(Cross-posted on LessWrong)

Introduction

School of Thinking (SoT) is a media startup.

Our purpose is to spread Effective Altruist, longtermist, and rationalist values and ideas as much as possible to the general public by leveraging new media. We aim to reach our goal through the creation of high-quality material posted on an ecosystem of YouTube channels, profiles on social media platforms, podcasts, and SoT's website. 

Our priority is to produce content in English and Italian, but we will cover more languages down the line. We have been funded by the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund (EAIF) and the FTX Future Fund.

Summary

  • School of Thinking was launched on Instagram in 2020 by Luca Parodi. For a year and a half, Luca's goal has been to do rationalist outreach on Instagram in Italian. The profile reached 18.000 followers in March 2022. In January 2022, Luca received his first grant (from EAIF) to leave his job, work full-time on the project, and expand it on other platforms in Italian. The goal at that moment was to do EA community building in Italy. 
  • In March 2022, Eloisa Margherita Calafiore joined the project as a co-founder and Chief Operating Officer, and in April 2022, School of Thinking received a grant from FTX Future Fund to expand globally. Being able to upscale the project, the goal shifted towards doing outreach more globally (whilst continuing our local work in Italian).
  • Our current strategy is to focus on creating weekly long-format videos for YouTube and daily short-format videos and other content (e.g. carousels and IG stories) on TikTok, YouTube, and Instagram. In the last few weeks, we had several viral videos on Instagram Italy (+630.000 views in the last 30 days). We have a total of ~25.000 followers across six platforms and two languages and are growing steadily. 
  • We create educational content about several important concepts related to rationalism, longtermism, and effective altruism. We aim to explain them to the general public in an easy, engaging, and practical yet accurate way. 
  • We have two paths to impact, listed here in descending order of importance:
    • Attracting new people in EA
      • Help people new to the Effective Altruist, longtermist, and rationalist communities become more engaged.
    • Spreading Good Values and Improving Reflective Processes
      • Raise awareness about specific topics in untouched but influential portions of the general population
      • Increase epistemic hygiene
      • Spreading important ideas

Our History

The First Few Years

The general idea for School of Thinking (SoT) was formulated for the first time by me (Luca Parodi) in 2017 when I discovered LessWrong. Nonetheless, I worked on it informally for years before launching the project. The official launch happened in July 2020, with an Instagram profile with the bold goal of becoming the Italian LessWrong's voice on social media. For a year and a half, SoT was just a side activity while I worked as a management consultant. I dedicated an average of 15 extra work hours per week of my time to this project.  

In September 2021, the Instagram profile reached 10.000 followers, and in November 2021, I applied for the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund to leave my job and work full time on School of Thinking. The goal was to move to other platforms - like YouTube or a podcast - ‌and leverage School of Thinking's audience to grow the Italian EA community. EAIF accepted my grant request, so I left my job and started working on SoT full-time in January 2022.

Rapidly, I realized that I was one of the few full-time content creators with a strong track record (18k followers on IG in 17 months) within the global EA community, so I started thinking globally. With Eloisa Margherita Calafiore, now SoT's COO and co-founder (more on this below), we applied to the FTX Future Fund to scale our project globally. In April, we got an offer from FTX, and now we are working on the project's next phases.

Co-founders' History

We (Eloisa and Luca) met each other in mid-2019 in Milan. We realized from the beginning that we shared remarkably similar interests, values, and ambitions, so we developed a strong friendship. During the years, Eloisa started a successful career as a YouTuber and podcaster, whilst Luca finished his master's degree in Cognitive Science and Decision Theory, worked as a management consultant and launched School of Thinking. We constantly supported each other's projects and shared feedback and ideas on how to grow. Eloisa's role has been essential for several reasons, like when in the first phase of School of Thinking, she already foresaw the project's potential and decided to give it visibility in her profile (something she did several times during the years). 

Given these prerequisites and our strong relationship, I (Luca) asked Eloisa to collaborate on the FTX Future Fund application and, if we got an offer, to become School of Thinking co-founder and COO. Eloisa gladly accepted, and we worked together on the application. Since the day in which we received an offer, we started working together officially.

Our Results

A snapshot of our recent results (August-September 2022)

  • Instagram (Ita): in the last 30 days (mid-August to mid-September 2022), our content had ~630.000 views and reached ~430.000 individual accounts. We reached 22.400 followers, a +21% growth from the precedent month.
  • YouTube (Ita): we are growing steadily. Right now, we have ~600 subs and 6.500 views.
  • TikTok (Ita): we reached 550 subs and 26.000 views in 6 weeks
  • YouTube (Eng): we have our first slightly viral video (What is a fallacy?), with 3500 views. We now have 200 subs.
  • TikTok (Eng) and Instagram (Eng): Our growth has been very slow here. We are still trying to figure out why and the best countermeasures.

Our Strategy

Our actual goal for School of Thinking is to create videos (long on YouTube and short on TikTok and IG - 70% of our focus), social media posts (carousels and stories on IG, 20% of our focus), and other outreach content (e.g. a newsletter - 10% of our focus). We create content in Italian (our native language) and English. We have already launched two YouTube Channels, two Instagram Profiles, and two TikTok Pages, one for each language. 

We are still in the project's testing phase, so things are moving fast, and we are experimenting a lot. Right now, our goal is to create:

  • Weekly longer videos (YouTube)
  • Daily shorter videos (TikTok, Instagram Reels, and YouTube Shorts) and other content (e.g. Carousels and stories on Instagram)

Our Content

As an example of the content we are creating, here is a small sample of our YT Channels videosKeep in mind that the general quality of the videos (i.e., the scripts, the editing, our performances, the titles, and so on) has improved significantly during the last few months. In addition, we have added a link to the videos on YouTube.

Newer videos, higher quality

  1. A selection of the best five books about decision-making according to us,
    1. English
    2. Italian
  2. An introduction to the five main cognitive biases that affect our judgment and how to avoid them,
    1. English
    2. Italian
  3. A general introduction to the idea of longtermism
    1. English (to be posted)
    2. Italian
  4. A series of shorter videos in which we give simple definitions of relevant terms and ideas,
    1. What is a bias
      1. English
      2. Italian
    2. What is a fallacy
      1. English
      2. Italian
    3. The problem of induction
      1. English (to be posted)
      2. Italian

In the next few weeks, we will post three new videos: one about Tetlock's Superforecasting, one titled "How to think like Sherlock Holmes", and one about the concept of Expected Value. 

Older videos, average quality

  1. A series of four videos about Yudkowsky's "12 virtues of rationality". We have reinterpreted the original content by giving it a personal voice.
    1. Italian: First, Second, Third and Fourth
    2. English: First, Second, Third and Fourth
  2. An intro to 80k Hours' framework,
    1. English
    2. Italian
  3. A summary of the first part of Julia Galef's Scout Mindset,
    1. English
    2. Italian
  4. A video about Paul Graham's How to Disagree,
    1. English
    2. Italian
  5. An introduction to Holden Karnofsky's "The most important century",
    1. English
    2. Italian
  6. A restructured and adapted for YouTube version of Nate Soares' beautiful post On Caring,
    1. English 
    2. Italian

Our potential impact

Attracting new people in EA

Epistemic status: moderately to highly uncertain. The following estimations are mainly based on several assumptions we compounded from external sources (other EAs) and internal evaluations (our expertise as creators). Nevertheless, we believe they are still valuable as an initial reference point. 

We think that right now in EA there are more funds and ideas than people actively trying to implement these ideas and get those funds. This implies that it is crucial to spread EA's ideas as much as possible by exposing EA's principles to the general public. 

For this reason, it seems like there is a growing interest in the community to fund media projects, and other initiatives have already been launched and proved themselves to be highly successful (80k podcast, Rob Miles and Rational Animation YT channel, Vox's Future Perfect, to name a few of them). As far as we know, we are one of the few 100% EA-aligned, multi-platform and multi-language initiatives of this kind, and for this reason, we think we can become key players in this field within the EA community.

To estimate our potential impact, we relied on this interesting comment by Peter Wildeford, in which he estimated (roughly and with caveats) that "outreach to a particular person produce[s] ~0.002 EAs on average". It seems to us like a reasonable average estimation. However, we have also included in our analysis the conservative (0,000075 EAs), and ambitious (0,024 EAs) estimates made by Peter.

Given our means, our expertise, and the already strong brand we developed, we've tried to make some assumptions about the impact we may have. We tried to do a 1-year and 3-years estimation, considering only the total sum of our followers for three platforms and two languages. [1]

Year 1 

For the first phase, we will follow the Y-Combinator standards of a 5% to 7% weekly growth rate on the most relevant metric for a successful startup in the first 6/12 months. In our case, the metric is the total number of followers - the sum of our IG Ita followers, IG Eng followers, YT Ita subscribers, and so on.

Right now (05.09.2022, but since then, we have already grown again), we have ~23.000 followers. We used Peter's range as a point of reference to calculate the conservative (0,000075 "new EA" every 1 person reached), the average (0.002 new EA), and the ambitious (0.024 new EA) estimated percentage of people we may get involved into EA by doing outreach. We also adjusted this number by calculating the unique users by accounting for a 20% overlap between followers across platforms.[2]

  • An ambitious weekly growth would be 6%, reaching ~475.000 followers in 12 months and 380.000 unique users. 
  • good growth would be 3% per week. This could lead us to 100.000 followers in one year, adjusted to 80.000 unique users.
  • slow growth would be 1.5% per week. This could lead us to 40.000 unique followers.

Year 3

Here we enter a grey area, and it's challenging to accurately forecast a social media project for such a long timeframe, so we will continue with the previous exercise. We shortened the growth rate range of the three different new scenarios (weekly growth rate of 2%, 3%, and 4%), and we started from the outcome of the first three scenarios (475k, 100k, and 40k) to calculate a total of 9 potential three years outcomes in terms of total followers. 

Some best guesses 

  • We may aim for a pretty good growth rate in the first year (3%) and then slow down in the next two years (2%). This means that
    • In 12 months, we can reach 100.000 total followers.
    • In 36 months, we can reach between 500.000 and 1.000.000 followers
  • The average New EAs estimation (0.002 new EAs per Unique User) seems the most reasonable. This means that
    • In 12 months, we may involve 160 new EAs
    • In 36 months, we may involve between 800 and 1600 new EAs.

Measurements

We are still trying to figure out how to measure the impact we can have to confront the estimation with more consistent data. Several sketchy ideas we may implement are

  • Asking our followers to complete some surveys, both on Instagram and on some detailed Google Forms
    • We may ask them if they have improved their decisions thanks to our content or if they did some EAs actions (e.g. joining a group, reading a book, participating in a Virtual Program)
  • Check with EA-related organizations if some of their new members listed us as a primary source of their interests
    • E.g. new EA virtual program participants, people coached by 80k, new EA chapters volunteers
  • Do some book giveaways.
  • Track how many followers click on EA-adjacent links we post
  • Organize online live events dedicated explicitly to EA and track the number of participants

Spreading Good Values and Improving Reflective Processes

Increasing epistemic hygiene

For several reasons, we don't like the term "hygiene" so much from a communication and branding perspective. Still, it implies an idea we agree upon, and that's at the core of School of Thinking: helping as many people as possible to become more rational, make better decisions, think critically, have more accurate views of reality, and reach their goals. Even considering the risks (e.g. more cognitive power to potentially malignant players), we think we can create a net-positive impact by finding a way of teaching a vast number of people those skills through new media. In this early stage, we will measure our success by the number of people we reach; in the next few months, we will try to develop a more reliable and detailed way of quantifying this measure (e.g. through online exercises and tests).

Other Impacts

  • Raising awareness about specific topics in slightly untouched by EA ideas but significant portions of the general population. We will try to explain this point with a hypothetical scenario example.
    • Let's say that a wannabe politician in their mid-twenties from my home city (Rome) has the ambition of running as mayor in the next 15 years. They don't read/watch much material in English but want to stay updated about relevant topics to gain competitive advantages over other candidates and to change their city. 
    • Without a high-quality platform that communicates clearly and accurately EA-related ideas in Italian, they would only run into low-fidelity versions of those ideas (if they encounter them at all!). 
      • E.g. AGI risks explained briefly only by newspapers in a doomsday-ish language.
    • For this reason, there is a high chance that they will approach future and contemporary issues lacking an accurate EA framework. But if they follow a social media platform that gives them constant precise information, they will be better prepared. 
    • This will translate, for example, into increasing the possibility of having EA-friendly politics implemented on the micro- and meso- level (e.g. laws to incentivize an educational reform that will teach EA-aligned topics to young students).
  • Other reasons are well summarized here by Luisa Rodriguez and Benjamin Todd on the 80k's Communication Career Profile. According to them, as communicators, we can help to do things like:
    • "Put concern for nuclear security back onto the political agenda.
    • Spread important values, like moral concern for nonhuman animals and distant future generations.
    • Mobilize efforts to prevent a pandemic much worse than COVID-19.
    • Stand up for technology agnosticism to tackle climate change, especially for approaches that are unfairly unpopular (e.g. nuclear energy) or unknown (e.g. hot rock geothermal), or unsexy (e.g. decarbonizing the cement industry rather than electric cars).
    • Spread the ideas of effective altruism, as well as adjacent ideas like improving judgment and decision-making (as in the example of Julia Galef below).
    • Convince people working on artificial intelligence (and the policymakers that will govern it) of the challenge of AI alignment.
    • Spreading important ideas like those above might not only have immediate benefits in terms of getting more people to work on these issues — it also helps to advance society's understanding of these ideas, moving the discourse forward, making important ideas more mainstream, and eventually shaping policy and social norms."

Feedback and comments

Since we are still at the beginning of our journey, we are highly open to feedback, comments, and criticism. If someone wants to indulge in a more detailed conversation, we are available at hello@schoolofthinking.co.

Acknowledgements 

As the article's writer, I (Luca) would like to thank Ben West, Lorenzo Buonanno, Luca Stocco, Michael Aird, Justis Mills, and Sophie Gullino for the feedback. 

As School of Thinking, we would like to thank our team (Luca Stocco, Costanza Polastri, Ruggero Cusimano, and Davide Tessitore) for their fantastic work. We would also like to thank Ben West, Michael Aird, Lorenzo Buonanno, Stefania Dalprete, and Dan Mindus for the precious feedback. 


 

  1. ^

    Here a spreadsheet with our estimations

  2. ^

    Source: our experience as content creators and some data points from our surveys.

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