The Home Base of EA

by toonalfrink5 min read22nd Mar 20192 comments



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Re: The career and the community

Richard writes:

for the first few years of their careers, and potentially longer, most effective altruists should focus on building career capital (which isn’t just 'skills’!) rather than doing good or working at EA orgs. However, there are social dynamics which push new grads towards working at EA orgs, which we should identify and counteract.

I agree that we should probably have a lot more people with an EA mindset in outside communities. They'll positively influence their community, they will draw resources from the outside as opposed to drawing EA resources, they will provide connections to EA, and they will learn important information from their community and bring it into EA. This post reiterates my ideas on how to make this happen.

Richard offers some suggestions from a messaging perspective:

of course people are encouraging about careers at these orgs, because they believe they’re important, and also don’t want to badmouth people in their social circle. Young people like that social circle, they want themselves and their friends to stay in it, and so overall there’s this incentive towards a default path which just seems like the best thing based on the people you admire.

While I think sending the right message is useful, I think "people do what they're told" is an incomplete model, and I want to add "people go for what they want". We shouldn't just be thinking about the memes we perpetuate. We should also be giving people incentives to do the right thing.

Despite the extreme competition and scarcity, many of us decide to engage exclusively with EA anyway. Apparently all the benefits of an external career aren't worth whatever people are gaining from an internal career. Why?

Asking around, one friend mentioned that EA is the only place that gives her personhood. Another mentioned that EA's are the only people that she can take seriously. I personally remember feeling alienated in my interactions with my fellow AI students, the ones that didn't take safety seriously. I eventually managed to remedy this, but there was a period where a non-LW/EA social circle just wasn't an option at all, emotionally. I think that working at an EA org satisfies a need for social involvement.

Can we satisfy people's need for social involvement without a career at an EA org? Certainly, but I don't think this is happening right now.

Inclusive vs meritocratic spaces

In any community, there is a tension between inclusivity and meritocracy. You don't want to be putting too much pressure on your members, and you basically want to give everyone a sense of being accepted based on conditions that can be met with confidence. On the other hard, if you're actually trying to accomplish something, you want your members to meet some bar of competence. Meeting this bar requires an enormous amount of investment, and so there is a tension between these types of communities.

Examples on opposite extremes of this spectrum would be a cozy family, which is maximally inclusive and minimally meritocratic, and a competitive startup, which is minimally inclusive and maximally meritocratic.

I think that it is necessary for one's sanity to have the majority of one's social life in a community that firmly includes them. While some highly competent people might feel safely included even in the most meritocratic places, the only way to solve this problem for everyone is to have a community that is inclusive.

But EA orgs can't be inclusive, so we should have a separate social space for EA's that is inclusive. Working at an EA org shouldn't be the only option for one's sanity.

But aren't we already doing this?

Local groups are partially aimed towards filling this need. While I don't want to discredit local community builders and their great efforts, from what I've seen I don't think they're doing nearly enough.

The problem that I have with most EA circles it that they feel like highly cerebral networking events, not cozy family gatherings. I don't think this gives off a sense of social inclusion. Not as much as it could.

How do you engineer such a thing? Instead of giving some abstract theory, I hope an example will illustrate it best:

You sign up for a local group on Facebook. The event page shows a picture of a group of friendly people sitting in the sun in someone's back yard, smiling at the camera. You see a barbeque (it's vegan!) and some people are playing football in the background. A few hours after you put yourself on "going", the event organiser sends you a message. "Hey, thanks for signing up! How'd you hear of EA?" You chat a little, and you feel welcome.
Arriving at the event, you're greeted by some regulars. "Glad to have you!" There is a round of handshakes and introductions, and the organiser briefly takes you aside to ask whether you'd like to give a lightning talk to introduce yourself, to which you happily agree
After attending a few events, the organiser asks you whether you'd like to become an official member. For a small monthly fee, you are welcome to join each weekly event. You agree, and there is a small welcoming ceremony, where you're put on a hot seat and given a neat wristband, which is a token of your membership. The defining moment is a group hug. "welcome to the club"

This is loosely based on the local LessWrong community in the Netherlands (called the Home Bayes), which is explicitly optimized for making its members feel included and valued. With these people, I have the most meaningful relationships. Surely there is some of the cerebral stuff, but there's also walks on the beach, dancing parties, hangouts on roof terraces, and lots of karaoke. With these people I feel completely at home, and the only reason that remains to be part of an EA organisation is pure impact. As it should be.

I think EA should have an inclusive and a meritocratic part. I'd imagine the meritocratic part (the organisations) to be a subset of people in the inclusive part. I'd imagine a lot of people in the inclusive part to be pursuing careers in different fields. Perhaps they'd relay connections, wisdom and resources from those fields to the core of EA. Perhaps they'd just hang around, do some donating, and enjoy the nice social atmosphere and the good conversations. There should be a space for that, an oasis to come home to after a day's hard work in the pursuit of utility.


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Great post. I totally agree with the framing of meritocratic vs inclusive orgs and their inherent tension. It may be an awkward analogy but EA is more or less a modern religion and religion has already figured out how to navigate this dynamic.

Basically you have churches as the inclusive geographic community center where believers come on a regular basis. There's a sermon to reaffirm and bring perspective to their faith/ideology. There's art in multiple forms such as music, sculpture to connect at an emotional level. There's rituals to lend weight to belief and most importantly you have a community of peers who share the same values that you can socialize amongst.

I think there are a lot of lessons to be learnt from this history on how to build widespread movements. As you've identified EA needs these home bases where people can stay connected to the movement, even as they pursue careers that aren't strictly EA.

I really liked the visual/story description you gave for what joining a group could look like; I really appreciate how memorable an idea can be when presented in that style. In that story, I also recognized the way I've felt in many of my interactions with the EA community thus far, which makes me wonder whether I've gotten a skewed sense for what "most EA circles" spend time on.

I've been a part of four different EA groups, three of which were more focused around social activity than anything cerebral (Madison, San Diego, Yale). The exception (EA Epic, a corporate group) had members who lived far apart, mostly existed during a Wisconsin fall/winter, and always met after workdays, which made planning social activities a bit harder. But my general sense is that most EA groups actually are fairly social/inclusive in the way you propose.

(This may be part of why we're seen as quite welcoming, though survey bias is likely a stronger factor in that case.)

How much time groups spend on cerebral/meritocratic vs. social/inclusive activities might be a good thing to figure out through the EA Survey; I'll suggest it as a potential topic for this year.