Idea:

A forum that only shows animal-welfare-related EA forum posts. The relationship between this Effective Animal Advocacy (EAA) forum and the EA forum could be similar to the relationship between the AI Alignment Forum and LessWrong. I don’t fully understand what that relationship is, but it seems that if you post or comment on the AI alignment, the post appears on LessWrong too. We could kick-start the EAA forum by showing EA forum posts with certain tags (e.g. Farmed animal welfare) in this new forum. An ability to post only on the EAA forum without posting on the EA forum would also be nice. I talked about this with a bunch of EAA researchers yesterday and all seem to agree that this would be a good idea.

What could it improve:

TL; DR: Very few animal activists comment and post in the EA forum. I think this is because they don’t feel like the EA forum is their community, and most of the content here is irrelevant to them. A forum only for animal activists might get more engagement from people who do direct work on animal issues. Without such people participating in our discussions on how to solve animal issues, we are less likely to come up with viable solutions.

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Target audiences of EAA posts on EA forum include:

  • EAA funders,
  • Employees at animal charities (especially decision-makers),
  • People who want to work in animal advocacy,
  • EAA researchers,
  • Some people who work on animal-related policy,
  • Other animal activists and volunteers.

However, most of the comments and and posts on the EAA posts on the EA forum seem to be from very few highly engaged people who are part of both EA and animal advocacy movements. Most of these people in the categories above (especially employees at animal charities) are not engaged with other parts of the EA movement. In a way, they don’t have much reason to do that because they already chose the issue they want to focus on, and the other issues are just distractions.

The way I imagine it, if someone sends them an EA forum post that’s relevant, they will read it. But if they then go to the EA forum frontpage or something, they see a bunch of posts that are mostly irrelevant for them. I set up my tag filters to almost maximally filter for animal-welfare related posts and still in the frontpage I didn’t see a single animal-relevant post just now until I pressed “Read more”.

Sure, they can press on a tag, but those are mostly old posts. They might be irrelevant now and if they comment on such a post, barely anyone will notice so there isn’t much incentive to do so. Hence, they soon close the EA forum. They probably don’t regularly check the EA forum to see what is new here.

Also, I imagine it might feel scary for animal advocates who are not engaged with other parts of EA to comment and post in the EA forum because they don’t understand what kind of people will read it, how those people think, what kinds of posts and comments they want to see, and what are the social norms in the EA community. Because EA is not their community. Animal advocacy is their community. Most of these people have colleagues and friends who are animal advocates. Hence they understand what kind of knowledge and ideas are relevant and valued in these circles. Hence, they also have much better intuitions about what kinds of posts and comments would be useful to post, and would be well-received, which I think would make them more likely to post.

EAA really needs new ideas. We should try more strategies and see which of them work. My impression is that good ideas is a bottleneck, as there would be probably be enough funding and talent to pursue those ideas. If we had a forum that includes both EA researchers and people who are directly working on solving problems, I think it would result in more fruitful cross-pollination of ideas. This especially applies to currently neglected regions like most of Asia. We hardly get any engagement from animal activists in those regions. Hence, it’s difficult for EAA researchers like me to come up with ideas for those regions as I hardly know what problems people face there. And the ideas from people on the ground might benefit from more input from EAA researchers and other animal advocates. I think that in animal advocacy we lack a good place to discuss novel ideas.

I imagine that the reason why EA forum is not split into sub-forums for each cause area is because we want cross-pollination between different cause areas, and also ideas for new causes. But in this case I think that there is not much cross-pollination happening between animal activists and others because very few people from animal advocacy engage in the EA forum. And the few who do engage could continue to do so if it would be done in the way I suggested.

Let me know if you think that this is a good or a bad idea. If people generally think it's good, maybe someone should apply to EA animal welfare fund to hire a programmer for this or something like that.

Opinions are my own and do not necessarily express the views or opinions of my employer. I originally wrote this in the EA Forum feature suggestion thread but David Nash suggested that it should be a post so I posted it.

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The Alignment Forum team put quite a lot of effort into ensuring that there would be content when launching the Forum -- there were three sequences of posts that were posted over the course of a couple of months after the launch, and several users who were already writing posts were encouraged to use the Forum. I think this was important to ensure the Forum was actually used, and you'd want to do something similar for this idea.

Interesting, I didn't know that. Yes, there is a trade-off between how much work we put in the forum and the probability that it get's used.  But even if something like this would substantially increase the probability of it being used, it doesn't mean that it's not worth doing without it for the  chance that the EAA forum does take-off, even if you think it's somewhat slim (not that you were implying that).

Actually, I am against low-effort interventions that redirect people's attention, because if they fail, they "poison the well" for future potentially high-effort interventions.

(That is, a low-effort EAA Forum that fails might make a future high-effort EAA Forum fail where it would otherwise have succeeded, because people now expect EAA Forums to fail and so don't engage when they otherwise would have.)

Obviously specific details matter but I don't think it's as simple as "some probability of success for low effort is worth doing".

I would also guess that a low-effort version / skin would fail, but I do have a lot of uncertainty there because I don't know the EAA community very well any more.

A flatmate suggested that the minimum viable product of EAA forum would be a skin on the EA forum where only animal-related posts are shown.  I guess this would at least make it easier for animal people to browse through the latest posts without seeing what might not be relevant to them. Maybe that could be done within the EA forum by modifying how tag-filters work. That is, by allowing someone to see only posts tagged with selected tags in the frontpage. But I feel it's important that there is a way to do that easily, otherwise busy animal charity directors might still not do it. Maybe there could be animal welfare meta-tag or something and then we could advertise a link to that meta-tag to animal activists. By meta-tag I mean a tag that includes multiple other tags. If we don't do the EAA forum, it might still be worth at least doing that.

I would like to see more forum skins/themes in general!

There should be a simple url that gives you the filtered front page for a given cause and keeps you in the cause if you browse normally, e.g. forum.effectiveanimaladvocacy.org.

Hi Saulius, thanks for writing this up! I’m super on board with a lot of this.

The way I imagine it, if someone sends them an EA forum post that’s relevant, they will read it. But if they then go to the EA forum frontpage or something, they see a bunch of posts that are mostly irrelevant for them.

This is a good point, and one I think I have probably neglected in my past thinking.

A bit of my models, hopefully briefly: I want niches within the Forum where people can interact with others who share their interests. I think this lowers the barrier to commenting / posting, as there’s less of a “the whole EA community will see this :grimace:” vibe. I do want to make sure the epistemic culture of the Forum is still preserved in such spaces. And I want the Forum to continue to have a broad reach, serving as a fabric holding the community together (avoiding silos).

Sure, they can press on a tag, but those are mostly old posts. They might be irrelevant now and if they comment on such a post, barely anyone will notice so there isn’t much incentive to do so.

This to me is the thing. Tags are currently good at curating historic content, and their descriptions (which make up the Wiki) provide an excellent introduction to the content. But they’re not spaces for people who are interested in the topic to interact.

An idea I’ve been thinking about for a while is to convert tags into communities. And slowly, piece by piece, without ever upending the Forum with a massive experiment, have subforums. (To my knowledge I haven’t written this up before.) The best content can get promoted to the frontpage, but users are free to interact with their peers with less exposure.

Unfortunately, I can’t promise you a timeline, and (after an initial foray last fall) I have paused working on it. But I do think this is a valuable direction for the Forum.
 

Sounds like perhaps there should be more developers working on the EA forum? I imagine that it wouldn't be too hard to hire for such a position, and my uninformed intuition is that someone working on this would compare favourably to a marginal Effective Altruism Infrastructure Fund grant although I don't have a good feel for that. Of course, I understand that it takes time to train staff and that software projects do not scale easily.

If you know of any talented software engineers, please do encourage them to apply for the expression of interest role here. We might start hiring engineers in earnest sooner or later in 2022, depending on filling some other roles, but would hire an excellent fit opportunistically.

(Any time I describe apply to jobs, I'm obliged to say: it's best to let the hiring org be the judge of fit, and err on the side of applying. — In particular, I was extremely confident I would not be the best fit for my role and had to be encouraged by someone close to CEA to apply.)

I'm not necessarily against this idea, but in the interest of picking lower hanging fruit first, I wonder if there are some easier ways of addressing the issues you raise. I also think that are are both substantial and cultural benefits to cross-pollination of ideas and to a lesser extent norms across cause areas, so if we can find alternative solutions to the issues you raise, I think that would be ideal.

Perhaps one place to start would be to start a conversation in the EAA Facebook group asking folks whether they read or post on the forum, why or why not, and if there is anything that would make the EA forum more useful for them. I would be happy to volunteer to start that conversation on Facebook if you think that would be helpful.

I agree that there might be easier ways to solve some of the problems I raise. Perhaps there being someone responsible for posting the most relevant articles from the EA forum and elsewhere in the EAA Facebook group would be good. I’d consider donating someone to do that one day a week. There also already are newsletters and they encourage reading but not commenting or posting. And from the comment by JP Addison, it seems that in the long run this problem might be solved within the EA forum in a similar way that I proposed too so I am happy :)

Perhaps one place to start would be to start a conversation in the EAA Facebook group asking folks whether they read or post on the forum, why or why not, and if there is anything that would make the EA forum more useful for them. I would be happy to volunteer to start that conversation on Facebook if you think that would be helpful.

I felt some hesitation about this. I imagine that people will say that they don't have time for that because they need to be doing their jobs of actually helping animals. And I sympathize with this position. I don’t want to make animal advocates feel like they have to do this other thing on top of their (often taxing) day job. So I guess I think it’s good to ask about this in the EAA Facebook as long as the question doesn’t make them feel this way.

Also, a lot of people in that group are being paid to do corporate or legislative campaigns, so most of their thoughts are about how to do that better. It's not always a good idea to share those thoughts and tactics publicly, it's better to share them within the Open Wing Alliance network. And while innovation on how to pursue corporate campaigns is great, I also think we need to experiment with other approaches. There already are conferences where animal charity employees are encouraged to give talks and listen to talks, maybe that partly solves problems that I wanted the forum to solve.

I’m now realizing that I’m holding two somewhat conflicting beliefs. First, I think that the EAA community as a whole should do more exploring of different approaches to help animals. And I think it’s important for people who are trying things in different countries to participate in that exploration as desk researchers like me lack context. On the other hand, if you take almost any particular employee of an animal charity, I don’t think it’s fair to ask them to do this because they are already doing a lot with their job. I guess that’s why I feel so awful whenever I need to ask busy EAA charity employees for input for my research, even though sometimes I really need it. And this likely limits my impact a lot. I felt that an EAA forum could go around some of these issues by making it so engaging to participate in these conversations that it doesn’t feel like work (because I think that the EA forum has done a good job at that). But yeah, I’m not sure it would work and there could be better ways to solve these issues.

Hey Saulius, Thanks for the thoughtful response! I definitely agree that we want to avoid making people feel pressured to engage with the forum, but I don't think that negates your initial impulse to think about what can be done to make it as accessible as possible to people who want to use it (with zero pressure towards those who don't). Personally, I enjoy using the forum. I don't know many people who are working on similar things as I am IRL and so it is nice to  meet others online. I also enjoy giving feedback to others when I feel qualified/inspired but since posts aren't really directed at anyone in particular, I never feel pressured to when I'm busy/not knowledgeable about the subject/not inspired. When I think about improving the forum, I imagine doing it for those like me who would (after the improvement) find the forum actively helpful/fun.

I did post something on the Facebook group (and tried to make clear I was only interested in how the forum might be improved and not trying to persuade anyone to use it). I didn't get a whole lot of responses but Jamie Harris, who moderates the group, said that they had considered cross-posting relevant forum posts themselves, but would prefer if authors did it themselves (I think to make sure the authors were okay with posting it). Jamie also provided a link and email address for people who specifically did not want their content cross-posted. Not sure on what future plans for that are, but Jamie would be the one to talk to about it.

Thanks for sharing this. I've frankly been consistently surprised by the low proportion of content on the forum that currently relates to animal welfare. For example, most of the EAs I know--even those who aren't focused on animal advocacy as a cause area for activism/career--are vegetarian or vegan, yet I've only rarely encountered content here that's related to dietary choices. It seems to me that encouraging more engagement related to animal welfare and advocacy would be a great place to invest some time and energy! 

However, I'm not sure if a sub-forum would be the best approach to that. I'm not inherently opposed; rather, I'm not sure if it would be the ideal first step. I think it would come down to identifying why it is that there isn't more engagement: are online EAA discussions happening elsewhere, such as in FB groups? Is it a vicious cycle of the current lack of content furthering further disinterest/lack of engagement, as you suggest? A better sense of that could inform solutions: perhaps a sub-forum, as you suggest, or perhaps weekly posts on EAA topics, or concerted efforts to move discussions to here from existing forums. Just a few thoughts; thank you for raising this topic!

This is a great idea and I support anyone doing this!

I write some comments below that adds color to this idea and flags some ideas. I think these ideas should be said, but they should not blockers. 

TLDR: Compared to the EA Forum or LessWrong, Effective Animal Welfare writing culture is different. This can have hard to predict effects on the outcome of a new forum. Also, underlying diversity in approaches and worldview  in EA animal welfare is large, which is a challenge. This means that management (including but not limited to "moderation") seems important and demanding of skill. Some sort of strong “vision” for what the forum should be may be necessary.

 

Ok, that was the TLDR. The long, quickly written comment that explains my perspective is below.

 Apologies to your eyeballs:

Very long comment that explains the TLDR above:
 

Part One: Animal Welfare writing culture is different, effects uncertain
 

Basically, LessWrong draws from the Bay Area rationalism culture, where  long-form writing is cherished. The EA Forum culture draws from this LessWrong culture and also from academic philosophy, and a bit of the Bridgewater culture (that influences GiveWell and OpenPhil and so influences the forum). 

The EAA community doesn’t have this culture of writing long essays or effort posts, so I expect there to be large differences in the writing produced, with effects on the norms and culture that gets fostered as a result. The effects from the writing culture alone might produce a significantly different experience or forum than the EA Forum or LessWrong. 

The outcome might be valuable and unique—imagine if as a result from this discourse, if EAs could communicate well using much shorter messages and appeal to a broad audience.

But these positive outcomes could be fragile and be hard to achieve.

(To be clear, I think the LessWrong, EA Forum culture is basically positive, but it’s really complicated. You could write a giant essay on this, touching on topics like truth-seeking, status-seeking, self-filtering, conformity, distortions).

Part Two: Opinions and diversity is large and harder to manage

At great effort, and with great value, I think the leadership of the EAA or FAW community has worked hard to be a big tent and accommodate a huge number of different viewpoints and people. 

The viewpoints accommodated are larger than any other EA cause area. At the same time, these viewpoints seem to be accommodated without getting in anyone’s hair or stopping work.

Just to be clear, by big tent, this means accommodating different schools or factions that have been opposed to FAW in the past. 
 

To calibrate on what is being achieved:

  • Imagine if anti-aid activists and anti-futurists, anti-technologists were accommodated and given a platform in global health and longtermism respectively.
  • Imagine that, in addition to AGI/ASI concerns and takeoff along the lines of MIRI or ARC, the EA AI safety community also accommodated prosaic AI-safety regulations and had to listen to those too.

If this sounds hard. Yes, yes, it is.

But there's more. Another viewpoint or worldview currently accommodated is what LessWrong or EA Forum calls “social justice”. Related rhetoric and forms of activism that probably wouldn’t be acceptable to many some EAs exist in the community there. 

 

So what this means is that it adds challenge to a new forum. Once again, you can write a giant essay, but the truth is that the patterns/norms of discourse in LessWrong and EA Forum produces conformity and filtering. 

So, partially because of the differences in norms in a new forum (described in Part One above),  it's possible these differences can clash in a new animal welfare forum.

This requires management. It’s hard to easily communicate what this management looks like, and this comment is long enough. 

To succinctly motivate this, imagine one scenario:

The new forum is seen as a performative space for the canonization of acceptable approaches and attitudes. Management is sort of passive and effectively takes the path of least resistance. 

The result is that certain factions who are willing to use aggressive and sophisticated tactics and rhetoric try to occupy the space to advance their agenda. This activism isn’t unnoticed by others, and fighting occurs.

Eventually, leadership takes action to moderate the conflict, but harm is done, and it’s hard to bring the forum back to a more open style of discourse. It would have been much better to have stronger, active moderation and leadership at the beginning, even though this was opposed (and largely illegible and not understood) by people used to EA Forum or LessWrong .