This is a speculative and hastily written post, feedback welcome. 

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: 

source: https://twitter.com/timnitGebru/status/1518832724206792704?t=Bg2qTCUmCSUdtO2GcdXGtQ&s=19

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. 

Conclusion

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. 

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The core idea here seems to be that certain political groups do or may one day dislike EA and people who associate with EA may be hunted down and blacklisted/social harmed => we shouldn't publicly identify with EA. I don't find this reasoning too persuasive for a few reasons:

  • I think it's unlikely that being an EA is or becomes taboo to a level that would carry substantial personal risk of cancelling. I also think being cancelled on twitter is low-impact and not something you should overly care  unless you're being cancelled in a way that will mean you loose your job (e.g: pictures of you in a KKK suit). In short, I have never seen anyone get cancelled for being an EA and if you do have a twitter mob come after you, I doubt any sane employer would fire you because you think charity funding should be distributed differently.
  • I think that in an ethical sense, it's problematic to give in to political extremists/coercion. The more people give in and falsify their preferences/beliefs, the more harassment can be targeted at those who remain. It's a collective action problem/downward spiral which is best tackled by remaining brave rather than giving in.
  • I think critics of EA are more likely to talk to you if you're a know, but reasonable and approachable, EA vs if you're just a random person

Takes a lot less than public cancellation to harm your career. I know powerful people who enthusiastically support my work now who would've been hesitant to work with me if they knew I was an EA because they've had bad experiences with other EAs.  I think I could survive that now bc they've known me long enough to forgive me for it (keeping in mind that I have merely been silent, not lied about it), but if they'd googled me and learned it the day they met me,  I'd be significantly less effective. 

 

As for the collective action problem,  I would first note that silence is not actually preference falsification. "Silence is complicity" is a false thing people like to say, but in reality you can't verbal diarrhea out everything you believe, even if you try, because you'd spend your whole life doing that and never get any work done. Everyone always has to maintain some level of silence about their beliefs due to time limits if nothing else. Even for actual falsification, it only creates susceptibility to pressure if your falsification also fools the people who share your actual preferences. But if you're on here posting anonymously then they're not being fooled about the number of allies they have. 

Additionally, just realistically here, I'd bet a ton of money that the difference in my impact by using my weirdness points to get work done instead of be a public EA is A LOT more than positive impact that would come from some marginally interested potential EA knowing that I'm an EA.   

Yes, I agree this story sounds pretty implausible to me. I think it's more likely that EA becomes controversial or unpopular in certain circles and being associated with it becomes a mark against you - certain people become less likely to want to mentor you or work with you, for example.

It's certainly true that some people today are suspicious of EAs! Could become true more widely.

I doubt any sane employer would fire you because you think charity funding should be distributed differently.

I think this is very overconfident. Cancellation can come for anyone, no matter how minor their supposed transgression. Emmanuel Cafferty was literally fired for reciprocating after someone made the 'ok' sign with their fingers at a traffic light! Employers aren't concerned about the truth or defensibility of your views, they just want the social media storm to go away.

Great article. I think you missed one important, perhaps crucial consideration: option value. If you comment anonymously, you always maintain the option to become non-anonymous in the future if that became more advantageous. But if you post under your real name and then people cancel you and get you fired, it's too late to go anonymous!

This is a good post. At present I'm happy being a public EA, but I recently was recommended for my first public appointment - I wonder if any of my posts will ever be held to me to justify? Perhaps used as evidence of my character, beliefs, or bias. Also, not everything ages well. Look how LGBTQ+ language has changed just in a decade. What is acceptable verbiage today is hateful tomorrow, and vice versa. I just write my comments with that in mind for the moment and try to be the best person I can, but it does indeed mean there are risks attached. It's a concern how the future may judge us despite our best efforts, but I feel as a public servant it is important my thoughts are tied to my real name that I be judged accordingly.

For being associated with unpopular EA ideas, I just make sure it's clear what I identify and agree with.

 Some opinions held by EA founders, big names, I disagree with very strongly on a very fundamental level. I just don't engage with that.  I mean just look at Peter Thiel's surveillance involvement for authoritarian purposes or Peter Singer's views on the rights of disabled children. However they also have very good ideas in other areas worthy of exploration. 

I reconcile that by being open that just because I am involved in an organisation or philosophy, it doesn't mean I agree with everything it does or says. I am proud to be a Buddhist, but I condemn the Myanmar genocide that Buddhists are perpetrating. Both my parents had (mostly before my birth) extensive criminal records - I love them, yet don't condone their acts. It's worth mentioning they're pillars of the community now!


 

Another advantage of not posting under your real name is that one can more easily criticize parts of effective altruism without incurring some reputational risk for the real-life EA community (c.f. 80000 hours anonymous interviews). Not posting under one's real name can make it easier to not conform or have higher-variance opinions.

Would it be possible for the usernames to be searchable inside the forum's search function but not searchable through other search engines (e.g. Google)? Afaik it should at least be possible for the user page/ profile not to be indexed.

And would it help with these problems?

Yes, currently you can contact us and our team can hide your profile page from search engines. We are considering allowing users to do this themselves. However, there are ways to view profile info that are outside the profile itself, so we need to be careful about how we communicate this feature.

It would be so beneficial to me if there were a more standard "First Name, Last Name" format to forum users because it's a lot of cognitive overhead for me to keep up with abbreviations, only using a common first name, and open pseudonyms. Just the other day someone misattributed something Holly Morgan wrote to me. It's one thing if the account is anonymous and I'm not supposed to know who they are. It's quite another if I'm expected to recognize people's idiosyncratic naming or alt accounts. I'm not saying anyone's done anything wrong-- it just creates unnecessary friction to discourse.

That is, for those who want to use their real names on the forum.

It's also sometimes hard for me to parse other people's usernames into first name and last name components when they're all lowercase. I've gotten it wrong a couple times.

After reading this I immediately had the thought that your first name might not be Evelyn as I had assumed but perhaps Eve or Evel (as in Evel Knievel). So yes, I agree with this point.

FWIW, it is Evelyn :)

This reminds me of Julia Wise's comment

My coworkers got me a mug that said "Sorry, I'm not Julia Galef" to save me from having to say it so much at conferences.

So it seems this also comes up with real names, but I do agree with your point.

I like your framing of public/private EAs and pointing out that this differs from the point of switching from pseudonyms (where you could easily find out the real name) to real names. I could see other cases where completely private names might be useful:

  • You have a stalker and don't want them to see when you post or what you are currently thinking about
  • You're discussing career change without wanting your current employer to know about it
  • Any kind of whistleblower situation where you're pointing out bad behaviour
  • Discussing things that the community is ok with discussing but that have reputational risks outside

In some cases, a separate anonymous account parallel to your public one might be good.

In terms of the points that you raised about politicians and other public figures, I would advocate for real-name usage. Especially as a politician you often visit and engage with many different groups and as long as your message is consistent between the platforms it should not be encouraged to do this anonymously. 

In general, we should try to make EA as broad a platform as is feasible given our principles, in order to not be associated with one political party or a few donors. The more different people we have interacting with their real names with us, the better - at least as long we can uphold good discussion norms.

Similarly, if you're thinking about starting EA 2.0 it would be good to first openly engage with the community here in order to see if there is support for changes from within. If you start EA 2.0 then this should be either consistent with your writing here or you should be able to argue why you changed your mind.

You can also encrypt your name in order to make the job harder to google but still readable. For example, replace "e" by "3", "a" by "ae". Do you know any other tricks?

  • I am one of the people who supported Timnit in that (or similar) Twitter thread. See more of my position here: https://twitter.com/sergeivolodinch/status/1520150030518210561
  • I am also actively involved in EA (local AI safety reading groups, CHAI Berkeley internship, Google research internship on interpretability), saw Yudkowsky doing the show with weight loss at a Christmas party in 2019, and I feel we indeed have a cultural problem: ignoring Africa as "current issues irrelevant in the limit" doesn't work. More on this here: https://forum.effectivealtruism.org/posts/JtE2srazz4Yu6NcuQ/how-many-eas-failed-in-high-risk-high-reward-projects?commentId=WrtWTown797Kw77g8 . It happened to her then and now it happened to me. It helps me a lot emotionally that condemning Russia is so widespread now.
  • I do not believe that cancel culture is such a big deal in this case. I do disagree with Timnit on another quite personal and big issue (who should be included in our little "AI resistance" thingy, how to help people with #metoo SLAPP suits), I do not see myself canceled for that

I would like to present my position but I do not want to break anyone's consent by talking too much about all that here. If you want me to talk, please comment on what you want to hear from me/upvote. I believe we both (EA community/longtermists + AI Ethics people) would benefit from updating our models of the world given each other's respective experiences and thus have more impact. Together.

Another advantage of not posting under your real name is that one can more easily criticize parts of effective altruism without incurring some reputational risk for the real-life EA community (c.f. 80000 hours anonymous interviews). Not posting under one's real name can make it easier to not conform or have higher-variance opinions.