Thank you to those who commented. This does not imply they agree with this post: Rob Bensinger, John Bridge, Garrsion Lovely, Fin Moorhouse, Bruce Tsai, Linda Linsefors, Rachel Edwards, Joseph Lemien, Ines, Charles Dillon, Neel Nanda, Linchuan Zhang, Chana Messinger, Kirsten Horton, Vaidehi Agarwalla, Frances Lorenz, Dan Elton, Shakeel Hashim, please DM me if I've forgotten you, I'm very very forgetful. 

Tl;dr

  • The downside risk of small accounts is low
  • The upside of using social media is high
  • If you like social media you should post more

Context

I use twitter a lot. Often I think, “Am I having a positive impact?”. I think I am. This post is an attempt to lower the barriers to entry to social media and offer you the chance to critique my thinking.

My sense (and yours, though small sample) is that EA is getting more attention recently. Things feel higher upside and higher downside. So here are some rules of thumb I use when thinking about social media.

I intend to write a second post around EA, comms and reputation, but if someone wants to beat me to it, feel free. 

While researching this,  I learned the Community Health team are good point people to email for any developing community reputation issues media@centreforeffectivealtruism.org. There is also this article on how to talk to journalists 

Doing more good on social media: Some rules of thumb

If you only read one bit of this article

  • My life is my own. I find deference tempting, but my social media choices are my own. I want to start from a position of agency. I don't need anyone's permission to post. Though if I don't want to post, that's fine too!
  • Do good better. My social media presence is a resource just like everything else. If I choose to use it to do good, how can I use it to maximally increase the outcomes I want/behave virtuously? There isn’t a cutoff between my money, my time and my social media use (you might have different boundaries here)
  • You can talk to people you’ve always wanted to through social media. Because of twitter, I have made several close friends, I have gotten 2 job offers and I interviewed Bryan Caplan the other day.
  • If you’re a small presence on social media, perhaps take a few more risks. I generally think people should post their actual views more, not less. There is a huge space of ideas and I think generally we under-discuss, rather than the opposite
    • If you want a place to do this, I suggest discussing your cause area is a good place to explore boundaries. I would not recommend starting out with radical takes on sexual ethics
    • If I make an error, I admit it and say why I was wrong
    • If I posted something completely out of order, I often just delete it. I sometimes take flack from rationalists for this, but twitter doesn’t allow EA forum-style crossing out. I don’t want to be attached to a viral post I no longer endorse. Even correcting doesn’t help if people don’t see the correction
  • I post about what gives me energy. I find social media a good thing between tasks. What do you enjoy talking or writing about and how can you use that for good?
  • Reply well. Social media is about making connection with other people. Learn how to respond to someone in a friendly and conversation-starting way. In some way we are all "reply guys" for someone up the chain. I want Matt Yglesias to respond to my ideas. Matt Yglesias wants Joe Biden to respond to his. Twitter especially just condenses this social graph
  • Correcting strangers is overrated. Changing minds is hard and it often requires relationship. If you are new to twitter, please do not start by arguing with everyone (unless it’s rationalists, they love that)
  • If you are in Global Poverty or Animal Welfare you are particularly missing on social media. Perhaps it’s just me, but EA twitter feels like it has a stronger Longtermist component than the movement as a whole
  • Social media should be fun. I mute people I don’t like, even EAs. I block people who upset me. If it still isn’t fun, I’ll leave.
  • There is a new “Communities” feature on twitter. The EA Community is here https://twitter.com/i/communities/1492420299450724353

Some more rules of thumb

  • Write more simply. I want people to understand what I am saying. I want them to grasp the point I intended to make. This is a solid article here https://www.lesswrong.com/posts/Lz64L3yJEtYGkzMzu/rationality-and-the-english-language
  • Don’t get into acrimonious arguments. Some people love to hold discussions on social media, some don’t, but when you find yourself in a vicious argument, take a step back and think about if it’s worth it.
  • Don’t use jargon and buzzwords, it’s annoying. Don’t talk about “EA”, talk about what you are doing or thinking about. Did you go to a reading group? Did you donate to charity? These are all far more legible.
  • Be a bit more curious. At the margin, I think it’s good to wonder more why people think what they do.
  • There are tradeoffs in responding to your detractors. On the one hand, it’s good to talk to those who disagree because this will help correct errors. On the other, it can be tiring and you may create more value by responding to fewer and working on your own stuff instead. There are people who I respect who sit at both ends of this spectrum.
  • If in doubt, ask your friends before you post. Then you can avoid regrets, and be more confident that the things you do post are beneficial.
  • Reputational impact on EA = account size * attachedness to EA * legibility * post content
    • If you are a small presence (<500 twitter followers, a small blog) it’s gonna be pretty hard for you to say something very beneficial or very damaging
    • The same is true if you don’t attach yourself to EA (you don’t mention the buzzwords or have effective altruism in your profile). If you post something stupid or very insightful about animal welfare it’s gonna be harder for people to link that to EA (though a damaging take is a damaging take)
    • Legibility - You can make things easy to understand or difficult. The more legible you make things the greater the impact (positive or negative).
  • There may be value only you can create. If you look at say, Habiba (https://twitter.com/freshmangolassi) on twitter it’s pretty clear that she and I have different vibes. There are some people only I can reach and some people only she can.

Learn your own style

I tweet differently to Robert Wiblin, who tweets differently to Julia Galef who tweets differently to EA Headlines. It’s a big world and you should find your voice. Here are some examples (give more in the comments):

  • Moderate and consensus driven. What’s the best way of expressing what others are discussing?
  • High signal. What do you know about that others don’t? How can you post high signal information?
  • EA jokes and memes. Can you distill ideas or make EA spaces be more joyful
    • Look I don’t have a great memory, but these exist (me? defensive?)
  • Sassy hot takes mixed with information. There is a lot of ground to be made on social media in hot takes. That said, it is harder than the above.

How to disagree

I have some experience disagreeing with people on twitter (here is a discussion I had with Glen Weyl where I think I did really well https://twitter.com/glenweyl/status/1424366991792513024 )

  • A good discussion comes from a short relational distance. If you are from the same community or have good chemistry you can discuss more difficult issues more quickly
  • Be very gracious. Twitter in particular can encourage atomised blunt thoughts. Put emojis and kind words to show that you like your talkee.
  • Seek to understand. Why do you disagree? What would have to be different for you to agree with them (Great lesson here by Neel Nanda)
  • When the conversation ends, let it go. Twitter in particular leads to many interactions across time so I suggest it’s best if each ends well. I think I talked to Weyl 4 or 5 times before we had that interaction
  • Learned when the discussion isn’t worth having. When I sense someone isn’t interested, I stop

What to do when someone is unfair, especially if it’s a big account:

Sometimes I disagree with big accounts on twitter. But if they don't respond but instead use my comments as fuel for more posting in ways I disagree with, I stop arguing with them. I am just making it worse.

This is linked to the idea of replying well. They are much bigger accoutns than me, we aren’t equal in reach, so if they don’t choose to engage with me I can’t force them to. If anything, I’m just amplifying them.

Some made up worked examples

Good

  • Wilhelm is uncertain about the actions of Better For All. He could post about it but instead writes an article and shares it with friends. This new version is more generous. He then shares it with the org. They disagree but add some helpful comments. He publishes the article on the forum without much angst or controversy.
  • Lakshmi sees someone complaining about EA on twitter. She is having a pretty rough day and doesn't think she'd do a great job of being gracious towards them. She sees that someone she likes has already made a good reply. She likes that and then goes and does something else.
  • Friedemann sees that a long term opponent of EA has been tweeting debunked conspiracies again. He has always been fond of that person and they’ve talked a bit in the past. He comments back and forth for 30 minutes before the conversations slows. Perhaps they’ll talk again.
  • Christina mainly posts about psychology. Occasionally she mentions effective charities she gives to and explains why.

Bad

  • Anna is a well respected AI safety professional. Frustrated at her colleagues she mischaracterises their beliefs. The tweet goes viral as an example of the misguidedness of AI safety
  • Arun sees someone criticising groupthink within EA. He politely challenges them. They quote tweet their response to him and continue tweeting. He tries again, but the same happens. This is not a good faith discussion, he is being fuel for this person to further spread damaging views.

Personal Thoughts

I have 3k Twitter followers. In a mad way, this makes me somewhere in the top 100 EA twitter accounts. I've never worked at an EA org, I don’t have EA big names on speed dial. If you’re reading this and find talking about EA in public confusing, so do I! But this is my attempt to make it clearer. Thanks for all that you (the reader) does, whether it’s give away a bit of money each year, study to get a job that might help people or save a billion lives on expectation, I’m glad to be with you.

Conclusion: What do we want to build?

Writing this article, I have switched frames a couple of times. Originally it was about minimising risk But I think I was wrong to think that. Instead the question is, how can we post in a way that makes things better?

I’d like to finish by encouraging people to be freer with what they post. Not everyone needs this advice, but I think it's the general advice I'd give. What are you curious about? What gives you energy? Do you like making videos or writing stories? Sure, there are ways you can avoid risk and that’s great. But the optimal amount of downside risk isn’t 0. And honestly, if you’re a small account on social media, I think you probably overrate downside risk - it takes a while before people will see what you post anyway. Be honest, be kind, be curious and let’s see where it goes.

If you'd like to suggest significant edits you can do so in this doc. I reserve the right to edit this article to make it better. In my opinion many articles should be edited by the community constantly.
 

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6 comments, sorted by Click to highlight new comments since: Today at 4:37 AM

I appreciated this. Do you have any thoughts on rules of thumb for whether and how much to use social media, given that the opportunity cost is often doing some other form of work?

Personally, I feel pretty confused about this. Sometimes I've had successful tweets and have felt worth it. Other times I've spent a couple of hours tweeting about something I thought would be really interesting, but which gets basically no engagement, and have concluded I'm wasting my time.

Some thoughts:
- what do you want from social media?
- what kind of work is it displacing?

Some examples:

"I want to network with specific people on twitter."

Maybe you already can. Have you tried messaging or interacting with the kinds of people you want to talk to. You might not need to spend much time at all.

"I want potential hirees to hear about me"

Growing a following of EAs/altruistic folks is not that hard by posting content from your org. Then maybe post when you want to.

"I want to lead a conversation on the work my org does"

I think even then you can do this on a few tweets a day.


In general I'd recommend posting when it gives you energy and when you have something important to report. Your time is so valuable that probably I don't think you should be carving out time to tweet.

In terms of engagement, I think it's a lottery. If you tweet enough some will get a lot of attention and you'll slowly gain followers. Happy to have a call some time. calendly
 

Nice post, there's some very useful advice here.  I've made some of my best friends through social media, and found amazing opportunities, & I love how optimistic you are about the potential for good outcomes. 

I would add one note of caution for readers: don't feel compelled to be active on social media if it doesn't work for your psyche. If you can tell that it makes you miserable, it's becoming compulsive,, or it's taking away time that you know is better spent elsewhere (whether that's more impactful work or more rewarding leisure) - scale back. 

That could mean quitting altogether, or it could mean choosing some self-imposed rules to make sure you're protecting yourself. For example: being liberal with the mute button as Nathan recommends; only posting about one subject area; setting yourself strict time limits; having twitter on your browser but never your phone, muting words associated with subjects you know will upset or annoy you, etc. 

I recommend this article, which flippantly characterises the telltale signs of "poster's disease".  Could be a good innoculation against sinking too much time/emotion into posting.

Great point. I've added a bit in the article to reflect this.

Thanks for writing this up, Nathan, I enjoyed reading this! Especially the examples are pretty helpful, I think. This may well inspire me to be a bit more bold on social media!

I like some of this, particularly the Learn Your Own Style section, but I think the Worked Examples could have an issue. 

In particular, I worry some of the 'bad' examples might stifle good debate? In the same style:

"X thinks that sometimes there really is groupthink in EA or that some AI safety professionals are making a specific error that others might copy. They consider posting about it on social media. Being responsible, they check a good EA Forum guide on posting first but it makes them  worry that actually they're just wrong about their criticism and they shouldn't be publicly critical for fear of mischaracterising EA.  They don't post anything. Over time, EA online really does become (at least a bit) more groupthink-y ." 

I can imagine this would more likely affect people with less of an established EA presence or less practice with social media. I think that folks have already talked on the Forum about how sometimes EAs follow the idea of "senior people" too much without thinking through stuff themselves so this could add to that problem. [Please do add evidence for or against this second claim if appropriate – I think I've read articles/comments about this, but I might be misremembering.]