We’ve released "a new intro essay for a general audience: "What is effective altruism?"

An earlier post shared the essay and mentioned that there were still some changes to make. The essay is now finished and we’d be excited for people to share it on social media and with friends.

The goal of the essay is to accurately get across what effective altruism is, rather than to be as inspiring as possible to new people who might get involved. 

Our hope is that this is the go-to explanation of what effective altruism is for someone who has already heard about the idea, and wants to better understand what it involves (e.g. someone actively searching “effective altruism” on google).

We also imagine it being useful to people outside of the community such as journalists or university professors, and wanted to present EA in a way that’s clear and puts our best foot forward to those kinds of audiences.

In order to serve these aims, we decided to lead with a clear description of what EA is, followed by concrete examples of EA work, then the values that define EA, and then an FAQ responding to common misunderstandings or objections.

In contrast, a more inspirational article might have started with a striking example or story. But we think this is better left to a wide range of articles with strong but narrow appeal, rather than the central explanation of what EA is. (Though we also think a relatively direct explanation can be inspiring to at least some readers, especially those with the most affinity for the ideas.)

The article also doesn’t aim to give people a ‘full’ understanding of EA. Instead, we imagine people clicking through to materials in the resources pages, like Doing Good Better, the 80k intro to EA podcast series, or the handbook / introductory course

This project took several months; we’ve spent time figuring out appropriate aims for the essay, drafting the key messages we wanted to get across, and working through several iterations of drafts from a number of authors.

Some of the things we especially struggled with included: striking a balance between being engaging & concise, but also clear & defensible; figuring out which canonical examples to use and how to illustrate them visually; deciding how to frame the four values & several sentence description of EA.

I’m really grateful to everyone who helped with this project, and to Ben Todd for writing the final version of the essay.

Feedback is welcome, especially from people who didn’t know much about EA prior to reading the essay. We might not work on significant changes in the near future, but expect to make iterations in the coming year or two, so we’re collecting all the feedback we receive for then.

Read the essay. 

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15 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 10:49 PM

The article seems well written, thumbs up, nothing to add from here.

Speaking more generally, it seems wise for the EA community to present a wide variety of introductions so as to appeal to as many different types of visitors as possible.

First impression, this site seems to do an excellent job of connecting with visitors who are intellectually inclined.  But that's not most people.  On the net especially, most readers are power scrolling through tons of data, and patience is not an asset rewarded by the click happy nature of the Internet.

If this is not already happening, some writers might focus on putting together what is sometimes called "an elevator speech".   Imagine you're riding up to the 23rd floor with someone you'd like to connect with, and you have 30 seconds to make your case.   

Can you summarize EA philosophy on a single screen, and then present a specific call to action on the 2nd screen?

Is there an EA fund which visitors can contribute to?  If yes, the call to action could be to ask for an automated $1 per month contribution to that fund, managed by Paypal.  Such a request would help EA identify those willing to take some modest action.   Once these folks are identified ongoing communications can develop the relationship  further over time, explain the EA philosophy in more detail in a series of emails etc.

The key concept to this approach is to present as few obstacles to action as possible at the beginning.   Don't require the new visitor to think too much (that can come later).  Don't present them with a lot of options (that can come later).   Don't ask for much (that can come later).    Make the case on a single screen, ask for a dollar, and then follow up over time with those who  respond to build the relationship.

If someone wants to take this approach further, the next step can be to relentlessly tweak and test the presentation to find out what works best.   Advertising pros have learned that even small tweaks to headlines etc can sometimes have a big effect on the conversion rate.  This is a big subject which I'm not expert on, and even if I were, it's way too involved a subject to dive in to here.

I'm not suggesting the above as a "one true way", only as one approach which may be effective with large numbers of net users who are somewhat interested, but not very patient, and not yet ready for a full immersion in to EA philosophy.    It seems relevant to reflect on the fact that most of the money in the world is controlled by people who aren't intellectual or philosophical.  

I'm also curious to know if anyone is or has worked on an elevator pitch for EA and agree that capturing someon's attention/ interest enough to convince them to read through a full article is tricky. The idea of increasing someone's engagement with EA in a step-by-step manner is definitely worth consideration. Any info on efforts like this would be greatly appreciated!

I noticed Ali Abdaal referencing some of the examples from this intro in his summary of WWOTF :) 
 

07:50 and 10:45
 

That's really cool to see - thanks for sharing Patrick!

Interesting introduction! I have a couple of first impressions that I'd like to share:

  1. The beginning of the article seems strange to me. This is the first time I have seen "Effective Altruism" defined as "a project". To me, "a project" seems to have the connotation of something happening within a specific organization, rather than an idea, question, ideology, philosophy, or social movement. I think Effective Altruism is not a project. Rather, it contains hundreds or thousands of projects. I think there might be a better concept to encompass the idea.
  2. I find it weird to put "What are some examples of effective altruism in practice?" before outlining the ideas in "What values unite effective altruism?". Although it might be more boring, I think our cause areas are better understood once we outline our core philosophy. Also, we try to be cause neutral, so our projects might change radically in the future.
  3. On a more positive note, I like the bar charts! They're very illuminating regarding the magnitude of the issues. :)

Yeah I'd like to understand point 1 better too. Why 'project' rather than 'movement' or 'community'? I assume a lot of thought was put into it so I'm curious to know what the explanation is!

Personally, point two makes sense to me. "What does EA do?" is a question most outsiders are interested in, and I like that the explanations come with the EA reasoning behind it so it doesn't look like EA is specifically about the mentioned issue.

I came back to this post specifically to ask the same question as your point 1. - why "project" was used? I'd love hear to hear the reasoning!

This update was very much needed, and congrats on the new introduction—I love it and finally have a page I can share introducing EA!

Great to hear Andre! :)

Thanks for putting in the work here! 

You mention that feedback from people who didn't know much about EA prior to reading the essay would be particularly valuable - we paid someone to translate it for our national group's website so we've got a bit of that:

'In the English source text I’ve noticed some minor issues with grammar and/or style (such as pronouns without referents, long-winded lines  that could be phrased more efficiently, repetitions in words and examples, the structuring of content and their respective paragraphs).' 

Furthermore, the translator was not a fan of the general structure: 

'The title is "What is effective altruism", then after the intro I'm being presented with all these long examples of things more or less inspired by EA (though never quite sure to what extent), only to be followed with the line: "Effective altruism isn't defined by the projects above, and what it focuses on could easily change." - so why did I spend my time reading these examples then?'

After receiving these comments, I shared the old one with them to see what they made of it:

'It's a better read and keeps me more engaged, addresses some of the key questions one might have about EA-thinking both more directly and more nuanced'

Hope this is useful!

I like the structure and style of this piece, and think it makes sense for this central resource to be more formal and less emotional, and leave the more anecdote-y articles to media pieces which will have a wider audience anyway.

I think "greater significance to the industrial revolution" should be "greater significance than the industrial revolution"

Thanks Oscar! I've updated the sentence in the essay now to read: "The result would be an enormous transformation, perhaps of a significance similar to or greater than the industrial revolution in the 1800s."

I love this intro! I especially like that it defines EA in terms of finding the most effective interventions, the ones that do good most efficiently with whatever inputs they take, rather than doing the most good in an absolute sense.

"The goal of the essay is to accurately get across what effective altruism is, rather than to be as inspiring as possible to new people who might get involved. "

 

Is there an existing  one that focuses on being inspiring? A link to that would be useful.

Good question - I think there are a bunch to choose from but perhaps not one winner. We cover this in one of the FAQs (copy and pasting below).

What resources have inspired people to get involved with effective altruism in the past?

Some examples of resources that have inspired people to get involved in effective altruism (but don’t necessarily represent its current form) include: