This year, the EA Forum joined LessWrong in running a Petrov Day activity. Trusted users from each site were given the ability to take down the other site for a day.
The teams behind both sites got a lot of feedback, public and private, on the activity. Some people loved it; others sharply criticized it. In this retrospective, I’d like to share my thoughts on the activity and the feedback. (Several other people on the Forum team read this post before it was published, but it isn’t meant to reflect their views.)
I’m keeping this post relatively short, because:
- The way we do Petrov Day on the Forum next year will be somewhat different, and may not be inspired by the 2021 activity at all — limiting the utility of a retrospective.
- There are too many related topics to cover them all in detail, and I’d prefer to spend more time answering questions / responding to comments on this post, rather than adding additional text that people may or may not care about.
Before I go on, I’d like to apologize to anyone who felt stressed or bothered by the activity. I made some avoidable communication errors that might have exacerbated these feelings. In particular, I copied LessWrong’s language without making changes that would better reflect my own perspective/framing around the activity.
(This isn’t a criticism of LessWrong — I think we just have different views, and I should have communicated my own more carefully to the Forum’s users.)
I do think that the ex-post negative consequences were minor, and I don’t have evidence that we seriously harmed anyone. But given that we were trying to encourage thoughtful reflection on the fragility of civilization and the necessity of cooperation, bothering and annoying some people means we fell short of our goal.
Praise for Petrov Day
Many people enjoyed the activity. This doesn’t negate the importance of thinking carefully about criticism, but I don’t want the takeaway from this post to be “Petrov Day was terrible, what a blunder”. So I’ll share a few excerpts from messages people sent to me.
- “Sweet, this is awesome.”
- “How exciting!”
- “Thanks for your trust, I feel honored and will try my best to prove worthy!”
- “I've seen some of the vocal responses to the Petrov's Day exercise, and I just want to ping that I personally highly enjoyed it. I even talked about it with some non-EAs (and I don't usually discuss EA Forum things with non-EAs). I was really pleased/warmed when (after reading the announcement post, talking about it, etc.) I checked my email and discovered I'd gotten a code.”
My actual takeaway from the day: People really like the idea of EA-themed holiday celebrations, and it’s worth trying a variety of different ways to celebrate Petrov Day and other special occasions, while learning whatever we can from the debate surrounding this year’s activity.
Categories of criticism
Not meant to be fully inclusive — but these categories cover almost all the negative feedback I heard.
Perhaps the most common reaction, even from people who enjoyed the activity, was confusion over how serious it was meant to be — with interpretations ranging from “important community ritual” to “fun game with lots of banter”. (Examples: Peter Wildeford, Jan Kulveit, alexrjl)
Thoughts on criticism
This criticism seems unassailable to me. If someone tells you you’re playing a game with them, and there’s no way not to engage with the game because “not playing” looks exactly like “playing”, there are consent issues. For someone who doesn’t like the activity, an email with codes ranges from “annoying spam” (at best) to “involuntarily being dragged into a community ritual with serious philosophical implications”.
It’s easy to say “how serious could the implications of an email be?”, but EA is a community of people who take ideas seriously. If someone reports feeling very conflicted/stressed about something like this, I see this as coming from the same place as “changing your way of life because of a thought experiment”. As someone who works on EA community structure, I want our community rituals not to unnerve people who think hard about them.
Anyway: Whatever we do in the future, it should be opt-in, or at least clearly “opt-out”, rather than “opting out is still opting in”.
I think there are ways to interpret the activity such that it feels like a good fit for Petrov Day, and ways to interpret it so that it seems very un-Petrovian. Which interpretation “works best” feels like it mostly comes down to how much any given interpreter enjoys the activity.
That said, if you make a list of things Petrov Day is meant to commemorate, this activity clearly hits some of the items (e.g. trust) while not really hitting others (e.g. the importance of bold, unilateral action). I’d hope for future activities to cover more of that list. (I’m not going to make the list now, because I have at least 40 more weeks to procrastinate with.)
The activity sits in an awkward place between “important ritual” and “fun game” — and while these don’t have to be contradictory, the use of language about stakes and meaningful value does yank things in the “ritual” direction.
This led to at least one bad consequence — one of our chosen, trusted users treating this game-like thing as a game and, as a result, getting messages warning her that she might lose real-world opportunities if she pressed the button. (See “social consequences” here.)
I should have done more to clarify exactly how I felt about the activity in my initial message. Better yet, I could have talked through this with the rest of the Forum team and ensured the message represented all of us. (This never happened; we signed off on the LessWrong wording with only minor changes, and didn’t discuss our actual views amongst ourselves.)
I’ll reiterate that I don’t think people should face real-world consequences around this activity, and that any such possibility seems to limit how we can run this and other “fun things” on the Forum.
That said, I do think there was real value on the line. And it seems meaningful and cool that neither site went down despite (I imagine) many people feeling tempted to do so, especially once it became clear that many other people wanted them to do so.
However, it was our choice to make our site vulnerable in the first place. Had someone decided to take down the Forum, we’d have shared the responsibility for that.
Personally, I’d like to find ways to make two groups happy — those who see Petrov Day as a time to bicker cheerfully about game theory, and those who see it as a time for serious contemplation about global catastrophe. But I don’t think those two things necessarily need to happen through the same activity.
The future of Petrov Day on the Forum
Holidays are a fantastic way to build and preserve culture. Petrov Day is a fantastic idea for a holiday. I want to keep doing things on Petrov Day.
But I think that this particular activity isn’t ideal, and I’d be surprised if we did it again on the Forum.
That said, however imperfect, I do think the activity was interesting, and a worthwhile experiment. It’s great that LessWrong set it up, and I’m grateful they asked us to participate, even if I should have thought more carefully about that decision on my end. You don’t get good rituals without any struggle or difficulty.
Whatever we do next year, I hope it will be:
- Consensual (opt-in, or at least easy to opt out of without “incidentally” participating)
- Highly Petrovian (evoking the virtues Petrov represents, and inspiring participants to practice those virtues)
- Clear, in the sense that people generally understand how “seriously” to take it. This might mean a “fun” activity and a “serious” one, or a single activity that combines elements of both in a way that isn’t ambiguous (if that’s possible — who knows?)
- Universal, in that anyone can participate in at least one of the activities if they want to (not just the users we choose ourselves).
- Anyone could comment on the posts, try to bribe code recipients, etc., but that still doesn’t seem like “full participation” of the kind I’d like to achieve.
- Planned with help from the Forum’s users. This doesn’t necessarily mean sharing our ideas in a public post (surprises can be fun), but I do think we should talk to a few people who aren’t on the Forum team about any idea we seriously consider.
What do you think?
I’d be interested in:
- Suggested ways to celebrate Petrov Day on the Forum next year (this doesn’t have to be “a game”).
- Nathan’s thread brought in some good suggestions, but we’re always happy to hear more.
- Criticism of my points above, especially if something I’ve said implies that I missed the point of someone else’s criticism
- Questions about anything I’ve written here (especially if you want to hear from other members of the team, who don’t necessarily agree on any particular point)