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European Community Weekend 2014 retrospective

23 Post author: blob 29 April 2014 02:08PM

So finally - with two weeks distance to the first European LessWrong Community Weekend - we want to share the organizers’ perception of the event, including a short overview of what went well, what did not and what exceeded our expectations.

First and foremost we thank all the participants and speakers for helping us in making this such a great weekend. We had an incredible time and are very happy everything worked out as well as it did. In our opinion the event was a great success! Meeting everyone was excellent and we look forward to running a similar yet improved event in the future.

One of the awesome things about the event were the group dynamics. The general feeling was that the participants were open and had a generally positive attitude towards each other. Even some people who usually prefer to avoid crowds expressed that it was a safe place to try different things and to improve their social skills.

Two things that strongly supported the pervasive feeling of community and friendship were the extraordinarily high frequency of hugs and the cheerful sentiment of the LessWrong study hall people that spilled over to the Community Weekend participants.

We wanted to encourage hugging by letting people put a “accepting hugs as a form of greeting” sticker on their extended name tags. To our surprise it was adopted by a huge majority and had an immense effect on social interactions by creating an atmosphere of familiarity. One story about this (anonymously shared in the post event survey) reads:

“OMFGWTF Yay Hugs sticker :D The social protocol that cuddly people are generally free to hug each other as much as they want pretty much blew my mind. I got two orders of magnitude more hugs than I usually do, and I loved it.”

The workshop presentations strongly engaged the audience and made us all participants. While this was a great thing in itself the downside was that the time planning for most of the speakers didn’t work out. It cost us a considerable fraction of the planned 30min breaks between talks. The lesson learned: reserve way more time for questions than usual when talking to a LW crowd and actively moderate, too.

A lot of people (including us) noticed that this way the talks took too much of the time meant for discussion and socializing. Building new connections between the LWers of Europe and strengthening existing ones was the main focus of the event. A lot of this happened in the evenings when people just went to a park to play ultimate frisbee or to climb trees and learn partner acrobatics.

The wide range of topics and and the high quality of discussions in general was amazing. One especially notable case is a socratic dialogue that emerged from one of the the group discussions on the first evening. The depth of discussion and the clear thinking we achieved was amazing. The moderator of the discussion will write a detailed post on the specifics soon.

Our estimations of the number of interested LWers were way too pessimistic. Even our 90% confidence intervals fell short of the actual number of participants signing up. While we were able to increase the size of the event beyond the planned maximum by 25% we still had to reject many applications.

Organizing this event was a great experience for us and we intend to do this again. We have learned a lot and got great feedback: The next event will be even more awesome, with more time and space for discussions and and social activities. We have already started planning and preparing the bigger and better:

+++ European LessWrong Community Weekend 2015 +++

Our hope is that this will become a regular event providing a meeting and socializing space for the LWers in Europe. Other groups around Europe already showed interest in hosting similar events so that it might be alternating between cities in the future.

Upcoming posts to look out for:

  • The date for the European LessWrong Community Weekend 2015 will be announced by August (at latest)
  • We are currently evaluating the results of the post-event survey and will post an overview somewhen in the next two weeks. (it’s still possible to take part in the survey and have your opinion considered if you haven't done so yet)

Looking forward to seeing you again
John, Tristan, Alexander, Matthias, Christian… & everyone else from the Berlin LessWrong meetup

Comments (24)

Comment author: Stefan_Schubert 29 April 2014 03:09:05PM 7 points [-]

Thanks for the report and for the very well-run organization of the meetup. The meetup was indeed very much a success. It showed clearly how very useful it is to meet people in person and not just online. I made several very interesting contacts with whom I've communicated since the meetup.

Comment author: Roxolan 29 April 2014 03:46:22PM 9 points [-]

We wanted to encourage hugging by letting people put a “accepting hugs as a form of greeting” sticker on their extended name tags. To our surprise it was adopted by a huge majority and had an immense effect on social interactions by creating an atmosphere of familiarity.

Only person wearing a no-hug tag unironically here: those do not work. I did less socializing than most, but still had to interrupt a few hugs (in one case by someone wearing an ironic no-hug tag) to my discomfort and their guilt. But a pro-hug culture seems so good for the community that I should probably hack myself/spend a spoon to let people hug me rather than impose costly social rules on everyone else.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 29 April 2014 09:37:05PM *  18 points [-]

The "hugs" and "no touching" symbols were visually similar -- a red and a blue circle, overlapping in one case, not overlapping in another case -- maybe some people made a honest mistake. It would be better next time to make visually more different symbols; for example completely different colors, or even a picture of hedgehog for "no touching". I hope that would improve the situation.

By the way, I was somewhat concerned to see the mixed signals of some people wearing both "hugs" and "no touching" symbols; but I wasn't sure whether there was a real damage in doing so, or if I was just making a mountain out of a molehill. Yeah, I received explanations of what that was supposed to mean -- "usually hugs, but always ask first" and "hugs, but no other forms of touching" specifically -- but I still think it would be better to have the "no touching" symbols mean "no touching, ever" only. I get it that people want to express their own message creatively, but by re-using symbols which are supposed to mean something else you dilute the signals used by other people. Just take a pen and use words. Also, "I am a special snowflake, talk to me to find out what I want" should be the default assumption for people who don't wear any of the symbols; not a combination of them. The symbols are social shortcuts designed to overcome the trivial inconvenience of having to ask. They are a useful tool, if used correctly, so please don't break it.

Comment author: WingedViper 30 April 2014 12:16:46PM 6 points [-]

I overlooked a "no hug" sign myself, even though I'm an organiser and had a part in choosing them. I agree that they need to be more visually distinct and we will improve that next time.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 01 May 2014 10:44:15AM *  3 points [-]

For the record, I think the tags are a super-awesome idea! And I hope the next iterations will be even better.

I realize this is not a fair comparison, but in the friendly environment during the weekend, I was thinking about the "Elevatorgate" I read about online, and it seemed to me like a huge cultural contrast. Like a strong evidence that rationalists sometimes do win big in real life. I mean, if the tags would be fully respected (which unfortunately they were not, but I have a hope for the future), we would have a solution for avoiding some unwanted interactions, other than the suboptimal "better play it safe and avoid doing anything that might hypothetically offend someone (unless you have high enough status to protect you from a potential damage)". Because some people don't want to be hugged, but other people do, and while respecting the former is the basic decency, it would be great to also provide better options for the latter, as long as these goals are not in contradiction.

Speaking for myself, I am not good at reading body language of other people, but it also seems to me that other people are not good at reading my signals. (Maybe the abilities to "read" and to "speak" the body language are related. Is there a research for this? Or maybe there are actually multiple languages, so the speakers of the majority language get most success.) So I prefer using words, instead of relying on an unreliable channel. I also think that some people are genuinely good at reading body language, but there are many who merely overestimate their own ability. Unfortunately, verbal asking can sometimes also be considered offensive. (In the environment that created "Elevatorgate", how long could you walk around asking people whether it's okay to hug them, until someone would write a similar blog about you? Maybe I overestimate the risk, but I would rather play safe than risk becoming a global archetype of creepiness.) And because we are not good enough at reading other people's minds, having some content of the mind displayed visibly is the next best option.

I can imagine possible problems with explicit symbols in general; for example people feeling social pressure to display a tag they don't really identify with. (For example, in a strongly religious country, not wearing a symbol of the dominant religion could be harmful. Or wearing a symbol of a non-approved sexual orientation.) Maybe I am ignoring something, but I believe this is not a problem in our community. However, if some specific tags would become socially dangerous (create a risk to the user either for wearing them or for not wearing them), the solution could be to ban those specific tags. Another possible failure could be people wearing untrue tags because it would give them some advantage in manipulating others. -- But the situation with "hugs" / "no touching" seems perfect for the tag system, because people belonging to both groups want to be classified correctly by everyone else.

Comment author: Vaniver 01 May 2014 05:31:32PM 4 points [-]

I realize this is not a fair comparison, but in the friendly environment during the weekend, I was thinking about the "Elevatorgate" I read about online, and it seemed to me like a huge cultural contrast. Like a strong evidence that rationalists sometimes do win big in real life.

Perhaps a closer comparison than Elevatorgate is the Open-Source Boob Project.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 02 May 2014 12:15:18PM *  2 points [-]

OMG, that's an interesting project! And I originally wanted to spend this day without too much web reading.

Some of the comments are... educational.

The very fact that you think it's acceptable to ask ... disturbs me greatly. The very fact that you think it's reasonable to want ... strikes me as a symptom of ... at its worst.

The request constitutes ... just as much as the actual ... does.

There are many people in this world ... who would never walk up to a stranger and ask ... We are taught from an early age not to do this, to exercise what is typically called societal restraint. It's impolite to do this to strangers, we are taught. You are proposing a system to make the question permissible.

This illustrates that the so-called conflict between Guess culture and Ask culture cannot be solved by merely saying "here we have a opt-in subgroup which uses different communication rules". Some things are merely difficult to guess correctly, and that can be fixed by improving the communication system. But some things are genuinely taboo... so creating a better communication system about them would cause an outrage.

At the first sight, they may both seem the same to an outsider or a clueless insider, because both are something that is simply never talked about. Therefore, as the first step, we have to find out whether X is "generally okay, just difficult to coordinate" or "forbidden". If something is considered intrinsically wrong, creating a more reliable and more consensual communication system is solving the wrong problem. (It would also be necessary to make the system secret, or at least plausibly deniable. But that makes coordination even more difficult.) And we should actually be thankful to people who openly admit they believe it is intrinsically wrong, as opposed to e.g. rationalizing about imperfections in the communication system, etc.

(I am not sure how to feel about an argument that there ain't no such thing as consent, because people can always be pressured into consent e.g. by ostracism; and therefore, if it is morally wrong to do X against someone's will, then it is wrong to allow X even among consenting people. It has a point; but applied consistently it would mean you shouldn't interact with anyone, ever. Which I guess means that the only practical way to apply this is to have a social consensus about when to use it and when to ignore it, which will be decided by the high-status people. And by the way, merely saying that there should be a way to do X, implies that X is good, which already creates a pressure on people to do X. -- Another interesting generalizable argument was that allowing consensual X is wrong, because some people would get more consent and some wouldn't get any, and they would feel horrible; therefore it is better to keep it a general taboo, so no one feels personally rejected. -- Also, people have a right not to know that your subculture exists. = I should probably use all these to create a random activity-criticism generator. Or even a complete flamewar generator, because there are also predictable responses.)

If there is a culture with a taboo against hugging, where people who want to hug others are perceived as morally depraved and dangerous, providing "hugs" tags for people would be risky.

By the way, the system mentioned in the article used two clearly explicit steps (some commenters may have misunderstood this, or may have reacted to the early stages before the protocol was established). The protocol was: (1) opt in by wearing a tag; (2) ask people with the tag whether it is okay to do X; (3) do X. Which means that under this protocol no one should even be asked without consenting to be asked first. -- This two-step consent is probably a good idea for controversial topics, although I would like to also have a one-step alternative. For example "it is okay to ask if you can hug me" and "it is okay to hug me even without asking first".

(I wanted to stay meta, but here is an object-level note: It would have been better to call it "Open Source Touching Project"; because other body parts were also allowed, but many people in discussions objected to the title. Also, there is a valid objection that doing some things in public may be illegal, so it is wrong to do such things at a convention without explicit permission of the organizers.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 May 2014 01:46:43PM 2 points [-]

So I prefer using words, instead of relying on an unreliable channel. I also think that some people are genuinely good at reading body language, but there are many who merely overestimate their own ability.

Reading when someone is uncomfortable while you hug them is an easier skill then reading it before you hug them. At the weekend Anne was walking around with the written word "cuddle" in addition to the free hugs sticker. I greeted her the first time with what was in her words more of a cuddle then a hug. I could feel that it was too much for the situation and I'm usually calibrated well enough that I don't act in a way that creates that reaction in another person. Enough for me to reduce the amount of physical contact that I initiated in later interaction with other people because I had the feeling that my automatic calibration skills were broken at that point.

A day later Anne came to me to give me feedback and she basically didn't tell me anything I didn't already knew myself. But in case I would have my own feedback loops, that feedback would probably have been quite valuable. Having an environment where it's possible to give that kind of feedback openly is very valuable.

Beforehand I hugged a few guys who I would categorise as someone who's system I says: "Hugging is at the rand of my comfort zone" and who's system II says: "I want to be hugged". For interaction with guys that usually means it's okay to hug them, especially for the rationalist crowd who think their system II is what matters. For male-to-female physical contact on the other hand you usually want that both system I and system II of the woman agrees to the physical contact.

Free hug sign itself don't tell you the line that tells you which intensity of physical contact is welcome and which isn't. They just tell you that you can hug the person. There still the possibility to have to much contact and walking around with the heuristic that you treat people based on their tags, reduces the amount one reacts to body language of other people.

Comment author: Lachouette 04 May 2014 02:48:32PM 1 point [-]

That was one of the cases where my preferences were too nuanced for the keywords/stickers. I was fine with hugs from everyone, but would have preferred to be asked for cuddles first. And the long hug you gave me was, from my point of view, cuddling. It prompted thoughts like "Why is he the cuddling right away? Is he trying to initiate more than just friendly conversation? Should I get some distance between us to signal that I'm not interested?" and that made me uncomfortable though system II agreed that there wasn't any way you could have told that I would have preferred you to ask (before reading my physical reaction). Talking about it fixed that system I feeling of "needing to get some distance", so it's good that we did that. :)

Did you consider asking me whether your impression (that I was uncomfortable with the cuddling) was true, before I gave you that feedback?

(For clarity, where you say "Hugging is at the rand of my comfort zone" you mean "... at the edge of my comfort zone". It might not be obvious to non-German readers, so I'm pointing it out.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 04 May 2014 10:17:58PM 0 points [-]

Did you consider asking me whether your impression (that I was uncomfortable with the cuddling) was true, before I gave you that feedback?

No, in that case the observation was that you were getting tense was clear. I'm not sure whether I could told it visually alone on that day but with physical contact it was quite clear. Is it theoretically possible that you tell yourself in such a situation a story that makes it okay that you get tense when I touch you? Yes, but very unlikely.

There are cases in Salsa dancing where I dance with a woman who's a beginner. The woman might get a bit tense in close physical contact but tell herself a story that she's tense because she's a beginner and that's just part of being a beginner at Salsa. However even in those cases it's often good to give the woman a bit of space.

In general people often make up story to explain why they are feeling a certain way that don't really have much to do with why they actual feel what they feel. If you stimulate a neuron in someone's brain and that initiates an action, the person will still do his best to make a plausible story of why he engages in that action. The same goes for actions done because of posthypnotic suggestions. Even if the other person knows why they are reacting the way they do, there are often social reasons why the person might not want to share everything openly.

In your case your suggestion that you felt what you felt because you had a different expectation is interesting. If I act in ways that follow the expectations of other people surely makes it easier for them to model me and therefore easier to interact with me.

Is he trying to initiate more than just friendly conversation?

I don't see hugging primarily as a means to initiate something. The fact that it feels good is reason enough to do it. In that situation the next reason would be to be more associated with my own body.

I do have a bunch of male friends whom I great in that physical intensity so it doesn't even have much to do with the fact that you are woman.

Two years ago I did have a time where I pushed the boundaries in regards to trying to go as far as I can in regards to physical intimacy with woman. Today I'm far away from that perspective and I rather do what feels right in a specific moment.

Comment author: Viliam_Bur 01 May 2014 03:08:34PM 0 points [-]

There still the possibility to have to much contact and walking around with the heuristic that you treat people based on their tags, reduces the amount one reacts to body language of other people.

I believe this happens, the question is (a) how much, and (b) whether it is a net improvement or not.

Generally, any situation of "not having to worry about X as much as before" makes people spend less energy on X, and more energy on something else. Historically, since people invented reading and writing, they didn't have to memorize everything, and they stopped memorizing a lot of things -- so these days most people can't recite long sagas from memory and don't remember ten generations of their ancestors. We lost something; but I believe we gained more than we lost. If we decided to spend a lot of time and energy to get this ability back, we probably could; but we prefer to spend that time and energy doing something else. As another example, I heard that some people who were abused have very high ability to read other people's body language; because for them it was a survival skill. (Not sure how reliable is this info, I remember only a fictional evidence.) I think it's not worth paying this price, if one has an option to avoid it.

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 May 2014 04:25:19PM 0 points [-]

In the Elevatorgate story I don't think there was an unwelcome hug. On the other hand there was a guy with uncalibrated social skills that were so uncalibrated that they caused a public debate. I don't think hugging tags would have helped in that situation. If the guy in question however would learn to read body language to an extend of being able to tell when a woman gets uncomfortable he would have feedback loops to be calibrated well enough to avoid gross faux pas like the one in Elevatorgate.

I still think that it's good to have the tags at an LW event as they encourage people to hug each other who otherwise wouldn't while allowing those uncomfortable with physical touch to opt out, but they are not a magic solution to all problems. The tags are useful crutches.

In the environment that created "Elevatorgate", how long could you walk around asking people whether it's okay to hug them, until someone would write a similar blog about you?

Getting asked to be hugged from a person you don't want to hug is a pretty slight inconvenience, I don't think anything that someone would find worthy to start a huge debate about.

What generally helps is giving people social feedback. Verbal feedback to those people who don't understand the nonverbal one.

I heard that some people who were abused have very high ability to read other people's body language; because for them it was a survival skill. (Not sure how reliable is this info, I remember only a fictional evidence.)

My priors for that claim being true are low. I would think you got it from the fictional evidence.

Being good at reading body language of other people often has a lot to do with being aware of your own body. Physical abuse often leads to shutting down bodily self awareness to reduce the amount perceived uncomfort.

Comment author: ChristianKl 01 May 2014 02:19:11PM 0 points [-]

Speaking for myself, I am not good at reading body language of other people, but it also seems to me that other people are not good at reading my signals. (Maybe the abilities to "read" and to "speak" the body language are related. Is there a research for this?)

There are probably cases where body language is actively spoken in a way that's learned. On the other hand there are people with Asperger's syndrome where I can tell based on their body language that they fall in that spectrum and are therefore unlikely to be very comfortable with a hug.

They can still make a conscious decision to want to want to hug and then that's really hard to read.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 29 April 2014 05:52:36PM 12 points [-]

I should probably hack myself/spend a spoon to let people hug me rather than impose costly social rules on everyone else.

No. "Respect my boundaries" (in this case, quite physical ones) is not something that would count as a costly social rule that you'd be imposing on others. Enforcing an "only hug the people who want to be hugged" rule doesn't only help you, it also helps everyone else who might not feel entirely comfortable with hugs. And on a more general level, having a strict norm of trying to make everyone feel comfortable will make the meetups a better place for everyone who attends them.

I'm sorry to hear that you got unwanted hugs despite the sticker: organizers at future meetups should emphasize that the rules in the stickers should be respected.

Comment author: jkadlubo 29 April 2014 05:17:32PM 3 points [-]

I think there were too few people wearing no-touching tags to make them work (well enough). At some point I freaked out and everyone who saw me in distress and wanted to help just hugged, patted and generally invaded me - ignoring the tag and the semi-obvious reason for freaking out.

What I do not agree is what you call the ironic status of those tags. I talked to some people about it and aside from straight "I want a lot of hugs" and "don't touch me at all" there was also the opinion "I don't feel comfortable being hugged (or touched), but I can hug some of the other people" - a middle ground, which didn't have a separate tag and did not truly fit neither of the present tags. Given the generally cuddly atmosphere picking a "don't hug me" tag was the sensible action (because not picking a tag would simply put you in the majority - "hug me" group).

I don't know if having a new middle-ground tag would fix this problem. Maybe it would be ignored the same way that the "don't touch me" tag was. Maybe it simply would work better if the group was more balanced. I caught myself several times looking at somebody's tag to check if they will accept a hug and preparing my body for a hug before my brain processed the meaning of the pictogram - since almost everyone wanted hugs, this person must want them too, right?

Comment author: Vaniver 29 April 2014 06:40:54PM 3 points [-]

a middle ground, which didn't have a separate tag and did not truly fit neither of the present tags.

Perhaps "Please hug me," "Please ask first," and "Please don't hug"? Not quite a solution, for reasons to be discussed shortly.

I don't know if having a new middle-ground tag would fix this problem.

The underlying problem, I suspect, is the different desires for physical / social intimacy. So long as that exists, you're going to have some level of awkwardness and deadweight loss, and the question is where it falls. Similarly, the underlying reason behind a 'please ask first' tag is that there are people you want to hug, and people you don't want to hug, and oftentimes the people you don't want to hug want to hug you. So even with a 'please ask' tag, they ask, and then you say no, and then there's awkwardness, especially if you just hugged someone else, say, or want to hug someone else immediately afterwards. Perhaps it is enough to acknowledge the costs- having to check tags, having to ask, having to deal with rejection- as the price for when things do work out.

(One of my friends was in a theater group that would have cast parties after the show where, basically, everyone was assumed to consent to make out with anyone else- and she described the experience as "trying to catch the people you were interested in while trying to avoid the people you weren't interested in," which led to a large amount of circling around the room for a party.)

Comment author: ChristianKl 30 April 2014 04:48:28PM 2 points [-]

The underlying problem, I suspect, is the different desires for physical / social intimacy. So long as that exists, you're going to have some level of awkwardness and deadweight loss, and the question is where it falls.

In general the solution to that problem is reading body language of other people. Hug people with body language that indicate they want to be hugged and don't hug people with body language that doesn't look like they want to be hugged.

For me having the tags lead to hugging certain people who I wouldn't have hugged based on their body language and my whole calibration for when to initiate physical contact stopped working well. Especially for those people whose position probably is: "I almost never hug anyone, so it's a bit at the edge of my comfort zone. On the other hand I believe that the idea of hugging is beneficial and sort of nice."

I still think the tag system if perfect for a gathering of rationalists who like to have clear rules of how to interact with one another.

Comment author: Kaj_Sotala 30 April 2014 09:51:26AM 1 point [-]

Perhaps "Please hug me," "Please ask first," and "Please don't hug"?

I kind of assumed that given the existence of an explicit "no hugs" and an explicit "yay hugs" sticker, someone with neither would count as "please ask". But apparently this wasn't a universally shared assumption.

Comment author: Vaniver 30 April 2014 03:26:13PM 2 points [-]

I would assume someone without a tag is operating under normal protocols, in which asking people to hug them is often weird.

Comment author: [deleted] 30 April 2014 03:57:23PM 1 point [-]

But so is hugging strangers.

(And the “normal protocols” differ from place to place, so in an international meeting...)

Comment author: Desrtopa 30 April 2014 12:29:28PM 2 points [-]

Possibly a middle ground is not actually needed- a "do not initiate physical contact" tag could serve the purposes of both people who do not want hugs at all, and people who are okay with hugs from certain people, but do not want others to initiate. Anyone can hug someone with a "do not initiate contact" tag with permission or the other person's initiation, but nobody with such a tag is required to give either.

However, I think it's probably preferable that both hugging and non-hugging people wear tags, rather than specifying only one. Even if one group is in the majority, I think that people in the other group are less likely to feel uncomfortable by marking themselves out with explicit signs if the other group is also wearing signs. Plus, it can help foster a standard etiquette of "examine tag before initiating hug."

Comment author: Roxolan 29 April 2014 06:25:03PM 1 point [-]

Fair point. Apologies to anyone else wearing the no-hug tag.

Comment author: Matthias 01 May 2014 02:21:56PM *  1 point [-]

As I see it accepting hugs and keep your distance are competing social norms.

Usually it is assumed that keep your distance applies unless among close friends. Someone wanting to use hugs as a form of greeting would have to take the initiative, break the dominant social norm and ‘impose’ a hug on the other person. The opposite case of a society where accepting hugs is the norm would also be a stable state for similar reasons.

By providing stickers for signaling a preference for one of the two opposing social norms we (one of the organizers writing) wanted to provide space for both of them. The problem here was the wide adoption of hugs welcome that lead to people assuming it without consciously checking the tags. A stronger color difference might have helped here and we actually had considered printing the keep your distance stickers in warning colors. We decided against that to avoid giving it the feeling of something dangerous or negative and frankly: We expected something like 7:3 and not 9:1.

Naturally everybody will prefer a different point on scale of social contact and society has to provide a compromise. The strong adoption of accepting hugs shows that the usually dominant social norm is - at least in the context of a community weekend - not aligned with the interest of the majority  of participants.

Comment author: Gunnar_Zarncke 30 April 2014 09:20:21AM 3 points [-]

See also earlier Berlin Impressions Thread.