My job is about helping people get involved in effective altruism, so I pay attention to how this tends to happen. I read every Tweet that mentions EA, and I see testimonials from many of the people who join Giving What We Can.
I'm not sure I've ever seen any piece of content not named "Doing Good Better" drive as much positive engagement as Sam Harris's two podcast episodes with Will MacAskill — especially the second one.
- After the first episode, Sam was deeply affected, and pledged to donate $3500/month in podcast proceeds to the Against Malaria Foundation.
- After the second episode, Sam joined Giving What We Can and pledged 10% of profits from his Waking Up app (well over $3500/month, I assume) to effective charities.
The second podcast seems to have caused a spike in GWWC memberships and in EA engagement more generally. Some notes on that:
- GWWC doesn't have data on where people heard about it who signed up pre-2017 (which may leave out almost all of the signups from the first episode). However, GWWC estimates that ~700 people have taken a pledge in part because of that episode alone (half the main pledge, half Try Giving). To break this down:
- ~800 people who finished the sign-up survey mentioned a podcast as one way they found GWWC (the average person chose 1.8 sources)
- Of the 123 people who said which podcast it was, 107 chose Sam Harris (87%)
- Extrapolating a similar rate to the ~700 who didn't say which podcast gives another ~600 referrals
- I didn't get an estimate on the impact of the first episode from GWWC, but it's plausible that hundreds of additional people may have come in through there (this probably depends mostly on how Sam's audience grew between 2016 and 2020).
- Sam mentions at the start of the second episode that he's referred "hundreds of people", though this combines the first episode and the initial launch of the second Will conversation on his meditation app, Waking Up.
- Anyone who found the conversation through the app would be included in the ~700 estimate above, as would some of the people who heard the first episode.
- An extremely engaged community builder told me in February 2021: "I feel like most new EAs I've met in the last year came in through Sam Harris."
- My subjective impression in the weeks after the second episode came out was that most of the ambient "positive EA chatter" I heard on Twitter (people tweeting out random EA endorsements who normally talked about other things) included mentions of the podcast.
Why was this so impactful?
My speculation on the important factors at play:
Sam set an example.
- One of the most persuasive ways to promote something is to do it yourself.
- One of Sam's explicit goals on the podcast is to get listeners to make ethical decisions, and I'd imagine that many listeners seek him out for ethical advice. This isn't as much the case for podcasters like Tim Ferriss or Joe Rogan, or other sources of publicity (TED, op-eds, etc.)
- From the transcript below: "The question that underlies all of this, really, is: How can we live a morally beautiful life? That is more and more what I care about, and what the young Will MacAskill is certainly doing."
Sam made a rare endorsement.
- Sam took several minutes to explain why he thinks giving is important, and gives GWWC a strong recommendation. This is a rare thing for him to do; most of his guests aren't selling anything (save maybe a book), and he doesn't advertise on his podcast.
- Comparatively, Tim Ferriss (another major podcaster who had Will as a guest) has ~5 minutes of long-form advertising on every episode, and generally recommends lots of things every time a guest comes on. On the writeup of Will's episode, GWWC was the 23rd item on a bullet list of "selected links".
- Tim's podcast referred 8 people to GWWC. This is actually a solid number, given that the "where you heard about us" question wasn't added until more than a year after that episode came out. But I think the true impact of the episode was still much lower than that of the Sam episodes, despite Tim's larger audience.
The conversation is really good.
- I listened to the second episode soon after it came out, before I knew anything about its impact, and was almost immediately struck by how good Will's pitch was. It was clear he'd built up a huge amount of experience in the 5+ years since Doing Good Better came out, and it helped to have a friendly interviewer who was quite familiar with EA's basic ideas.
- Some things I liked about the conversation:
- The expansive definition of EA (given by Sam):
- "This does connect to deeper and broader questions like 'How should we think about doing good in the world in general?', 'What would it mean to do as much good as possible?', and 'How do those questions connect to questions around what sort of person I should be, or what it means to live a truly good life?'"
- It seems really good to be clear that EA isn't just about "doing good for others", but also "living a truly good life" for one's own sake.
- The connection of EA to topical questions
- Sam brings up the question at one point of whether people living on the streets in San Francisco could be said to be as badly-off as the world's poorest people in other countries. Will gives a "yes, and" response to this — not just dismissing the idea that U.S. homelessness could matter as an issue, but acknowledging that it is important while noting that it probably isn't tractable (without using those exact words).
- It's also nice that Will takes the chance to share his "current favorite climate change charity", which shakes off a few more out-of-date stereotypes about EA as a movement.
- The "lesson"-based structure of the conversation
- My understanding (though I could be wrong) is that this discussion was set up to be broken into a series of mini-lessons for users of the Waking Up app. The conversation feels that way — lots of different topics, but with clear transitions between them.
- The expansive definition of EA (given by Sam):