(This was a quick post, written in around 30 min. It was originally posted on Facebook, where it generated some good discussion.) 

I really wish EA had better internal communications.

If I wanted to make a blog post / message / recording accessible to a "large subset of effective altruist professionals", I'm not sure how I'd do that.

I don't think we yet have:

  1.  One accepted chat system
  2. An internal blogging system
  3. Any internal email lists (for a very wide net of EA professionals)

It's nice to encourage people to communicate publicly, but there's a lot of communication that's really not meant for that.

Generally, the existing options are:

  1. Post to your internal org slack/emails (note: many EA orgs are tiny)
  2. Share with people in your office
  3. Post to one of a few domain-specific and idiosyncratic Slacks/Discords
  4. Post publicly, for everyone to see

I think the SBF situation might have shown some substantial vulnerability here. It was a crisis where public statements were taken as serious legal statements. This meant that EA leadership essentially didn’t have a real method of communicating with most EAs.

I feel like much of EA is a lot like one big org that tries really hard not to be one big org. This gives us some advantages of being decentralized, but we are missing a lot of the advantages of centralization. If "Professional EAs" were looked at as one large org, I'd expect that we'd look fairly amateur, compared to other sizeable organizations.

A very simple way to make progress on internal communications is to separate the issue into a few clusters, and then attack each one separately.

  1. Access/Onboarding/Offboarding
    Make official lists that cover "professional/trusted members". You could start with simple criteria like "works at an org funded by an EA funder" or "went to 2+ EAGs".
  2. Negotiation and Moderation
    "EA Professionals" might basically be an "enterprise", and need "enterprise tools". These often are expensive and require negotiation.
  3. A Responsible Individual
    My preference would be that we find someone who did a good job at this sort of thing in other sizeable companies and try to get them to do it here.

I bet with $200k/year for the talent, plus maybe $200k-$1k/year, we could have a decent setup, assuming we could find good enough talent. That said, this would definitely be work to establish, so I wouldn't expect anything soon. 

Comments11
Sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:38 AM

Sorry, I'm confused about what the benefit would be. At a large enough scale it'd be almost guaranteed to leak, so what would be the advantage of this ?

Consider Google internal communications (I used to work there). Google has ~100k fulltimers, far more than the total number of EA fulltime professionals. And internal communications can leak (eg the Damore memo). But only a small fraction of these internal messages actually get leaked; and the feeling of posting there is much less "posting on Twitter"and more "posting in private group chat".

Being able to cold-message almost anyone in the company, and have the expectation that they will see your message and respond, also leads to norm of shared trust in the communication actually happening instead of getting ghosted.

+1. I think a small fraction would be expected to leak. Maybe some juicy bits, if it's made highly visible within these channels.

 

Right now we have a bunch of small Slacks around and a whole bunch of Google Docs floating around. There have been a few leaks here and there, but it seems fairly minor to me, especially compared to the benefits of these mediums.

I think this is a straightforwardly good idea; I would pay a $5k bounty to someone who makes "EA comms" as good as e.g. internal Google comms, which is IMO not an extremely high bar.

I think an important point (that Ozzie does identify) is that it's not a simple as just setting up a couple systems, but rather doing all of the work that goes in shepherding a community and making it feel alive. Especially in the early days, there's a difference between a Slack that feels "alive" and "dead" and a single good moderator/poster who commits to posting daily can make the difference. I don't know that this needs to be a fulltime person; my happy price for doing this myself would be like $20k/year?

Regarding leaks: I don't think the value of better internal comms is in "guaranteed privacy of info". It's more in "reducing friction to communicate across orgs" and in "increasing the chance that your message is actually read by the people". And there's a big difference between "an ill-intentioned insider has the ability to screenshot and repost your message to Twitter" to "by default, every muckraker can scroll through your entire posting history".

Public venues like EA Forum and Facebook are a firehose that are very difficult for busy people to stay on top of; private venues like chat groups are too chaotically organized and give me kind of an ugh-field feeling.

Some random ideas:

  • Create the "One EA Slack/Discord to rule them all".  Or extend out of an existing eg Constellation chat.
  • Ask EAG attendees to use that instead of Swapcard messaging, so that all EAG attendees are thrown into one long-lived messaging system
  • Integrate chat into EA Forum (DMs feel too much like email at the moment)
  • Integrate chat into Manifold (though Manifold is much less of a Schelling point for EA than EAF)
  • Start lists of Google Groups (though this competes a bit against the EAF's subforums)

A modest step might be to allow a forum post author to restrict visibility of their post to those who enter a forum username/password (i.e., the post could not be indexed by search engines). You could go a step further and limit access to usernames that had been vetted in some fashion, but that would involve some time commitment and uncertain benefit. Perhaps during situations like FTX, you could allow posts to be limited to usernames created before the crisis happened . . . but that might give people a false sense of security as the odds of any mass communication leaking are non-trivial.

One caveat: any communication can become a "serious legal statement" if it's not legally protected from disclosure in discovery. And although the topic of record retention is far more complex than this sentence (or even Molly's backgrounder), as soon as a sufficient copy of the information exists, there may be an obligation to preserve it if relevant litigation is forseen. Any technology that allows recipients to view the information at their convenience will probably involve creating a sufficient copy. So this would not have helped with the FTX situation. I'm guessing that the people involved in that situation have been advised to rely on their telephones considerably.

If you try to send something privately to thousands of people there's a pretty good chance it will get leaked, especially if it is as newsworthy as the stuff around FTX was.

Is the legal status of unintentionally public things better than explicitly public things, such that people would have been able to speak more freely in the kind of large but not public communications system you are envisioning? (Pretty sure no, but not a lawyer)

In general, I think the status quo of reaching EAs by posting publicly on the Forum is a good one:

  • When you make a system that attempts to classify which people are EA enough to receive your communication it's likely you will miss a lot of people who arguably should be included. This risks both that they'll be people you needed to communicate with and and they'll feel left out.

  • Your 'private' group will likely not actually be very private, since the sort of criteria you're floating include a very large number of people.

  • While transparency isn't as important to EAs as it was 10 years ago, there are still a lot of benefits to it and I think our culture of talking publicly is really valuable.

(Copying a comment I made on the original post.)

I think that if private channels would lead to less sharing, they'd be net bad.

I'd predict that they would lead to more sharing in total. There's a lot of information currently shared either not at all or in tiny groups - I'd be hoping for more of this to be shared more broadly.

Like, if we could only post public messages in my organization, QURI, we would probably post some more things publicly, but it would also be a pain, and we'd probably communicate much less with each other.

I think organizations having internal content makes lots of sense. But the EA community is not an organization, and I don't think the analogy works very well?

I think the biggest place where it breaks down is that there is no clear definition of membership, but there are also issues with people not feeling like they're part of a coherent entity which could have internal-only information.

the EA community is not an organization, and I don't think the analogy works very well?

It's definitely not one single entity with super clear delineations, but I think there are some sizeable clusters within the professional EA community (in my mind, mainly funders, EA community organizers, research organizations) that do work fairly closely together

 Maybe one sign is that I think there are a bunch of "EA Bureaucracy" roles where it's fairly easy to transfer from one to another, even though they are in technically different organizations. 

This seems similar to me to larger organizations. 

The finance team at Google arguably doesn't have much in common with the IT department. But I think it's still useful they have some private communication channels that cover both. 

I think the main issue with this is that this creates some kind of official 'membership' of EA which comes with tonnes of issues. (How do you decide who gets in? Who decides and how that/if people get thrown out? (Would SBF still in this?) Is there a transparent process for this? What kind of obligations do people part of it have (in terms of keeping conversations private for example)? Can you leave voluntarily and are there any repercussions if you do?, ...)

I agree that overseeing permissions would be annoying to do, that's the main thing I'm recommending we eventually have someone paid to do.

I'd note that:

  • Lots of similar decisions are already being made. EAGs, Leadership Forums, lots of private Slacks, regional coworking offices, and more. 
  • I can't imagine anyone reasonable who would keep SBF in, post-scandal.
  • There could be a transparent process. I'd encourage starting with something simple, like, "Are you employed by one of these N orgs, or have you met one of these other 3 criteria?"
  • "Can you leave voluntarily and are there any repercussions if you do" -> I think generally, you could just ignore it. Think of a Slack and similar that you could log into if you want, or could just ignore.