Jul 19, 2018
At the request of Ryan Carey, who set up the EA Forum, CEA took over its running last year, as announced in this post. Here we give an update on what we plan to do with it. These are our initial thoughts - we’d welcome feedback on how they could be improved.
In summary, the technology of the current version of the Forum will reach end of life this calendar year. We plan to transfer to a new Forum at forum.effectivealtruism.org, using the codebase of the new LessWrong.com (for more detail on how we made this decision please see the ‘Technical Background’ section below). Content, user accounts and karma from the old Forum will be transferred, and old links redirected as needed.
The move will lead to some changes in how the Forum appears:
We are also using this opportunity to improve moderation and content on the Forum. We will be working with some of the top forum posters and thinkers in the community to encourage them to post more frequently to the Forum, and we will be cross-posting high quality content from elsewhere. The amount of effort put into moderation will be increased, aiming to give detailed feedback on what content is useful.
In this post, we aim to explain why we think we should make these changes, set out what this will mean for Forum users, and seek your feedback on our plans.
Our vision is that the Forum becomes the main hub for content and discussion in the community. We’d like most of the thinking that the community does to go on the Forum, with all of EA’s top researchers posting and commenting regularly.
We think that this has several benefits for the community:
To this end, our first goal is to ensure that the Forum is used by the top content producers in EA.
If we achieve this first goal, then we think that the Forum will be an excellent way to onboard newer people to the community, because: they will be exposed to high quality, fresh content; they will then have the opportunity to engage with that content and contribute themselves; and they will get high-quality feedback on what content of theirs is especially good, allowing them to become familiar with EA topics and community discussion norms.
Besides the updated design of the platform, in the initial release we expect users to benefit from the following features:
Sorting by popularity/engagement rather than only time order: The current Forum presents posts to users only based on time order, with the most recent posts appearing at the top of the page. The new front page will use a slightly modified version of the Hacker News algorithm to order posts by number of upvotes and amount of engagement. This should ensure that popular posts won’t be crowded out simply due to new posts being made. We expect this to improve the experience of reading the Forum, make it easier for users to find the best content and reduce the cost to posting additional content to the Forum. Posts about less-general interest topics will be visible to those who seek them out, but will not appear on the front page unless they attract upvotes. We hope that this will encourage more people to post thoughts and works-in-progress to the Forum for feedback.
A community subforum: In addition to the main Forum, we will have a subforum which we are tentatively planning to call “Community”. We expect to use this category for discussion about issues in the EA community, organizational updates and meta discussion about the Forum itself.
Subscribing to users: It will be possible to subscribe to particular users’ contributions. Each user’s page also functions as a kind of personal blog, with a space to write about their interests and approach to problems. This should help users personalize their content feed over time to be better focused on areas they are interested in.
Sequences: A sequence is a set of linked articles on a particular topic. Any user will be able to create sequences, whether this be from their own original content, or as a way to collect their favorite pieces on a topic. Highly upvoted, user-created sequences will be discoverable by other users. We hope that this will help posters develop ideas in more depth, while keeping individual posts to a readable length, and that users stop having to post multiple, numbered parts to longer posts. It should also be a neat way to present canonical content to new users. You can see some examples of sequences on LW.
A reworked karma system: We will be aiming to transfer user accounts along with karma from the old to the new site in time for release. Also, the way the karma system will function will be slightly different, mainly by giving a slightly higher weight to up- and down-votes from users who themselves have more karma. There will also be the possibility to choose between giving a small up/downvote or giving a larger boost by holding the up/downvote button.
The best summary of how this works is that:
Normal votes (one click) will be worth
Strong Votes (click and hold) will be worth
We think that the EA community should aspire to particularly high standards of discussion, and that the best way to maintain those standards is to give those who have contributed to the community more ability to signal what content is good for the Forum than someone who has just created an account. However, we obviously don’t want this to become a tyranny of a few users. There are several users, holding very different viewpoints, who currently have high karma on the Forum, and we hope that this will help maintain a varied discussion, while still ensuring that the Forum has strong discussion standards.
The distinction between normal and strong votes seems useful because it helps to differentiate between posts and comments which are “good”, and those that are excellent, and should be read by others. You can read more at this post.
Support for Markdown and LaTeX: Will make it easier for people to format posts nicely, and include formulae where relevant.
Moving to forum.effectivealtruism.org: We plan to move the Forum to a new domain – forum.effectivealtruism.org – to avoid the confusing proliferation of domains. We’ll also try to bring some of the branding into alignment with effectivealtruism.org. We’ll make sure that we follow good practices for redirecting links etc. to ensure that Forum content is still easily searchable using Google.
After we have successfully released the initial version of the Forum, we expect to continue development on some or all of the below features. These are just preliminary ideas, and we are going to be responding to feedback to determine how to best prioritize among them, or what other ideas we should put effort into.
Different landing pages for new users vs old hands: We are hoping that the new EA Forum will eventually become a good place to direct people relatively new to the community who would like to find out more. To this end we will be able to have the landing page for non-signed in users show a collection of core content, and then only once a user creates an account will they see more recent discussions. Hopefully this will encourage new users to get up to speed with the basics before engaging with new (possibly more advanced/weirder) content.
Additional subforums: (As requested.) In the initial release we will have one main forum with a “Community” subforum. It may be possible in the longer-term to add more subforums, though we would want to ensure that there is enough content in each potential new category to justify this. An alternative solution may be to implement a tag system. Our work on this will also be determined by what features the LessWrong team ends up implementing in this space.
Page for local groups and events: In the future we may want to add a page devoted to local groups and events, like LessWrong’s community page. We will determine whether adding this functionality makes sense after release.
Community-sourced ideas: We would like to hear from the users of the new Forum to help shape development priorities. We believe that the best ideas are often missed when making an initial project plan, but are likely to emerge from users once they are actually using a platform. As such we will be maintaining open communication with users in order to make sure we capitalize on high expected value improvements.
More active moderation: Recently, moderation on the Forum has mostly been about removing spam. We think that a better goal for moderation is to improve the quality of thinking and debate on the Forum. Therefore, we think that it might be useful to have a more active, positive form of moderation. In particular, we are considering investing moderator time in giving detailed feedback on posts and comments. We aim to draw up some more detailed plans for moderation before the release of the Forum, and we will post these plans to the current Forum for feedback, and to the new Forum for transparency. To facilitate this more time-intensive moderation, we plan to bring on Max Dalton as a fourth moderator (in addition to Howie Lempel, Julia Wise, and Denise Melchin) and we will consider paying moderators for the time they spend on this.
Creating more link posts: Currently we are hesitant about allowing lots of link posts on the Forum, because they displace original content. Because the new Forum will by-default sort by engagement, we are less worried about this effect. Additionally, we hope that link posts can help to consolidate content to reach our vision of the Forum as a central hub for content in the community.
Encouraging top thinkers to post more: We plan to engage with EA researchers and leaders and encourage them to post more frequently.
Curating and choosing sequences: We plan to curate sequences of posts on a variety of topics from existing Forum content. Users are also free to curate their own sequences, and vote on which sequences are best. Moderators can choose which sequences to promote (e.g. on the front page for non-logged-in users). We will consult with moderators and our advisory committee on this, and we also welcome ideas and feedback in the comments. One sequence that we think would be well suited to this role is CEA’s EA Handbook (note that this will soon have updated contents). We encourage you to create additional and alternative sequences.
Consulting with related forums: We will consult the moderators of LessWrong, the EA subreddit, and the main EA Facebook group about how we should relate to these different spaces. By default, we will keep the relationships as they were previously (for example in which types of content are cross-posted to which spaces), but there might be improvements that can be made.
Possible future plans: In the future, we may experiment with giving prizes for good content (along the lines of the AI alignment prize).
Since CEA took responsibility for the Forum, we have been thinking about how best to improve the experience for users and what should come next for the project. We were limited, however, in our ability to make improvements and changes to the current version, due to our team’s unfamiliarity with the codebase.
Additionally, it was becoming clear that the current version of the software was nearing the end of its lifespan, and Trike Apps (the Forum’s current hosting providers) confirmed that they would be forced to stop their hosting and maintenance services at the end of 2018.
As such, we have since been looking into the best options for building a new version of the service. We were considering four main approaches over the first half of 2018:
Use an off-the-shelf discussion software platform, and customize it for the needs of our community;
Spend time getting familiar with the codebase/stack that runs the existing Forum, patching/upgrading the software ourselves or porting the installation to a new server;
Use the LessWrong 2.0 codebase, and customise that; or
Build a solution from scratch, in-house.
After evaluating the above options we think that using the LessWrong 2.0 (LW2) codebase would be the best way forward.
We decided on this approach because we were not able to find an off-the-shelf solution as well targeted to our use-case as LW2. Their team has spent the past year thinking about how to create the best discussion platform for a community adjacent to ours, with very similar goals of enabling intellectual progress on important questions and helping create common knowledge in a (mostly) online community.
We evaluated the costs of simply sticking with the existing codebase. However, we were cautioned against this by Trike Apps, who believe that the setup is fairly brittle, and that it would be difficult to get running on a different server environment. Given that LW2 faced similar problems, and made the decision to develop a new, modern webapp, we believed it made sense to follow their lead.
In this light, building a solution from scratch also seemed a less attractive option, as we would likely have duplicated a lot of the LessWrong team’s work, and it was plausible that our version would have converged on similar solutions to issues we were hoping to solve.
There are some downsides to this approach. In particular, there is a risk in using software that is relatively new, and does not have either a) a wide base of open-source contributors or b) a large commercial software company backing it. However,
As such, we believe this is the right call, all things considered. CEA will have a formal support arrangement with them.
LW1 was hosted in a very similar setup (and in fact the impending End Of Life that will affect the EA Forum would have also affected the previous version of LessWrong). Consequently, the team has experience migrating data from a very similar system. This means that we can be more confident that the existing Forum data can be safely ported, that we will not need to maintain separate archives for older content, and that we will avoid broken links and other annoyances.
We plan to maintain the codebase as a fork of LW2, with the LW2 codebase as an upstream repo, and prefer submitting PRs upstream to making local changes. We’ll make minimal changes to the site’s theming to make it more similar to effectivealtruism.org, but otherwise attempt to run the codebase as closely as possible to LW2. This ensures that most of the maintenance stays with a development team that is familiar with the codebase, minimizes the risk that CEA will be unable to maintain the forum in the future, and means that any improvements to one codebase will be shared by the other.
Karma is more “elitist”: The new karma system gives greater weight to the votes of those with high karma. We think that this will overall improve the karma system: to maintain high discussion standards, it is useful to give top contributors a bigger say in determining what content is good than someone who has just created an account. Current high-karma users represent a variety of different worldviews.
SEO disadvantages: While we will make every effort to ensure we follow good practices for moving a website to a new domain, there’s some chance that the domain change could cause us to lose PageRank (though it might also increase due to being associated with effectivealtruism.org, which is highly ranked).
Too many newcomers: If the Forum does increase its rank in searches, or if more people link to the forum, there might be an influx of newcomers, leading to an “eternal september” effect.
We want to ensure that the Forum remains a place for more advanced discussion. Therefore at least initially, we will not link to the Forum prominently. Once the standards of discussion are solid, we will gradually begin to link to the Forum more prominently: karma and moderation should ensure that the best content is highlighted, and lower-quality comments lose prominence. We will monitor how this changes discussion on the Forum. However, we think that exposing newcomers to high quality content, allowing them to contribute, and giving them feedback on their contributions could be an excellent way for them to improve their understanding, and become more involved in the community. We think that the benefits of this way of onboarding new community members will likely outweigh the costs.
Availability of older content: Existing Forum posts and comments will continue to be available. It will still be possible to comment on old posts.
Broken links: We will ensure that links to old Forum posts and comments redirect to the appropriate places on the updated site.
Sequence selection and moderation: CEA will have two staff as moderators of the Forum, which will give us more control over which posts and sequences are promoted (e.g. on the front page). Although CEA has a view on which causes we should prioritize, we recognize that the EA Forum is a community space that should reflect the community. We will moderate based on agreed standards, which will be focused on ensuring good discussion rather than any particular conclusions. We will publish our moderation and curation plans for feedback, and we encourage you to hold us to those public standards.
We are already testing a closed beta among CEA staff, to give CEA’s development team time to iron out bugs and familiarize themselves with the codebase, and the moderation team to experiment with the new moderation features.
In mid-August, we hope to have a semi-public beta of top Forum contributors, which we will gradually open to more users. Around this time, we aim to share our detailed moderation plans in order to seek feedback.
If all goes well, we hope to lock the current Forum (i.e. prevent new posts), and switch to the new Forum by late August/early September. Some time after that, all old content and karma will be transferred to the new domain.
Longer-term, besides the above-mentioned subforums and local groups sections, we are still considering a Single Sign On system with EffectiveAltruism.org (currently used by EA Funds and the Giving What We Can pledge), more design changes, and working with the LessWrong team to implement new features that both codebases can benefit from, or (if appropriate) building new features specific to the EA Forum.
Importantly, we want Forum users to have a say in how this develops. We’d welcome pointers to considerations we’ve missed, or feedback on any part of our plans.
Marek, Max, Sam, Julia & JP