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The EA Forum team is sharing our project proposals publicly on the Forum, as an experiment during August. They’re written as though the product were already finished, but for now, they are only proposals. See here for a description of PR FAQs.

We appreciate hearing comments from everyone, even if they are brief opinions like “I'd be happy to see this" or "I quickly skimmed the post and it doesn’t seem like this is something I would use, but I’m not sure”.

Profile Pictures Come to the Forum

Users notice a friendly feeling on the Forum as usernames start to have faces attached to them.

This week, we’ve added profile pictures to: 

  1. A user's profile
  2. Their hover-over profile
  3. The subheaders of their posts

When talking to our users, we often hear that they would use the Forum more if it felt friendlier and more "human". We also observe that text-only platforms are generally not favored by our target audience of students and young professionals.

Seeing faces behind the names on the Forum makes the Forum appear more human and more approachable. Adding these images gives the Forum more color, and makes it more visually interesting, removing at least one of the disadvantages we have compared to more popular social media platforms.

Aaron will be reaching out to many authors directly to encourage them to use this feature. And you can add a picture right now in your profile page!

“I’m so glad we’re a little less grey.” 

– JP Addison

“It was such a pleasant surprise to come to the Forum to read a post, and to get to see the author’s face! It really made me feel like I could relate with them better.” 

– Phineas Photophile


Why not have the profile pictures next to comments?

Initially, I expect there to be only a few people with profile pictures. This would make the comments sections either non-uniform, or filled with default pictures/sad grey circles. It’s easier for us to encourage active users to add pictures than to do so for every single commenter. If the feature is working well after the initial ramp-up period, we can add these pictures to comments as well.

What other plans might you implement for this feature?

We can make this shareable across your EA.org accounts.

How will users upload their pictures?

We’ll use Cloudinary, which also does face-auto-focusing.

Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since:

Many things exist on a continuum from impersonal meritocracy to social relationship based. At it's best, the former can be fair and efficient, but it can also feel 'cold'. The latter can provide motivation and a sense of belonging, but can also be biased, inefficient and nepotistic.

In this framework, it seems to me the forum should be more towards the former end. There are many other areas for people to engage in the social side of EA - e.g. local groups, facebook, EAGs, colleagues. But for most people there is no alternative to the forum for relatively objective discussion, so I would be wary about pushing away from that direction. You don't see profile pictures on journal articles, or court documents, or computer code.

Yes, at the moment the forum doesn't take advantage of many techniques that other platforms use to gain popularity. But to the extent these come at the cost of rational discussion, this is a cost we should be happy to pay. The less differentiated the forum is the less reason it has to exist.

Indeed for a while LW even had an option to remove usernames from the site so you could read each comment without preconceived notions! I think that is too extreme - usernames convey important information for statistical discrimination on comments - but I'm not sure why someone's looks should matter.

I also messaged you another important consideration in this direction.

How many of these concerns remain if the Forum's "norm" is to use a non-photographic image?

This lets you have a bit more color/warmth without bringing anyone's "looks" into play. And it gives people a bit more ability to express personality without worrying about what people think of their haircut/clothes/vibe.

I ask because it's my strong preference not to use photos of myself in digital settings unless I'm forced to do so, but I enjoy non-photographic profile images in the context of e.g. Twitter, Reddit, and Goodreads.

Of course, we'd probably end up with a site where some people use photos and others don't, but I think this is a much better arrangement than "everyone is encouraged to use photos".

(In a practical sense, some of the people who have told me the Forum feels a bit cold and unwelcoming to them are people whose contributions seem extremely valuable to me, though of course that doesn't say much about the average value of a counterfactual contribution from any given person who spends more time here because it feels warmer.)

You don't see profile pictures on journal articles, or court documents, or computer code.

Profile pictures are common on Github, but that's pedantic; I acknowledge your larger point.

More to the point, a lot of the places where journal articles and the like actually reach bigger audiences in communities like ours — blog comments, Twitter — use profile pictures. Do you think "academic Twitter" and Substack and the old SSC comment section would be/would have been better without profile pictures? (I don't have a strong intuition either way, as I always process profile photos in those contexts as "fun decoration" rather than "social relationships".)

Hi Larks, thanks for taking the time to comment. I think your continuum comment is a good contribution to the considerations. I’m going to run with that metaphor, and talk about where I think we should fall. I take this seriously and want to get this right.

I’ve drawn three possible lines for what utility the Forum will get from its position on the continuum. Maybe it’s not actually useful, maybe I just like drawing things. I guess my main point is that we don’t have to figure out the entire space, just the local one:

Anyway, the story for the (locally) impersonal position is that adding profile images causes people to pay less attention to the object-level content, and more attention to the person writing. Given that epistemics are one of the top priorities of the Forum, and of EA community building writ-large, this would be quite bad. A substantial sacrifice in our group epistemics would overwhelm nearly all other considerations. I think the crux for me is how large would that effect be?

The story for the social position is that the Forum needs to be an attractive place to comment in order to be used. The Forum is growing now, but many people new to the community don’t use it. Many people experienced in EA read and occasionally comment, but the percentage of the most promising young or new people to the community on the Forum is not what I’d like. When I talk to people about it, they often say that it feels intimidating / unfriendly / cold. Having a broader reach, and broader participation, will increase the Forum’s impact. A crux related to this story is how large an effect this is. Maybe the people talking to me wouldn’t actually join the Forum anyway. It’s fairly long-form discussion, and that’s not for everyone.

A digression into my model of the Forum’s impact: In How we think about the Forum (by now 2 years old and not entirely up-to-date), I wrote down the following methods of impact from the Forum:

  • Sharing of existing ideas
  • Development and refinement of new ideas
  • Talent discovery
  • Public accountability
  • Spreading of norms
  • Encouraging coordination

To my mind, the path to impact that most favors the impersonal position is the second, “Development and refinement of new ideas”. Even small hits to epistemics are incredibly costly when the whole thing you’re trying to do is figure out what’s true. However the Forum does not only try to figure out what’s true. To my mind the biggest effect on the community's epistemics (and as a whole) comes from spreading our norms to newcomers to the community. This is less valuable (or even negatively valuable) if our epistemics get less good, but it is also impossible if newcomers don’t read the Forum in the first place. All of the items on that list are dependent on more people reading and writing on the Forum.

Overall I’m not sure what my position is right now. I’ll need to think and discuss it some more. It’s plausible that there are other important features with less sign uncertainty that become more important in my mind, but I don’t want to shy away from potentially high-impact features either. I’d be appreciative of other people’s impressions of how large the effects of my cruxes are.

Some considerations that don’t fall neatly into the continuum analysis:

  • We can probably mitigate the amount that epistemics are hurt by having a “profile images off in megathreads” policy. So that when people start digging into things in posts like the Hinge of History post or emotionally-charged topics, the epistemics can stay relatively unaffected. (This probably doesn’t matter until we put profile images on comments.)
  • Newbies to the community see a lot of names. Images are generally more recognizable, which can help newbies get a sense of which authors they like. This helps them get drawn in to reading more, and understanding the dynamics of the various positions held by various authors, in the same way that you or I can do because we recognize their names. (“That’s Buck arguing for position X, this makes sense because I’ve already read him supporting similar position Y”) This is I believe related to your “statistical discrimination” comment.

But to the extent these come at the cost of rational discussion, this is a cost we should be happy to pay.

What do you think the effect size is of adding pictures? My guess is that it's pretty small.

For example, the "beauty premium" in employment compensation is usually considered to be small (<10%),[1] and I would expect that to be much larger than the effect of profile pictures on a forum, because a) how your coworkers look is much more salient than how some commenter with a tiny picture looks, and b) beauty is more plausibly correlated with productivity in certain jobs (e.g. sales) than it is with forum post quality.

  1. This is going based off of memory from the last time I looked into this, but it seems to be confirmed by this article, which is the most recent review article a quick search could find. ↩︎

I am worried academic studies might underestimate how bad looking I am.

I mean, what if I am four, five standard deviations off here?

I expect the costs to not be very high but also the benefits to also not be very high.

I agree with this, particularly since I feel the same way about where the Forum lies on the spectrum.

Even though I sometimes wish the Forum felt more welcoming, I do think this kind of change feels incongruent with the way the Forum currently presents itself and so am not in favor. Of course, whether the Forum wants to stay where it is on the continuum is a separate discussion!

"You don't see profile pictures on journal articles, or court documents, or computer code."

Makes me wonder what you think journal articles and court documents are optimised for... :P I don't think we should take hints from systems that are optimised for something other than we are optimising for.

Hi Larks, can you elaborate in what ways profile pictures would make the forum biased, inefficient, and nepotistic? I am failing to see how pictures degrade epistemics or would lead to those things.

I'm not saying looks should matter, but they probably make the conversation easier to follow, make it easier to know/remember who you're talking to, and make the forum friendlier (assuming enough people upload friendly photos).

Edited to add: I responded to some similar points here just now. I could see how photos could make the forum more biased, but I don't see how it would make it inefficient or nepotistic.

I am not Larks, but I really like having the Forum as a space where appearance is ~irrelevant. There are not many such (EA) spaces and I do not want the main one where only thoughts matter being taken away. In my experience, people including EAs do treat you differently based on how you look. It is nice not to have to deal with that for once.

I am not a fan either. Something I'd much rather like to see is more encouragement to use identifiable user names. Many people do, especially longer term users, but increasingly many people do not.

I'm guessing you haven't seen, so let me show off the new signup flow!

Dislike the idea. Feels like this will change the character of the site in a way that's negative. It's a bit hard to say way, but part of the vibe of this place is that it's about ideas not about people, and this will take it away from that direction, and I think have more an idea vibe than a personal brand vibe is good for what this forum is for. There's plenty of other places people can have more highly personally identifiable or warmer experience of connecting with others.

If we did this I feel like it would be trying to optimize for something that's not, in my view, the primary purpose of the forum, and thus would make this site worse at being the EA Forum than without this feature.

I'm strongly in favour. I don't think keeping the forum more impersonal will improve the rationality of users (or very weakly if so). But I do think it'll make me (N=1) more likely to want to interact with it. I would use a non-photo image to display my personality.

The largest consideration against, I think, is that it may make existing users feel like this is an ickier place, and they may enjoy the impersonal feel of it.

I feel mildly negative about this idea, though find it hard to articulate why

There's a benefit, probably the main benefit IMO, that I don't feel like the above or any commenters address.

I claim that:

  1. Profile pictures will make "who wrote what" more identifiable and memorable
  2. There are many ways in which this could be good:

--- A: It will become easier to recall (and then potentially discuss) content that someone wrote when meeting them in-person / on zoom. I've had the experience multiple times at EA Globals where I interact with someone, then look them up, and realize there were topics they've written about that I would have loved to discuss, if only I recalled that they were the ones who wrote it.

---B: It will be easier to build ideas around individuals, such that you know better how to relate to their content. For example, there are usernames that post often on the Forum, but I currently often don't readily recall if I've found their previous articles accurate and insightful. Often I don't click on these titles, because I'm time-constrained. If I had a better model of whose work I'd appreciated or not appreciated in the past, I could better select what content I consume in the future (digitally, in person, or on zoom). This applies regardless of my selection algorithm... e.g. "read more of what I like", "read more of what is popular but my prior is I won't like", "see how this person's thoughts are developing", etc. It also gives me more opportunity to make better decisions on who I interact with, how much I understand them, and in what ways.

----- I understand that many may see this as a negative (becoming too focused on who the author is), but I personally expect that building better models / having richer information is generally valuable.

I don't know. I'd happily have a trial of 3 months which reverts afterwards unless a majority like it.

I'm pretty in favor of this, as I was the one who suggested this in the feature suggestion thread before. There was some discourse there on the pros and cons of this idea.

I would say though that the readership data feature is likely a lot more valuable, and this one as 2nd most valuable among the PR FAQs posted.

If anyone wants to see mockups of what profile pictures would look like on the frontpage, on posts, and on comments sections, I made some here before. Though it seems like the PR FAQ above states the profile pictures won't be shown on the comments section or Frontpage section. I think it should be shown on one or both of those sections, because it's a lot rarer for people to click in to people's profiles, and the comments section and Frontpage would likely seem more lively and welcoming that way. Though adding photos to comments may be a bit more difficult to implement.

I like Aaron's point that people who don't want to use their personal images can use a more generic image, like quite a few people do on Twitter. It would be great though if both of these were true within 2-3 months of the feature's launch:

  1. at least 20% of active Forum authors/commenters at a given time used their own faces
  2. at least 40% of active Forum authors/commenters at a given time had a non-blank image

 I don't think this feature would be worth building if both of the two things above did not happen. I'm not sure if 2-3 months is enough time to have people put photos - maybe a strong nudge is needed to have someone use their Gravatar photo or to upload a profile photo. Maybe that would be needed to reach the numbers above.

If the EA Forum had a poll feature, maybe we would have an easier time knowing how willing and/or interested current Forum users are to either adding their own face or a non-blank image. I'd be willing to say that this feature shouldn't be built if like >80% of people who vote on that poll (assuming they are somewhat representative of active Forum authors/commenters) said they wouldn't want to upload their own photo.

Maybe the poll feature should be a PR FAQ in the future!

Oh and longer-term, like a year after the launch of this feature, I think it would be ideal if at least 40% of active Forum authors/commenters at a given time used their own faces, and 60-70% had a non-blank image.

I am weakly in favour. In short: I agree with the downsides raised. However, I think (partly from my research about website design) that pictures of people usually lead to audiences feeling a better connection and more willingness to collaborate. I think that that that benefit would outweigh the downsides. 

I can't imagine any social networking service working well without profile pictures. I think the forum is in part a social networking service to connect EAs around similar ideas with the hope that they communicate and work together.

Sometimes I find the forum can be a bit cold an that people can be bit rude. I probably am too sometimes. I don't know if this is the solution, but I wish that people were kinder even if they had to correct.

Having thought a bit, I wonder how well the forum does as a hub of the EA community. I guess to me, it's alike EA substack/reddit. But there are other kinds of platforms for other kinds of people. 

Should there be an EA picture forum, for the kinds of people who prefer Instagram and tumblr? I doubt I'd use it much but many people love a less austere space and we needn't lose this one. 

I guess I wonder if there isn't a "both and" (rather than "either or") solution to whether to make this forum less cold/intellectual.

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