Nick Whitaker

400Joined Nov 2021

Bio

Founder/Editor Works in Progress | Founder/Panelist Effective Ideas Blog Prize | Blogging at High Modernism | Prev Brown U EA | Interested in written media

Comments
17

So I definitely think I'm making a rhetorical argument there to make a point. 

But I don't think the problem is quite as bad as you imply here: I'm mostly using fire to mean "existential risks in our lifetimes," and I don't think almost any EA critic (save a few) think that would be fine. Maybe I should've stated it more clearly, but this is something most ethical systems (and common sense ethics) seem do agree upon.

So my point is that critics do agree dying of an existential risk would be bad, but are unfortunately falling into a bit of parochial discourse rather than thinking about how they can build bridges to solve this.

To the people who are actually fine with dying from x-risk ("fires aren't as important as you think they are"), I agree my argument has no force, but I just hope that they are clear about their beliefs, as you say. 

I believe that EA could tone down the free books by 5-10% but I am pretty skeptical that the books program is super overboard.

I have  50+ books I've gotten at events over the past few years (when I was in college), mostly  politics/econ/phil stuff  the complete works of John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith, Myth of the Rational Voter, Elephant in the Brain, Three Languages of Politics, etc (all physical books). Bill Gates' book has been given out as a free PDF recently.

So I don't think EA is a major outlier here. I also like that there are some slightly less "EA books" in the mix like the Scout Mindset and The AI Does Not Hate You.

Hello, thank you so much for your thoughtful piece. I am sorry about the missed email-these have been busy weeks, and it was never my intention to ignore you. You make really interesting points and I appreciate the engagement. Like any new project, we know there are still issues to work out. We recognize that this is an imperfect incentive structure, and we do welcome the feedback. We intend to learn from, iterate, and experiment during this process. That being said, even while imperfect, we believe the incentive structure created by the prize is better than the status quo’s limited incentives for new writers. Our main aim is to create something that, on net, improves the EA communications and media space. We think the prize is contributing to that.  

Central points:

If I understand correctly, your core point is about the value of blogging relative to other forms of content. First on the object-level value of blogging you like:

Except for rare exceptions (Slate Star Codex being the most notable one), blogs usually don't provide much long-term value—who cares enough to read the whole archive of a blog, unless the author is exceptionally skilled?

“Except for rare exceptions” is doing a lot of work here: we created this prize exactly to discover exceptional bloggers. I agree that the most outstanding blogs create many times more lasting value than the average.

But I don’t think long-lasting writing is the only thing worth caring about: we’re especially interested in raising the salience of longtermism right now, as we look for people to lead new projects, and look forward to Will MacAskill’s What We Owe the Future

Another goal, possibly the more important one, is this contest’s role in identifying talented writers and communicators for longtermism. Blogs are a specifically good way of searching for these skills, as they have low barriers to entry. For example, you write:

I could see an EA newspaper as a good idea: having an institutionalized content & Discourse-producing machine à la Works in Progress or Jacobin will reach a different kind of people who demand the air of respectability of a newspaper

I agree. I’m actually an editor of Works in Progress. I’ve also been in discussions with two people starting EA magazines. To varying degrees, these projects are bottlenecked by a shortage of writers. We believe that the Blog Prize will introduce us to writers whose careers we could continue to cultivate beyond their blogs — to write for EA magazines, or join something like the EA Comms Fellowship this summer. After all, some highly impactful EAs (like Dylan Matthews and Kelsey Piper), not to mention some of the most prominent public intellectuals got their start blogging. Essentially, we’re hoping that this prize will be the first of many initiatives in this space to cultivate a robust tool of talent. 

You make a similar point about books:

What advantage, if any, do blogs have over other media? Books can be (and usually are) far more comprehensive and high-status, instant messaging and social media are more engaging, but move from one fashionable topic onto another, and imageboards—well, we don't talk about imageboards here. 

The same point holds: we can use blogs to identify talented writers now, who we will support to create all sorts of (different) content in the future. As you quote me saying, we want to incentivize EAs to develop skills which easily generalize from blogging to books to journalism, and much more. In a moonshot case, this contest could help identify future longtermist-oriented public intellectuals.

This relates to one of your central concerns, which is the “new blog” requirement. I understand how this could be very frustrating, especially given your history of blogging. But I hope you understand the incentives we wanted to create here: to identify new writers, and incentivize the creation of new content, which might not otherwise have been written. Were we to allow all previously written content to be eligible, it would actually be a disincentive for new content, as there would be so much more to compete against. In the hopes of partly reconciling this issue, we’re planning on announcing prizes for posts on specific topics beginning next month, which all bloggers will be eligible for. 

To the further points about incentives, I agree that we should expect some people to stop blogging after the prizes are awarded. But where we’ve found promising new writers (not limited to the overall winners), we plan to continue supporting them — through grants or help with job placement.  So while I agree that it would be bad to let good blogs vanish, I don’t expect that to happen. 

You make a good point about web content being lost, more generally. I think I’ll look into finding a way to preserve, either in print or on a website, the best content that the prize generates. 

Per your comments on the “Some of our bloggers” section on the website, I don’t think it’s appropriate for me to comment on people’s specific circumstances here. But I will say the point of these being on the website is to give potential bloggers ideas about different ways to connect their work to longtermist discourse. If you want to review a more broad swath of content, I would encourage you to look at our Twitter feed or our newsletter

Some assorted comments:

Even in the case of Scott Alexander, additional effort had to be made to curate the best posts and order them by topic, something still sorely missing for blogs like Overcoming Bias and Marginal Revolution or econlog

We’re curating posts via our Twitter feed and monthly newsletter.

But I looking over those lists, I don't get the impression that there's a dearth of blogs about effective altruism, but rather a lack of discoverability or aggregation (why doesn't everyone of those post their texts to the EA forum?).

This is a useful point to respond to, because I’ve noticed a few people say something similar. There are, in some sense, many existing EA blogs. But as you have correctly identified, they are mostly geared towards internal discussion — the kind of blogs that are well-suited to Forum discussions. As we’ve tried to emphasize with this prize, we’re looking for content that crosses between the general blogosphere and internal conversations in EA. This is consistent with our interest in talent identification: we’re interested in people who can write about and communicate ideas in longtermism to a wider audience. It might be the case that community discussion deserves additional prizes, but that isn’t our focus. 

There's also more experimental structures available: Don't give out prizes; instead perform credit assignment for past work. 

This might be worth someone doing, but I see it as a separate project from this—the sort of credit an established writer deserves or could benefit from would be unique in comparison to new writers.

FTX Long Term Future Fund announced the Ideas Project: a $500,000 prize for new blogs.

As a point of clarification, this project was funded by FTX Future Fund, but isn’t connected beyond that. 

As a final note: so far, we’ve been very happy with the response from the prize. It has already generated two very successful blog posts:

Moreover, I’ve been generally happy with how many applicants are coming in from outside the EA community and are beginning to blog about EA and longtermism.

Part of our approach is to try multiple ideas, in the expectation that some will fail and some will succeed. Thank you again for your comments.

Thanks for adding this. Just as a point of clarification:

Another model is to use many small grants. But there's less splashy publicity. It would also be harder to allocate smaller prizes, so many would go to existing EAs or their friends. That has a different theory of impact and seems less virtuous.

We are also making a few small grants to capture good, known writers in EA and on its margins. We view both models as worthwhile. 

We don't have any precise guidance on this. From our rules:

While blogs should generally explore these ideas, not every post needs to be on-topic to qualify. (Your foremost goal is to write an interesting and thought-provoking blog!)

Hopefully that helps. If you want a heuristic, aim for 50% of your content to connect to the topics enumerated in the Rules section of our website. Of course, related content will be especially important in the judging process. 

Very interesting structure. Will investigate incorporating it into our plans in the future.

Thanks for these comments.

In the future different types of rewards could probably improve results of initiatives like this.

We're likely going to announce subsequent prizes as this project develops. "Best critique of longtermism" will probably be the first. Please let me know if you have any ideas.

Giving many small rewards with little uncertainty for the recipients, would result in many people trying blogging, without so many adverse selection effects.

This is what we are doing through our grant making program. Feel free to refer people to nickwhitaker@effectiveideas.org. We want to make sure that financial restraint doesn't prevent potentially high quality bloggers from starting blogs.  

We strongly recommend that your blog has some form of RSS/newsletter. This makes it easier for people to find and read (and much easier for us to judge). 

At the same time, I love and generally encourage the idea of building a website around the content along the lines you describe, for the reasons you enumerate. This is the big downside of Substack.

We're pluralists here (and on most things): One incredible, timeless post could win the prize. A constant stream of interesting thoughts could also win. As a heuristic, I think 2 longer posts a month (>500 words) or 4 shorter posts a month is a good blogging pace.

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