Summary

  1. I believe that creating personal connections is one of the most valuable things CEA can do.
  2. There's some evidence that the Forum could be useful in building these connections.
  3. In this document, I list possible use cases/types of connections people might want.
  4. I would appreciate any feedback readers have on these use cases, including "I was too busy to read your document but think being connected to someone in XYZ way would be useful".

This document should be taken as "initial ideas Ben has". CEA is not committing to implement any of these ideas, and my colleagues at CEA have varying levels of agreement with these ideas. That being said, I would be surprised if CEA does not put meaningful effort towards building individual connections through our online properties over the next year in some manner.

I am grateful for conversations with many EA group organizers, the EA Hub team, my coworkers at CEA, and other community builders about these ideas. I generally am not the person who deserves the most credit for each of these ideas.

Motivation

Individual connections are a major reason why people get involved with EA, and why they stay involved with EA. For example, the most recent EA survey found that personal contacts were the most-cited reason why people got involved with EA, by a substantial margin.

Several platforms for building and maintaining individual connections between EAs already exist. The most recent EA survey listed the following online sources through which respondents made new interesting and valuable connections:

  • EA Facebook groups (8.8% of respondents)
  • International EA social events (8.7% of respondents)
  • EA Forum (5.9% of respondents)
  • LessWrong (5.3% of respondents)
  • EA Hub (1.9% of respondents)

I suspect that Twitter is responsible for a similar number of connections as the other ones listed, though it was not on the survey. There have also been smaller projects not listed on this survey, such as EA Pen Pals.

It's interesting to note that the EA Forum is responsible for a similar number of connections as Facebook, despite having very little functionality that is targeted towards instigating these connections. 

Classic new product advice is that you should look for features your users like despite them being very poorly made, because if they're willing to use a poorly made version of your product, they will probably love a well-made version. It seems like we have initial evidence of people making connections using features not well-made to facilitate this (comments, private messages).

In summary: We have evidence that

  1. Personal connections are extremely valuable, and
  2. People are interested in forming these connections on the Forum

What types of connections are people looking for?

It's possible that we should just naïvely build out a list of EAs and let users filter it however they want. My guess, though, is that it's better to be targeted towards some specific use cases. Here are the most common use cases I've heard from others in the community, and my thoughts on how to provide solutions.

New person has new person questions

Most people have some questions when they first encounter EA. Some standard ones include:

  • Where should I donate?
  • My career so far has been in (whatever). How can I change that to be more impactful?
  • Basic questions about longtermism, AI safety, animal welfare, etc.

Currently, answering these questions is mostly done by group organizers, and my understanding from speaking with them is that these questions generally don't require a large amount of expertise to answer: it's helpful to simply point these newcomers to 80,000 hours for career advice, some key blog posts for questions about longtermism, etc.

A possible way to handle this use case is to have "guides" who are trained to answer these basic questions. These people need to be friendly and reasonably up to speed on EA, but don't need cutting-edge knowledge in specific areas. Newcomers can easily schedule a call (or chat?) with these guides. (The past few EA globals have had "guides" programs which were similar to what I'm describing here, and were fairly successful, as was our pilot of an “EA Librarian”.)

One worry I have with this implementation is that it's very targeted towards the median use case of someone who has basic questions but hasn't done much research. It could be frustrating if you are someone who has done a bunch of research and talks to a guide hoping to get in-depth questions answered, only to get referred to introductory resources. Possibly this could be handled by having guides refer "advanced" new people to those with more expertise.

Mentorship

I frequently hear mentorship listed as a bottleneck in the EA community: we have a lot of talented young people who want to work on priority causes or career paths, but they have limited experience. Mentorship can unblock them.

Unfortunately, I currently don't think this is a bottleneck that the Forum could easily help with. My impression is that the bottleneck is that we simply have a lack of senior staff who can be mentors. I would be interested to hear alternative viewpoints from others.

Note: I think this is the one my coworkers most disagree with me about; particularly if you are someone who would be willing to be a mentor but feel blocked on doing so, I would be interested to hear what those blockers are.

Looking for people who work in the same somewhat obscure area as you

There are a number of "special interest" groups within EA, e.g. the EA Consulting Network or EA for Christians. Many of these groups started with a couple of people connecting with each other over a shared interest, and we could possibly instigate more of these connections on the Forum.

My impression is that the driving motivation here is more frequently a desire to connect with similarly minded people than to e.g. start a specific research collaboration, though collaborations do sometimes come out of these connections.

One approach to addressing this use case is to make Forum bios more robust, e.g. by letting people indicate specific, searchable areas of interest. These could potentially just be the tags we already have on the Forum. It may also be valuable to add fields for LinkedIn or other social media URLs to Forum bios, to prompt more people to share this information (giving potential contacts a sense for whom they are connecting with).

I am intentionally excluding "mainstream" interests from this use case. If you are a consultant, then probably you should use the EA Consulting Network instead of whatever we build on the Forum. It's possible I'm wrong about this: maybe we should make something like Meetup which could be used by online group organizers. I currently am skeptical that we would have an advantage over existing platforms, but would be interested in contrary opinions.

Looking for people who live in the same obscure geographic area as you

Some of the most powerful personal connection stories I've heard have been of the form "I lived in a small town and I randomly found that there was one other person in my small town who was into EA and it was super exciting!"

This use case seems to be very heavily reliant on location and the person being friendly; people care less about whether the person they are meeting with has similar interests to them, expertise in a given area, etc.

I think it's possible that the Forum currently handles this use case at a technical level through our map. However, very few people are on the map, and addressing this use case might be more about getting people to fill out that data.

Shared Housing

Many EAs live in group houses. It's nice to live with others who share the same values or are involved in the same community.

I'm currently less excited about this use case because it seems fairly hard to do well (it's very possible for EAs to be bad roommates, and I don't know how we would filter for that). I'm also not sure how much of an advantage we would have over e.g. Facebook groups to organize housing.

Couch Surfing

EA's tend to be frugal travelers, and couch surfing is a nice way to travel cheaply while making friendships. To this day, I am friends with people whose couches I slept on (or who slept on my couch) when I first got involved with EA a decade ago.

However, I'm not that excited about this use case. As with shared housing, it  seems hard to screen people, and I’m doubtful that many people would be interested in couchsurfing in the first place.

Romantic Partnerships

Reciprocity is used by a number of EA's to find romantic partners. While I think that this kind of app can be useful for many people in the community, I think that matchmaking should be done outside the Forum, and not done by CEA at all.

Friendships

A lot of EAs get substantial value from having friends who are also involved in EA, even if these friendships don’t directly involve EA. Some of the more promising ideas I've heard for instigating these types of connections are:

  • A “videogame directory” where people can indicate the games they play and then join up with others online to play those games.
  • A similar directory, but for boardgames.

Games are good ways to build friendships in a spread-out community like EA because they can be played  with people anywhere in the world at a relatively low cost. I would be interested to hear other ideas in this space.

Study/reading groups

CEA currently organizes reading groups for The Precipice. East Bay Biosecurity is an example of a group of people with relatively little biosecurity experience who got together regularly to study; several of the group’s members have since been hired into impactful biosecurity positions. We may want to build  infrastructure that helps community members organize their own reading groups.

There are many sites which help you organize reading groups already. For example, Goodreads has this. A simple implementation to target this use case might just be for people to write brief posts about reading groups they want to make, with links to Goodreads groups, to see whether other people are interested. We could consider showing these posts separately in a special view, listing them on the sidebar, etc.

Requested Feedback

  1. Which of these use cases are the most interesting to you? Feel free to answer either for yourself, or on behalf of others (e.g. if you feel like you know what people who are new to EA would like).
  2. Are there any use cases I've missed?
  3. How valuable would solving these problems be to you? In general, I think we should target solving problems that affect some EAs very deeply, even if they only affect a small number. So I encourage you to post any ideas about connections you would find very valuable, even if you don’t think they would apply to most people in EA.

Appendix: What special advantages does the Forum have?

When choosing a problem to work on, we care not only that the problem is important, but also that we will be well-placed to solve it. (See e.g. YCombinator's suggestion to filter for ideas where you have an “unfair advantage”.)

It's not obvious that the Forum should expect to be good at building connections. LinkedIn's mission statement, for example, is "connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful." We have a tiny fraction of LinkedIn's resources, and it's plausible that they will just outcompete us at building connections.

However, while many EAs use platforms like LinkedIn, my impression is that there are substantial gaps where existing products do not meet people's needs, and use cases they do not serve.

The primary advantage we have over LinkedIn et al. is that they just don't really care about these use cases. Beyond that:

  1. We are able to get EAs to populate bios about themselves, by using information from existing CEA forms (EAG registration, virtual programs applications, etc.). The EA Hub used this strategy to greatly increase the size of their user database.
  2. We have existing traffic which is very targeted. We have much less traffic than LinkedIn, but a very high fraction of the traffic which we do have is people who are interested in connecting with other EAs.
  3. The EA Forum and CEA have some level of social capital which we could use to e.g. convince people to participate in a beta test.

I am more excited about use cases which leverage these advantages.


 

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27 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 11:50 AM
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Have you considered linking users with tags on the Forum? For each tag, you could have two categories of linked users:

1) experts/librarians - users who are willing to spend time answering questions and directing people to further resources. There could be a button for any user to sign up as an expert for a particular tag, pending approval by a Forum admin.

2) followers - a list of users who share an interest in that tag.

Thanks Barry! Could you say more about the use case here? E.g. why is it that someone would want to ask an expert a question?

(To answer your direct question: we have considered it, but I'm still trying to figure out what the exact use case is.)

I expect the use case would be the same as someone who attends an EA Global conference seeking advice from relevant people. If those experts are available on the Forum all year round, then it lowers the barrier to contacting them outside of the conference setting.

Yeah, reddit ends up getting a really huge quantity of useful information about its users this way.

I wouldn't expect LW/EA to reliably get that info with the tag subscription feature as it currently stands: I'm probably not going to subscribe to most of the tags I'm interested in, because receiving a notification for every single post to a tag isn't generally desirable. The only tags for which that sort of subscription is the right thing are the tags that get too little activity to be useful for matchmaking.

Finding older people in my career path would be the most valuable for me. The 80,000 Hours standard advice is really good and it’s given me a great base to think through my current plan and future options. But once you’re actually working on a particular path, the internet discourse just can’t keep up with all the new stuff you’re learning and information that’s specific to your subfield. There’s a few people who are older than me and in the positions I’d like to work towards that I’ve gone to for advice about my next steps. Their advice has been very useful, but it’s also a lot to ask of them and they can’t always help.

It would be very nice to have a community of people who are down to give career advice. These people could even be very young — when I was a freshman undergraduate it was helpful speaking with juniors and seniors in college who understand the college experience firsthand.

Thanks for the suggestion! Would you be able to say more about why things like LinkedIn don't work for you?

For me, if I want to find managers (my career path) to speak with:

  1. There's a bunch of leadership mentorship groups that are fairly easy to join, or I can just choose a company I admire and find random people on LinkedIn to message
  2. The downside of those is that either they aren't EA's, or their members/advice aren't very good
    1. If I'm trying to find EA managers then I mostly know the organizations I'm looking for, so can just pull them up on LinkedIn
    2. If I'm trying to get to someone prestigious, then they aren't going to respond to cold messages (probably), so I need to get a warm intro

Basically, I worry that you are pointing to a real problem here, but it doesn't have the kind of solution that the Forum could help with.

Hey for sure, thanks for asking. LinkedIn is definitely a great option, and honestly I don’t think (or have any ideas for how) the Forum could provide better connections between individuals wrt career mentoring. More just calling out a challenge I face personally that others might share, but some thoughts on it:

LinkedIn is not great for getting meaningful conversations with senior people in my experience. It’s a very spammy site with most of my inbox being bots and unsolicited / irrelevant recruitment. Personally I even finding sharing my resume publicly with all my friends a little toxic, it’s too easy to spur jealousy and competition, though I participate as fully as anyone. So IMO when trying to connect with a senior person that you don’t know, LinkedIn is not a good option. They’ll see you alongside a bunch of spam and ignore you. (Open to other experiences, maybe I just need to get my game up.)

Cold emails are better, people check their emails more seriously thank LinkedIn, but not everyone is remotely likely to respond to a cold email. Personally I put a lot of effort into those emails, often more than an hour of research and writing for the individual person. I have maybe a 20% reply rate, which is wonderful and enough to make it worthwhile, but also much lower than I would like given the investment of time.

One idea that’s probably already been tried would be a list of people open to cold emails and / or giving career advice. When I write a good cold email explaining a question or decision I face and asking for specific advice, I often share it with a few people that might be able to help. Sharing with a few dozen, or with people who self identify as open to helping, might result in more replies. A curated spreadsheet or online group could definitely help (and again, probably been tried—does anyone know of attempts?).

EA at its best can be a bubble of trust goodwill and friendliness. PabloAMC’s recent post about meeting senior people in his field at EA Global is a perfect example—EA Global makes it much easier to find meaningful connections with senior people in EA fields. I would love if we had an online service that facilitated connections with the ease and quality of EA Global that could be used year-round over the internet.

Separately, and as context on my specifics—Anybody looking to give career advice to a young data scientist looking to break into AI Safety? I’ve got a great cold email I can send you explaining my upcoming decisions: classes, degrees, job opportunities, all that good stuff. Have emailed a few busy, senior people with no luck so far. Would love to chat!

I'm indeed happy to give career advice, although I might not be so helpful. Check out my LinkedIn page and if you find it useful drop me a line :)

That’s awesome, thanks! Will send you a message later this week.

Somewhat related to the above comments so I'm putting it here:

I wonder if there's a way to automatically show users' interest in specific areas via the tagging system, e.g. by showing how many (or how much karma) they have for (1) posts with particular tags, (2) comments on posts with particular tags.

This would mean people don't have to manually update some sort of interests list.

Downsides include that

  • maybe it would make people more conscious about where they comment or post, in case it affects their stats and forum identity.
  • I would guess that lots of features like this sound good in theory but then few people end up using them

The "Looking for people who live in the same obscure geographic area as you" use case is a super-promising one.  One example is Florida, the third most-populous U.S. state with 21 million people. While the Forum map doesn't list any Floridians, several dozen have joined this (admittedly sleepy) Facebook group since late 2020. 

A number of them live in Gainesville, and a smaller number are in Orlando. Those cities feature two of the four largest universities in the U.S.  I'm not in either city so have been unable to support meetups in those areas, but there is likely some low-hanging organizing fruit by getting EAs near large universities to meet.

Thanks! This is a helpful example

Community building is the lowest hanging fruit! - It's fruit hanging around everywhere! Pick your impact points (or fruit!) while you still can! 

 This is probably because 1) it requires psychological/social risks and effort (i.e. rejection can be hard 2)  people who are willing to take these risks are in short supply in EA (3) It's hard to scale it well 

Small groups have (very) high retention rates, and people in small groups are very likely to become "highly engaged". 

Organising a meetup is crazy simple 1) pick a venue (maybe call ahead) 2) post a facebook event 3) invite people personally (Send them a pm!). If you're not sure people will turn up, that's fine! Just take a book - worst case scenario you get to have a little read and some time to yourself. 

If anybody is considering running an event or starting a group, you can always ask from advice from Catherine Low!  I would  also be super happy to meet you (#impacthasnoborders)! 

Hi Elliot, I would agree that organizing a single small meetup is pretty simple, low risk like you said, but organizing an ongoing, engaged group of people who are excited to show up again and again, and encouraging them to make high-impact life changes (like changing their area of study, career, or donating significantly) is much harder. At least it was for me. It takes ongoing motivation/commitment, good organizing skills, fresh ideas for activities or discussion topics, etc. I think we did pretty well for a few years but then moved across the country. I'm appreciative of the folks who picked up coordinating the group, but do think it was challenging for them as well.

All that said, there are some great resources out there (like Catherine Low, as you mentioned), a Facebook group for group organizers, etc. So it's definitely doable for someone who can make that ongoing commitment. I'd just be wary of pitching it as a very simple thing to do. Organizers should be aware of what they're getting into if they want to have a long-lasting successful group :)

I've reached out to people several times via the forum, and I've helped mentor one person I contacted that way, as well as meeting with and getting input from a few others.

On the other hand, I think more topic-specific EA Facebook groups are generally better places for this, and would encourage people to use them more. (I would not really recommend using Facebook for anything else.)

I really enjoyed reading groups so far and made a few meaningful connections this way. Half a year ago Silvana organized a reading group match-making process for German EA groups, where people could choose books they were interested in from a list and she would form reading groups based on this. I'd really like seeing this on the forum.

On couchsurfing, there is an EA facebook group to offer and ask for opportunities to couchsurf: https://www.facebook.com/groups/1021488637885621/ 

Thanks! I had not heard about the reading group – that's a helpful example.

I like both the tag-filter and reciprocity.io, thank you for mentioning those! Perhaps, in a similar vein to both, you could let people place tags on their bio for "meet in person" & "meet online", along with their regional tag ("East Bay", "Orlando",...) so that the tag-filters function the way reciprocity.io does?

Thanks! Could you say anything more about the use case for these tags? E.g. in what circumstance would you want to meet someone online?

Oh, I like that level of specificity - a "contact via email" as opposed to "zoom-compatible" for example? I suppose the biggest determinant for which method to communicate would be the number of participants; video conference being the default for the diverse web of dialogue, while emails glean slow-thinking well for one-on-one exchanges. And, most ideas seem to progress from those pairwise dialogues early in development, towards larger congregations later in their cycle. So, each new idea might find value at different points from both the "email/zoom" distinctions? I'm sure there are others which might help, too!

Pimp: this is very much the sort of stuff we're now trying to facilitate on the Gather Town.

In summary: We have evidence that

  1. Personal connections are extremely valuable, and
  2. People are interested in forming these connections on the Forum

1. Personal connections were on par with 80k and GiveWell in top resource to increase one’s positive impact. Also, for 13% of EA Survey 2020 respondents, personal connections negatively influenced their involvement with EA. This was about twice more likely for highly engaged community members. 16% of people (most of all categories) first learned about EA from a connection. Personal connections are a top reason why people stay involved.

So, personal connections are extremely valuable in introducing people to EA and maintaining their involvement in the community, however, increase persons’ impact only in conjunction with career advising and donation recommendations. At the same time, connections negatively influence the involvement of some community members, especially highly engaged. This can be due to different levels of familiarity with EA (highly engaged member hears from a person less familiar with EA who is possibly presenting lower-impact solutions).

2. 12% of respondents indicated that EA Forum had the most influence on their ability to make a positive impact. The Forum discouraged 6.5% of respondents from their involvement in EA. This was about 4x more likely for highly engaged community members. This can be due to content not fitting one’s interests (familiarity with EA, information on doing the most good with their skills, subjects of expertise or interest, etc).

One approach to addressing this use case is to make Forum bios more robust, e.g. by letting people indicate specific, searchable areas of interest.

Users may be interested in discussing ideas rather than connecting with individuals. Thus, users should be able to search posts by their area of interest. If users are broadly interested in impact, they could benefit from reading posts for audiences around their level of familiarity with EA.

 I am more excited about use cases which leverage these advantages.

Readers can be recommended content that would fit their interests (e. g. entertainment, deep thinking, informing others’ research/projects, gaining advice on research/projects, showcasing thinking to employees of various organizations, finding persons who work on similar research/projects, exploring EA landscape, broadening own impact options, gaining career change inspiration, etc) and current thinking (based on EA Forum posts and comments or/and other impact preferences data).

In addition, relevantly to this post, by presenting EA-related events, EA Forum should more prominently serve as a social medium for persons interested in high positive impact, as long as it optimizes for users’ wellbeing.

Thanks! I agree that better recommendations could be useful. I'm not sure I understand what you mean by serving "as a social medium" – could you elaborate on that a bit more?

As one of social media where people can socialize with others online by seeing what others are up to and joining them in conversations and events.

I personally have had the strongest and most useful connections to EA people in my city, mainly via social events and book clubs. And I feel like the connections last best when there's a mix between somewhat high effort events (such as a discussion group) and social interaction (ideally in person but also over chats and so on). So maybe you could get the best of both worlds by setting up some way for people to be social with each other after events. Maybe encourage people attending an event to join a slack or discord  channel(or thread/chat) where they can talk to each other after the event and join other threads or channels if/when the one for the event dies off. 

This is a really interesting idea, thanks!