Thanks for writing this up. I agree with most of these points. However, not with the last one:
I think we should see “EA community building” as less valuable than before, if only because one of the biggest seeming success stories now seems to be a harm story. I think this concern applies to community building for specific issues as well.
If anything, I think the dangers and pitfalls of optimization you mention warrant different community building, not less. Specifically, I see two potential dangers to pulling resources out of community building:
Accordingly, I suspect that the actual answer here is more professionalization, and into a different direction. Specifically:
(Disclaimer on conflict of interest: I'm currently EA Berlin's Community Coordinator and fundraising to turn that into a paid role.)
A hedging I'd add: "...unless these people know each other from outside the boardgame club".
"We established a policy that established members, especially members of the executive, were to refrain from hitting on or sleeping with people in their first year at the society."
This sounds super reasonable for EA, too. How would you enforce/communicate this?
Full disclosure, because without it, this post would be a bit phony: I haven't always followed this policy within EA or outside, and took just one or two weeks from first thinking it might be good to implement it in EA to writing this post.
In general, if I write about community dynamics, assume that I think about them this thoroughly not because I'm extraordinary virtuous and clear-sighted in regards to people stuff, but because I'm sometimes socially a bit clumsy and all these models and methods help me function at a level that just comes naturally to others. The question guiding my posts on community dynamics is generally something like: "What would I-from-ten-years-ago have needed to know to not make the same mistakes I did?"
Yep, I'm with Xavier here. The rule incentivizes community builders a bit to not make EA their only social bubble (which is inherently good I think). And it is not without workarounds, all of which cushion the addressed problem.
For example, it encourages local community builders to hand over event facilitation to others more often. And if the rule is publicly known, participants can take a break from events that one leader leads to get around the rule. If participants don't know the rule, they'd get informed about its existence when they hit on an organizer. In either case, the consequence of even intentionally working around the rule would be taking it slow.
Yup, "don't hit on people who don't hit on me first." is a weaker rule I already decided to adhere to in EA before I started thinking about the one outlined in this post. Independent of power, it just seems utterly necessary to manage the gender imbalance.
Yep, the problem this particular rule tries to fix is that of perceived power imbalance and all the troubles that come with it.
It is an imperfect proxy for sure, but non-proxy rules like "No dating if there is a perceived power imbalance." are very, very prone to tempt people into motivated reasoning. It can get very hard for humans to evaluate their power imbalance with Alice when oh damn are these freckles cute. False beliefs, from the inside, feel not like beliefs, but like the truth. Because of that, I wouldn't trust anyone with power who would trust themselves with power.
Note also that while "Bob has power over Alice's career" is a significant component of how power works in EA, power in humans has many more subtle nuances than factual access to resources. Even without explicit concerns like "If I don't do what Bob wants, Bob will make my career progression harder.", power is shiny and overpowering and does all kinds of funny things to our monkey brains. See for example how our brains automatically adjust what we consider good fashion choices to who we deem popular in our particular subcultural bubble, how we mold our habits by them, etc.
For a more crass example, the 20th century had its wealthy share of spiritual leaders with sex scandals. Though e.g. Osho had no power over his followers' real-world careers, they worshipped him like a demigod. I think it goes without question that it would be if not impossible at least outstandingly difficult for him to have a truly consensual relationship with one of his followers. Because there's no true "yes" without an easy "no", and there's no easy "no" if the prophet himself calls you to his quarters.
(Which is of course very sad and inconvenient for Osho and requirement to adhere to this rule might have turned him off guruing completely, because the list of documented 20th century female gurus is short.)
I know that the rule is non-negotiable for people who facilitate retreats under the AuthRev brand.
AuthRev is rather influential in the (especially north american) AR scene, so I wouldn't be surprised if the rule seeped out further from there. I'm not well-networked enough there to know the details. And even if I could, I don't think I'd want to share the saucy stories that lead to people adjusting the timelines upward and downward until they found their current form.
Thanks a lot! Yep, a question I always ask myself in EA's diversity discussions is "Which kind of diversity are we talking about?"
A LessWrong post on the topic you might like if you didn't read it yet is Kaj Sotala's "You can never be universally inclusive".
The Berlin Hub post-mortem
In April 2022, we announced our plan for The Berlin Hub, a longtermist/AI safety co-living and event space in Berlin. Aurea moved faster than us and has already opened the doors of another longtermist group house in Berlin. Though their theory of change is a bit different from ours, we think the expected counterfactual value of following through on the hub decreased so strongly with their launch that it makes sense to halt the project for now and wait for what might grow out of Aurea before starting other group houses in Berlin or elsewhere.
In addition, after the crypto crash earlier this year, our funding would only have sufficed for the less ambitious version of this project with about 8-10 bedrooms. That is one of the reasons why we delayed the launch in summer and planned to apply for more funding now. Given the FTX crash, we don’t think anymore that it would be an effective use of community resources to fund more ambitious projects rather than try and sustain what already exists.
While the Hub didn’t succeed, we did learn a wealthy amount of lessons on trying ambitious projects along the way. Here is some advice we’d give our past selves:
1. Stay lean.
Don’t waste time and money on more organizational overhead than is absolutely necessary.
Aurea didn’t strictly move faster than we did: The seed of the project already existed as a private flat when we started working on the hub. They moved in together, saw how that went, and decided to expand from there. We, however, started out with thinking about how to encourage a healthy house culture, mitigate downside risks, how to best set up an application process, research on which is the best organizational form for such a project, which skills I’d still need to build to fulfill the community manager role, et cetera et cetera. While EA tends to incentivize big-picture thinking, for new and ambitious projects with limited precedents like this, it appears to be more useful to set one foot in front of the other, decide only then where to go next, and only build additional infrastructure if it seems inevitable.
Instead, build lots of minimum viable products (MVPs), however bulletproof your Grand Plan looks.
People were impressed with the clarity and detail of our reasoning in the Hub announcement. In addition, because the reference class of co-living projects with the stated purpose of saving the world doesn’t look great, we created several pages of unpublished (and not yet comprehensive) writing on how to mitigate downside risks for such a project, how to create a healthy community, and other topics. We do think this upfront research was sensible. However, in hindsight, doing more small-scale trial-and-error alongside would have gone a long way: Starting with longer and longer incubator-style retreats as the first MVP, finding a core cohort to found a not-yet fully public shared flat with, and iterate and grow from there.
If the startup jargon of MVPs is new to you, here is a remarkably concise and informative writeup by Henrik Kniberg.
Start co-living spaces with a core cohort.
Our latest community plan for Ithaka involved building around a dedicated core cohort of 5-10 residents who sustain a consistent culture and reduce memetic loss through too much flowthrough. With that core group in place, we’d have wanted to invite short-term guests over to bring in new ideas, learn from the longer-term residents, and build their network. Collecting that core cohort through retreats and networking *before* going on the lookout for housing and funding would have made the whole project significantly easier. Here are some reasons:
When starting community spaces, work with the local community right from the start.
This is one of the things that are completely obvious in hindsight, but weren’t at the start. Work on the hub started almost a year ago at CEEALAR, a similar space in England. This made sense to me at the time: It gave me first-hand experience with how life in such a community might be, how the group dynamics work, and which routines and rituals may help make it go well.
This gave me the opportunity to learn a lot of non-obvious useful things about community dynamics. For example, in co-living spaces with continuous flowthrough, peoples’ social energy for relating to others and organizing events for the community seems to be highest at the start, and diminishes over time while the sparkle of novelty ceases, people develop their own routines, and become less open to form ever-new bonds with newcomers every other week. This is why we planned to have short-term visitors arrive in fixed three-week-long cohorts at the start of each month. While the long-term guests could have provided memetic and cultural stability, the short-term guests would have had the opportunity to share the sparkle of novelty with one another. And not only the sparkle of novelty: They could have settled into a more work-minded mode synchronously, until all of them leave before the end of the month and the core cohort has a week to fully focus on each other and their own projects. A pulsing motion of expansion and contraction.
At the same time, starting the ideation phase at CEEALAR meant that I couldn’t do any on-the-ground networking in Berlin before the start of the summer, when we moved over to start looking for houses and working on the charity paperwork with a local lawyer. This was a mistake: An outward-facing project this size can hardly be carried by two people. It needs a whole community to grow into and out of. It needs to understand the local needs and priorities, the existing community building endeavors and bottlenecks, etc. While we planned to build close ties to the local community after opening doors, it would have made sense to understand Berlin’s lively local EA community as crucially important stakeholders right from the start. Concretely, it would have made sense to build connections to as many Berlin-based community builders and longtermist-adjacent EAs as possible from the start. This could have left us with a decent core cohort already. In addition, a gears-level understanding of how the Berlin community works would have been useful evidence while thinking about the community plan for the house. At the early stages of the project, a solid local network could have come in handy during the location search: Many good options on the competitive Berlin housing market never make it into public announcements; relationships are everything. That may not be true for the most ambitious versions of this project, but it definitely is for an Aurea-style decentralized group house spread out over several flats.
Many people who filled expressions of interest were thrilled to help make the space happen, but with most tasks being rapidly changing desk work that seemed to need a complete overview of the project, I didn’t find ways to properly leverage the community energy through more delegation. Among others, because most of the interested people were not locals.
This is another thing Aurea seem to have done right: Already their opening party was a lively mix of local EAs, entrepreneurs, and neighbors. They built the community ties first, and the group house itself afterward.
A useful article in this context: Start with “who”.
2. Make extra space for building your co-founder relationship.
Founding a startup is like getting married: You have to talk about your shared vision for the future, figure out how to communicate well with one another, talk about commitments and responsibilities, finances, et cetera. While we as the Hub’s founding team had great chemistry at the start, we found that our styles of working and communication could have been a more perfect match. It would have made sense for us to buckle down and figure all of this out right away instead of over the course of our work together. You may want to have a thorough conversation right at the start of the project about how each of you works best. Identify your individual strengths, weaknesses, and quirks, as well as potential synergies and points of conflicts when they come together. We did this alongside starting out on the object-level work. Next time I’d start such an ambitious project with someone, I might want to go all-in on teambuilding and lock ourselves up in a cabin in the woods for at least a weekend, better a week.
First Round’s 50 questions to Explore with a Potential Co-Founder may be a good start for this. For bonus bulletproofness, finish off by applying CFAR’s murphyjitsu to your co-founder relationship.
Some potentially useful background models:
3. Funding: Don’t be over-invested in crypto.
This one is the hardest to give advice on. While it’s a fact that the crypto crash hit one of our seed funders and significantly reduced our start capital, it would have been hard for us to do anything different. Withdraw the crypto funding ASAP? That was not feasible without having the charity paperwork in order. Apply to more funding from different sources early in the year to be maximally safe? Definitely.
Our next step is to wait out how Aurea and the Berlin EA ecosystem in general evolve. Maybe it will make sense to pick this project up again a few years from now, maybe not.