate more actively on LessWrong. Maybe no special reasons are needed: the ratio of lurkers to posters is huge for most Internet fora. Maybe the people who contacted us were relatively young and still didn't have an Internet presence, or were being careful about building one. On the other hand, maybe there is something about the comments culture that dissuades people from participating (this need not be a bad feature per se: one reason people may refrain from participating is that comments are held to a high bar and this keeps people from offering off-the-cuff comments). That said, if people could somehow participate more, LessWrong could transform itself into an interactive forum for smart and curious people that's head and shoulders above all the others.

PS: We've now made our information wiki publicly accessible. It's still in beta and a lot of content is incomplete and there are links to as-yet-uncreated pages all over the place. But we think it might still be interesting to the LessWrong audience.

Comments (27)

Comment author: Qux 07 March 2014 09:06:30PM *  14 points [-]

I'm a CS undergraduate, newly registered 2+-year lurker, and HPMOR acolyte. Can you imagine my surprise as I the article I'm reading casually describes me?

We hadn't been expecting it, but many advisees asked us questions related to procrastination, social skills, and other life skills.

I had a lot of trouble with procrastination in my high school career, and did on one occasion look on Less Wrong for answers. It's not surprising to me that the smart kids who are interested in the topics discussed here would have problems with self-control and video game addiction. I am, of course, projecting.

It's not clear to me why they don't participate more actively on LessWrong. Maybe no special reasons are needed: the ratio of lurkers to posters is huge for most Internet fora.

That is true for the electronics forum I lurk for answers to my simple questions, or for some other site I met while researching some topic. However, the community here is so brilliant that I feel like anything I would add would be seen as inexperienced and petty, and my youth obvious. I can't speak for all of the other high school and college students lurking here, but that is the case for me. Make it clear that this site isn't an ivory tower where they'll defenstrate you if you say something stupid.

TakisMichel said it well: The discussions and comments here is (or were) intimidatingly high-quality. In the same way I wouldn't speak out in a physics convention full of PhD holders, I wouldn't do so here.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 09 March 2014 09:16:42PM *  3 points [-]

the community here is so brilliant that I feel like anything I would add would be seen as inexperienced and petty, and my youth obvious.

You still succeeded to write a great first post, which makes me trust your other posts will also have good quality.

(Possibly relevant: The Sin of Underconfidence. Not just for you, but also for other lurkers reading this.)

Comment author: TakisMichel 06 March 2014 10:50:18PM 12 points [-]

Side point: Quora has the annoying popup that allows you to only read part of the top answer to a question if not logged in, so many people categorically ignore it. Also, there's no compelling reason to use it over reddit or other forums.

Comment author: luminosity 08 March 2014 12:32:14AM 21 points [-]

Quora hack: Add '?share=1' to the end of the url, and you can read everything.

Comment author: komponisto 08 March 2014 04:08:12AM 1 point [-]

(I'm replying to this comment as a form of bookmarking, so I can find it later by searching my own comments. Upvoted, needless to say.)

Comment author: shminux 06 March 2014 11:33:29PM 6 points [-]

I can confirm that the couple of times Google sent me to Quora I left the site as as soon as they required my registration to read, not just post.

Side note: do people really use "sign up with <...>" buttons? I can't imagine agreeing to let facebook snoop on my browsing habits outside their site, or let twitter tweet on my behalf.

Comment author: fezziwig 07 March 2014 08:53:11PM *  3 points [-]

Yes, they do. My company's web site allows signup through Facebook, and we get about a quarter of our (substantial) signup volume in that form. It's especially common in people who arrived on a mobile device; presumably it's easier to just tap "Sign up with Facebook" than to enter an email address and password by hand.

But I personally have never done it and don't expect to.

Comment author: Douglas_Knight 07 March 2014 04:47:26PM 3 points [-]

Facebook already snoops on your browsing habits, certainly on any page that offers it as as a login option.

Comment author: bbleeker 07 March 2014 11:46:34AM 2 points [-]

I've signed up for a few things with my gmail account.

Comment author: somervta 07 March 2014 06:23:59AM 1 point [-]

I do. I don't really care whether FB know about my browsing habits.

Comment author: Error 07 March 2014 05:15:19PM 0 points [-]

I can confirm that the couple of times Google sent me to Quora I left the site as as soon as they required my registration to read, not just post.

I've had the same reaction for the same reason. I might give it a second look after the favorable mention in this post, though.

Comment author: ChristianKl 07 March 2014 08:41:01AM 0 points [-]

Side note: do people really use "sign up with <...>" buttons? I can't imagine agreeing to let facebook snoop on my browsing habits outside their site, or let twitter tweet on my behalf.

In what way would you predict that allowing facebook to snoop your browsing habit will have an impact on your life?

Comment author: Vulture 07 March 2014 01:51:17PM *  3 points [-]

I can't speak for shminux, but for me (weighted possible future effects of more surveillance) + (visceral disappeal of facebook in general and it recording my activities specifically) would be significantly greater than (a few additional seconds of inconvenience)

[Some of this might be rationalization, especially the visceral distaste. I was about to add a term for the possibility of my behavior being broadcast to my acquaintances in some manner, but I realized I had thought of that after making my decision.]

Comment author: TylerJay 07 March 2014 01:51:08AM 0 points [-]

There are two major forms of this, OpenID and OAuth. OpenID is only used for identification, while OAuth gives some form of limited access that is sometimes restricted enough that it's basically just used for identification. The permissions granted by using OAuth varies by site, but they usually show you what information they will be sharing before you accept.

There are benefits for both the developers running the site and for the end-user.

For example, BambooHR, the cloud-based HR software we use where I work, allows me to log in with gmail. Google is an OpenID authentication provider so no information is shared. Also, since I'm always logged into my gmail, it's just a single click to "log in with gmail" and I don't have to type any passwords or anything. (In fact, I never had to set up a password to begin with)

For more info on how OAuth and OpenID are different, there's a nice graphic here.

Comment author: shminux 10 March 2014 06:47:05PM 0 points [-]

In case someone else is interested, I have been able to bypass most of the Quora annoyances with the Chrome Referer Control extension. Similar tricks exist for other browsers.

Comment author: drethelin 07 March 2014 02:19:11AM 2 points [-]

Compelling reason is that it's got a much better interface for getting famous people to answer questions related to their specialty or private knowledge.

Comment author: TakisMichel 07 March 2014 04:52:10AM 0 points [-]

That probably used to be the case. But, now that AMAs are streamlined, subreddits are becoming more known, and killer modteams like askscience and askhistorians have developed, reddit is significantly more attractive to famous people, academics, etc. than Quora is.

Comment author: drethelin 07 March 2014 06:30:50AM 1 point [-]

http://www.quora.com/Stephen-Fry-1 AMAs are fine but reddit doesn't really have asynchronous question responses by verified people.

Comment author: TakisMichel 07 March 2014 12:12:09AM 4 points [-]

That said, if people could somehow participate more, LessWrong could transform itself into an interactive forum for smart and curious people that's head and shoulders above all the others.

This is already happening. Topics and post quality and comment quality used to be more tightly controlled, but now it's much more accessible and much less intimidating to post something (for better and for worse).

The major obstacle towards something like that isn't the people, it's the software that the community is run on. Unfortunately we're running on a years-since-forked fork of the confusing reddit codebase, and it's probably not feasable to update everything. All the requested features, such as more subreddits and stickies, would if implemented allow the community to grow. But so far that's stagnant, because it's not worth the time and energy.

Comment author: ChristianKl 07 March 2014 08:42:54AM 3 points [-]

One thing that surprised me personally is that many of these people had never spent time exploring Quora.

Could you explain more about that point? I use stackexchange sites a lot when I have some question to which I need an answer. For what purposes should I investigate Quora?

Comment author: lincolnquirk 07 March 2014 02:15:33PM 4 points [-]

Quora is highly browseable. Stack Exchange is also somewhat browseable, but they are usually technical questions which are not very fun to browse. Quora has been really useful to me as an entrepreneur because they have a lot of answers from CEOs to strategic questions about startup founding. I would definitely recommend browsing it to entrepreneurs.

Comment author: Qiaochu_Yuan 14 March 2014 12:56:15AM 0 points [-]

At its best, Quora can be an interesting window into parts of the world you might have little to no direct experience with. Some of the most highly-voted answers are from prisoners, police officers, actors, CEOs, and other people you might not interact with day-to-day, and I've found those answers to be both entertaining and useful for enriching my model of the world.

I also occasionally use Quora as a way to test exposition strategies. The standard for what constitutes an accessible explanation (as measured by number of votes) is relatively high, and I like the challenge of trying to explain mathematics on Quora in as accessible a way as I can. Feedback on my attempts to do this is relatively fast and has informed how I explain mathematics in general.

Most of the time, though, I find Quora a waste of time. I have not found a way to effectively filter its feed so that I get mostly high-quality content. It seems like there is relatively little effort made to quality control questions (as opposed to answers).

Comment author: casebash 13 March 2014 11:27:55AM 0 points [-]

Quora has a not very prominent, but extremely useful "best questions section". This, along with the Quora newletters provide me with a large amount of high quality content

Comment author: InquilineKea 23 March 2014 10:49:24PM 0 points [-]

I'm curious: what sorts of communities are they most familiar with? What did they think of College Confidential? And what were the subreddits that they were most familiar with?