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What caused EA movement growth to slow down?

by Evan_Gaensbauer3 min read12th May 201914 comments

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Summary: It appears the annual growth rate of EA began dramatically slowing as late as around 2015-16, at around the same time EA started experiencing other bottlenecks, such as reported talent gaps at EA-aligned organizations. I explore the possibility of a relationship between a potential bottleneck for growth, and other bottlenecks in EA, and identify a potential common relationship between them to be a lack of organization or coordination of resources in EA. What specific factors have generated these bottlenecks is the answer I am seeking.

In my last question, I glossed over the origin of EA.

Historically, the following organizations were the earliest to be associated with what would become EA:
Givewell, launched in 2007
LessWrong, launched in 2009
Giving What We Can, launched in 2009
80,000 Hours, launched in 2011
It's with multiple organizations, and the communities that built up around them, connecting online that first developed the community that would become 'effective altruism.' This started in 2009. It was with the launch of 80,000 Hours in 2011 that community began to grow, and the label 'effective altruism' began to stick.

Going with the assumption EA began circa 2009, the following people would more or less qualify as part of the founding numbers of the what would become the EA movement at its earliest stage:

  • the staff of Givewell, and Givewell's direct supporters.
  • the members of community blog 'LessWrong' who were part of the burgeoning EA community, and the supporters of the then-Singularity Institute which would go on to become the Machine Intelligence Research Institute.
  • GWWC's founders and earliest members.
  • the supporters of these communities in Oxford and the San Francisco Bay Area, would qualify as as founders of EA.

If we were to estimate the number of people who would have counted as 'effective altruists' in 2009 from this list, it could easily be around 100, and would probably not exceed 200. I joined the EA movement in 2011, so I would have been among the first several hundred people to join the EA community. In the first several years of EA, the movement was growing extremely rapidly, to the point it was nearly doubling in size, i.e., growing by 100%, each year. Some years the growth rate would have been lower, and some years higher, but a model assuming an average annual growth rate of 100% tracks the growth of the EA movement decently for the first several years of the movement's existence. If we assumed the number of people part of the EA movement in 2009 was 100-200, assuming EA had been doubling in size each year after, by 2010 the number would be between 200 and 400, and by 2011, between 400 and 800. If we plot this growth, we see how many people might be part of the EA movement by now.

2009 | 100-200

2010 | 200-400

2011 | 400-800

2012 | 800-1,600

2013 | 1,600-3200

2014 | 3,200-6,400

2015 | 6,400-12,800

2016 | 12,800-25,600

2017 | 25,600-51,200

2018 | 51,200-102,400

2019 | 102,400-204,800

In my last question, I also laid out what would be the peak estimate for the number of people part of the EA movement.

The biggest count for potential membership of EA is the 'Effective Altruism' Facebook group, which currently stands 16,482 members. So, at most, EA sits at between 10k and 20k members.

Were EA to have kept doubling in size every year through the end of 2019, we might expect to see up to ~200k people belonging to the EA movement. By the greatest estimate, no more than ~20k people are currently part of the EA movement. So, had EA sustained an annual average growth rate of 100% for each year of the 10 years it existed, it might be up to an order of magnitude larger than it currently is. It appears EA has been growing at a still significant but much more modest rate since. As it stands, it doesn't appear tenable to maintain EA sustained doubling in size each year past either 2015 or 2016.

As Jon Behar pointed out in his Framework for Thinking about the EA Labor Market, the EA community has increasingly been discussing talent gaps since 2015. One thing that has significantly changed in EA since 2015 is the size of the grants made by EA-aligned foundation Good Ventures, and grantmaking organization the Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil). Many other charities and other non-profit organizations the EA community has supported, through support from grants from Open Phil and other donors, are able to clear their room for more funding, and even their capacity for growth and expansion, each year. With a glut of people, and a glut of money, one plausible story for why the growth rate of EA slowed is because EA as an ecosystem acquired much greater amount of resources much faster than we have learned how to optimally allocate them. Ergo, growth of EA slowed as the community lost control of driving the growth rate of effective altruism as a movement.

From one angle, it is negative that the growth of EA has slowed. However, if EA has so many resources, it doesn't know how to spend them more to do the most good, it might make sense that resources are not wasted on extra growth that won't currently be applied to one or another cause. If there is a glut of effective altruists to either donate or work, but talent gaps remaining to be filled, and projects that don't receive sufficient funding that deserve it, a major problem in EA is a lack of coordination and organization of resources. Overall, the question of what the main bottlenecks to movement growth for EA remain, but it appears it may have a relationship to other bottlenecks in EA.

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3 Answers

Maybe it's just a result of EA deciding to focus on fidelity rather than speed of movement growth + decreasing marginal returns on outreach

This seems likely to me. I can think of several instances of cases where an EA organization had the chance to market certain content widely, but chose not to take it, because they preferred to focus on other work.

As one example, the EA Newsletter grew its subscriber list dramatically by advertising on Facebook, but no longer does so. I've surveyed subscribers to find out which actions the newsletter may have prompted (donating, career change. etc.), and almost all subscribers who took significant action found the Newsletter "organically" th... (read more)

1Evan_Gaensbauer2yIs there any reason the EA Newsletter no longer advertises on FB?

I hope that the slowdown is due to the high fidelity model. But I am concerned that it might be that we are getting closer to saturation, and following a sigmoidal curve. If you count all the media impressions for EA, I think it would be more like tens of millions (and many predisposed people have sought it out online already). Various people have posited the 1% of developed countries becoming EA. At points I have been even more optimistic by recognizing that more than 10% of people take 10% salary cut working for nonprofits or the government. However, for most people, there is a big psychological difference between taking a 10% pay cut and donating 10% (and there are other factors comparing jobs). Furthermore, you need not just effort or sacrifice, but to actually prioritize effectiveness. I am concerned that the coincidence of these two characteristics is relatively low. I think that we can continue to get growth by continually exposing new college students, hopefully in more colleges, and also by recruiting better in groups underrepresented in EA. But that probably won't produce the strong exponential growth of the past of EA. Has anyone done comparisons with say environmentalism or feminism? Because it seems like for them to have achieved such high penetration, they would have done something like doubling every year for decades.

For me, one thing that is different about my perspective is I think the things that would need to change about EA that would make it tend to grow more are things that would make it more effective. I think I'm more willing to believe than other community members that EA as is isn't nearly as effective as it could be, and this is part of the reason why EA seems saturated. It's only saturated in its current form.

For example, I think it is possible to make the EA community both much more effective and much bigger while retaining its fidelity fo... (read more)

Knowing about the history of various social movements, one thing about environmentalism and feminism is they were much more growth-oriented than EA is. I.e., massive growth was a necessary instrument for those movement's to achieve their historical goals. Some of the goals of the EA community will benefit from a strong, growth-oriented social movement more than others. For a lot of the EA community's goals, high-fidelity growth could be beneficial, but it doesn't seem like one of the most crucial factors in goal achievement.

So, there is a l... (read more)

4Denkenberger2yThanks! I was thinking environmentalism in the 1960s might have grown 100% per year from very niche to broad support. Of course the bar for considering oneself as an environmentalist is much lower than EA, basically consisting of recycling and saying one supports clean air and water.
2Evan_Gaensbauer2yYeah, in the modern history of environmentalism and environmental movements, the highest period of growth, activity, and success was in the 1960s-70s. Environmentalism was one of the new social movements of the 1960s that was able to sustain a consistent amount of activity and progress of some kinds, such as the enduring popularity of conservationism, through to the present. Of course, one difference for environmentalism than those other social movements was the problems it was facing keep getting worse over time, with climate change, mass extinction, biodiversity loss, environmental destruction, and natural resource depletion. One of the greatest successes of the environmentalism since then was the role it played in the global response to ozone hole crisis. Since then the movement has expanded into countless other movements. As you yourself notice, this has led to environmentalism as its fractured becoming much more watered down to the point to lots of people it doesn't seems like a movement that currently accomplishes much at all. A lot of new energy has poured into environmentalism because of concern over climate change in the last several years, which probably constitutes the greatest growth of environmentalism since the '60s-70s. Obviously climate change and those environmental problems remain unsolved. In spite of EA not focusing on this important problem as much because everyone else already seems focused on it, it doesn't seem like nearly enough progress is being made by others. So I understand why there is a great demand for more focus on climate change in EA, since a mindset effective altruism could bring to climate change seems like exactly the thing many effective altruists most worried about climate change think would produce the best solutions. This is how the current inadequacy of both environmentalism and effective altruism in the face of climate change dovetail with each other. Honestly, I'm not sure what the next step is either than to figure o

As someone who is quite familiar with what drives traffic to EA and Rationality related websites, 2015 marks the end of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which (whatever you might think about it) was probably the single biggest recruitment device that has existed in at least the rationality community's history (though I also think it was also a major driver to the EA community). It is also the time Eliezer broadly stopped posting online, and he obviously had a very outsized effect on recruitment.

I also know that during 2015 (which is when I started working at CEA), CEA was investing very heavily in trying to grow the community, which included efforts of trying to get people like Elon Musk to talk at EAG 2015, which I do think was also a major draw to the community. A lot of the staff responsible for that focus on growth left over the following years and CEA stopped thinking as much in terms of growth (I think whether that was good or bad is complicated, though I mostly think that that shift was good).

Yeah, there were a couple other organizations that might have been able at one point to take advantage of naturally occurring opportunities for growth of the EA movement, or what we might call EA's constituent sub-communities. For various reasons, they also couldn't or at least didn't end up prioritizing the growth of EA.

I think it would be beneficial, and perhaps necessary for some goals, to attract more and more different kinds of people than are currently in the EA community to join. One could also specify just the 'existential risk... (read more)

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You might be interested in a new set of EA growth metrics that I compiled. It argues that EA growth is indeed slowing down (though EA has not stopped growing) and this could be mostly (but not fully) explained by the "high fidelity" model. In particular, I think the "high fidelity" model may have failed if we also see a plateau or decline in some metrics like career changes or donations made, which may happen soon (but hasn't clearly happened yet).

Yeah, that looks interesting. Thanks for letting me know. I'll check it out.

If you make the definition of EA "anyone who donates to an EA charity" then the movement is much bigger, there's more than 20K people in the world donating to effective charities. The Humane League alone has 1.1M followers on facebook, assuming only 200K of those donate, that's still the same as the double every year number. I'd say anyone that donates would be considered an EA in my book, even if they don't self-identify as one.

Yeah, this is an issue with defining EA. "Self-identification" is the only clear criterion for "being part of EA". There is nothing useful as a metric about it. EA is not the kind of movement where it makes sense to ask "how many effective altruists are there?" It's just how I framed my thinking about growth rates and bottlenecks, since that is the question I see lots of people asking people all the time. It is a familiar framing.

If someone has a specific question about change in the amount of resources moved through EA in a particular way, it is a lot easier to pinpoint a bundle of things to measure, and that usually provides an answer, like with what you're doing.