(Video) How to be a less crappy person

by President Red1 min read2nd Aug 202115 comments

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VideoFarmed animal welfare
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I just uploaded a video about how the average person can start becoming an effective altruist. I don't go particularly deep into it (e.g. recommending 80000 hours or getting a career so you can make more to donate), and I think it can serve as a good (if not somewhat profane and snarky) start for people who are interested in getting into effective altruism. 

Please let me know what you think after you've had a chance to watch. Thanks!

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I was a bit worried when I saw the video title, and in less than a minute of the video my worries were mostly confirmed (although I briefly held out for the possibility that the tone thus far would be revealed as a joke).

It might not be particularly pleasant to hear this, but if your video is any indication, you don’t seem to be too shy of blunt feedback: I really don’t think this video is effective at accomplishing its purpose—or to the extent it does, I think it may do so at a net cost. Put simply, regardless of whether most of the statements are true, the charged, negative language+tone and overall condemning message (at least at the beginning, which is the most important part in this case) is a massive turnoff. It felt like the lite-equivalent of a pastor trying to convert an agnostic/atheist through a damnation sermon. Sure it might get a few just-right people, but probably at the cost of leaving a bad taste in the mouths of a lot of other people.

To be fair, I can remember a time where I very consciously—albeit mostly internally—harbored some views similar to what you state, only making them particularly explicit in a high school paper once (which got a “where did this come from??” remark from my teacher 😅).

Wrapping up, there are lots of specific comments I could potentially give, but perhaps one of the more impactful-per-complexity would simply be: drop the charged diction and tone. E.g., emphasizing highly negative words like “crappy”, becoming audibly frustrated—especially in the very beginning of the video. More broadly though, I think you should really take a step back to consider whether the purpose of such a video is to be personal venting/angrily lecturing or whether you are actually trying to encourage/persuade people to change, because this felt much more like the former, even if you didn’t intend for that.

Apologies if this is too blunt, but I didn’t see any other comments and figured I should go ahead and say it.

I would like to politely push-back on this: 

- I wonder if it's counter to productive to talk about "one minute in" considering this may be received by OP as reactive, impatient and the like. I like to think EA values patience, and appreciates complexity which "one minute in" may not fully capture. This makes an EA watching carefully made EA content sound a bit like Simon Cowell. Which is ironic, because most of us do not have the skills to video edit or script write. 

- Discussing how well this will motivate change, I think you may be undervaluing humor, scale and the value derived from targeting new people 

- Lastly, I may be alone here, but I am concerned with EA community becoming a little too quickly bound to norms and rules. I would be afraid we could quickly become a dogmatic and siloed group. I would argue the approach in the video above is unique/diverse in the community, and that there is strong value in that 

With the above being said, I would be also concerned about the possibly drawbacks of strong, argumentative tones - which can quickly become all consuming, from what I have seen in the past. 

 

Lastly, I may be alone here, but I am concerned with EA community becoming a little too quickly bound to norms and rules. I would be afraid we could quickly become a dogmatic and siloed group. I would argue the approach in the video above is unique/diverse in the community, and that there is strong value in that 

I agree with the principle of being pro-diversity and anti-dogma in general, but I disagree when it comes to public communications. If someone communicates badly about EA, that harms the movement, can negatively change perceptions, and makes it harder for everyone else doing communication. Eg, 80K over-emphasising earning to give early on. 

I think that divisive and argumentative approaches like this one, as Harrison says, can put a lot of people off and give them a more negative image of EA, and I think this can be harmful to the movement. This doesn't mean that public communication needs to be homogenous, but I do think it's valuable to push back on public communication that we think may be harmful. 

I feel kind of awkward only just now responding to this—I had planned to respond to it the day of, but forgot and then have been traveling the past couple of days. Still, I'll just make a few comments, some of which I admit might have been made by others elsewhere (I haven't thoroughly read the Red-Gertler exchange below) but I'll still make them here.

"I wonder if it's counter to productive to talk about "one minute in" [...]"

I probably should have been a bit less casual in saying that since, as you point out, that might lead OP to dismissing my comment. However, "one minute in" is a really important standard for this kind of content, since it's the standard for a lot of real-world audiences: if you are just condemning people or otherwise leaving them with a bad taste in their mouths within 1 minute, you shouldn't be surprised if people stop watching and develop negative feelings towards the origin/association of the content. That may not be an ideal world, but it's the one we live in.

I think you may be undervaluing humor, scale and the value derived from targeting new people

I want to respond to this and a key chunk of the points I have seen from Red by emphasizing: not all publicity is good publicity. If you "target new people" at the cost of turning away others who might have been interested (or even just delaying their interest by a few years/months), that might be net harmful. Like Aaron noted, PETA is often ridiculed, plain and simple, although I will say that at least PETA has the status of being just one face/organization (albeit an outsized one) in the at-least-vaguely understood movement of animal rights activism. EA is far less-well known, and a lot of stereotypes from people who are only vaguely familiar but skeptical of EA is that it is elitist, condescending, demanding, etc.—stereotypes which would probably reinforced if one of those people were to watch this video (especially if they only watch the first few miutes).

Hey, thanks for the comment, I was starting to think no one was going to respond.

I totally understand your concerns, and if this were a few years ago I'd probably completely agree with you, but I think there's something to be said about the effectiveness of being controversial and not very politically correct. Lemme explain my mindset behind my behavior if you will.

Think about it this way: The problem with altruism (and I would add veganism to that) in general is that so many people are uninformed/misinformed about it, that reaching them at all is hard enough. If you take a non-controversial message with a much more agreeable tone, that'd probably yield like a 95% success rate, but you'd almost definitely not have that big of an audience (maybe about 10,000). With a more controversial tone, you'd probably have about a 5%, but you'd read a MUCH larger audience of say a million. That isn't to say that the former isn't doing great work, but can a person going with a nice-guy approach really have the same impact as someone being controversial?

Of course there are people that are well known without being controversial, but being controversial gives people a bigger chance of finding that person and potentially sharing it with others, and it's important to not be too over-the-top with your behavior (I think I kept it under control for the most part).

You know how PETA does all those stupid articles like the ones about the Mario Bros. wearing Tanooki/Frog suits, or how they tell people it's speciesist to use the names of animals as insults, or the many flash-games they used to make? They know it's all ridiculous, but when they do these seemingly ridiculous things, they quickly spread all around the internet, leading to millions of dollars of free media attention, for things that don't take that long at all to make. 

That all being said though, despite my snarkiness, I think I was overall pretty civil. When it comes to lecturing/Youtube videos I take on the snarky, profane tone, but when it comes to one on one conversations, I'd definitely go with the nice-guy approach.

My experience talking to people within animal advocacy is that PETA tends to be seen as more embarrassing than effective — a mishmash of campaigns that end up making the animal movement seem gimmicky, without much in the way of clear impact.

Can a person going with a nice-guy approach really have the same impact as someone being controversial?

Yes, easily!

There are lots of human feelings you can successfully reach aside from "anger" or "(eats popcorn)". Controversial content sometimes sells, but so does other content! 

  • An Inconvenient Truth is a movie about graphs, and it was one of the most successful documentaries of all time. 
  • People like Hans Rosling and Bill Gates have reached enormous audiences with positive messages about the opportunities we have to improve the world. 
  • The most unexpectedly successful EA content ever was a conversation between Sam Harris and Will MacAskill that was deeply sincere and focused on what it means to live a better life (not on scolding people who hadn't taken steps to donate yet)

If you want examples of people who've done a lot for EA-adjacent areas despite not starting with fame or a big platform, and despite being "agreeable" in their styles, you get Tim Urban, Scott Alexander, and Kelsey Piper, among others. Scott's essays are occasionally controversial, but his influence among well-known scientists and entrepreneurs seems more closely linked to his more sober, data-driven work. (His "Fear and Loathing at EA Global" is a great example of how to write about EA as a big, revolutionary concept without having to place it in opposition to anything.)

My experience talking to people within animal advocacy is that PETA tends to be seen as more embarrassing than effective — a mishmash of campaigns that end up making the animal movement seem gimmicky, without much in the way of clear impact.

But how many people see the articles? Say about a million people saw their silly article, and only 1% of people actually stuck around their website and learn more about veganism with the rest brushing it off as ridiculous. That's ten thousand people who just might reduce their consumption of animal products and will consider buying vegan alternatives, which will influence their friends, families, and market forces alike. I'd say that's a win for the animal rights movement. Would they have gotten that same level of effect if they did something that wasn't silly?

As someone who is very concerned with animal wellbeing, every person reducing meat consumption is a massive positive.

Make no mistake, I don't agree with some of what PETA does (they've done some things I find to be counterproductive; As I've said, you shouldn't overstep the line) but from what I know they have a pretty small marketing budget, and they're making the most of it.

Yes, easily!

There are lots of human feelings you can successfully reach aside from "anger" or "(eats popcorn)". Controversial content sometimes sells, but so does other content! 

I did say that it is possible to be non-controversial and reach a large audience (I'm sure it wasn't your intention, but you sort of made it look like I didn't say that).

My point was controversy usually gives people a bigger chance of being recognized. Internet algorithms favor what people find interesting, and most people find controversial interesting (even if they don't agree with it).  If you're already recognized it's not really necessary to be uncontroversial if you don't want to, but if you're really striving for that media attention (and thus reaching millions of people), people want something that'll really strike emotions. Either that, or be amusing in some way (Tim Urban's blog is a good example, of a fun to read format).

I should also add that sometimes just saying controversial things is useful (such as EA's defending of Sweatshops; I've seen so many people, who, even after being explained to why Sweatshops are beneficial to people in developing countries, just reject the message).

I think the problem with the Effective Altruism and Animal Rights movements is, a lot of people don't think of those things as "cool" necessarily. I think the informal, in-your-face approach is very useful for dispelling that idea, while I find the continued diplomatic and compromising might not reach that 10% of people that being controversial would..

I think probably the best example of a controversial activist (and, I would argue, the most effective of our time in terms of good done) is Gary Yourofsky. I have so many criticisms of that guy, but you can't deny that the man got results.  After one of his speeches went viral, not only did it spread all over the internet amassing tens of millions of views, but it went viral in Israel, and it's credited with converting roughly 10% of their population to veganism/vegetarianism. This is thought to be because he compared factory harms to the Holocaust (which is extremely controversial) which resonated with the Jewish population there and made them reconsider their lifestyles.

It's all something to consider, anyway. One thing I'm certain of in activism is avoiding pseudoscience (doesn't look like that's really a problem in EA but in veganism it's just about everywhere), but as far as methods go, I'll go with anything that works. I don't see any good reason to believe being an asshole would be guaranteed harm for these movements.

There was a great article I read a few years back about the usefulness of being an asshole, but I can't find it now, unfortunately. 

I did say that it is possible to be non-controversial and reach a large audience (I'm sure it wasn't your intention, but you sort of made it look like I didn't say that).

I was responding literally to your question: "Can a person going with a nice-guy approach really have the same impact as someone being controversial?"

My best attempt to interpret your view was something like "non-controversial content can work, but controversial content is almost always better". My response was to point out that the most successful communicators of EA have typically been "non-controversial" in their delivery, even if some of EA's core ideas are inherently radical. I hope that I spoke to your intended point, and I'm sorry if I didn't.

As someone who is very concerned with animal wellbeing, every person reducing meat consumption is a massive positive.

A few possible responses to this:

  • If the goal is to eventually have almost everyone go meatless, there's some value in pushing a message that more people respond to in the long term. Having 10% of the population go meatless for 20 years < having 50% go meatless for 5 years.
    • This model is clearly oversimplified, as a set of initial supporters  might help to convert others — but on the other hand, if you can get a lot of people to spread a message in their "local" setting, shouldn't that message be the one that works on the highest percentage of people, because total reach isn't as much of a concern?
    • The math here is complicated and entirely hypothetical, which means that the more convincing point (to me) is:
  • Whichever supporters respond to your messaging are the supporters you end up with.
    • If your brand is controversy, drama, and snark, you get a lot of people who enjoy controversy, drama, and snark.
    • If your brand is positive, welcoming, and low-key, you get some smaller number of people who will tend to be more positive, welcoming, and low-key.
    • Some movements might prefer the former, others the latter. Based on my extremely limited knowledge of the history of social movements, long-term success seems like it usually comes from the latter, since movements built on the former tend to fracture and fragment as they grow. (But I'm well outside my expertise here.)
    • EA, in particular, has a fairly deliberate strategy of trying to recruit people who have a natural tendency toward compassion + "taking numbers seriously", and being wary of the kinds of audiences we can bring in through overconfidence or an appeal to negative emotions. This may have reduced the movement's numerical growth rate, but at the same time, I'm extremely happy with the people who have been drawn to it so far, many of whom came in explicitly because EA stood out from the crowded field of "social movements using controversy to persuade".
      • A related story: I was a semi-professional Twitch streamer throughout 2020. I purposefully avoided discussing the day's biggest video game-related controversies during my streams.
      • This may have lost me the chance to have a clip go viral, and my audience never reached the size of the audience for the most infamously controversial streamers — but at the same time, my chat was noticeably more productive (in terms of e.g. strategic discussion) and required almost no moderation. And when I surveyed my audience, many of them said they explicitly enjoyed the stream because it was low-key and avoided drama. Had I tried to compete by offering my own hot takes, I don't know that I'd have wound up with as much success as I had (that's a crowded field, too).

I should also add that sometimes just saying controversial things is useful (such as EA's defending of sweatshops; I've seen so many people, who, even after being explained to why sweatshops are beneficial to people in developing countries, just reject the message).

Isn't this the opposite of the point you were making? If people tend to reject a message after hearing it, that's an argument against using the message. (Unless you left out the part about the message winning over some of the people who hear it in a lasting way; personally, I don't think I've met anyone in EA for whom that message was especially important.)

After one of his speeches went viral, not only did it spread all over the internet amassing tens of millions of views, but it went viral in Israel, and it's credited with converting roughly 10% of their population to veganism/vegetarianism.

Credited by whom?

The numbers I found after a quick search indicate that fewer than 10% of Israelis claim to be vegetarian, and self-reported vegetarianism is often inflated (either by survey response bias or by people who are confused about whether e.g. fish counts as meat).

The Hebrew version of the video has just over a million views, which would be 1/8 of Israel's population. (Some may have seen the English-language version, but non-Israelis may have watched the Hebrew version.)

If roughly 10% of the country's population went vegetarian because of the video, this implies that the prior rate of vegetarianism was almost 0, and that almost every person who saw the video made a permanent change to their diets. I don't find either of these claims plausible.

Of course, even with a much lower success rate, the video could still have been a very useful tool — perhaps a win for the pro-controversy side! But I end up not knowing what to think.

*****

Also, I should emphasize that none of this has anything to do with my opinions about your content — I'm more focused on the general argument at hand, which comes up a lot. I think you should make whatever videos you feel like making (while trying to figure out whether people are responding in the way you'd hope).

My best attempt to interpret your view was something like "non-controversial content can work, but controversial content is almost always better". 

Right, that's what I was saying.

My response was to point out that the most successful communicators of EA have typically been "non-controversial" in their delivery, even if some of EA's core ideas are inherently radical. 

EA as a movement isn't a particularly mainstream thing (unlike Veganism, which is moreso). I think it'd be interesting to see how a less diplomatic figure in the community spreads the message.

If the goal is to eventually have almost everyone go meatless, there's some value in pushing a message that more people respond to in the long term. Having 10% of the population go meatless for 20 years < having 50% go meatless for 5 years.

  • This model is clearly oversimplified, as a set of initial supporters  might help to convert others — but on the other hand, if you can get a lot of people to spread a message in their "local" setting, shouldn't that message be the one that works on the highest percentage of people, because total reach isn't as much of a concern?

I'm arguing that total reach is a primary concern. I must be missing your point here.

  • If your brand is controversy, drama, and snark, you get a lot of people who enjoy controversy, drama, and snark.

Is that a bad thing? The snarky in your face people tend to be the types who post and share snarky memes that, once again, will reach many people (much like Vegan Sidekick, although he's unfortunately drank the antinatalist Kool-Aid, which hurts his activism). 

Isn't this the opposite of the point you were making? If people tend to reject a message after hearing it, that's an argument against using the message. 

My point was no matter how nice you are, some messages are just out of the envelope that your approach to it isn't as relevant. I don't think the same standard applies to veganism or effective altruism as a whole however.

  • If your brand is positive, welcoming, and low-key, you get some smaller number of people who will tend to be more positive, welcoming, and low-key.

Of course, and that's why we need the diplomatic types. 

EA, in particular, has a fairly deliberate strategy of trying to recruit people who have a natural tendency toward compassion + "taking numbers seriously", and being wary of the kinds of audiences we can bring in through overconfidence or an appeal to negative emotions. This may have reduced the movement's numerical growth rate, but at the same time, I'm extremely happy with the people who have been drawn to it so far, many of whom came in explicitly because EA stood out from the crowded field of "social movements using controversy to persuade".

Sure, and I dig that, but I don't want EA to be restricted to just the super-compassionate types. I want more people to partake in it, even if they aren't donating 90% of their income. Which is better, one hundred thousand giving 20 bucks a month or one thousand people giving 2000 bucks a month? It's the same amount, but I think it's a lot more difficult to find those 2000 dollar people than getting one hundred thousand people who aren't at charitable. Maybe I'm wrong though.

RE: Yourofsky, I was highlighting how his controversial strategy helped start the wave of veg over there (even he claims he can't take all the credit, but it served as a starter for the activists). Still difficult to argue with those results.

Also, I should emphasize that none of this has anything to do with my opinions about your content — I'm more focused on the general argument at hand, which comes up a lot. I think you should make whatever videos you feel like making (while trying to figure out whether people are responding in the way you'd hope).

Nae bother, I actually these discussions are important to have. I also have a few non-Youtube related endeavors I hope to be materialized, but YouTube I find is important too.

While I think there's some merit to the argument you put forth here, I think it discounts how much of a negative impact content that errs on the side of controversial can have on people's inclinations towards an organization/idea/thing. Yes, controversial (i.e. polarizing) content tends to reach farther in certain circles, thereby increasing the likelihood of capturing people who were already inclined to join a given movement, but it can just as easily build opposition to a movement, which can become a serious hindrance to a movement's community health and growth in the long-term. If you haven't come across it, I'd recommend checking out Owen Cotton-Barrat's "How valuable is movement growth?" for more on this idea.

I agree with Harrison that free attention isn't always a blessing!

Hey there! I mostly share the same feelings as @Harrison D, that being said, I was really quite impressed with your story telling. You managed to make a  14 minute video engaging despite it having this simple stock photo-and-voiceover style, that is no easy feet! 

Yes, this seems to be a pretty high quality example of a certain genre of YouTube video, but a lot of people really don't like this genre, so it's a bit tricky

(I'm not sure if you'd get a notification for my reply to Koen so I'll send a direct reply just in case) 

Thanks for the compliment, though I think the editing style is a bit simplistic right now, mainly because I'm focusing on getting videos out as quickly as possible at the moment. Later down the line I'm hoping to have the budget for more produced videos.

Hey thanks for the comment. I explained to @Harrison D my mindset behind why I was being less than polite in my video if you're curious to it.

I actually think the video is missing a few things, but thanks for the encouragement, I don't have that many resources available to me right now so this is basically the best I can do! :P