The EA forum is not a forum in the traditional sense, and this difference in structure may be limiting the spread of good ideas and reducing the amount of engagement people have with EA online.
When looking at other forums, they usually have quite a different structure (student room, skyscrapers). The main difference is having many sub-forums, each having different posting expectations and topics. The EA forum acts more like a news feed, with highly voted content staying visible for a bit before disappearing.
Maybe there isn’t enough traffic to warrant having sub-forums but it could also be that the current design of the EA forum limits the breadth and depth of conversations that can happen here. This might be why there is a lot of EA related discussion on Facebook, Slack & Twitter. There are over 300 different Facebook groups related to EA in a variety of ways.
TL/DR bullet points
- Hard to find relevant groups/topics
- Forum can give an underwhelming impression
- Hard to find the current best knowledge about a particular cause or career
- Missing out on possible connections
- Can be intimidating to post on the forum
- Conversation is forced onto Facebook/Slack/Twitter which limits some people from engaging
When people want to see what is going on in EA, it can often be quite hard to navigate the different groups and topics, and they may be unaware of different groups, or the latest charity and career recommendations for a specific cause.
I have spoken to a few people who have been underwhelmed by the forum content, they spend a few minutes navigating, check out all posts and see a random assortment of topics that can usually be quite badly written with little engagement and decide not to come back. Also if people have a particular expertise it’s hard for them to know that a relevant post was here a month ago and they could contribute, if the only way to filter is via two tags.
If instead, an example engineer interested in biosecurity, checks out both the “careers->engineering” sub-forum and the “causes->biosecurity” sub-forum, see the top stickied posts which give an up to date landscape of both areas and scrolls down to see relevant conversations, they may be more interested in adding to the knowledge base. At the moment it can sometimes seem that even good posts can just drop off the news feed and only stick around if people create google docs with links or commit to their long term memory.
It could limit connections being made if people are unaware that there is a Schelling point space for someone in their career and don't come across the relevant Facebook group until a few years later or potentially never.
People have also mentioned that it can be intimidating to post on the EA forum, or that they are worried about getting attacked in the comments. If there were areas where people could post in a more casual way, it may encourage more conversation. At the moment this is only seen in the open thread every few months rather than a dedicated sub-forum where these kinds of questions could be asked, or an area for new people to ask questions or introduce themselves without fear of being reprimanded or wasting the time of other users.
Another disadvantage of having lots of conversation on Facebook is there is a substantial minority of people who don't use or try to limit their Facebook usage.
Some possible drawbacks of having a more traditional style forum could include:-
- It may be harder to connect with someone else as you can’t just click on their name and add them as a Facebook contact
- There may not be easy ways to restrict entry to certain sub-forums. At the moment there are Facebook groups with people working in specific careers or locations that can filter new members with closed groups which ask questions before joining. If this wasn’t possible it could lead to lower quality discussions with people who don’t know a topic dominating sub-forums
- People don’t use their real names as much, which may affect how people discuss
- People may check the forum less than Facebook, and conversation could be slower
- There may not be enough usage to justify many sub-forums
- To create something like this would take time/money that could be better used
- It may reduce usage of Facebook groups which are providing more value in their current set up, and end up just duplicating what already exists and splitting conversations
- There could be more visibility of off putting and idle conversations that happen on Facebook, that new people may take as representing EA
- The average post quality would likely be lower
I think it is at least worth spending some time to think about what you would want the EA forum to be if you were to create it from scratch. What the purpose of the forum is, and the best ways of achieving those goals.