For helpful comments I thank Koji Flynn-Do, Abie Rohrig, Harry Taussig, Emma Abele, Sabrina Chwalek, Matt Burtell, Trevor Levin, Jemima Jones, Michel Justen, Caleb Parikh, and Max Daniel.
Some of my observations come from my experience grantmaking with the EA Infrastructure Fund. I am contributing in a personal capacity however, not as an EAIF assistant fund manager. (In particular, you are welcome to apply for EAIF funding if your plans mostly consist of the kind of activities I’m questioning in this post.) All views are my own.
Epistemic Status: In this post I’m mainly referring to university group community builders. It’s possible that a lot of what I say will still apply to city / country / other groups, but I’m less confident of this. In my problem section, I give some percentage estimates of how much organizers are marketing (defined later) and how much they should be marketing. This is based off of some rough estimates, which I’m not confident in. I’d love to see someone better estimate this or run a survey.
Advisory Note: If you’re only going to read one section of this post, I encourage you to read the TLDR and the Solutions section.
TLDR: There are significant downsides to the current model of community building, which involves organizers spending a large portion of their time marketing EA, doing (often menial) operations work for EA, and explaining to other EAs how to market EA:
- It trades off against some of the most promising EA students skilling up themselves
- It means that EA groups aren’t actually learning about object-level EA issues, and instead are learning things about small-scale marketing and club organization, which is significantly less important.
- It can give EA a “Ponzi scheme” vibe on campus, because EA groups are disproportionately focused on growing their group as opposed to skilling up and tackling object-level issues.
Instead, many group leaders should think about what would be most useful for them, and then invite others to join them in the activity they’re doing. For examples of this, skim the solutions section.
- The Problem (in 4 Claims)
- Caveats and Why I Might be Wrong
The problem is that organizers and others at university EA groups (and possibly other EA groups) are spending too much time marketing EA and doing basic operations work when they should be skilling up. I think this is bad for the organizers, the epistemics of the group, the members of the group, and the external view of the group.
By skilling up - also referred to as skill building - I mean taking action to improve one’s epistemics, knowledge of key global problems, or career. Most of the actions that fall under skilling up involve cognitively intensive learning. Some actions that fall within the category of skill building would be extremely useful for some and trivial for others (e.g. doing an ML bootcamp may be great for someone looking to do AI safety research, but useless for someone interested in GPR).
For the rest of this essay, I will define marketing as “marketing EA, doing (often menial) operations work for EA, and explaining to other EAs how to market EA”. I recognize this is a broader definition of marketing than is generally used. However, I want to be able to simply point at the issue I’m talking about, which is when individuals - often top organizers - spend too much time doing activities like: running fellowships, advertising at club fairs, creating marketing materials (posters, emails, websites, etc), pitching EA to others, 1:1 outreach, and some* events.
* Note: Some parts of organizing an event would be included in my definition of marketing and some would not. If hosting an event involves a high degree of learning about a topic - e.g. the Nucleic Acid Observatory project - that you think would be highly valuable for your career - e.g. in biosecurity - or general knowledge, the time spent doing that does not count in my definition. If hosting an event involves finding the venue, emailing speakers, or doing other coordination, that time spent does count in my definition of marketing.
I claim that over 60% of organizers are spending more than 70-80% of their time marketing EA in a given semester. When I say that organizers and others are spending too much time marketing EA, I am referring to organizers who are spending more than half of their EA time on marketing. If an organizer spends 10 hours per week marketing their group, this would mean they spend more than 2.5 to 4.5 hours* of their time per week skilling up, alongside school work and other activities. Of course, the number of hours changes based on how much that organizer is organizing. I contend that less than half of EA organizers are spending this much time skilling up, which is not nearly enough. One individual I spoke with estimates that they spend about 90% of their EA-dedicated time marketing EA in a given semester. In order to avoid the adverse effects of marketing, I claim that the vast majority of university group organizers should spend less than half of their EA time marketing. The rest of their EA time should be dedicated to skilling up.
*Spending around 2.5 hours per week per semester skill-building would mean organizing/marketing is about 80% of their EA time (given 10 hours of organizing per week). Spending around 4.5 hours per week per semester skill-building would mean organizing/marketing is about 70% of their EA time (given 10 hours of organizing per week).
Claim 1: Having the most promising people market EA is inefficient.
The most promising people in a university group are often the ones that get the most involved. The most involved people generally become the organizers. It's inefficient to have these people sacrifice their highly valuable time marketing EA to others. It’s inefficient because:
- Skilling up is often more valuable
- The people they’re marketing to often are not amenable to their pitches
- If the people they’re marketing to are amenable, these new people often begin by marketing EA, because it’s what the people that got them involved are doing.
I’m not saying that all the most promising people in a university group get involved and then become the organizers, but I’d contend it’s true for around 70% of people. This would mean that about 50% of individuals in an EA group are doing EA marketing too much.
Claim 2: Too much marketing causes bad epistemics in the group.
- As mentioned previously, too much marketing causes new people to internalize the idea that everyone should market EA, including themselves. Instead of spending time learning about EA and digging deeper into its ideas, these ‘new EAs’ adopt a soldier mindset. They go out into their universities attempting to explain, convince, and defend EA to others, rather than fully engaging with it first.
- Spending a large majority of the time marketing EA implicitly prioritizes the growth of the group over other group qualities, such as intellectual skepticism and moral seriousness.
- Too much marketing pushes away people who could be EAs by seeming too proselytizing. Individuals that don’t like proselytizing are less likely to engage with ideas deeply. Worse than just turning promising people away, too much marketing may have adverse selection effects. It may select for people willing to help with marketing over people that value intellectualism or epistemic rigor. Especially if the organizers doing the outreach don’t have a good understanding of problems themselves, they might be perceived as unconvincing by the epistemically-rigorous people they want to attract.
Claim 3: Too much marketing causes individuals to skill build less.
- Students’ time is extremely valuable. Spending more time marketing means that there is less time to learn about EA or skill building. A symptom of this is that students don’t spend sufficient time testing their fit for different career paths and object-level work. They then lack skills in other areas, so community building becomes the default path.
- Related to point 1 of claim 2, when leaders spend their time too much marketing, the idea that everyone should spend time marketing EA trickles down. Knowledge about EA doesn’t because that is more difficult to convey. This causes individuals to learn less about EA overall.
- Related to point 3 of claim 2, too much marketing pushes away people who could be EAs but who think that EA is just about proselytizing and not actually doing things. This causes there to be less knowledge about EA in the group overall, and often less expertise within a group about different cause areas. This makes it more difficult for 1) people to learn in general and also 2) for people to learn efficiently about another cause area. This is especially true for individuals who learn by debating or discussing ideas with others.
Claim 4: Leaders marketing EA too much causes bad perceptions of EA around campus.
It’s difficult for outsiders to get a nuanced understanding of EA on first pass. Topics such as utilitarianism, cause-prioritization, or longtermism are difficult to convey through marketing - whether on mailing lists, at an activities fair, or even in a single presentation. Rather than associating EA with these rather complex topics, it’s easy for outsiders to instead associate EA with 1) certain memes, 2) too much marketing or 3) the people doing the marketing.
On associating EA with certain memes (point 1): It’s possible that outsiders will associate the group with what the organizers send out in their emails. However, because it's hard to convey EA in a high-fidelity manner, it makes people associate EA with memes like “EA is earning to give” or “all EA cares about is AI safety”.
Referring to associating EA with too much marketing (point 2): If the leaders are marketing, the non-leaders are marketing, and the messaging the outsiders receive is marketing, it’s pretty easy to see how that individual would associate EA with marketing. An only half-serious example of this can be seen from a university-equivalent of Reddit. When one searches for ‘Effective Altruism’ this is the only thing that comes up:
With regards to associating EA with the people doing the marketing (point 3): Associating EA with the people doing the marketing seems particularly relevant given the fact that certain demographics are dominant in EA. Even if an individual associates EA with “doing the most good” they may think of EA as they would a universalizing religion: they’re a group that has distinct values and the way to achieve a portion of their values is through converting others (i.e. too much marketing).
I want to convey that too much marketing is bad and I think too many community builders are spending too much time marketing. Specifically, I think around 60% of EA organizers are doing too much marketing.
I don’t want to convey that all community building is bad. In fact, I think the solution is as much reframing community building as it is decreasing the amount of it that is done.
If based on the information above, you feel like you are marketing EA too much, I want to empathize with that. It can be difficult to assess what marketing should get cut and what should remain. I propose some solutions below, but my list is by no means comprehensive. Here are just a few ways that EA community building looks better to me:
The focus of Uni groups should shift away from “marketing EA” or “explicit community building” to learning (if that is not already the group’s focus). This seems helpful for 1) the people who are doing community building that should be focusing on spreading higher-fidelity models of EA to their university and 2) the people who are doing community building but should instead be skilling up to do direct work.
Organizers can think of their EA group as a space where they figure out how to make the most positive impact in their life. The activities they run from the group is what would be most useful for them and their journey to making a direct impact on the world.
Their EA group is a space where they encourage others to also figure out how to make the most positive impact in their life. The extent to which an arbitrary individual engages makes an impact, or stays involved is entirely up to that individual and isn’t pressured. It isn’t pressured directly or by excessive marketing.
So if EA group leaders are spending less of their time marketing, what are they spending more of the time on? What actions and activities does this framing imply? Here is a short, non-comprehensive list of ideas in no particular order:
- Read, distill, or redteam articles that you think would be most useful for you and your skilling up.
- If you want to throw community building into this, inviting others to do this alongside you (potentially as a workshop or coworking event).
- Forecast in areas of interest. Participe in a forecasting competition (on metaculus, INFER, etc) or hosting a forecasting workshop for your group.
- Tackle any of the projects on FTX Future Fund Project Ideas (perhaps especially those less related to community building). Don’t expect to make significant progress, but learn from the experience overall.
- Spend a few hours each week digging into a cause area that’s of interest to you. Invite others to do this alongside you.
- Plan your career on a doc, list your key uncertainties, and make a list of people to potentially call. Invite others to join you as a coworking event or workshop.
- Take a job or internship in an area where you want to make a direct impact
- Run reading groups on research reports from GPI, FHI, Rethink Priorities, Founders Pledge, or other related organizations. Run reading groups on niche topics that an individual is interested in.
- Run a mock constitutional convention where people think about how to structure international governance institutions for the long-term future, or how to govern space settlement (from FTX Project Ideas)
- Host more debates / scheduled discussions on a particular topic, host debates with a knowledgeable speaker, etc.
- Watch a ton of Rob Miles’ videos. Make it into a “movie” night and invite others.
Important note: The idea isn’t that people should spend a lot of time doing all of these things. The idea is that maybe one of these ideas sounds appealing for you to skill build and learn stuff. And so while you do it, you can invite others to do it. Then, when someone asks what you do with your club, you point to one of these things (or a better version of one of these things) rather than immediately trying to get into a deep conversation. You invite them to an event and see if they vibe with it. You are essentially practicing “show don’t tell” in conveying what the group is about.
As of now, I think that there are very few obvious ways for university students to “do EA” in an EA club, but that’s exactly what we want people to be doing. By “do EA”, I mean engage in cognitively intense activities aimed at modeling the world and making it a better place. To achieve this goal, we need to set up a culture of seriousness and commitment to working on (some of) the above projects and events (or others not included in this list). We also need to figure out how to make them work for busy students. Solving this problem will likely diminish the marketing problem.
Caveats and Why I Might be Wrong
Caveats: I’m not saying that everyone is doing this, nor am I saying that all marketing is bad.
I think running intro fellowships and a small amount of broad-scale outreach is generally useful. I’ve found that in some cases, however, groups spend so much time community building that they lose sight of what EA is and what they want to do after university. When they could be doing other things (see solutions sections) to make both themselves and their group better off.
Why I Might be Wrong: I might be wrong that this is a problem, either because people aren’t doing what I think they are (marketing too much) or because this amount of marketing is net positive.
My estimate that “over 60% of organizers are spending more than 70-80% of their time marketing EA in a given semester” is from talking with other organizers. This was entirely informal; they took about 5 minutes to do a simple BOTEC. This is not an ideal way to collect data, and I’d be excited about someone conducting a more exhaustive study on the subject.
I may be wrong about the fact that this level of community building is generally bad. It’s possible that my model of community building would slow down some of the growth that’s happening, and this may be a bad thing. It’s possible that in some special scenarios, spending 70-80% of your time marketing EA is a good thing. I’d be wary of this for the reasons mentioned above. I’d love to hear good arguments against the fact that this level of community building is generally bad.
I may be underestimating the amount that marketing is useful for individuals. While it can greatly limit the skills an individual learns, it can also help them: develop leadership experience and responsibility, learn new software (Zapier, airtable, calendly, etc), or do general operations work. There are also quick feedback loops on one’s management skills. As previously mentioned, I think the value of this is generally overestimated and is occurring way too much at Uni groups. However, it's possible that in some scenarios lots of marketing is justified.
I may also be wrong that organizers should spend less than half of their EA time marketing. Since my ideal percentages are based mostly on intuition, I’d love to hear others’ views about the ideal amount of marketing.
My solutions, above, might be wrong. I feel pretty good about the fact that they are not entirely right. The list is non-comprehensive, and there are probably some ways of skilling up that I’m critically missing. You may disagree with my suggested reframing of community building, and think there’s a better model. I encourage you to comment your thoughts on how to make my solutions better or to come up with solutions on your own.