Learning From Less Wrong: Special Threads, and Making This Forum More Useful

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This post was originally intended as a comment on a discussion about how we shall make use of this forum. Several users expressed an interest in splitting this forum into different sections such as Major/Minor articles, or Main/Discussion. Noting how such a division was historically unpopular on Less Wrong, Ryan Carey, the current moderator for this forum, cautions against doing so.

If we want to make special discussions on this forum so it's more useful, or modular, we can do so. Less Wrong itself has various other special threads in addition to its regular posts. There are two types: periodic, and repository

Periodic threads are ones posted on a regular, e.g., (bi-)weekly, or (bi-)monthly, basis. There are already open threads, effective altruism quotes, welcome threads, and meetup announcements on this site. These should keep being posted regularly. Additionally, we can also periodically post the following:

  • 'What Are You Working On?': a (bi)monthly thread on which users can showcase their current activities. Of course, such a thread on this forum would be specific activity at least tangential to effective altruism. Still, it could act as a way for effective altruists to find collaborators, and other volunteers, a la .impact, or have their projects funded by other effective altruists, as Diego Caleiro, and Ozzie Gooen, have started doing.
  • 'Group Effective Altruism Diary': Less Wrong has a group rationality diary. We can do the same for effective altruism. This is a (bi)monthly thread for users to share how they've been doing applying effective altruism in their own lives.
  • Media Thread: posted monthly to collect recommendations/reviews for media (books, movies, articles, etc.)

Ryan Carey wouldn't have to maintain regular threads like these alone. Less Wrong users organize themselves to post these threads on their regularly timed schedule(s), and we could do the same. I personally volunteer to post the periodic threads I've suggested above. I'll start posting these in October, one per week, and repeat the pattern every (other) month.

Additionally, Less Wrong users spontaneously created threads which became useful repositories of information. 

  • Solved Problems Repository: this is a thread for 'solved' problems in instrumental rationality. Since instrumental rationality is useful advice for everyone, I recommend checking out that thread on Less Wrong itself. Anyway, we could have such a resource on this forum specific to effective altruism. For example, there could be a resources page for dealing with tax-deductible donations, launching a non-profit organization, etc., for each of the different countries effective altruists are from.
  • Useful Concepts Repository: a resource for crystallized ideas, and frames of reference, to catch up to speed on what others mean.
  • Helpful Life Advice: this is called something else on Less Wrong, but I figure we can call it 'Helpful Life Advice' here because effective altruism is so much more personal than other activities.
  • Useful Questions Repository: questions that are good, and useful, to keep in mind as an effective altruist. I recommend reading the original thread on Less Wrong as well.
  • Bad Concepts Repository: a body of concepts that effective altruists discover make for bad decision-making. I recommend reading the original thread on Less Wrong as well.
  • Procedural Knowledge Gaps: a thread for knowledge which should be common sense, but is only learned through experience. This seems especially important for effective altruism as it is a lifelong path fraught with difficult decisions, and knowing how to pass them well is important. The original thread on Less Wrong has life advice applicable to anyone.
  • Repository of Mistakes: this could be a thread here for effective altruists to share the life-changing mistakes they've made. Like with procedural knowledge gaps, such a repository seems especially, crucially important for effective altruists, due to the specific and demanding lifestyle choices some of us may make

If this forum never develops its own wiki as Less Wrong did for itself, or the existing effective altruism wiki remains stagnant, then I believe repository threads such as these should be linked from the home page of this forum. I believe it will make more sense to start these repository threads later, when this forum gains more users.


Overall, between periodic threads, repositories, and other special threads, specifically labeled as such when they're posted, I believe fragmenting this thread as Ryan cautions against isn't necessary. If you have any other suggestions for special threads that would do this forum well, please suggest them in the comments. 

21 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 9:01 PM
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I would like to caution against a Media Thread since the assumption of there being one in the first place is that it is desirable for particular videos, or essays etc... to be read by most EA's. Media is very time consuming. Frequently people would post out of excitement with this new idea that is either old for others, or irrelevant.

On the other hand, I find the Bragging thread on Lesswrong a very commendable and fruitful endeavour for the EA forum. It puts feeling good about yourself, motivated, and being public about your giving all in one bucket. So I'd suggest perhaps changing the "What are you working on" for "bragging thread". Later if the need is still there, then reinstate a "What are you working on"

I very much agree with your second point. I think it would be especially useful to encourage EAs to announce recent donations they have made, so we can celebrate those donations, evoke warm fuzzies, and maybe even get some subtly competitive giving going.

That would be great, but I feel as if a thread isn't the best venue for it - it would get samey, and people would feel inhibited by the bragginess of it.

Where do you think would be a good place? The points you brought up are concerning, but I think it works decently on LW (although the samey-ness potential is higher here...) and I'm not sure where a better place for it would be.

I don't have any good suggestions in particular, so maybe donation-announcement threads would work. Can you think of any possible alternatives?

People are creative, they'll find new, non-same things to brag about. Trust them.

For threads like that it might also be helpful to have "sort by new" as the default option. Right now I don't believe there is an option to change default sorting on a per-thread basis.

I agree on both counts. I hadn't thought of that, re: media threads. Really, if individual effective altruists want updates on media, there are plenty of organizations, and webpages, such as THINK, and the Centre for Effective Altruism, that regularly share news updates relevant to effective altruists. So, some of us can just follow those.

Regarding Gratipay Effective Altruism and .impact and Skillshare Effective Altruism which are networks of EA's exchanging resources, it would be desirable to have them appear in the forum's initial page. In the same way that Lesswrong currently opens a page with many choices on it.

Gratipay is about donating and receiving donations from other EA's. It is a direct channel of donation, which avoids institutional costs of donating through an EA institution, and makes sure that even if only one donor and one project builder want to work on a cause, it still gets done.

Skillshare is about donating time and ability between EA's, offer skills there, and request for help from those who have the skills you need.

and .impact is about projects. Creating projects, reframing projects, looking for other collaborators. It's the EA equivalent of an incubator.

Seems clear to me that all of these are important and distinct part of the EA life, and they should all be one click away from the initial EA page.

We are planning some integration, as peter says. Expect a thread that relies on the ea hub in the next few days.

Yes, we should link more EA projects and organisations. It's just a question of which projects, and where to add the links. I think I'll start by adding a page full of links to the Introduction to Effective Altruism. For the homepage, it's important to keep a simple UI. (Some people found LessWrong's main page to be difficult to penetrate.) Currently, there are just two links for people to "Get Started", which I'm content with:

  • The Effective Altruism landing page: this links to lots of projects, like GiveWell and AMF. It's getting a glossy redesign, which Kerry Vaughan is involved with
  • The Introduction to Effective Altruism: on-site reading materials.

If I was going to add external links on the frontpage, although some people think that Skillshare and Gratipay have potential, from a coldly objective point of view, there's little evidence that they will realise it. In the past three months, no new skills or requests have been submitted to Skillshare. Gratipay is doing relatively well with over $100 of weekly donations, although it's still early days. If we were adding outbound links in the sidebar, the first might be GiveWell or LessWrong.

Some of us could collaborate on writing our own introductions to various parts of effective altruism, and linking articles in that fashion to newcomers as they start asking question. Such a task will be much easier using this forum than it would have been using only the Facebook group before, because we won't have to repeatedly write responses.

Yes, I think this is very valuable. Whether we write them here, on the Effective Altruism Wiki, or on the LessWrong wiki, I think we should be banking up some introductions to key ideas in effective altruism. The advantage of putting the introductions here is that they will receive criticism but the disadvantage is that the edit history is not recorded in the same way that it would be for a wiki.

If I myself end up writing some introductions, I was thinking on writing them on the existing effective altruism wiki, which isn't going anywhere. From there, we can port them to another source, or still link them from this site.

That seems the reverse of what is logical. Both Gratipay and Skillshare have frequency dependent value. If people visit them frequently enough, they become valuable resources. They are mutual-knowledge dependent technologies.

Which is exactly why, if this forum ends up being the conventional place EA's go to explore what's new, that is where the link for them should be.

Lesswrong and Givewell, in contrast, are both well established in these regards. Lesswrong already is a conventional place for many to go in search for news. Givewell actually is not frequency dependent.

So your argument (that they have not been much used in the last three months) is actually the reason why they should be given prominence.

Plans for greater integration between this forum and other pages (like Skillshare) are in the works.

I'm in favour of having recurring threads making up 5-20% of the site's content. I think that the most uncontroversially useful are open threads and meetup announcements. Of the rest, the repository of mistakes seems to me like it would be really good, and could have a different character on this site compared to LessWrong. I think a 'what I'm working on' or 'bragging' thread might work well, as could a 'career advice' thread but I'm less certain about these. I'm unconvinced about the useful concepts repository, the useful questions repository and the bad concepts repository, where it seems like we can more easily just use the threads on LessWrong.

On the meta-level, thanks for making this post. It's good to see users are invested in finding ways to deliver useful content for the forum software that currently exists. Content improvements often require more creativity than feature requests, can be implemented sooner and their implementation often has an impact that is more clearly positive. Props to you, Evan!

Many forums have a concept of a "stickied thread", which is one that stays at the top of the list of topics permanently. I don't know how good a fit that is for a forum designed like this, where there are very few visible topics, and also few subdivisions, but it does work well. It would be a good fit for things like the introductions thread.

I think LessWrong suffered from a lack of stickies - almost all the useful topics you posted saw extremely rapid declines in visibility as they dropped off the front page, which makes them effectively useless. The ones people liked - open threads, media threads, introduction threads - had to be reposted regularly for this reason. There's no reason why a stickied introduction thread can't last for a very long time (i.e. until it becomes unreasonably large).

In addition to what I consider some of the most valuable threads on Less Wrong for an individual, they're an excellent example for newcomers to that site exactly how rewarding, and immediately useful, applying rationality can be to the average individual. I agree with you that whatever online resources this website compiles over time, if their value is timeless, they should be posted to the front webpage for ease of access, and reference.

There are already has open threads

Think you've got an extra word in here :)

Noted, and fixed. Thanks.