Underrated is relative.[1] My position is something like "most people should consider going to >1 EAG talk" and not "most people should spend most of their EAG in talks." This probably most applies to people who are kind of like me. (Been involved for a while, already have a strong network, don't need to do 1-1s for their job.)

There's a meme that 1-1s are clearly the most valuable part of EAG(x) and that you should not really go to talks. (See e.g. this, this, this, they don't say exactly this but I think push in the direction of the meme.)

I think EAG talks can be really interesting and are underrated. It's true that most of them are recorded and you could watch them later but I'm guessing most people don't actually do that.[2] It also takes a while for them to be uploaded.

I still think 1-1s are pretty great, especially if you're

  • new and don't know many people yet (or otherwise mostly want to increase the number of people you know),
  • have a very specific thing you're trying to get out of EAG and talking to lots of people seems to be the right thing to achieve it.

I'm mostly writing this post because I think the meme is really strong in some parts of the EA community. I can imagine that some people in the EA community would feel bad for attending talks because it doesn't feel "optimal."[2] If you feel like you need permission, I want to give you permission to go to talks without feeling bad. Another motivation is that I recently attended my first set of EAG talks in years (I was doing lots of 1-1s for my job before) and was really surprised by how great they were.  (That said, it was a bit hit or miss.) I previously accidentally assumed that talks and other prepared sessions would give me ~nothing.

 

edit: Someone mentioned in person that they think EAG talks just got much better recently, so I just started going to them at a lucky time. So, if you've gone in the past and were disappointed, now is maybe a good time to try again.

  1. ^

    See also the rule of equal and opposite advice (1, 2) although I haven't actually read the posts I linked.

  2. ^

    My best guess is that people in EA are more biased towards taking actions that are part of a collectively "optimal" plan for [generic human with willpower and without any other properties] than taking actions that are good given realistic counterfactuals.

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Chi - good points. 

Having attended over 100 science conference in my 30+ years of academia, I've realized that attending live talks has some hidden advantages over just 'catching up later with the videos', or 'just doing 1-to-1 conversations'. 

First, if a high enough proportion of people at a conference attend any given talk, they all have something to react to with friends, to discuss at social gatherings,, and to serve as an ice-breaker when meeting strangers (e.g. 'Hey, what did you think of that talk by X about Y?'). This works best for plenary talks where there's only one talk happening at a time, so everybody's coordinated on that topic as something important to consider.

Second, live talks induce a level of collective emotional engagement, a kind of mass hypnosis, or a tribal ritualistic mind-set, that heightens the affective impact of the talk. This might be as 'efficient' at a strictly cognitive level as watching the talk later at 1.75x speed. But it can help the ideas sink deeper into one's heart and brain, as it were. 

Third, attending talks incentivizes speakers to do a good job of prepping their talk, clarifying their ideas, simplifying their data, and polishing their narrative. If nobody shows up, it's disheartening. If lots of people show up, it's very encouraging -- and it sets up expectations that one must do one's best in future talks at the same conference. Obviously there's a game-theoretic problem here that people can do 'social loafing' or 'free-riding' on the talk attendance of others, without paying the costs oneself. But this can be offset if a research community has strong social norms that, if you attend a conference, you really should be attending lots of live talks. People can notice who's in the audience, pulling their weight, encouraging the speakers to excel.

Fourth, great live talks can be memorable events that can reinforce one's intellectual and ethical identity, and make one feel connected to an ongoing tradition of ideas, and to the 'life of the mind' in general. Decades later, I can remember seeing live conference talks by inspiring thinkers like Peter Singer, Richard Dawkins, Daniel Dennett, Steven Pinker, Leda Cosmides, William D. Hamilton, Margo Wilson, Geoffrey Hinton, etc. They're among the highlights of my intellectual life. And they're motivating in a way that reading their books isn't. Conversely, there have been plenty of talks by major thinkers and up-and-coming researchers that I failed to attend, and that I'll regret not seeing. 

So, in a very narrow, cognitivist sense, it might seem more 'efficient' to watch conference talks later, as if they're no different than  any other youtube video or podcast. But that misses out on at least four - and probably many more -- hidden benefits of actually being there in person -- socially engaged, part of the tribe, incentivizing the speaker, and setting up precious memories that can keep inspiring one for decades afterwards.

One hidden benefit to attending an in person talk is the ability to chat with the speaker afterwards. By attending and I've chatted with people who went on to invest in my startup, link to our site, or become a customer.

(Sure, you can request a 1:1 on Swapcard, but sitting through a talk credibly signals commitment/interest to a busy person in a way that a ping does not.)

It's true that most of them [EAG talks] are recorded and you could watch them later but I'm guessing most people don't actually do that.[2] It also takes a while for them to be uploaded.

This reminds me of a post—one I broadly agree with—by Ozzie Gooen, in which is written:

EAs sometimes spend a lot of time on presentations at EAG. These get posted online, but I don't think these videos get much attention. I basically don’t ever remember hearing someone discuss an EAG video they watched in conversation, or referencing it in a blog post.

If the online audience were the main target, I think presenters could just make videos directly and upload those. That way they'd have much more flexibility (can do multiple takes, add effects, and polish).

Thank you! I totally agree. There is something to be said for taking a weekend to step back and think about EA topics outside the specific things you think about day to day. I get the sense that some people feel pressured to book as many 1-1s as possible and many of these end up being low value.

Personally, I think the 1:1 meme is deeply confused.

A helpful analogy (thanks to Ollie Base) is with nutrition. Imagine someone hearing that "chia seeds are the nutritionally most valuable food, top rated in surveys" ... and subsequently deciding to eat just chia seeds, and nothing else! 

In my view, sort of obviously, intellectual conference diet consisting just of 1:1s is poor and unhealthy for almost everyone. 

Hi Chi, great one, I'm glad you posted this! 

Over the last days and at the conference I've spoken with a few people who had more 1:1 meetings than their energy levels support, and who went on to parties/pub gatherings afterwards. I think this is one of the reasons why most people find conferences exhausting (especially EA ones). 

I think a balanced approach is a great idea, and an awareness of one's limits (social, energy, input etc). Even if you're new and don't know many other people yet, attending talks, meetups and workshops can be so incredibly valuable, since you will also meet people that way, and get an idea what "the community at large" (i.e., the people around you) think. Attending talks also gives you some time to recharge, since it requires a different type of involvement than conversations.

I would also encourage people to try and leave an empty time slot after a 1:1 if they're not extremely extroverted. This way they can continue a deep and interesting conversation if the other person happens to have time, or they have time to get to their next meeting point, eat something, take a nap, take notes and let things sink in, ... 

Highly agree with the post. I discussed almost the same thing with a friend during the conference. Basically, the typical "don't attend talks, most of them are recorded and you can just watch them online later" advice isn't great imho - it seems like a fake alternative to me, in the sense that you miss out on a talk because you tell yourself "ah I'll just watch it later", but in probably >90% of cases this just won't happen. So the actual alternative you're choosing is not "watch online later", but "don't watch at all". Because by the time the talk is online, you'll have forgotten about it, and even if you remember it, just deciding to watch a 30 minute talk at home on your own requires a lot more activation energy to overcome than, in comparison, the act of just walking to another room while you are at a conference.

Indeed 1-1s will be more valuable most of the time for most people, and it's important to make this point to first-timers who otherwise might fill their schedule with talks and workshop. But if there's a talk or two or three that are especially relevant to you, there's a strong case to be made that you should attend it. Even if you're sure that you would indeed watch it online later, it may still be worth attending merely for hearing the talk a few months sooner than you otherwise would.

Plus, you can also schedule virtual 1-1s with people after the conference, so it's not necessarily that you're missing out on anything. (and I'd argue a "hey, my schedule is pretty packed, would you be available for a zoom call some time next week?" message to an actual person will yield a much higher chance of actually happening than a vague "yeah I'll probably watch this talk online at some point!" intention)

I actually do every so often go over the talks from the past several EAGs on Youtube and find it does  better. Some important additional benefits are turning on speedup and subtitles, being able to skip forward or bail more easily if the talk turns out bad, and not being blocked from watching two good simultaneous talks.

In contrast, a lot of people really love in-person meetings compared to online video or phone.