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).
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