First off: I pretty much agree with the post this post’s title references. For people who want to be publicly associated with EA, having your real name easily/trivially discoverable from your EA Forum username seems good for numerous reasons. The purpose of this post is to investigate the premise “You should want to be publicly associated with EA”.
Public EAs versus Private EAs
In this post I will stick to the dichotomy of “public EA” versus “private EA”, even though there is certainly a grey area in between. Here is what I mean by each term:
- Public EA: Given a person’s full name, it is possible to determine that they are involved with EA in about 1 minute of Googling.
- Examples of public EAs: people with EA Forum accounts under their real name, people who put EA in their Twitter bio associated with their real name, people who work for an EA org and are listed on the website
- Private EA: Given a person’s full name, it is not possible to find any connection to EA, even after about 1 hour of Googling.
Reasons why you might want to be a public EA
The bulk of this post is dedicated to speculating about why being a public EA may be a bad thing for some people. Before I do that, I’ll briefly list reasons why being a public EA can be a good thing.
- You open yourself up to more EA opportunities. (As described in this post, a good EA Forum post or a good EA twitter thread can lead to new friends, job offers, etc.)
- You enjoy participating in the EA community so extensively that you can’t remain anonymous while doing so.
- You implicitly are advertising EA to others, which grows the movement.
- You, by being a public EA, are increasing the breadth / diversity of the EA movement.
- You (selfishly) enjoy publicly labeling yourself as an EA.
Reasons why you might want to be a private EA
You don’t want to be seen as involved with “EA adjacent stuff”
I don’t think many people are objecting to providing safe drinking water to rural East African communities. I do think the public might object to EA adjacent stuff. By EA adjacent stuff I mean: billionaires, cryptocurrency, Silicon Valley, stuff like that.
This article already brought attention to a politician’s connection to “EA stuff”. If an article like this (or worse) would be bad for your reputation, you might not want any public connections to EA.
Probably this concern is most relevant for people who want to be uncontroversial public figures. Here I mean public figures in the broad sense: politicians and policymakers count, but also lead researchers, professors, executives, and so on. Basically anybody seen to have “power”.
I see two main ways a public figure could be negatively affected by their status as a public EA.
EA could get you canceled on Twitter.
These days, anybody with a public platform can get canceled, even for very minor offenses.
It looks like EA is becoming increasingly intertwined with cancellable attributes. See this recent tweet:
I imagine as EA becomes more well-funded and more publicly well-known, more “Cancelers” will draw connections between EA and things they think are bad such as billionaires and tech bros. If getting canceled would be very bad for your career, you might want to take this risk into account before going public.
Mainstream media might give EA a bad reputation.
I think this is separate from canceling because mainstream media has substantially farther reach and slightly more epistemic integrity than “Cancelers” on Twitter.
I think the most likely outcome is that mainstream media paints a neutral picture of EA—they say something like, “GiveWell seems excellent, but EA also has connections to some bad ideas. Overall, EA seems alright.” Think, something on the order of this article about SSC/ACX.
But, there are also really bad low probability outcomes where the picture mainstream media paints is mostly negative. I think there are enough parts of EA with bad optics that a journalist could tell a critical story. One somewhat relevant example might be anti-nuclear movements—they painted a (in my opinion) overly pessimistic picture of nuclear power generation, which led to it being forbidden or phased out in many countries.
It’s possible that getting canceled would not be bad for your career, but having your reputation damaged by a sudden widespread negative public perception of EA would. I think a mainstream media hit piece is less likely than getting canceled on Twitter, but if it happens, much more harmful.
Critics of EA find you more approachable than public EAs.
This is a pretty underdeveloped idea—I don’t have a concrete story in mind as to why it is a good idea to be more appealing to critics of EA specifically—but if this is something you value you might want to consider not being a public EA.
You could be a founder of EA 2.0.
This would be in the unlikely event that EA 1.0 becomes very unfavorable. Assuming you think founding some sort of EA 2.0 would be beneficial, the ideal founders are probably not public EA 1.0s.
Both strategies of “public EA” and “private EA”, not to mention doing something in between, are good for different reasons. Ultimately it depends on your strengths, personality, and worldview.
I do think the current ethos of the EA community tends towards extreme openness, which might push new EAs to go public before they can carefully think about this irreversible decision. It is possible to be moderately (if not extremely) involved in the EA community while being a private EA. It is also possible to have an outsized positive impact while not being publicly involved in the EA community.
Ultimately, EA’s goal should be to put the world in a state where the most good happens, not necessarily for individuals to locally maximize the good they do. I think it's possible EA is getting stuck in local maxima (rather than global maxima) because too many people are becoming public EAs. This is why I want more new EAs to consider being private EAs.