I know lots of people who want to write for the Forum, but who struggle to actually get their posts written. I think this is bad - it means that we miss out on useful knowledge and insight, and that Forum posts are skewed towards users who:

  • are more self-confident
  • have less impostor syndrome
  • have more spare time
  • feel more comfortable with writing 

Below, I share some anecdotes I’ve heard from acquaintances and people on EA Twitter about why they don’t post on the Forum. Then, I make some brief suggestions for things you can do if this post resonates. 

So why don’t people post?

All of the stories below are real examples, but with the names and some other details changed for anonymity. Some of these stories come from private conversations; others from Twitter. I also know other specific examples I haven’t described in this post.

I want to zoom out and see the big picture, before diving into examples. Aaron Bergman was kind enough to make this plot of unique authors over time (the big jump is likely due to all the competitions recently). Ideally, I would have liked to talk about Forum stats like the proportion of lurkers to commentors and posters, since the increase in authorship is correlated with a jump in overall activity, but that data was not available. 

Thank you Aaron for HD images :D

 

 I think the positive trend could be exciting, but there has also been some discussion about quality of Forum posts dropping recently. Many of the people I write about had ideas that I think would add meaningful ideas to the current discourse, and don't seem to have changed their minds on this in the last few months. 

They don’t have time

Many people want to post, but struggle to find the time to write their ideas. Often, these are busy domain experts with valuable ideas and knowledge to share. For example, an acquaintance in the alt-protein industry told me that lots of useful information is not public, because the work on it is happening in the private sector. However, they didn’t have time to write about this themself.

Even if someone does (eventually) post their ideas, delays can be costly. A grantmaker I know wanted to write about the risks of megaprojects. They worried that megaprojects could turn out to be an EA talent sink, drawing people away from more resource-effective (if smaller) projects; but they didn’t have time to write about this. If people are convinced, they might fund or take on fewer megaprojects and avoid the possible harms. 

I think that it’s especially important to make it easier for time-poor people to post on the Forum. I’ve had many incredibly informative conversations with experts like this; it’s a shame that their knowledge is not more widely available.

They don’t think they can meet the Forum’s high standards  

Some people worry that because standards on the Forum are so high (rightly), they don’t have much to contribute. A Twitter user writes: ‘given the opportunity cost of time and the frequency of high-quality posts on the forum, it seems possibly net negative to post anything that dilutes the quality’. Others say similar things: one felt that ‘the bar is so high for quality and finality’; another believes they’d have to ‘clear a very high bar’.

They feel initimidated, nervous or scared about how their posts will be received (if at all)

Lots of people feel intimidated about posting on the Forum. An acquaintance in the finance industry wanted to make the case for exploring the potential to nudge ESG [1] criteria to be more EA-aligned, since it influences trillions of dollars of investments. Conversations with friends discouraged them; they felt like they ‘had to write a whole scientific thesis just to not be torn apart.’ (This person was also time poor). Others worry about the opposite - one Twitter user was ‘scared that [they’d] spend a lot of time + effort writing something only for it to get ignored’.

Some people are concerned about how their posts will be received (including me!). A longtermist field builder I know wanted to write about the pitfalls of scaling too fast. They told me they were perfectionist about posting, because they were concerned their posts wouldn't come off the way they intended and convey what they wanted to say, and will be badly received. (This person was also not the strongest writer).[2]

They aren’t strong writers

I spoke to some people who have technical backgrounds that didn’t involve a lot of writing, so writing long posts is outside of their comfort zone. This can be even worse if English is not your first language: even fluent English speakers might not be entirely at-ease with written academic English. 

They haven’t thought to write their ideas down

At a recent EA event, I spoke to a person who works in fusion. This person knew the landscape well: the most promising actors, bottlenecks the industry faces, which ones could be addressed by philanthropy, and had thought about specific talent bottlenecks if fusion were to succeed. But he’d never written his ideas down - not on the Forum, but not anywhere else either. 

This person was less engaged with the EA community (although they’d been around the movement for years) than most of the people I’ve used as examples in this post. Highly-engaged EAs are usually at least aware that ‘writing a post’ is something that could be impactful (even if they in fact don’t post). But there are many people peripheral to EA whose thoughts would be relevant and interesting to EAs. 

Counterexamples: good posters who don’t struggle to post

Some experienced EAs feel comfortable posting often because they’ve always done it. The founder of an EA organization told me that they had always posted on the Forum - even in the early days when few people were reading it - and they’ve just continued to post as the Forum has grown. 

Others are comfortable posting because it never occurred to them to be intimidated. When Angela was new to EA, she wrote a well-received post about a geographic diversity. She said that at the time, she didn’t realise that posting on the Forum was a big deal, so she just went ahead and did it. 

Ways to overcome these barriers (from easiest to hardest)

Talk to people about your ideas

Talking to people about your ideas (repeatedly) can help them grow from small inchoate notions to fully-formed opinions. I’ve found EA conferences and retreats to be a great place for this - the availability bias in job hunting and what comes after intro fellowships came out of 1-1s at EAGxBoston. 

Ask someone for help

You can post early drafts in the EA Editing and Review Facebook group, or share a Google doc with your friends.

Write a Shortform or Question

These are typically more casual and exploratory than full-length posts; if you’re unsure about whether an idea is ready or good enough, consider posting it as a Shortform or a question. This can be particularly useful if you put off posting ideas because you feel like they have to be fully researched and justified.

Remember that you don’t have to respond to every comment

Posting doesn’t have to be a whole thing; you can just post something and never look at it again.

Hire someone to help

I wrote this post with Amber’s help: I talked about my ideas over a call, she wrote a draft, and we edited the draft together. I think this post would have taken a lot longer to publish without her help. (If you’d like to work with Amber, her email is ambace@gmail.com, or message her on the Forum). 

Post your ideas somewhere else

In my ideal world, everyone would be comfortable posting on the Forum, and it makes me sad that this isn’t the case. But I’d rather ideas be shared in different places than never be shared at all. Instead of posting on the Forum, you could

Personally, I like sharing thoughts on Twitter when they still feel half-baked and new and not quite ready for the Forum yet. 

(Aslo: I don't want to suggest a passive activity when I'm suggesting doing but Write on the Forum is a good resource!)

What could the Forum team do?

Note: we asked the Forum team to review this post, and they let us know they’re planning to make subforums to combat the high standards issue

  • Make Shortforms more prominent
  • Continue encouraging people to post (which they already do)
  • Potentially, community posts could make it easier for people to contribute to the creation of shared knowledge without writing an entire post
  • Brainstorm ways to get knowledgeable non-EA-identifying people to post

Do you intend to post on the Forum but struggle to actually do it? I’d love to hear your experiences in the comments.

Thanks to Aaron Bergman for graphs and the Forum team for giving some thoughts and feedback. 


Why I wrote this post

Given the tendency for the Forum to be filled with meta, I want to encourage people to think about posting meta comments. Here's a brief justification for writing this post: 

  • i think posting on the forum is valuable for both the movement and individuals, and if someone is struggling to share their thoughts, it could be helpful to know that that this is common. in the best (but most unliekly) instance, i hope this post could encourage someone to post, in a more realistic world it might be one of many factors
  • sharing concrete experiences can make problems more understandable and hopefully more tractable
  • since the Forum team has grown a lot in the past year, I feel like they'll be better able to take on more feedback and inputs. hope that people share their own experiences in the comments of this post, and that this might help make the problem more salient and encourage them to do more to experiment in making the forum accessible to folks. 
     
  1. ^

     Environmental, Social and Governance

  2. ^

    I’ve currently been assigned to send them angry texts if they don’t post a new post about branding in the next few days. Hopefully, me writing about them Forum post might encourage them somewhat - but I think this emotional aspect is really really hard to shake off. 

55

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21 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 3:40 PM

I have posted on the forum quite a few times. It has sometimes been part of my job to write posts for the forum. I think that I am generally a strong writer, and I rarely feel imposter syndrome.

But even I find it intimidating to post on the forum. Some of what is written here is just really, really well written and thought out. It's intimidating to think you are posting alongside those posts! I think in my case though, it's a good thing I'm intimidated. If I wasn't at all intimidated, I would innundate the forum with random ramblings, because my general bar for sharing thoughts in other contexts (e.g. with my friends in informal settings) is very low. I was the kind of person who used to write emails to administrators in middle school asking them for changes to the school's caterpillar abatement policy (yes, actually). I am the kind of person who writes 50% of the texts in the group chat. And so on. You do not want somebody like me constantly posting on the EA forum!

I have several full length posts I've written that in the past year that I haven't put up. I could post them, and maybe somebody could get value from them, but they aren't finished according to my standards. And I won't post them until they are, if they ever are.

I suspect there are many others who are the opposite of me. Their thoughts are just as good, or better, but their general bar for posting things is way too high and they should work on becoming less intimidated. That's why it's really hard to give generalized advice. If you say, "please, post, don't worry about it!" people like me will post way too much. If you say, "the bar is so high, really think about it" people who aren't like me will post way too little. That's why the most helpful thing in my view is to just ask some friends for personalized advice. They probably have a pretty good idea of which side of this spectrum you might fall on.

I agree that personalized advice is the best in a lot of cases, thanks for raising this point Thomas.

Time-poor long-time deep EA with imposter syndrome here with a forum post draft now probably over a year old.

One point you didn't hit on that I think strongly applies to me (and probably others like me) is just when I think I've struck upon some sort of insight or found a topic I want to dive into to write about... I find a lengthy well-written EA Forum post has already been written on the topic and not only that, that I agree with it and that there is nothing new I would add (or if there is it is better suited as a quick comment rather than a followup post).

In other online communities I have at times found myself writing profusely because I find areas of disagreement , areas where I can add value, influence discourse etc. In EA... I'm just "another EA" that has roughly the same views and values as so many other EAs. I'm weird and interesting and insightful outside of EA. Within EA... Not so much. And what I find myself wanting to say so often has already been said.

It actually seems to be a paradox of sorts. Due to being an EA "insider" I'm less likely to generate any unique valuable insight compared to someone who is more EA-adjacent or an EA "outsider."

That's a really interesting point - thanks for mentioning it! 

(Edited) i think there can be value to the community or individuals in people saying similar things than what has been said before, if some of the following are true (not all of these apply to your situation specifically):

  • You posting the idea later means that different people come across the idea and engage with it (see The forum is a newsfeed)
  • You personally learn from the process of writing the post. You can flag that you aren't saying anything original, but I think the act of actually publishing something forces you to crystallize ideas (even if they're wrong) and can help with improving reasoning transparency. I think it's plausible if you actually wrote a post you could find something to add to the conversation (I like Holden's post Learning by Writing which goes into this more) 
    • Assumption: you don't have to aim to have impact by writing on the Forum - you can use it for upskilling yourself. 
  • You say the same thing, but in a different way - e.g. use different / better / more recent examples, or emphasize different points, say it more simply (and "explain like i'm 5" version of a concept). 
  • You situate what they're writing within the existing literature (e.g. "I broadly agree with post X, but am confused about concept Y") or red team a critique that you disagree with

I also think that these kind of insights might be interesting to write in a personal blog where people outside the community could read it - your insights could be valuable to people who haven't heard them before. 

 

(Edited the first paragraph since to be more accurate to my belief about the claim)

I think some of this is fair, but my basic instinct is that it doesn't add a ton of value to the forum to have people writing very similar posts over and over. 

To be clear, I'm not claiming it adds a ton of value - just that it can be valuable.

I recently made my first forum post and ran into some formatting barriers. I was able to overcome them with experimentation that cost 30-60 minutes of my time. For example, making a line completely bold automatically puts the text in the outline and putting asterixes (I put the * around this word in mobile and it just ended up italicizing it) centers it and puts it in the outline. I had some sections I wanted to bold, but leave out of the outline so I found a workaround by unbolding just the colon at the end. I was also a bit confused on how to use the link post option and had to search up examples to find out if I should be using it. That added another 10 minutes of time.

It would be great if there was a video tutorial for using the interface. It could significantly reduce the barrier for first time posters.

One thing I intuitively think could help a ton is an opt-out-only "First Post" (and also maybe "Second Post" and "Third Post") tag placed on such posts.

I think it's both good and true that Forum users would/do shift their qualitative feedback and voting in a more charitable direction if and when they  knew that a particular post was a user's first. But it currently takes a couple clicks to discern this information which I assume most people don't actually go through upon reading every post by an author they don't recognize. Of course charitable voting/commenting could go too far, but that seems like a fixable problem

To share a bit of my motivation for this idea, here's  my comment on  "Your first posts will be cringe. It's fine." :

Literally true for me, down to the physical motion of cringing (maybe more like a grimace lol), a minute ago when I stared into the abyss

Thanks to the 13 people who gave it a like to spare me some trauma at the time, though; in all seriousness, if it had gotten 3 karma instead of 20 I don't think I would have tried again

Vaidehi and Amber -- very helpful and insightful post, with good suggestions.

Another obstacle is that busy academics in EA-adjacent fields face several career incentives against forum posts -- especially if they're tenure-track, teaching big courses, or running big lab groups. 

Every hour we spend  writing EA Forum posts or comments is an hour that we're not writing a grant application, a journal paper, or a book. Those count for our tenure, promotion, and annual reviews. Forum posts don't really count for anything in our academic jobs.

How to overcome this? I'm not sure, but it might be good to brainstorm about how to lay down a smoother path from EA Forum posts to academic journal articles , e.g. for academics writing posts to flag them with something explicit like 'This is a rough draft of some ideas I might turn into a journal article for journal X or Y; I'd especially welcome feedback that helps with that goal'. 

Another option is to develop a couple of online academic journals called 'Effective Altruism' or 'Longtermism' or 'Existential Risk Review' or whatever, which would basically publish polished, referenced, peer-reviewed versions of EA posts. The article selection criteria and review process could be quite streamlined, but to most academics, if it looks like a journal, and has a journal-style website and submission procedure, and it's genuinely peer-reviewed to some reasonable degree, then it's considered a legit journal. Also, the editors of such journals could keep their eyes on which EA Forum posts look interesting, upvoted, and much commented-upon, and could invite the writers of those posts to revise their post into a contribution to the journal.

Basically, if I write a 9,000 word post for EA Forum, I can't list it on my academic CV, and it counts for absolutely nothing in an academic career. But if I publish exactly  the same post as a peer-reviewed article in an EA journal, it counts for a lot.

The downside is that formal EA academic journals would be a departure from the usual EA ethos of very fast, effective, interactive, community-wide discussion, because traditional journals involve a huge amount of wasted time and effort (non-public reviews, slow review times, slow publication times, journals behind paywalls, little opportunity for visible feedback appended to the articles, etc). So we'd need to develop some new models for 'peer-reviewed academic articles' that combine the best of EA Forum communication style with the career-building credibility of traditional journal articles. 

There are probably some other downsides to this suggestion, e.g. it would require some pretty smart and dedicated EAs to devote a fair amount of time to being journal editors and reviewers. However, we do get academic credit for doing those jobs!  And it would not be very expensive to top up an aspiring academic's pay with an editorship supplement. (I know lots of junior academics who would happily spend 30 hours of month editing a new journal if they could make an extra $30k a year doing so.)

[-][anonymous]2mo 50

How funny. I find myself intimidated just writing this comment. That said, this is an excellent post that quite accurately conveys the internal struggles and challenges of a newbie poster like me. 

Though I’ve years and years of experience with brands, comms and strategy and have written, presented and engaged with boards, CEOs and rooms full of incredibly bright people, I’ve found that posting my thoughts on the EA forum is weirdly terrifying. 

I’ve been trying to understand why for a few weeks now. As a member of a few other communities, in which I feel very comfortable, I thought it might be helpful to detail my insecurities here:

  • As a newcomer I get the sense that I accidentally wandered into a super cool group of super clever people discussing super clever things and that I wasn’t supposed to get the invite. Of course being me, I then went on to misread the invite and showed up in a clown costume honking a horn
  • I like to write. But I write in a more personal and expressive style (much like this comment) and, like others, I find the writing style here is very complex, formal and intimidating. It’s not like my style, so I think maybe I shouldn’t post 
  • Voluntarily offering my thoughts and ideas to be judged by very smart people isn’t my favorite thing to do so I’ve found I get stuck writing and editing in circles in order to sound clever instead of clear 
  • My expertise is in the highly subjective areas of strategies, brands, messages, creative thinking and customer experiences which feels massively superficial compared to the big stuff people talk about in here
  • I suspect like many others, I’ve got an oversized fear of trolls, or of tripping on the outrage tripwire. I’m not saying trolls are here, just that outrage seems to be everywhere these days and a lot of us have learned to be hyper-cautious 
  • I came into the EA shop looking for clever, rational people and communities with interests in social, communal, behavioral, public policy, creative design and systems based EA and found AI, BioRisk and Animal Welfare communities - which are all great, but again, I think I  misread the invite
  • In my other groups I tend to respond really well to questions. I’ve got lots of thoughts and ideas of my own, but to answer a question feels a lot more helpful 
  • Though I really, really, love quant, my comfort zone is qualitative, so I’m more comfortable in posting simple questions that spark discussions (ie “Anyone read that Salon article?”) rather than proposing ideas and theories for robust testing and interrogation 

To be fair, this is a really awesome forum that I might have found purely by mistake. I’m still not sure if I should be here, but I have been made to feel welcome, valued, and encouraged. I’ve got loads to say on the EA brand and its communications challenges and opportunities, but every draft post I’ve written (four so far) I’ve talked myself out of. I’ve no doubt my insecurities have gotten the better of me but, in my line of work, first impressions really do matter and I can’t seem to get past the fact that my first impression here matters more than in any other forum. 

(Gulp!)

Hey Alex, thanks for sharing this! Have you considered sharing some of your drafts with the Forum team? (Curious if you if you know about it and felt it wasn't worth sharing, or if you didn't know about them)

If you feel like it, I'd love to know specifics thoughts you might have, even if they are rough - we don't have a lot of people with PR/brand background, so I'm always keen to hear takes from people with different perspectives!

[-][anonymous]2mo 10

Hi Vaidehi. Thanks so much for responding! I assumed there was a team behind this Forum but I didn’t know (or wasn’t clear) that I could share draft thoughts with them. How is this done? Do I just send PMs to specific people like you?

Re. the intimidation factor: I regularly write for an audience of ~1.3M people.  I found posting on the EA forum much more intimidating.

I am much more likely to get criticism in response to an EA forum post than elsewhere.  This is good in terms of robustness of ideas, but it also means I am never going to dash off a post quickly.

Oh man that is not a pretty graph... 

Same data, better resolution (and feel free to move this to the main post Vaidehi or Amber)

Thanks for referencing Community Posts, which I wrote about here.

This would entail:

  • Posts anyone could edit
  • They could be on any EA post topic 

Would you use this feature if it existed? Agree using ✅, disagree using ❌. Don't worry about brutally x-voting me, I'll be fine. 

I have written several posts that I didn't submit for a combination of reasons. Reason #3 below is deeply troubling and is the thing that I most want to see changed about EA in general. I wrote 1500 words yesterday about it, and decided not to post it because of reason #2 and reason #3 itself. Since this post asks for feedback, it seems like an OK place to copy-paste it, er, write a completely new essay on the same topic.

1. Perfectionism

This is the most common and at the same time the least tractable. It's not that I don't feel the drafts meet the EA Forum standards, rather the drafts don't meet my standards.

2. Negativity

Like Scott A. wrote about on ACX, EA self-critiques are almost a fetish. I deeply appreciate our culture of being open to criticism, and I wouldn't want to change that. However, my subconscious is always looking for more reasons to be disappointed with myself, and I don't want to add to the negativity for others, especially when I'm piling onto things that others have said already.

3. Ongoing Exclusivity of EA

Like me, many people feel like EA outsiders -- even those of us who identify deeply and passionately with EA. (To me, the forum itself is not exclusive; everyone on the forum is very kind, welcoming, and encouraging.)

If we can't absorb more people due to lack of funding, that'd be one thing. However, since at least 2015, 80K (and others) have talked about a "funding overhang" and a "talent gap," and no matter how many asterisks or replacement terms we come up with, the implication is still the same. I'll let this 2019 writer describe what he hears EA saying:

“We are so talent constraint… (20 applications later) … Yeah, when we said that we need people, we meant capable people. Not you. You suck.”

Why exactly does that prevent me from posting more on the forum? First, this is the problem I want to write about, and I can only rephrase things that others have written eloquently about for years. Second, because the inferential difference feels insurmountable even when we talk about solutions.

For example, when I read the title, "EA needs consultancies," I think, "that's exactly what I was thinking!" only to read the post and find that Luke's talking about "McKinsey-style consultancies." So, Ivy League folks? To be fair to Luke, he didn't say that "analytically strong people" excludes the average engineer or software developer;[1] I'm getting that impression elsewhere. Like I said in a comment on Constance's post about EAG rejection, if a literal doctor doesn't make the cut, what hope do the rest of us have?

4. Not Ambitious Enough

Maybe the real reason I don't post is that I need to "be more ambitious." Sorry, this is a cheap jab, but that narrative really kills me. Is there any other group on the planet with loftier goals than us? Is there a community that's trying to save the extra-super-duper long-term future?[2] I mean, I beat myself up for not being as rich as SBF, but if there's a reason I should feel worse about myself, please, do tell!


Some people interpret EA as meaning, high impact. To me, EA is for anyone who wants to have higher at the margin -- no matter who you are.


Again, I'm SO SORRY about the negative tone of this whole comment, but I worry that the level of irony from not posting it could initiate vacuum collapse. Hopefully you all know that I still love you, even though I'm a bit cranky about my unemployment these days.


  1. which is already too high a bar IMO ↩︎

  2. Besides, if there was, most of us would be over there instead of here. ↩︎

I could relate to many of the reasons given in the post. Perhaps the biggest point for me is that writing on the forum often to takes me much longer than usual, as I seem to make myself write in a different style to what I use elsewhere (this also often leads me to spend almost as long editing any comments as I do writing them...). Additionally, I never feel good, and often feel rather embarrassed/silly, after having posted (admittedly few, and mostly link posts) or commented, regardless of how they are received. I'm not really sure why I experience this, but suspect it is a combination imposter syndrome with nervousness about my posts/comments being  voted on. I mostly write on another forum where I don't get this feeling; perhaps I should write more shortform here as that format is more similar to posts on the other forum which uses the Discourse platform.

Thanks for this post. As someone hesitant to post on the forum, I would add that I am sometimes unsure if a large number of forum readers would actually be interested in a specific idea or topic I would want to write about. It might be nice if there were sub-forums for people interested in researching and learning about specific areas - that way, it would be virtually guaranteed that everyone reading the post would be interested in the content. On the other hand, it might make the space less interdisciplinary.

What kinds of topics would you be interested in writing about?