Running an AMA on the EA Forum

by Aaron Gertler3 min read18th Feb 202110 comments

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AMAs ("Ask Me Anything") are some of my favorite posts on the Forum, and I'd love to see more of them.

I sometimes ask specific people if they'd like to run AMAs, but you don't need an invitation to do this! Anyone can run an AMA if they want to.

How do AMAs work?

  1. (Optional) You can reach out to me if you have questions or concerns.
  2. You write a post explaining who you are, and what sorts of things you'd like to answer questions about.
  3. You tell people when you plan to answer questions, and whether you'll still answer more questions that pop up after that.
  4. You hit "publish", and then share the post as you see fit (the more places you tell people you're running an AMA, the more questions you'll get).

Two great examples of AMA posts: Ajeya Cotra and Owen Cotton-Barratt (you can also check the tag for lots of other examples)

Other notes

  • You don't have to commit to answering every question. Feel free to set a narrow window for when you plan to respond, and to skip questions as you see fit.
  • You don't have to share your name to run an AMA. However, if you want to run one anonymously, a moderator may reach out to ask for evidence about your experience (this is standard practice on Reddit, where the AMA format first became popular).
  • We frequently pin AMAs and share them on social media, but this may depend on what else is pinned/being shared when your AMA goes up — I can't guarantee it for any specific AMA.

What makes a good AMA?

Some good reasons you could run an AMA (though I'm sure there are others I haven't thought of):

  • Your job has some relation to EA's goals and you want to share your experiences
    • Note that this doesn't just mean "working at an organization with an explicitly EA mission". It could also mean:
      • Working at a nonprofit in an EA-linked area (e.g. the Gates Foundation)
      • Working at a for-profit in an EA-linked area (e.g. Impossible Foods)
      • Working in a position where you've learned things about running an organization well (e.g. COO at a fast-growing startup)
      • Working in a position where you know a lot about some area that is important to EA's mission (e.g. political lobbyist)
  • You know a lot about something EA-related and want to share your knowledge
    • Example #1: A PhD student in economics who recently worked on an RCT in Kenya and can answer questions about "on-the-ground" development work
    • Example #2: An avid reader who's been exploring nuclear policy for fun and has a strong grasp of that literature
    • Example #3: Michael Aird gave this a try, and I really appreciate him for it!
  • You have some other experience you think people on the Forum would benefit from hearing about
    • Example #1: You grew up in an area with a lot of extreme poverty and have firsthand experience with the types of people GiveWell's charities aim to help
    • Example #2: Your parents own a farm that raises animals for large meat producers, and you have firsthand experience with that industry (and with how some farmers react to animal welfare efforts)
    • Example #3: You've run a bunch of AI-box experiments and have thoughts on what they tell us about AI alignment (or maybe you think the whole thing was a waste of time, which would also be interesting to hear about)

If you have a very narrow range of things you want to talk about, a regular post might be better than an AMA (e.g. a post summarizing a research paper you wrote, rather than an AMA about the paper). But there's nothing wrong with trying the AMA option.

Any questions?

If you think you might want to run an AMA, but have questions or concerns, I'd be happy to talk! 

Write to me at aaron.gertler@centreforeffectivealtruism.org, or send me a message on the Forum, and I'll be in touch soon.

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10 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 12:30 PM
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I like answering questions when I'm asked them, but I suspect that there won't be (m)any questions asked to me if I did an AMA. Should I do one anyway?

Maybe a group AMA thread would be a good idea, where everyone can post a comment that they are happy to answer questions?

Another idea is to set up conditional AMAs, e.g. "I will commit to doing an AMA if at least n people commit to asking questions." This has the benefit of giving each AMA its own time (without competing for attention with other AMAs) while trying to minimize the chance of time waste and embarrassment.

This is a nice idea!

One slight downside of a group AMA thread is that it's not quite as easily indexable as smaller AMA threads would be (harder to get good tags on it, harder for people to know it's a thing they're interested in based on the title). But I still think it would be a clear net positive if this were to exist.

I could post one of these, but I think it would also be good to have it come from a more grassroots source than the head moderator -- Denise, would you be down to post something, assuming that you would be willing to answer questions on some topic? (I can also do it, just wanted to give you the first shot.)

I had similar concerns about our Operations AMA recently. It wasn't wildly popular, but we got 7 questions and I still felt like it was a good use of my time. Several people in the group said they really enjoyed it and would be interested in doing another one, and I liked it enough that I'm planning to do another AMA for one of my other projects as well. 

I'll also mention that it's a (relatively) low-effort way to create content (and get karma, if you care). I often feel like I should post to the Forum more but either don't feel like I have anything worth posting, or don't have the time to write anything out, but the nice thing about AMAs is that you don't have to come up with a novel topic that fits neatly into a typical EA Forum post, and the standard for quality as far as formatting/organization/etc. is lower.

The only downsides of posting that I see is time spent on creating the post (I estimate we collectively spent about an hour on this, though I think you could do a less detailed one in 15 minutes), and I suppose the possible embarrassment of not getting asked any questions, but I think this is unlikely (I don't think it's ever happened on the Forum), and you can always delete the post if you're really concerned about that.

FWIW I think you'd be well-suited to do an AMA :)

Yeah, my view is that it takes little time to set up an AMA, and can take very little time if you go for a barebones approach, such that the "may as well just run an AMA and see" bar is fairly low.

Personally, I had relatively little engagement with my AMA, which was basically what I expected (as I was focusing on a somewhat niche topic that I'm not a proper expert on). But I still think setting it up made sense ex ante, since it took me little time and there was some chance it wouldn't been more useful. 

(Also, focusing on Jamie Harris's case specifically, I share Marisa's view that an AMA by Jamie would get a decent amount of engagement.)

Agree with Marisa that you'd be well suited to do an AMA

You should!

I'll note that an AMA doesn't have to be "time-limited": you can set it up, and then link to it in your Forum bio/elsewhere so that people know they can always ask questions.

For example, if you left a detailed response on someone's post/comment, you could add: "If you have other questions about this area that aren't exactly on this topic, you can email me or put them on my AMA thread." Or something like that.

An alternative to an AMA might be an open discussion thread on a given topic, perhaps with specific people  committing to be active in the discussions (could be experts, but not necessarily) 

I've thought of this as an alternative in cases where the person thinks that there are likely many people with more experience than themselves, but where they can still generate useful answers and insights.