Note: I’m sharing some initial thoughts about supporting non-text media on the Forum to get feedback. This post is probably only of interest to a small number of people who are very heavily involved in online EA community building. My coworkers at CEA disagree with this to varying extents, and these ideas should not be taken as a CEA consensus position.

Summary

  1. CEA’s online properties (the EA Forum, EA.org, EA Concepts) are heavily text-based, with a few occasional images.
  2. I propose that we increase support for non-text media, particularly videos and podcasts.
    1. An example project could be something like allowing people to put "in-line" comments on specific timestamps of a podcast, allowing more in-depth discussion of the podcast.
  3. If we want to skate towards where the puck will be in a few years, as opposed to where it is now, it seems quite likely that we should prioritize these other forms of media. (Arguably videos are already a more dominant communication medium than text, and I expect that trend to continue.)
  4. This document gives some pieces of evidence supporting the claim that we should move towards supporting video and audio.

Reasoning

  1. There seems to be a general consensus among online content creators that text is not the best way to get engagement from users. See the appendix for screenshots illustrating how platforms that support both text and video still prioritize video.
  2. Education is switching to videos:
    1. Google searches that high-schoolers would typically make show videos above text results. E.g. how to find the integral of cosine, meaning of the whale in Moby Dick.
    2. The most popular Coursera course is about 50% video, 50% reading. My impression is that most MOOCs have a substantial video component.
    3. Professional development is video-based. E.g. skillshare, PluralSight
      1. Tech interviewing platform Exponent not only has company-produced videos, but also community videos where people record themselves answering interview questions.
    4. Note that in some ways this is not much of a switch, in that lectures are a well-established educational format, and people are somewhat just putting normal lectures online. I do think we are seeing video-first education though, e.g. through educators creating custom animations for their videos.
    5. Received wisdom is that reading is one of the least effective teaching methods (though my impression is that the original evidence here is dubious).
  3. The trend away from text is related to age:
    1. Snapchat and Instagram are used much more frequently by young people, whereas Twitter and Facebook are more evenly used by young and old people (though Twitter's usership still skews young).
    2. Half of Americans aged 12-34 listen to podcasts, versus 1/5 of those 55+
  4. EA creators have already had some success with non-text communication:
    1. Rob Miles gets tens to hundreds of thousands of views on his AI safety videos.
    2. 80k gets about as much engagement from their podcast as they do from their website.
  5. Video and podcasts are good at creating a sense of community/parasocial bonds.
    1. E.g. 40% of millennial YouTube subscribers say that their favorite creator understands them better than their friends.
    2. Seeming too impersonal or austere is one of the most common complaints about the Forum, and I suspect that e.g. people don't have the same complaint about the 80k podcast.

What would a Forum with better podcast and video support look like?

To the extent possible, I think we want to copy other platforms. Below are a few ideas, none of which I’m confident in.

In-line video previews

As seen on Reddit, for example:

Comments attached to timestamps in podcasts

As seen on SoundCloud:

Video sequences/playlists

As seen on Khan Academy:

Video posts as a first-class citizen

As seen on Reddit:

Requested Feedback

I'm interested to hear any feedback people have on these ideas. Some particular prompts:

  1. Are you generally excited about having more video/audio on the Forum?
  2. Are there particular features or content you would like to have on the Forum related to video/audio?
  3. If you are a content creator who currently does not feel comfortable sharing their content on the Forum, I would be interested to hear from you about what would make the Forum a good place to share your content.

Appendix: real estate devoted to text versus video

In platforms which support both text and video content, we can get a sense of how valuable the platform thinks each type of content is by looking at how much real estate they give it. Platforms consistently give substantially more space to videos than to text.

Reddit

Twitter


Facebook


 

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17 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 8:37 PM
New Comment

I'd rather keep the EA Forum as far away from images/video/audio as possible, so that it can best support serious discourse. There are better ways to widen the reach of EA, like:

  1. creating a magazine, like Works in Progress, Unherd, etc. Mostly this is about creating content.
  2. using non-EA platforms, i.e. we go against our programmer instincts (wanting to build a platform) and moderator instincts (trying to regulate conversation) and just communicate on Twitter etc. Again, mostly content.
  3. promoting simplified versions of content to get more views: promoting a paper with a Medium post, a blog post on Twitter, a Tweet with a meme, etc.

None of these is perfect, or even an uncontroversially good idea, but I think they're much better than trying to fit a round peg into a square hole by modifying the Forum into something more like Web 2.0, or a classic subreddit. In general, I find people to be systematically unimaginative about how to promote EA, and they fixate on existing entities like the Forum more than makes sense: Forum prizes (rather than prizes for content anywhere), meme pages on the Forum (rather than on r/effectivealtruism), videos on the forum, et cetera. The Forum is great for what it does, but it makes little sense to try to shoehorn such ambitions into it, when there are so many other possible ways to post and organise content.

Intuitively I'm pretty interested in the possibility of supporting more formats in service of serious discourse (e.g. having a place to share recordings of conversations that others might benefit from), and pretty uninterested in extra formats for the sake of driving more engagement ... there's a middle ground of "driving engagement with serious discourse" which I'm not sure what to feel about.

Thanks Ryan! I am also interested in twitter, but it seems like a pretty different use case. If I choose a random post which is currently on the front page of the Forum, for example, I'm hesitant to suggest "how about you turn your 4,000 word guide about running a workplace group into a twitter thread." (Whereas a video guide to running a workplace group seems plausibly useful to me.)

I agree with you that sponsoring content creation is potentially useful, and something I would like our new content specialist to consider.

I see the reasoning here for images/video, but I'm not sure it applies to audio--long-form podcasting is a great medium for serious discourse.

Agreed. But if you're not an audio-creator, and you want to seriously refer to a podcast,  it would usually make most sense to just transcribe it. Especially as this becomes automatable.

Are you generally excited about having more video/audio on the Forum?

I am not excited.

I think this stems from the fact that producing thoughtful text seems much cheaper than producing thoughtful video, images, etc.

I am also not excited about the notion of "engagement" as optimized by other platforms (Facebook, Reddit). 

Mostly, I like the forum as is as a venue for discussion, and making it more like social media would be an unwelcome development.

Having more types of content on the forum is appealing to me. There's probably discussion of this elsewhere, but would it be difficult to have audio versions of all posts? Like a built in text to speech component option.

It would be amazing if every post had a direct link to its respective audio version (on each major podcast platform). Ex: I would love to go to a post on the front page, read the first paragraph, decide I'd like to give it a go, click a link on the post's page that could take me straight to the track on Spotify, hit play, return to the post, and then read along with the audio.

People may know this, but I only recently figured it out, and caught up on my forum reading during a long drive. In IOS, under accessibility, you can set it up so that swiping down with 2 fingers from the top of any screen with text will read the screen to you. It’s not perfect but it got the job done. I would imagine that most other platforms have a similar feature if you dig around.

I support this post, because I want to embed TikToks in stuff. 

This desire is different than making video posts "first class citizens" or turning the forum into a list of video posts (I haven't thought about this much). 

It's just adding the ability to decorate posts and comments with TikToks without altering existing norms, cultures.

Moar Tiktok.

I think there's something wrong with my Tiktok, because it's all cats and opposums right now.

But for examples, here's some videos with links (I can't actually embed the videos, which would be good)

Opposums! Link here:

 

Bathing rescue kittens:

 

Well, quod erat demonstrandum.

Well written! Great points! 10/10 am convinced.

I would love to have more audio and video content. I consume in that medium almost exclusively. I always prefer audiobooks over ebooks, podcasts over blogs, and videos over articles.

But the medium I love most of all is the combination of all of it together in a beautiful, complementary harmony. Give me the audio paired with the text transcript paired with the visual imagery and video elements 🤌

Mmmm what a pairing! (If only I could taste the altruism and smell the effectiveness.)

We've evolved to listen to other people talk and to parse visual imagery. Our ears are remarkable listening tools honed by evolution over 2 million years at least (speculative assumptions here), and our eyes are tremendous observation tools for extracting meaningful images out of visual patterns (also developed by evolution since basically forever). We shouldn't willfully neglect these things.

Bring the senses together, and you've got a recipe for effectively encoding information that will not be easily forgotten and will be much more easily retrieved!

The main critiques from the comments here are:

  • Text is the only medium best suited for "serious discourse" (assuming serious discourse never happened elsewhere or before text was commonplace, like on a stoa in ancient Athens).
  • We aren't casual here. This isn't fun and games. We're serious. And again, the only serious medium is text. Don't bother us with your funny stuff like audio or video. Those are for casual sites only. (Sorry, I like to poke fun with exaggeration.)
  • Text may be the cheapest medium. And we can't afford much...? (Good point generally, but that doesn't really mean you can't allow for other more expensive mediums in addition to text. Right?)
  • Text only, or else...! [Insert some "slippery slope" notions that things could maybe get bad probably, possibly, perhaps, somehow...?] (Not sure what to make of it.)
  • Please don't mess with the front page. (Agreed.)
  • and, "oh god please no, don't bring 'engagement' up in here ever again please." (Understandable.)
  • (also, please just focus on cultivating good discussion.)

To be fair, there's good concern there regarding the whole "engagement" thing, but that misses the point of this and focuses too much on a problem that isn't really a problem on this forum.

(Also side note probably not worth mentioning... If we looked at the stats on how many people read the average post on here [and for how long], then I don't think any of us would be deeply concerned about "engagement" being a problem right now haha. [Not sure where those stats would be, but I kinda imagine that the average post on here gets rather few reads and most people don't spend a whole lot of time on here in general.])

I think there are wonderful things to be learned from two great examples: TED and Kurzgesagt.

TED has figured out the power of a short talk (less than 18 minutes, usually) to effectively spread an important idea. As an organization they've given thorough thought to their process and structure, concluding that a "talk" is the most effective means to communicate ideas worth spreading. They help people condense their incredible research and books into ~15 minutes of good discussion, usually paired with visual imagery accompaniment. But they also go way out of their way to get all their talks transcribed into every language they can. And on their website, you can watch the talk, listen to audio, and read along all at the same time, while the website automatically highlights the currently spoken sentence in the transcript. (You can even click on any portion of the transcript to jump straight to that point in the talk.) And the entire transcription is timestamped. It's really fantastic but could still be even better!

Imagine written forum posts having the complementary accompaniment of (1) the author reading the post as a script and (2) helpful imagery to visualize the concepts and ideas in the discussion. At that point, you're basically breaking down all the classic components of a video and letting them each provide benefit when needed. (Again, the more senses activated, the better the encoding and retention.)

Secondly, I mention Kurzgesagt because it's just incredibly successful at getting the public to care about science and education in a way that is rather surprising. Consider the fact that this little YouTube channel, founded by brilliant information designers, now has 17.5M subscribers. Every video they release is immediately trending in the top 10 videos on YouTube for usually two days, getting easily 5M+ views within the first week. Each video they make is serious and spends upwards of 10-15 minutes explaining a concept in great detail. They're packed with valuable information from rigorous research.

If this kind of communication can suddenly spark the interest of millions and millions of people to care about thinking through topics like energy, meat, disease, and existential risks (all with a scientific lens), then why wouldn't it be possible to do the same with EA concepts?

These things captivate me.

I want to be captivated by EA content and writings in this same way. I want it. And despite this desire, I so rarely read text and text alone. I'm not the only person out there like this. If great ideas from EA folks only ever sit on the shelves of this forum in text alone, they may never reach a broader audience. And that's a shame, because I relate to that audience and have the audacity to believe that they have some terrifically valuable contributions to offer.

I would prefer to experiment with a different, more casual site. Perhaps at some stage we might decide to port some of the features over to the forum, but I think it would make more sense to keep it separate for now.

I broadly agree with the some of the other commenters. The goals of the EA Forum are different from those of Twitter, Reddit, and Facebook. There may well be a case for more audiovisual, engagement-optimized EA content, but moving the forum in the direction of engagement-optimized visually-flashy internet platforms seems like a mistake (especially because such content can be hosted on platforms optimized for it, as RyanCarey suggests in his comment, while maintaining the EA Forum as one of the rare sites based on long-form text).

In terms of specific things, the text-only nature of the front page in particular is a big asset for ease of getting information (can scan titles quickly), and for avoiding the tragedy-of-commons -style failure mode where images massively help with getting attention so everyone puts a flashy image on their post and now you have to scroll past lots of visual noise while still just reading the titles like before. (Note that my opinions on this matter are definitely personal and idiosyncratic; other people might find they prefer scrolling past a longer section of aesthetically-pleasing images over staring at a shorter chunk of stark text.)

In terms of more general points, I think the people who worry about how the medium affects the message are on to something – e.g. Amusing Ourselves to Death shaped my thinking on this and seems to point at a real and big problem.

That being said:

  • Comments attached to podcast timestamps is a great idea (as is everything that makes podcasts more searchable, easier to navigate through, and possible to consume in ways that aren't hitting play at the start and listening through the entire thing).
  • I've heard people saying it feels like there's a high barrier to posting on the forum. Things that make the Forum more informal and approachable seem good on net. One way to achieve this might be if some parts of it gave off a vibe that is associated with informal entertaining social media (i.e. jokes/memes acceptable). I strongly endorse things like Kat Woods' post on on fun writing, and people creating value by putting funny things in posts.
  • Maybe the greatest gains are in interactive media? On the very elaborate side, there are sites like this that plausibly cut the learning/grokking effort for concepts like iterated prisoner's dilemma or alternative voting methods by an order of magnitude. Even on a more limited level, being able to embed things like small interactive Javascript/Python-powered widgets or interactive Matplotlib graphs in posts might be high-value.

If we can make authoring of explorable explanations (examples, description) more effective, I think that would be a better approach than video and images.