Are you looking for a quick overview?
- This post introduces new terms that I hope will facilitate conversations around the question in the title and maybe some other community-building questions too
- It includes a lot of story-telling of my own personal experience as a community-builder because it seemed like relevant context but made writing a more normal overview challenging.
- I haven't left an epistemic status because I felt the story-telling around personal experience lended itself to more in-text indications of confidence in various claims made
- Read the bolded text in the first section (motivation) and the second section (some new terminology) for an overview of the key ideas without the personal anecdotes.
(note: edited after posting to add this 'how to get a quick overview of the key ideas' section and to make the title clearer along with a few other small and/or sign-posted modifications)
How can we create a community of people that understand the nuances of the challenges we have come across in trying to help others as much as possible?
Is it possible to do this while still leaving ourselves open to a broad range of people and ideas?
Community-building is so challenging. I attempted to make my local community better for years. Then I disengaged: partly because it is so hard (but also because I absolutely did not get the balance right between community-building and working on myself).
I loved both this “big tent” post and the insightful pushback it received in the comments (I think it is this process that helps us build up our butterfly ideas).
This is, largely, a very late follow-up to that conversation.
I suspect some common misunderstandings in community-building conversations are partially due to conflating two distinct types of community-building efforts. In this post, I introduce terms to help us make this distinction. Like with all distinctions, this one is blurry and has edge-cases. Nonetheless, I hope that it is still useful.
I do feel like we overly use our existing jargon (when plain English often does the job fine). I also recognise that terminology can be valuable, which is why I feel it is still worth introducing more of it. I hope this distinction helps create more precise conversations where more double cruxes are located. The best community I can imagine certainly has us locating and expanding our common ground efficiently and effectively (both within the movement and outside of it too).
AI timelines might be short and absolute poverty is still, very, very, very tragically, still a part of our present world. We might have more resources than before, but very sadly, we do not have enough and we’re going to need all the help we can get.
The world’s most pressing problems can’t wait forever for us to figure out how to solve this crazily complex coordination problem: coordinating between a fast-growing community of people is very, very, very hard. We are united under a very conceptual banner and many of us have very different beliefs about how best to help others. Let alone the coordination problem between all the people who we might want to coordinate with in the coming decades to navigate this century as well as we can.
Wow, that got grandiose way too fast.
I don’t know if this terminology will be useful. However, I suspect figuring out how to work effectively with people within the movement, what I call our tent, and outside of it, what I call our campground, is extremely important for helping others as much as we possibly can.
Some new terminology
- The effective altruism tent refers to everyone in the effective altruism community. A healthy tent looks like a happy community, cooperating well, with good epistemics.
- The effective altruism campground refers to everyone affected by the tent, who isn’t in the community. A healthy campground might involve people outside the community having a reasonably accurate impression of what the effective altruism project is about and who are inspired by the ideas in positive small ways (or positive big ways). It might involve improvements to epistemics or increases in compassion without having any affiliation to the “effective altruism” brand due to the ripple effects from our tent on our broader campground.
- In a subsequent post, I’ll (hopefully) use this distinction to argue that, for effective altruism to be as effective at altruism as it could be, we might need to optimise for both the tent and campground.
Narrative examples of a better and worse tent and campground
Our tent is everyone in the effective altruism community. This is difficult to define, but I mean something roughly like the people who feel
- they really belong in the community; or
- that effective altruism project makes up a significant chunk of their big-picture decision-making.
A better tent
This is a fictional example for illustration purposes:
A person is inspired by their local effective altruism group to get 80,000 Hours career advising and to take that advice seriously. They end up deciding that policy seems like a promising pathway for them and they get a job in the UK civil service. They keep their eyes peeled for opportunities to improve policy in areas that might affect the issues they believe are most pressing. One of their biggest impacts comes 15 years into their career. They have an opportunity to revisit the emergency vaccine roll-out plan and they make some strategic tweaks that significantly reduce some operational bottlenecks, cutting a month off the next emergency vaccine roll-out 40 years later.
There are plenty of real success stories. It’s hard not to listen to Sam Bankman Fried’s 80k episode and not feel a little bit proud to be a part of this community that has so many incredible people who are helping others in big ways and in small ways. There are so many less glamorous stories that are, in some ways, more inspiring for it (though Sam somehow manages to make himself relatable enough in that 80k episode that I can’t help but refer to him on a first-name basis apparently).
There are so many incredible people that are in some ways ordinary, like me, but somehow are extraordinarily caring and generous. Whether it is their donated kidneys to a stranger, the huge sums of money given to global development or being supportive to someone in their effective altruism community who is going through a tough time because that is the sort of community that kind and generous people create.
I really do think this community is pretty amazing in lots of ways. However, it is so far from perfect.
A worse tent
Just because someone is in our tent, that absolutely does not mean that their impact is necessarily going to be positive (obviously).
A plausible to me, but again, completely fictional case might be the talented technical researcher who is interested in AI and AI alignment purely because of the effective altruism community. While working at Deepmind, they improve AI capabilities quite a bit. Sadly, they do not manage to increase AI alignment much at all. Their interest in effective altruism led them to take actions that increased risks from AI, making AI timelines shorter without making AI safer.
I feel like the only words I have to this situation being plausibly common is: “oh dear”.
This is an adaptation of someone’s real story (I hope that stories like this one are not as common as I believe them to be):
Someone gives everything to the mission of “do as much good as possible”. They burn out. They decide doing good is not actually their thing anymore. They’re maybe even too ashamed to think about it even though they did so much. Simply, because they were human, they couldn’t sustain an unsustainable pace. They were basically the person who gives 90% instead of 10% in one of my favourite talks called “doing less good, but for good reason”.
The effective altruism question does not lend itself easily to human psychology. I do feel we need to do better at looking after the people who are doing their best to look after the whole damn world. I have some thoughts on this and some thoughts on mistakes I’ve made in how I’ve talked about the effective altruism project. Words hold too much weight sometimes. People in their 20s (or even younger) are impressionable. It’s easy to make mistakes in community building and do more harm than good.
I’ll quickly just put a note here that summarises a lot of what I feel on this topic as some random nobody with no mental health expertise beyond a long list of diagnoses others have given me.
My one biggest takeaway from my own mental health issues and the issues of others I have known is that you really probably shouldn’t ever make sacrifices that feel like really huge sacrifices in your gut. It seems obvious when I say it but I still feel like it, unfortunately, still needs to be said.
Making the sorts of sacrifices that on a gut level feel like huge sacrifices seems to be a pretty straight-line path to burnout and sadness. If nothing else gets through to you then I’d say, moral actualism is legit (but also, of course, it is really, really, really okay to have other goals and its also okay to have this one goal if you’re happy like that: basically, just do what keeps you mentally healthy over your long and flourishing life and then you’ll have plenty of energy to work on saving the world if that’s important to you).
Since first posting this, I have talked to a couple of people who I've maybe nudged a bit to make things that felt like big sacrifices to them at the time but now seem very much worth it to them, given their values and how things panned out. I'm glad (though I still feel like it might, possibly, still have ex-ante been a mistake, though I'm extremely uncertain here).
I think a key thing is maybe not to avoid big sacrifices, but avoid feeling like it's not even a question.
The trouble might be when the big sacrifice feels like the only option, rather than an actual choice where both making the sacrifice and not making the sacrifice are seriously considered.
Explicit recognition that making a big sacrifice is always a question with two real choices: "do it" and "don't do it", could be the thing that is actually important for maintaining one's mental health. That recognition that it's always okay to not make a huge sacrifice and that if you are going to make it, you really chose it.
(end of edit)
Our campground is everyone who is affected by the effective altruism community (our tent), who isn’t in the community.
A better campground
My impression of this person’s articulate recount of one of their friends in their post, “Bad Omens in Current Community Building” is very much a campground success story. People in the effective altruism tent, like the 80,000 hours staff, seem to have made this person better able to help others because of their existence even if they are not part of our tent. This is good!
The description of the post author’s friend is:
“I was talking to a friend a little while ago who went to an EA intro talk and is now doing one of 80,000 Hours' recommended career paths, with a top score for direct impact. She’s also one of the most charismatic people I know, and she cares deeply about doing good, with a healthy practical streak.
She’s not an EA, and she’s not going to be. She told me that she likes the concept and the framing and that since the intro talk she’s often found that when faced with big ethical questions it’s useful to ask “what would an EA do”. But she’s not an EA.”
A worse campground
I think this example in that same bad omens post is an example of a bad campground experience (they seem likely to be less inclined to want to do the things that effectively help others because of their interaction with people in the effective altruism tent):
“A friend of mine at a different university attended the EA intro fellowship and found it lacking. He tells me that in the first session, foundational arguments were laid out, and he was encouraged to offer criticism. So he did. According to him, the organisers were grateful for the criticism but didn’t really give him any satisfying replies. They then proceeded to build on the claims about which he remained unconvinced, without ever returning to it or making an effort to find an answer themselves.
He recently described something to me as ‘too EA’. When I pushed him to elaborate, what he meant was something like ‘has the appearance of inviting you to make your own choice but is not-so-subtly trying to push you in a specific direction’.”
Yikes! This made my heart sink and was, sadly, familiar.
A community-building challenge
High-fidelity communication is important and resource intensive
High-fidelity communication is hard to do quickly: we can only grow a movement that is full of people with a nuanced understanding of effective altruism so fast.
One-on-one conversations with people about ideas take so much time. I am incredibly grateful to all the people who thought it was worth responding to my spam on Facebook messenger, sometimes when I barely knew you. I am also grateful to the people who then chatted with me for hours on the phone. It was so much work to give me some nuance and I was lucky that there were people who were willing to do that work because I love being part of this community.
Unfortunately, books don’t talk back and it is very hard to substitute that time-consuming labour that is required when someone is genuinely curious, and, therefore, wants to question everything (a mixed blessing that GPT-3 might talk back: I should see how good it is at giving me nuanced answers to all my questions 😅).
I hope this work felt more like friendship and less like labour to at least some of the people that spent all this time talking to me but whether it was fun or not, it was probably somewhat necessary.
This EA stuff is so nuanced! It is so easy to take a simpler version and be worse off than if you had never heard the ideas in the first place!
Community-building is very warm-and-friendly-people-constrained right now. We do not have enough people who have a high-fidelity understanding of effective altruism and who are kind and welcoming to build a big and inclusive tent that remains true to the effective altruism project.
The Catherine Lows, Julia Wises and the Luke Freemans of the world are too rare (I am lucky enough to know many more I could list, but I still think they are too few and far between).
As an aside, I am pretty sure anyone who understands effective altruism in a fairly nuanced way can help with this. This “do good effectively” project has so much grey but if you’re aware that the simple-sounding answers have plenty of complications then I think you’re exactly the sort of person who can help a tonne with this.
The more different you are to the average person in the community, the more of a trailblazer you can be for making more kinds of people feel welcome in this community. I think being different to the existing community makes you especially well-suited to creating a better community.
A common confusion: who could be interested and who do we actually have the capacity for
I think we sometimes maybe get confused between who theoretically could be interested in effective altruism if we were less resource-constrained and who ends up interested.
The more different a person is from the average person inside the movement, the more work it is to carve out space for them. The more different a person is from the average person inside the movement, the more likely it is that they’ll be able to see our water and help us see reality with new nuance and insight.
It’d be helpful to have more strategy around how we manage the future people who could be in our tent when we have the capacity for them, even if we don’t have the capacity to give them a high-fidelity rendition of the core ideas right now.
Having good terminology helps with clear thinking around a topic and I think the terminology introduced in this post might help (I strongly encourage others to come up with better terminology if this doesn’t quite capture the thing I hope I am successfully pointing to).
I can also see other places that the “campground versus tent effects” distinction could help bring clarity where our existing lingo maybe hasn’t.
I am hoping to elaborate on some more thoughts on why campground impact could be important for the effective altruism community’s overall long-term impact (for example, what I think could be some of the key considerations that could wildly change how big of a deal our campground impact will be compared to our tent impact).
I also have way too many thoughts on what local groups can do to help create a healthier campground while still keeping our tent full of people with a high-fidelity understanding of effective altruism (largely this would be a collage of copied and pasted advice given by other people in various other places on the forum).
While I am very much intending to post more, maybe don’t hold your breath because this post sat in my Google Drive for an embarrassingly long time: your best bet really is to keep breathing in the meantime (and if you hope for no bad jokes in any future posts, let me clarify that the only real hope here is that I never post the next one).
I appreciate anyone giving any thoughts on what is unclear in the comments or what they’d like to see more of to help me work out what content if any, to prioritise next.
Please also feel free to write any content inspired by this (I should be so lucky) in the meantime (especially since it is totally within the realm of possibility that this remains a lonely “post 1” with no “post 2”).
I particularly encourage the more reliable people who have influenced my thinking to post their thoughts. If you’ve ever talked to me, then I’m probably talking about you: anything of substance I ever think tends to be shameless plagiarisation of smarter people who mentioned something in one conversation or another (or one forum comment or another).
Anything lacking in substance is purely my own because nothing good ever comes from trying to do anything alone (that’s kind of my whole point).
Also, I don't think I make that many concrete claims since this post mainly just says "I did community-building and think some new language could be useful". I hope to make more explicit claims in future posts. At the time of writing this footnote (during an edit made a day or so after posting), I had left more concrete thoughts on community-building as a reply to a very lovely and thoughtful comment someone made. (my epistemic status on those comments are something like "I am pretty confident that they are pointing to something true however I think it's highly likely I won't back my explicit wording if someone points out nuance I missed on a first draft". which is probably also my epistemic status on any more concrete claims made in this post too)
I’m really talking to myself here as much as anyone else.
My current view is that one of the best “community-building” strategies is just to be friends with people who inspire you to question all your assumptions, and whether or not they end up thinking you are right about anything, you’ve invested in a friendship regardless. Building friendships seems to me to be one of the most worthwhile things a person can do with their time for lasting happiness anyway. Better epistemics. Better community. Better life. (okay, you caught me, I just selfishly like to be friends with amazing people)
These are just people who are in or have visited my local community who are pretty good examples: there is actually a much longer list but I thought I’d start with the ones that were more likely to be recognisable.
Campground impact=the expected impact of the campground (everyone outside the current effective altruism tent) minus the impact that the people in the current campground would have had if the effective altruism tent had never existed.
The above is a definition for the campground impact right now. If useful, I think it is coherent to talk about campground impact at other points in time too, eg. theoretical possible futures, but I honestly haven’t thought about this enough to tie myself up in too many knots yet.
Tent impact=the counterfactual impact of the effective altruism movement's existence minus the campground impact
The tent and campground analogy and vocabulary is very helpful, thank you! I wish I'd had it in my toolkit a few weeks ago when trying to discuss the nuances of community building at an EA retreat - probably would've saved a lot of time and made for better mutual understanding. Glad to have it going forward though!
This was so heartwarming to read 😊
Please do continue to write. This kind of explanation is so much more clear about the personal experience of what it feels like to communicate and share effectively. I haven't been here long and am not a community builder, but the other posts I have seen about outreach - while accurate, admirably composed, and intellectually rigorous - have somehow lacked guidance. I read them and think: "Yeah! That's perfect, I should do that!" But I knew in the day-to-day I would never remember the phrasing they so carefully calibrated unless I had several hours of practice by say, running an introduction to EA booth
Thinking about further posts of EA and the wider world:
EA is rightly working on what seems to be the most important cause areas. How do we reconcile that with people/groups who have no interest in doing that. Like say, a group dedicated to all things rock and roll. Convince them EA is also important? Do we help them to their own goal, to optimize rock 'n roll? Encourage them to move on to the next most effective thing, whatever it is? Try to find ways rock 'n roll can synergize with another EA project? (rock 'n roll with lyrics about EA?) Don't waste time acknowledging a difference of opinion and moving on to find better low hanging fruit?
I'm sure people have discussed this endlessly before, but that's it's what I'm currently thinking about.
This was such a lovely comment to receive!
A quick edited in note:
The replies got a tad out of hand and this whole thing of trying to structure my replies as distinct little sub-replies looks so spammy. I am very sorry (I clearly was way too excited about having a reply to my post)!
All the replies are structured so you definitely don't have to read all the threads, just the ones that interest you. I've outlined the topic of each comment in each higher-level reply.
That is definitely not a no-brainer kind of question. I don't have any neat answers because the answer varies so much between different cases.
Broadly speaking, it depends on the details of three things:
I've discussed these in more depth in two comment threads below because I started writing about the first one and the comment already felt too long (my new EA forum resolution is to break up my thoughts into distinct pieces more)! 🤣
One comment thread gives a bit more detail on the individual who doesn't care about effective altruism. The other discusses the individual who does care about effective altruism.
I didn't really feel like I needed a separate thread for the third component because I feel like it came up pretty naturally that, depending on the individuals (both the one that doesn't care about effective altruism and the one that does), trust and time spent chatting curiously with each other can sometimes be necessary for any mind-changing or value discovery to occur.
EDIT: (I think everyone in the community is naturally a community-builder.
We all set the culture.
We all care about this enough to likely want to bring it up in some way to the people in our lives.
Because a big way to help others more is to get other people on board with the idea that making a difference really does seem way more actionable than many of us might have thought before coming across this group of incredibly smart and caring people.)
Why is the person who cares about effective altruism and their relationship to the person who doesn't so key in answering this question?
Changing your mind is exhausting and challenging.
Changing your mind on topics that might affect all your future life choices and also might reflect badly on many of your past choices is incredibly difficult.
Asking someone to question everything either requires the person who is questioning everything to have:
I think often it requires both.
If the person in question does not have a very weird disposition and can just casually question everything, then they do not need much beyond a little exposure. However, 99.9% of people on planet Earth are not like that! 99.9% of people on planet Earth find questioning everything quite emotionally challenging.
This can make conversations breakdown very quickly without a lot of trust and care, especially if the conversation moves extremely quickly and questions a lot of things all at once in ways that are brand new.
There are several ways community-builders can mitigate this:
Once we believe something, once we care about something, we all tend to forget the often long journey to that worldview and that passion. We enthusiastically feel like because it is now obvious to us that it always was and then talk to others like it is no big deal.
Usually, if you don't have an exceptionally weird disposition, questioning everything you think about the world and everything you care about is a challenging journey. I took more time to come around than I remembered for a long-time, once it all felt obvious to me. The memories of everything it took to change my mind came back to me slowly. This is so human I think. We move on fast once we believe something, no matter how long the journey took. Once we believe something is true, it often feels like we always knew it deep down (when actually, I think our brains just conveniently forget that so we have more space to think about new things).
Remembering that changing your mind and accepting that you were wrong in the past and that all your future plans might be worth changing is bloody hard. For people to think clearly, they often need room and support. They also need permission to think differently! These are really hard questions! Smart people definitely can very reasonably disagree.
The role, I see, of a community builder, is to create a space where people can safely think about what they think and what they care about. It is not to convince them of any one particular answer or any one particular value system. It seems fine to nudge people towards a wider moral circle. It seems fine to present people with why you believe what you believe. The rest is an open-minded, open-hearted, curious conversation.
It was incredibly useful to be reminded of the obvious fact that rewriting a load-bearing belief is crazy. Doing it has had me in tumultuous staits that absolutely needed to be sorted out asap but I had no way forward and no way back.
Sometimes I have been uneasy for days trying to adjust to the new world. Sometimes it would make me feel like an imposter when I would talk to people about ordinary stuff. Incredibly uncomfortable experience that I do immediately forget.
What seems best to do when a person has no interest in EA causes naturally depends a lot on why the person has no interest. Some people have no interest in EA causes because:
Usually, I think, it's a blurry mix of all three of the above. I will discuss how it gets blurred together and how I think people end up sometimes getting clarity on what factors are most important to them in several separate comments.
Human minds conflate things a lot. Often a person's beliefs about the world and what they care about are blurred together in a very confused way if they've never thought about it before.
Some key questions that come to mind, given people conflate things so much, are:
This comment responds to the second set of questions posed above.
How does a person deal with finding out that they care because of something other than facts or deeply held values? To put it another way, if a person starts thinking, and then they realise that their rationalizations for their feelings don't add up, how does a person deal with this?
Two responses are:
The second possible response is why warm, approachable caring community-builders are so valuable. It is also why it is so important for people to feel like they have permission to not act on what they believe to be important to act on.
Changing your mind is hard. Changing your mind is so much harder if you feel like you have to completely change your life and all your future plans every time a new consideration pops into your head that puts your previous conclusion on shaky ground.
This was really insightful: I can definitely envision how creating a warm, cozy atmosphere is crucial as a demonstration that 1) its safe to be vulnerable 2) other people have done this and it's not so hard 3) that's what we do here and it's understood how difficult it is to do 4) you won't be attacked for being unskilled at it
And it also helps elucidate how having an open but critical atmosphere doesn't work for first time folks, even very thoughtful, open, truth-seeking ones. They aren't ready to defend themselves in friendly combat, even as a game / helpful search for truth in such a state of world-instability.
Yeah, I also find it very de-stabilizing and then completely forget my own journey instantly once I've reconciled everything and am feeling stable and coherent again.
It's nice to hear I'm not the only one here who isn't 99.999 percentile stoically unaffected by this.
I think one way to deal with this is to mainly select for people with these weird dispositions who are unusually good at coping with this.
I think an issue with this is that the other 99% of planet Earth might be good allies to have in this whole "save the world" project and could actually get on board if we do community building exceptionally well. On the other hand, maybe this is too big an ask because community building is just really hard and by optimising for inclusivity, we maybe trade-off against other things that we care about possibly even more.
I personally don't know what the optimal message for community-builders is but I hope we keep having these sorts of conversations. Even if it turns out that there is no good answer, I think it's still worth it on expectation to think hard about this.
If we can guide community-builders better to manage these complexities and nuances, I think we'll be able to create a much stronger ecosystem to help us tackle the world's most pressing problems.
Also, thank you for navigating through my replies! I really appreciate you taking the time to read them.
I will limit myself to just this one comment so I don't drown this post's comment thread in any more of my spam. 😅
It is also a reason why the level of mutual trust between the person who cares about EA causes and the person who doesn't can be so vital.
How does a person start to get clarity on whether they care about what they care about due to their beliefs about the world or their values?
This just seems to require a lot of thinking!
I have found that I can get the most clarity when I do a mix of:
I have been told by friends that sometimes I talk in their presence but it's pretty clear that I'm actually really talking to myself: "...where would I have put my keys when I got home yesterday?" (or "what do I actually care about here?")
This thinking requires time and patience that most people are too busy for or not curious enough for or too tired to question their current life choices and worldview (it is extremely exhausting to question your fundamental beliefs and values).
This is one key reason why the person who is interested in effective altruism and their relationship to the person who isn't are such vital components to the equation in my mind.