Introducing Rational Animations

by Writer3 min read30th May 202119 comments

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VideoEffective altruism art and fiction
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Crossposted to LessWrong

Hello, everyone

In February, my girlfriend and I started Rational Animations, a YouTube channel with the long-term mission of producing high-quality animated videos about rationality and Effective Altruism. The aim is to spread these ideas to a broader audience, organize fundraisers, and animate rationality and EA ideas in general. 

I've been reading and interacting with the EA and rationality community for a few years. I have other accounts on the EA Forum and LW focused on a niche topic. Still, I decided to start fresh with this account for talking about more diversified topics and crossposting relevant videos from the channel, either accompanied by the scripts of the videos or by an article more suitable for Less Wrong or the EA Forum. I will probably also post articles that won't make it to the YT channel and experiment with different topics to see what is more appreciated.

My name here is "Writer" because I write the scripts for the channel. The videos you see uploaded right now are all narrated by me, but this will change soon. I also take decisions on the channel's direction, advertise it, interact with subscribers, etc. In short, I do everything that isn't animation and graphics, and I'll outsource narration to someone else. 

You can consider the first three videos as trials, in which I was testing the waters. Both the animator and I are still improving, but the following videos will be increasingly representative of our future uploads. 

In April, we received a grant from the Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund. We are using it for the animator's equipment, salary for the next six months, paying our new narrator, and potentially pursue paid advertisement strategies. I already experimented with YT ads, but they were disappointing. I have more creative ideas that don't rely on ads or third-party advertisers. For the longer term, the animator and I would really like to make a career with this project.

Suggest stuff!

One thing I would be fond of doing is to bring articles from LW to the YouTube channel. So don't be afraid to message me if there is something that you consider particularly important or interesting that you would like to see animated. I will probably answer with a considerable delay because I'll have plenty of videos already scheduled. But I'll definitely consider your idea and get back to you if I decide to implement it. 

It would also be cool to see some of the best "historic" posts adapted for YT and animated, or even recent posts that I really like. In the future, I might reach out to the author of a post to ask if I can bring it to YT.

Eternal Septembers: something to be avoided

What I won't do is aggressively advertise LessWrong and the EA Forum. If the channel succeeds, I will organize fundraisers for EA charities. If I adapt an article for YT, I will link it in the description or just credit the author. If I use quotes from an author on LW or the EA Forum, I will probably credit them on-screen. But I will never say: "Come on LW! Plenty of cool people there!" especially if the channel becomes big. Otherwise, "plenty of cool people" becomes Reddit pretty fast.

If the channel becomes big, I will also refrain from posting direct links to LW and the EA Forum. Remind me if I ever forget. And let me know if these rules are not conservative enough.

Next video

The next video will be out on June 1st at 15:00 EST. I will post an accompanying article just on LW because it is about a rationality topic. The video after that will be about an EA topic, good both for LW and the EA Forum.
 

One of the many covers we'll be using. Another version is in the LW  article.

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19 comments, sorted by Highlighting new comments since Today at 5:33 PM
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I'm worried about associating Effective altruism and rationality closely in public. I think rationality is reasonably likely to make enemies. The existence of r/sneerclub is maybe the strongest evidence of this, but also the general dislike that lots of people have for silicon valley and ideas that have a very silicon valley feel to them. I'm unsure to degree people hate Dominic Cummings because he's a rationality guy, but I think it's some evidence to think that rationality is good at making enemies. Similarly, the whole NY times-Scott Alexander crazyness makes me think there's the potential for lots of people to be really anti rationality.  

I think this is a reasonable worry, but also something of a lost cause.

I don't think we should let the most unreasonable haters maneuver what we say, but if it is of any reassurance the plan is to have a channel with its own legs. It will not be a core brand thing to be associated with EA or LW*.  

That said, don't discount the value of the connection rationality-EA. It's probably true that EA is rationality applied to altruism, and many of the most valuable EAs are also LW people.

*Upon reflection, this is probably too early to say and not true right now. What I can say is that at least the channel probably won't be linked to the forums for the reasons already stated in the post.

As a single point of anecdata, I got interested in EA via being part of the rationality community, and think it's plausible I would not have gotten involved in EA if there wasn't that link

In case you're not already familiar, it may be useful for you to talk with and collaborate with the people behind the A Happier World YouTube channel: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/MtbXzAh5SZxRJiHnH/i-made-a-video-on-engineered-pandemics

Oh yeah I'm already talking with Jeroen :)

This seems like a cool initiative, and I like how you've laid out your plans in this post. (Though I haven't watched the videos yet, and share some degree of the same sorts of concerns about accidental harm other commenters mentioned.)

Just this morning, I've made a Slack workspace for "EA Creatives & Communicators", to provide a space for interactions between people in the EA community who aim to do good through various types of creative or communications activities - e.g., by covering EA-relevant topics or important messages via documentaries, other types of videos, short stories, maybe journalism. These interactions could involve things like asking for advice/feedback, sharing tips and resources, and finding collaborators. I'll send you a DM with an invite link - maybe this could help you get feedback like michaelchen suggested and/or you could provide advice/feedback to other people who join.

(If anyone else is interested in joining the Slack, send me a message.)

Thanks a lot, this looks useful. I'm joining.

Two very small bits of feedback based only on this post, without having watched the videos yet:

  • When cross-posting, I think it's good to include a link in each post to the other version, at the bottom or the top. That way a reader can also check out the comments there as well if the reader wants. You did mention the LW post, which helps (compared to not mentioning it at all), but it's still nice to have the link.
  • I suggest changing the colour of the writing on the person's arm to something other than red. My brain processed the red as like the writing being scratched/cut into the arm, which I assume isn't what you're going for and gives a quite different vibe. (I'd guess 5-40% of people would process it the same way, though maybe it's a rarer reaction than I think.)

Thanks, edited both here an on LW. Interesting feedback about the arm, but I'm also considering removing the arm entirely.

What topics are you thinking of making videos for in the future? (Or is this information reserved for Patreons?)

You say "first three videos", but I can also see the following videos:

  • redstone neuron in minecraft!
  • minecraft 24 hour digital clock
  • etc.

I don't think that's a big deal though—you can keep them up and maybe they'll attract some more viewers to your channel.

Also, one month ago on your YouTube channel, you posted a link to your Patreon, but it actually links to https://www.patreon.com/rationalanima (which is dead) instead of https://www.patreon.com/rationalanimations.

By "first three videos," I meant the first three animated videos. Pardon. There are old videos I mean to keep because they are generally on topic and either sort of historic (epic conway's game of life) or cute stuff from my adolescence, which was pretty good anyway. Not production-wise, but at least concept-wise. But most importantly most of my current public arrives from them.

Thanks for the link heads-up.

I think that that reasoning for keeping those older videos up makes some sense, but FWIW I think I'd be in favour of not having the Minecraft videos on the same channel. It looks to me kind-of confusing and/or unprofessional. I haven't watched the videos, and making doing so would suggest they're more relevant than I think, but a lot of people who click on your channel for the first time won't have watched those videos either and so would probably have a similar reaction to me. 

But this is just a quick take, and I don't know if it's a big deal.

I totally understand this take and the animator said the same thing (so upvoted for giving me another data point here).

Now let me vent my frustration:

The sad thing is that your comment has a decent chance of being correct. I think that, yes,  at first glance minecraft videos may seem unprofessional. But man if you are correct that would be deeply deeply sad. Reality is: "redstone neuron in minecraft!" is utterly brilliant, even if I say so myself. It is a perceptron made with redstone. How cool is that? And probably one of the firsts, or the first, in the world. And I did that when I was 17. It's one of the coolest things I've ever done, and one of the highest forms of self-expression. But NO it's cringe because it's in minecraft, right? And minecraft is for kids. Nevermind that it's turing complete. 

Also, I'm kind of horrified at the possibility that people look at a starting YouTube channel and say "hmmm this looks unprofessional I'm going to downvote". YouTube channels shouldn't necessarily look professional, they just need to be good. I could go the route of making everything as boring as possible and commit YT suicide.

End of venting.

All that said I AM updating towards "hmmm maybe I should use a less quirky aesthetic or completely remove the rationality/EA brand (even if talking about EA/rationality topics) if I want to take quirkier routes or maybe just do both".

Hmm. I feel like I partly see where you're coming from, but there are two other things worth noting:

  • Maybe "confusing" is more important than "unprofessional" here.
    • The channel is called "Rational Animations", and the first few videos look like they match that, and then suddenly there's a few videos that just literally aren't animated (in the same sense) and also at least look like they're on totally different topics. E.g., a 24 hour clock.
    • I like Plenny Bars and I like Apple. But if I went to the Plenny Bar website and they were trying to sell me mostly Plenny Bars but also a phone, or the Apple website and they were trying to sell me mostly phones etc. but also snacks, I'd be confused.
      • This'd be very survivable for those companies because I already knew them
      • But if it was a company I was unfamiliar with, I might then reasonably click away, thinking "These people seem unfocused, I'm going to go to one of the hundreds of other potential suppliers".
        • It may genuinely not worth me spending 15 seconds looking into it closer and seeing if they have good reasons for their combo of focuses, when there's already so much competition and I didn't have much reason to think this new company was better than the competition.
  • Relatedly, I'd guess that this is like one of the cases where a stereotype actually does do better than random chance for prediction.
    • I haven't gathered any systematic data, but would bet that if we looked at a lot of channels aiming to do something like engaging communication of useful ideas, and compared ones that seemed to have a relatively clear and consistent focus, aesthetic, etc. to ones that have a minority if videos that at first look quite disconnected and in particular look like they're about hobbies like gaming, the former set of channels would just actually tend to have better content than the latter.
      • Obviously that doesn't mean it'll be true in every case. But a viewer has an insane amount of content to choose from, and when they're not yet sold on you, it's fair for them to make snap judgements and move on.

I think this isn't really about quirkiness, nor about Minecraft being intrinsically cringey or something, more about something like consistency. If you had animated videos that were using Minecraft as the central "device", but whose titles made it clear how they were relevant to rationality, that would seem fine to me.

This is all correct, but also notice that the most recent video among those that break the pattern of animated videos is 7 years old. When we'll have accumulated a lot of animated videos those old videos will be relegated at the bottom and have approximately zero impact on how people view the channel, other than being old curiosities. Also, an interesting datapoint that contradicts your thesis (although I agree with you, I wanted to point that out): VSauce. Look at his older videos. And they are a lot more!

One thing that I could do is to simply hide the minecraft videos for a while, till the channel has more animated videos, so it can have a more consistent aesthetic early on, and then unhide them later. I don't like this option but I will consider it (in part I dislike it because public from the old videos is saying "wow you hath returneth!")

Err... the comments here and on LW seem neutral to positive. So why am I being downvoted so much? Is it the post or the channel? If it is the channel, I swear that better stuff is coming D: Maybe I should have just done a post after  that stuff. Too bad I guess. I didn't expect this reception.

I upvoted, but here are some comments I have. Looking at the titles of the first three videos, it wasn't clear how they related to rationality.

  • How Does Bitcoin Work? Simple and Precise 5…
  • Why Your Life Is Harder When You Are Ugly | The… (didn't notice the "Halo Effect" in the thumbnail at first)
  • Why You STRUGGLE to Finish on Time | The…

So perhaps people downvoted based on first impressions that it doesn't seem that related to rationality?

I enjoyed the Bitcoin, halo effect, and planning fallacy videos, but I didn't think that the video "If You Want to Find Truth You Need to Step Into Cringe" made a solid rational argument for the opening statement that "If you honestly seek truth, and if you decide to tell the truth, at some point, you will accept to appear cringe to the eyes of most people." The only evidence given was that telling other people the truth that you are a weeaboo is cringe, but that "truth" (which is about you yourself) is quite disanalogous to truths about the external world. Since the channel is branded as "rational", and you also include "Effective Altruism" in the channel description, I would like the videos to all have rigorous rational arguments. For this video, I would also have preferred a somewhat more serious overall tone in the script instead of leaning in so heavily into internet culture, so that the videos seem more respectable perhaps, but I don't have a strong preference about this.

Regarding this YouTube comment of yours: "internet dynamics are probably relatable to a YT audience. Should I worry that using them as examples would make my videos cringe in the eyes of a sophisticated audience? Well, maybe but... I prefer to defy social rules rather than accept them. Sometimes it works, sometimes it backfires, but I observed that when it works, the payoff is usually very high. Plus, it's fun." Make sure to take downside risk seriously! I don't think any of your videos so far have been risky, and I don't think talking about internet culture is risky, but it's something to keep in mind. It would be good to avoid inadvertently damaging the reputation of rationality and/or effective altruism. Ben Todd's "Why not to rush to translate effective altruism into other languages" says "any kind of broad based outreach is risky because it’s hard to reverse. Once your message is out there, it tends to stick around for years, so if you get the message wrong, you’ve harmed years of future efforts. We call this the risk of ‘lock in’." I don't agree with that much of Ben Todd's post, but I think it's important to be thoughtful about the messaging that you're putting forth (not saying that you aren't). Before making the videos, do you get the scripts reviewed by other people and ask for honest feedback? Ideally, you'd get feedback from rationalists and effective altruists as well as people who are neither. If not, I would recommend doing so, especially since these videos are targeted toward the general public.

It could also help to have official subtitles. YouTube makes it pretty easy to add subtitles—you just paste in your script and then it automatically aligns it to the right time.

I think the animations are really awesome, not only in art quality but also in elucidating the subject of the video visually. It might be nice to have some non-white characters too (besides nonhuman animals like doge lol) for some more diversity.

Thanks for this feedback. I did the actionable thing I could do and changed the titles of the first two animated videos.