Project Hufflepuff: Planting the Flag

post by Raemon · 2017-04-03T18:37:32.018Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 105 comments
"Clever kids in Ravenclaw, evil kids in Slytherin, wannabe heroes in Gryffindor, and everyone who does the actual work in Hufflepuff.”
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Chapter 9
“It is a common misconception that the best rationalists are Sorted into Ravenclaw, leaving none for other Houses. This is not so; being Sorted into Ravenclaw indicates that your strongest virtue is curiosity, wondering and desiring to know the true answer. And this is not the only virtue a rationalist needs. Sometimes you have to work hard on a problem, and stick to it for a while. Sometimes you need a clever plan for finding out. And sometimes what you need more than anything else to see an answer, is the courage to face it…
- Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, Chapter 45

I’m a Ravenclaw and Slytherin by nature. I like being clever. I like pursuing ambitious goals. But over the past few years, I’ve been cultivating the skills and attitudes of Hufflepuff, by choice.

I think those skills are woefully under-appreciated in the Rationality Community. The problem cuts across many dimensions:

In a nutshell, the emotional vibe of the community is preventing people from feeling happy and and connected, and a swath of skillsets that are essential for group intelligence and ambition to flourish are undersupplied.

If any one of these things were a problem, we might troubleshoot it in isolated way. But collectively they seem to add up to a cultural problem, that I can’t think of any way to express other than “Hufflepuff skills are insufficiently understood and respected.”

There are two things I mean by “insufficiently respected”:

And while this is difficult to explain, it feels to me that there is a central way of being, that encompasses emotional/operational intelligence and deeply integrates it with rationality, that we are missing as a community.

This is the first in a series of posts, attempting to plant a flag down and say “Let’s work together to try and resolve these problems, and if possible, find that central way-of-being.”

I’m decidedly not saying “this is the New Way that rationality Should Be”. The flag is not planted at the summit of a mountain we’re definitively heading towards. It’s planted on a beach where we’re building ships, preparing to embark on some social experiments. We may not all be traveling on the same boat, or in the exact same direction. But the flag is gesturing in a direction that can only be reached by multiple people working together.

A First Step: The Hufflepuff Unconference, and Parallel Projects

I’ll be visiting Berkeley during April, and while I’m there, I’d like to kickstart things with a Hufflepuff Unconference. We’ll be sharing ideas, talking about potential concerns, and brainstorming next actions. (I’d like to avoid settling on a long term trajectory for the project - I think that’d be premature. But I’d also like to start building some momentum towards some kind of action)

My hope is to have both attendees who are positively inclined towards the concept of “A Hufflepuff Way”, and people for whom it feels a bit alien. For this to succeed as a long-term cultural project, it needs to have buy-in from many corners of the rationality community. If people have nagging concerns that feel hard to articulate, I’d like to try to tease them out, and address them directly rather than ignoring them.

At the same time, I don’t want to get bogged down in endless debates, or focus so much on criticism that we can’t actually move forward. I don’t expect total-consensus, so my goal for the unconference is to get multiple projects and social experiments running in parallel.

Some of those projects might be high-barrier-to-entry, for people who want to hold themselves to a particular standard. Others might be explicitly open to all, with radical inclusiveness part of their approach. Others might be weird experiments nobody had imagined yet.

In a few months, there’ll be a followup event to check in on how those projects are going, evaluate, and see what more things we can try or further refine.

[Edit: The Unconference has been completed. Notes from the conference are here]

Thanks to Duncan Sabien, Lauren Horne, Ben Hoffman and Davis Kingsley for comments


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by sdr · 2017-04-02T01:49:31.558Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Fellow Hufflepuff / startupper / business getting-stuff-done-er / CFAR / Bay-arean here. Can we talk about the elephant in the room?

  • Geeks, MOPs, and sociopaths in subculture evolution <- describes the idea of the role of parasites in subculture evolution; specifically, that once group-surplus achieves a threshold, it is immediately soaked up by parasites funneling it to agendas of their own
  • There are, by my count, at least 3 such parasites in the Bay community; and specifically they position themselves as the broken stair step right at onboarding, making the community feel "impenetrable and unwelcoming". The way how this happens operationally, is when I admit to some level of operational surplus (language skills, software development, business building), from these specific persons I get immediately asks of "Would you like to do free translation for me?" / "Would you like to build $website-idea$ for me?" / "Would you like to donate to $my-cause$?". I also notice that they don't do it this overtly to long-term members.
  • Note, the problem here isn't the ask. We do asks in entrepreneur-topia all the time. The problem is the lack of dealcraft: the asks are asymmetrically favouring the asker, and only offer vague lipservice-waving-towards-nice-things as return.
  • Presence of these parasites, and lack of dealcraft by these people reached equilibrium at having 'a strong culture of “make sure your own needs are met”, that specifically pushes back against broader societal norms that pressure people to conform.' , because people who have been valuepumped hard enough can not sustain themselves in the Bay.

You are attempting to increase the group-surplus of the community. This is very cool. My pre-mortem says, that any such surplus created by the sweat of your brow will be soaked up by this parasitic behavior, and hence fail to achieve long-term changes in admitted competence of the community.

There might be several ways to work around this problem. I want to be upfront about the evaluation criterias for it:

  • not talking, or taking action about this problem will not make it go away;
  • parasites' aim is value-pumping: that is, closing deals in which they get the maximum amount of value with the least amount of work on their own;
  • parasites participate in the culture like everyone else; for this reason, any plan you might come up with must be reflection-complete: that is, it needs to work, even if everyone in the community knows that such plan is in motion.

A few candidate solutions which sticks out:

  • Level up dealcraft: cultivate, and enforce a culture of mutually beneficial asks.
  • Level up quantitiy of dealcraft: elicit members -all members- of their goals / objectives / needs, and focus on coincidence of wants. There's a pretty cool model of this in the book Wishcraft: "Barn-raising"
  • Systematically post-mortem newbs, elicit list of parasites ("was there someone who made you uncomfortable, and describe the exact specificities of the situation"), and systematically intervene in the onboarding process.

Edit note: originally, this post used the word "sociopath", incorrectly -thanks for Viliam's comment below for pointing it out- fixed.

Replies from: Viliam, Raemon, k_ebel, ChristianKl
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-03T09:45:04.840Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Everyone, could we please stop using the word "sociopath" to mean things other than... you know... sociopathy?

I also like the linked article and I believe it does a great job at describing social dynamic at subcultures. I shared that article many times. But while it is funny to use exaggerations for shocking value, making the exaggerated word a new normal is... I guess in obvious conflict with the goal of rationality and clear communication. Sometimes I don't even know how many people are actually aware that "trying to make profit from things you don't deeply care about" and "being diagnosed as a sociopath" are actually two different things.

To explain why I care about this, imagine a group that decides that it is cool to refer to "kissing someone for social reasons, not because you actually desire to", as "rape". Because, you know, there are some similarities; both are a kind of an intimate contact, etc. Okay, if you write an article describing the analogies, that's great, and you have a good point. It just becomes idiotic when the whole community decides to use "rape" in this sense, and then they keep talking like this: "Yesterday we visited Grandma. When we entered the house, she raped us, and then we raped her back. I really don't like it when old people keep raping me like this, but I don't want to create conflicts in the family. But maybe I am just making a mountain out of a molehill, and being raped is actually not a big deal." Followed by dozen replies using the same vocabulary.

First, this is completely unnecessarily burning your weirdness points. Weird jargon makes communication with outsiders more difficult, and makes it more difficult for outsiders to join the group, even if they would otherwise agree with the group's values. After this point, absurdity heuristics works against anything you say. Sometimes there is a good reason for using jargon (it can compress difficult concepts), but I believe in this case the benefits are not proportional to the costs.

More importantly, imagine that if talking like this would become the group norm, how difficult it would be to have a serious discussion about actual rape. Like, anytime someone would mention being actually raped by a grandparent as a child, there would be a guaranteed reaction from someone "yeah, yeah, happens to me when we visit Grandma every weekend, not a big deal". Or someone would express concern about possible rape at community weekend, and people would respond by making stickers "kisses okay" and "don't like kissing", believing they are addressing the issue properly.

I believe it would be really bad if rationalist community would lose the ability to talk about actual sociopathy rationally. Because one day this topic may become an important one, and we may be too busy calling everyone who sells Bayes T-shirts without having read the Sequences a "sociopath". But even if you disagree with me on the importance of this, I hope you can agree that using words like this is stupid. How about just calling it "exploiting"? As in: "some people are only exploiting the rationalist community to get money for their causes, or to get free work from us, without providing anything to our causes in return -- we seriously need to put stop to this". Could words like this get the message across, too?

Also, if you want to publicly address these people "hey guys, we suspect you are just using us for free resources; how about demonstrating some commitment to our causes first?", it will probably help to keep the discussion friendly, if you don't call them "sociopaths". Similarly, imagine LessWrong having an article saying (a) "vegans as a group benefit from the rationalist community, but don't contribute anything to the art of Bayes in return", or (b) "vegans are sociopaths". Regardless of whether you personally happen to be a vegan or not, this is obviously harmful.

tl;dr -- we are in the rationality business here, not in the clickbait business; talk accordingly

(EDIT: Just to be explicit about this, ignoring the terminology issue, I completely agree with the parent comment.)

Replies from: ingres, sdr, Raemon, Los793, ialdabaoth
comment by namespace (ingres) · 2017-04-04T16:06:18.332Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you. This was really bothering me but it didn't occur that I should say anything about it.

comment by sdr · 2017-04-04T03:57:57.483Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Agreed. Recommend a non-verbed descriptive noun, and I'll update the post above.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-04T10:29:25.671Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you!

Uhm, I guess "exploiters" or "free riders"? (Or "parasites" if one wants to offend. Or "moochers" when talking to Randians.)

Sorry, not a native English speaker, I may be missing something more fitting.

Replies from: Raemon, Lumifer, sdr
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-04T14:10:33.570Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it's important that what the original post is warning about is not people who show up and mooch off the group - it's people who show up and begin to take over the group so thoroughly that they distort what the group is about. I think "exploiter" works pretty well, but "free rider" doesn't really convey it to me.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-04T17:39:58.417Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Parasite" actually has the right biological connotations: feeds on the host but doesn't want to kill the host and may actually be somewhat helpful to the host for the purposes of keeping it alive.

A highly esoteric term for the situation when the parasite gains control of the host would be "cordycepted" X-/

comment by sdr · 2017-04-04T16:55:10.588Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Updated. Re: | if you want to publicly address these people <- if people are addressed offline in public, I suspect you can dress it up with the appropiate social grace. But, we're talking about behavior here (and entrepreneurs have exploits they're already proud of, like hackers have hacks, and free riders aren't actively malicious), and I feel that dressing it up with the same grace would actually backfire by not changing (or even harming) the reward structure of the behavior.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-05T13:04:30.032Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah. Words can have different connotations for different people. I guess the solution to this is "tabooing" the words, and just describe it shortly for what it is. Like:

"Recently we have noticed that there are people (and it's not just an isolated incident or two) who come to our meetups to simply ask others for free work on their private projects, or even to contribute money. This is not cool; this is not why we are here. These people try to exploit us as a free resource, without providing anything in return. If someone approaches you at our meetup with a similar request, feel free to tell them that such behavior is not welcome."

Could be expressed better, but the idea is to make it descriptive, make it short, and have an organizer announce it as an official policy at the beginning of a meetup.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-03T13:22:50.744Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Very much agreed

comment by Los793 · 2017-04-04T23:49:50.905Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Casual rationalist-adjacent here (I've been reading LW for over a year, but this is my first post). I also very much agree (and with the parent comment too). I only want to add that in my experience weird jargon-- even the kind that doesn't obscure communication-- is a large part of why people find the community impenetrable. I don't necessarily mean major concepts from the Sequences, which serve a clear purpose of condensing and which everyone who sticks around long enough should know regardless.

But more subtle jargon, even phrases as simple as "level up dealcraft" (and sdr, I don't mean to single you out-- I could take an example from anywhere-- your post is just the most immediate) as opposed to, say, "improve negotiating skills." Sure, the meaning of is discernible from the context-- almost everyone would grasp the meaning-- but the wording will isolate a lot of people.

Replies from: ThoughtSpeed
comment by ThoughtSpeed · 2017-04-15T20:59:57.529Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think "upskill" is another one of these.

comment by ialdabaoth · 2017-04-06T01:42:03.040Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, so if I understand correctly, tthe objection is that 'sociopath' has a specific clinical definition, which nowadays is called Antisocial Personality Disorder. Then again, "moron", "idiot", "imbecile" and "retard" used to have specific clinical definitions, too.

But even if we allow that to be stretched a little into a colloquialism, someone who is incapable of human empathy, narcissistic, Machiavellian, and perhaps a bit sadistic.

The problem is that Rao and Chapman both want 'sociopath' to mean something broader - specifically, someone who out-competes everyone else, and who is willing to win at social games even if it destroys the social environment they're competing within. And this seems to mutate one step further, such that "sociopath" essentially becomes synonymous with "winner".

The sad truth is, this isn't just a euphemistic treadmill. This is a reasonably accurate description of reality. Actual, clinical narcissistic sociopaths, with higher-than-average intelligence and willpower, have pretty much taken over Western culture over the past 50 years. Such that by the 21st century, the entire playing field is dominated by their strategies. If you aren't a sociopath, you probably aren't winning. It's unusual to be a non-sociopath and win. Which means that if someone's winning, it's very risky to assume that they'll give a shit about you.

Which ALSO means that if you intend to win, you'd better learn to not give a shit about people.

(This means that, sadly, many of the sociopaths that enter the winner's circle didn't start off that way.)

Replies from: Viliam, ChristianKl, Lumifer
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-06T13:06:56.660Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is an empirical statement, which should be either confirmed or disconfirmed by observing reality, not established by changing the vocabulary.

As far as I know, sociopaths by the clinical definition make about 1-4% of population. Those who don't have above-average intelligence probably quickly end up in prison. Therefore the smart sociopaths make maybe 0.1% of the population... I am not going to argue about the exact number here, just saying that it is a small number, therefore any definition of "winning" that applies to a large fraction of population must, for mathematical reasons, also include people who are not clinical sociopaths. Now the rest of this debate depends on how narrowly you would define "winning".

Replies from: FourFire, wnoise
comment by FourFire · 2017-04-10T08:30:48.191Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think ialdabaoth's claim is valid if, when measured, the most politically and culturally powerful quintile of the world population proves to be more than 1-4% clinical psychopaths.

I am assuming the top quintile of world population is what is meant by winners: people who control a disproportionate amount of the world's resources, and by proxy, people.

The USA has the world's largest prison population, of ~2.2MIllion and a total population of ~316 Million (both 2013)

If we were to expect an even distribution of Psychopathy across the bellcurve of intelligence then there should be between ~1.58 Mn and ~6.32Mn Psychopaths in the US prison system. Furthermore, we should expect 35.5Mn to 142Mn worldwide prison population of 100% <100IQ psychopaths.

However it is a mere 10.3Mn (all 2013 statistics)

This indicates that at least 70%, and perhaps as many as 92% of <100IQ Psychopaths are going free worldwide, this of course does not indicate that these individuals aren't simply part of the exploited lower classes. It also says nothing about the remaining population of >100IQ Psychopaths, presumably of equal size.

There is much hubub around some tabloid 'research' along the lines of "21%of leadership positions filled by psychopaths" However I can't be bothered to validate the source so I won't claim this is true.

This leaves me with a rather weaker position than I expected before writing this but you should draw your own conclusions.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-10T09:02:15.603Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe that clinical psychopaths will be overrepresented among: the ruling elite, prison population, and probably also victims of drug abuse. But given their relatively low base rate, there is a chance to win at life (or get to prison) without being one of them.

Replies from: FourFire, Lumifer
comment by FourFire · 2017-04-12T22:07:56.429Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My steelmanning of Ialdaboath's claim isn't that it is impossible to succeed without being a psychopath. (Though I would definitely agree that his perspective is rather dreary and pessimistic) It is that the paths to success in society have been distorted by psychopaths into requiring one to express psychopathic traits in order to succeed a lot more of the time than would be the case in absence of psychopaths within the ruling elite.

Replies from: ialdabaoth
comment by ialdabaoth · 2017-04-13T00:33:34.248Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, although I'd say it slightly more strongly: the paths to success have been distorted by psychopaths - and by our outright worship of them - into requiring one to express psychopathic traits in order to succeed, so much so that society's various commons are - in general - being drained more quickly than they're being replenished. Moreso, most of these so-called "successful" traits aren't even seen as psychopathic anymore; they're seen as "alluringly confident" or whatever.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-13T14:45:51.267Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

paths to success have been distorted by psychopaths

At which point in time and in which societies the paths were NOT "distorted"? When and where was the Golden Pre-Psychopath Age?

comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-10T14:29:36.041Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I believe that clinical psychopaths will be overrepresented among: the ruling elite, prison population, and probably also victims of drug abuse.

...cops and prison guards as well.

comment by wnoise · 2017-06-29T18:59:45.124Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

sociopaths by the clinical definition make about 1-4% of population.

smart sociopaths make maybe 0.1% of the population

Are you asserting that "smart" is top decile to 2.5%, or that sociopathy is correlated to intelligence?

I'd consider a sigma away from the mean to be smart, so 0.3-1.3%.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2017-06-30T09:59:43.512Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I am not going to argue about the exact number here, just saying that it is a small number

I didn't mean to imply any specific correlation.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-11T11:21:44.463Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Having deep long-term relationships is useful in Western society to gather power. Committing to a realistic long-term vision and working towards it is also useful for success.

Clinical sociopaths have trouble with both.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-06T15:18:30.109Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This is a reasonably accurate description of reality.

Would you like to show some data in support of that statement? Because my reality doesn't look like this at all.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T01:59:54.487Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This, and problems similar to this, are indeed a pretty major issue I foresee Project Hufflepuff needing to resolve. I'd read the Mops/Fanatics/Sociopaths essay but hadn't thought about this particular issue from this angle before, thanks.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T02:36:25.071Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(That said, I'm also trying to be more careful about how I think about armchair-theorizing-sociology pieces, so I'm not sure if I'm fully endorsing your particular take on things yet)

Replies from: sdr
comment by sdr · 2017-04-02T03:51:02.762Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(I'm not sure which part of this is "armchair-theorizing-sociology piece", so let me share impressions:

  • The 3 specific examples are all observations: 2 on a CFAR event, 1 on a bay-lesswrong event
  • The "people putting other's needs ahead of their own" comes from 2 persons who both bounced from the Bay for this reason
  • The "attempting value-pumping" / lack-of-dealcraft is ubiquitous everywhere where people are Getting Stuff Done; the only novel thing in the Bay is high turnaround / people onboarding allows this to be done systematically
  • The "let's make stuff suck less" -> "let's all of you do my stuff" headfake is a non-profit-special; 2 attempts so far on me
  • The part where instead of attempting to "forbid parasiting", I turn it around and ask "how can we make these parasites profitable?" is a special of mine, and has so far been very profitable, in a number of contexts.

If you see none of these, I am happy for you. )

Replies from: Lara_Foster, Raemon
comment by Laura B (Lara_Foster) · 2017-04-02T20:55:26.192Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that this is an important issue we may have to deal with. I think it will be important to separate doing things for the community from doing things for individual members of the community. For example, encouraging people to bring food to a pot luck or volunteer at solstice is different from setting expectations that you help someone with their webpage for work or help out members of the community who facing financial difficulties. I've been surprised by how many times I've had to explain that expecting the community to financially support people is terrible on every level and should be actively discouraged as a community activity. This is not an organized enough community with high enough bars to membership to do things like collections. I do worry that people will hear a vague 'Huffelpuff!' call to arms and assume this means doing stuff for everyone else whenever you feasilbly can -- It shouldn't. It should be a message for what you do in the context of the public community space. What you choose to do for individuals is your own affair.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T04:16:29.417Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Oh, that was directed at the original Mop/Fanatic/Sociopath post, and I didn't mean "I don't buy this", just, "I want to think about this more."

comment by k_ebel · 2017-04-26T01:20:40.013Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Note, the problem here isn't the ask. We do asks in entrepreneur-topia all the time. The problem is the lack of dealcraft: the asks are asymmetrically favouring the asker, and only offer vague lipservice-waving-towards-nice-things as return."

I want to talk about this just a bit. If I've missed a comment that also addresses the same point, I apologize.

So, yes, asks are super common in the culture you're in. But in other cultures - specifically those that are more guess oriented - it's actually really difficult to grow negotiation skills. I'd caution strongly against taking a lack of ability in these areas as some sort of strong indication of a person being a "parasite" or having some other baked-in personality type issue. Which isn't to say that it's not a problem, just that I don't know that this piece of evidence is especially strong given how rare it is to find good examples of tell (or even ask) culture in large portions of the country/internet.

If you're concerned with the lack of dealcraft that comes from newbies, then knowing good resources to point them towards - or offering to be a source of practice in short, low-cost scenarios - may be a more effective way of dealing with this. This will also give you an opportunity to observe how folks respond to those opportunities, which may give you stronger evidence to use to actually identify the parasites/moochers/insert-preferred-term-here that do filter in (because I agree that this is also a thing that happens).

Replies from: sdr
comment by sdr · 2017-04-26T04:46:31.372Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thank you for posting this. I agree, that growing negotiation skills is hard under best of circumstances; and I agree that certain types of newbies might self-identify with the post above.

There is a qualitative difference between people who are negotiating (but lack the proper skill), and the parasites described above:

  • Beginner negotiators state their request, and ask explicitly (or expect impliedly) for price / counter

  • More advanced negotiators start with needs/wants discovery, to figure out where a mutually beneficial deal can be made; and they adjust as discussion proceeds

  • These parasites, in comparison, attempt to raise their request against explicitly stated, nebulous things (or nothing at all): "Would you like to do free translation for me?" - "Cause X is very important, and therefore you, specifically, should do something about it" - "Would you like to build my full website for me in exchange of 1% shares?"

For the record:

  • I have attempted education in some cases (1-on-1, no social standings on the line on either parties, being discreet, etc), to no effect, and only resentment from the other party.

  • I observe that this parasitic strategy works some of the time, which incentivize existing parasitic behavior to grow until saturation. These are the reasons why I brought this up here in the first place.

  • Kindly note, that while there were a lot more evidencing going into this than described above, I am hesitant to disclose more specificities about any of these cases, because the Bay is small (-> personal identification), and discussion isn't reflective-complete (parasites read this, too; the more I disclose here, the more they can shift their strategies)

Replies from: k_ebel
comment by k_ebel · 2017-04-26T18:33:33.490Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your reply and the additional clarification of your original point.

I certainly am not seeking additional identifying information. For one, it would do me no good as I don't have the local context knowledge to map it to anything anyway. Secondly, the gist of my initial comment was really more responding to the sense that taking a few examples and generalizing them to a larger group of people seemed inadvisable to me.

Along those same lines, I'm still really hesitant to get behind a statement that strongly implies that all well-intentioned newbies will start poorly negotiating in only one way (or one set of ways), and that anyone who starts negotiating poorly in a different or particular way (or set of ways) is obviously doing so from a place of poor intentions. The more visibility and reach this community has, the more diversity we're going to see in the new people who are finding it. And in the ways of communication they've learned are effective and acceptable. Additionally, not every newbie who comes into the community is ready or able to identify culture differences as the source of the problems they're encountering. Troubleshooting is its own skillset.

It also feels really important to me to point out that - if we're going to encourage people to ask and to practice asking (both of which are necessary in order to actually improve our asking and negotiating skills) then it creates some counter productive incentives if we then turn around and say things like "oh but folks who are asking in these particular ways are clearly a parasite."

While I agree that the examples you give of how a parasite might ask for something (or the scenarios they propose) don't look like particularly good deals... I still don't understand how this particular kind of ask is an indication of some sort of inherent parasitic nature the part of the asker. If we're going to create or maintain a culture where asking is an OK thing to do, then part of the underlying assumptions that go into it are that the other person is free to say "No."

To be completely fair, this is a legitimately difficult situation. In your initial comment you pointed out that one of the indicators you were looking at was the fact that these asks are primarily going towards newer folks (who may not be comfortable with ask/tell culture and who may feel obligated to say yes.) Which makes me think that perhaps the educational thrust I suggested initially was lacking in some key areas.

Perhaps - in addition to offering resources to new folks who want to learn how to ask effectively and responsibly - it would also be a really good idea to also include resources on things like how to say No/ how to be comfortable saying No, and - also really important for those coming from guess cultures - how to gracefully receive No.

I don't know that this is so much a solution for any particular individuals who are already here as it is a set-up for new people coming in that seems to give space for folks to learn the skills needed to not fall into a pattern of behavior that might be read as parasitic - before passing judgement on whether or not they are parasites.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-02T14:10:15.847Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There are, by my count, at least 3 such sociopaths in the Bay community; and specifically they position themselves as the broken stair step right at onboarding, making the community feel "impenetrable and unwelcoming".

I have never been in physically in attendance in the Bay community and so I don't know whom you are talking about. Do you think other people agree with you that those people are sociopaths? Have you talked with others about the specific people you are concerned about?

Replies from: Raemon, MaryCh
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T15:51:28.329Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is really important to note that "sociopath" in the article does not necessarily mean literal-sociopath (and while I think it was useful-ish as a rhetorical trick to make the article stand out more, I don't think it's a good idea to discuss the problem in real, practical detail while continuing to use the sociopath label)

Sociopath here means "someone who's trying to extract resources from the community, who doesn't actually care about the community's core value/creations." (Or, "cares more about extracting resources than they do about the original value, enough so that they start subverting that value.")

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-03T08:57:02.293Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, overloading the word sociopath is a bad idea. There are true sociopaths out there and knowing how to interact with them can be important. Prisons did raise recidivism rates of sociopaths by giving them the same "empathy for victims" training that works for the average prisoner to reduce recidivism rates.

Leecher might be a more appropriate word for a person who extracts resources without giving anything back. You might turn a leecher into a contributing member of a community by appealing to moral principles but the same approach is useless for a true sociopath.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-03T15:37:19.902Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Leecher" cross-contaminates with lecher. In my neck of the woods the usual verb is "to mooch".

Replies from: ChristianKl
comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-11T11:01:01.388Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Okay, moocher works well.

comment by MaryCh · 2017-04-02T16:20:18.969Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For example, I am a sociopath according to this definition. (Although the person who taught me seems to be both sociopath and creator, or in our local lingo, a 'tyrant'.)

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T17:05:44.365Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm interested in knowing more about what you mean (with an understanding that this is a sort of fraught conversation. I'm fine with substituting a word that isn't so connotationally loaded)

Replies from: MaryCh, ChristianKl
comment by MaryCh · 2017-04-02T19:10:25.547Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(I understand it is fraught - will try not to make it more so. The word 'sociopath' itself is OK by me, I might have not used it before in any context, so I probably 'get' fewer connotations than you do.)

I come from a circle of environmentalists, most of whom used to study in the same college. We gathered around a zoologist who had been passionate about it since childhood (now he 'wears a suit for nature' - coordinates surveys of rare biota, etc.); he was at first our formal leader and he taught us the legislature. A rare kind of man, who doesn't give up and who wants to be friends with his helpers - to know them as people. I would say he's a pure geek, and a very charismatic one at that. He invited us to share his hobby, but very few of us could match his sheer input. He used us - mostly to compose & mail letters, which sometimes took hours (and enough money to be a drag on a student's pocket), but also for various odd jobs, and we went happily, because it served a purpose and doing it with him was a privilege.

...Our informal leader was another guy, who picked up the slack in botany, poaching prevention, protesting development of sites of local historical significance, learning from our elders in specific things (= organizing expeditions, workshops and such like), and keeping us working as a team - I look back on it, and can't believe he did all of that while working two jobs and specializing in an unrelated discipline that required lots of fine-tuned practical knowledge. Ah yes, he also drew (not as a professional, but enough to illustrate some things.) We called him a tyrant (to his face), because he 1) believed in evolution over democracy - either you worked under him, or with him (if you showed ability), or he wasn't interested in 'your approach' and let you sink or swim on your own, 2) held us directly responsible when we failed to do as he ordered (although the orders themselves could be discussed and ultimately discarded, and they were framed as requests unless time didn't permit it, once they were agreed upon - they had to be carried out), 3) honestly, was a bit of a git at times. (He became my 'second first love', then my supervisor and dear friend, and I admit I am being harsher than I absolutely need to be, but still, a git:) He did not hesitate to call on our means and brains, but never took anything for his own enrichment. I would call him both a geek and a sociopath in the above-mentioned sense.

Most of the rest could be called fanatics, with a constant trickle of mops who didn't stay for long. (Girls seemed more loyal, in that I can't recall a case where a girl would just change her mind and go away (and I recall two serious cases when boys did it), and in that they showed more initiative, either agreeing to join the tyrant or branching off into other directions like educating schoolchildren.)

And the tyrant's way of looking at things was that the world was a big... dump, to pick a polite word, and when you saw an opportunity to make it better, you didn't question the far-mode/near-mode aspect, you grabbed it and rode it until it dropped under you and breathed its last. If I applied his logic to LW (and believe me, sometimes it is so tempting), I would have said: "Here's an on-line community which calls itself smart, consisting of weird people who think that nature is cruel to animals and weigh chicken-eating ethics vs. cow-eating - but I bet they have never signed a petition against using animals in circuses or dolphin parks, or donated a single schilling to a rehabilitation centre for bears used to train certain dog breeds, or looked up how agricultural waste can be re-used in further manufacture; and by the way, I bet, further, that they would not see this as relevant; of people who keep tirelessly recycling the same meta- and not very meta- questions year after year; of people, most of whom never shout out that there's something out there that needs help now - anything, doesn't have to be my passion, just anything... do they think so little of me, that I will not stand by them?.. Guess somebody has to optimize the situation a bit."

So I really, truly, honestly keep telling myself LW is not a place to recruit people to do my satanic bidding, but - truth will out...

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-04T22:22:37.693Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This actually doesn't seem like the same thing to me.

I think it's fine to recruit people for projects. (if sdr meant to be implying that that was not okay, I'd disagree with that). The problem is systematically recruiting newcomers in a way that pressures them into doing things that aren't actually in their interest.

One thing I like about LW and EA is that it's fairly common for people say "IF you care about X and Y, then maybe you should consider doing Z", instead of "Do Z."

I actually think we do a decent, if imperfect, job of pointing to object-level-things to do. If you care about animals, donate to the Humane League or other Animal Charity Evaluator recommendations. If you care about animals and want to dedicate serious time to it, volunteer for one of those organizations. (These might not be the same things you think are most valuable, but if that's the case, then you can argue specifically with those recommendations or advocate for why you think your causes are most promising - there's a lot of that going on)

Replies from: MaryCh
comment by MaryCh · 2017-04-05T05:07:40.987Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Then maybe we need a 'Things I care about' thread:)

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-03T08:46:13.539Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Maybe "leecher" is a better word?

comment by grumphrey · 2017-04-02T23:25:50.112Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can trace an arc, over the past ten years, of my attitude towards communities:

  • "Yay communities! Let's all share event invites and do everything together and everything will be great!"
  • "Hm, I'm organizing events for people but I'm not really enjoying them, and it doesn't really make me feel fulfilled"
  • "Inviting people to events doesn't seem to cause them to reciprocate by sending me invites back"
  • "I think the people in my community actually are having a lot of events, they're just not inviting me to most of them"
  • "I seem to have more fun interacting with people who aren't in my community. What's up with that?"
  • "Communities are okay but friends are better."

I never found a solution for how to get people to invite me to things. I think the problem is that I personally am really picky about the sorts of events I enjoy (ie, I don't like drinking or sports), so if I want to have an event that I will enjoy I have to make it myself.

But I did find a solution for how to have good events: make sure that all the people that I invite to my event are people who specifically want to do that event. Don't invite people because "they're part of the community" or "I want to make sure they're not lonely"; the risk is that they might show up because it's their only social outlet, and then they might not participate in the way that I wanted.

Nowadays I think of communities as places to meet people who could be my friends.

Replies from: Zvi, Viliam, Raemon, bogus
comment by Zvi · 2017-04-05T13:10:32.011Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think that almost everyone vastly underestimates the importance of friends, and especially the importance of a few close friends. In terms of not being lonely, of having good times and good events, or even of having a good time at the events that the community organizes, a few close friends are the key. I started enjoying group events far more when I realized that there is no need to try and 'make the rounds' of the 20-100 people there - find the handful that interest you tonight, and spend the night with them.

Raemon's response is key too, though. Communities are still super important because they provide anchors around which things can be organized, friends can coordinate and new friends can be found. What you do not want is for smaller groups to be only friendships and withdraw from their communities, or for some outside community to steal the best community members, because then the original community stops drawing in new people (or stop drawing in good new people) and slowly dies.

A great question, and one I hope is asked at the conference, is "how do we encourage more formation of close friendships?"

comment by Viliam · 2017-04-03T12:37:18.342Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Don't invite people because "they're part of the community" or "I want to make sure they're not lonely";

Yeah; "taking care that people are not lonely" can in a proper context be a valuable project in itself, but it usually doesn't mix well with other projects, so you have to decide what kind of project are you going to do today.

For example, you could have a separate project of providing social opportunities for e.g. old people in your community. And that would be a great project. But in such project, you would clearly distinguish between the organizers and the target audience. Which does not mean that the old people can't contribute to the project -- for example, if an old lady offers to bring home-made cookies for the party, you would include her as a specialist organizers. But you would expect that in general the two groups are distinct. And more importantly, it wouldn't create any negative feelings in you, because you would see that as how things are supposed to be.

On the other hand, when I e.g. organize a local LW meetup, it is very simple to make a mistake and assume that the target audience wants to (and should) become organizers at some moment. Maybe not all of them, but... well, more than zero would be nice, right? Nope, that's an unrealistic assumption. There is no law saying that if you have dozen audience members, at least one of them must be an organizer in disguise.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T23:38:23.461Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I endorse this as a healthy transition, with the caveat that what seems to happen, in practice, is that people clump off and form friendships, and then the community-mechanism by which people were able to form those friendships fades, so that future generations are not able to form friendships of their own. (Also, it seems like people end up not forming especially close friendships because people are too busy)

comment by bogus · 2017-04-03T11:47:24.508Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I can also trace a similar arc, over the past fifteen years or so:

  • "Um, what do you mean, 'communities'? A community is a physical group of people out there in the real world, who share needs for physical safety, thriving, a favorable ecology, etc. Sure, many of these things are quite applicable in a real-world meeting, but an online social group is nothing like that! This 'virtual community' business is dangerous nonsense that's going to promote groupthink, get in the way of actual useful work (like writing blogposts, editing wikis, creating media content and writing free/open source software!) and empower authoritarian personalities who'll want to enforce their arbitrary rulesets and codes of petty etiquette, and/or force the social group to compromise towards their own preferred values!"

Needless to say, I haven't changed my opinion this far. Nowadays I still think that physical meetups, "unconferences" and the like can be exceedingly useful to inspire and coordinate useful work that mostly happens online; but that attitudes and concerns associated with these, such as written "codes of conflict" - a very predictable and needed development in any physical community larger than about 150 members! - should be kept separate and not be allowed to infect the "online" side of things like some sort of parasitic "virtual community" ideology.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-01T18:53:47.666Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'll be making sure there are notes from the Berkeley unconference. If you're interested in doing something vaguely-similar in your own neck of the woods, I recommend commenting here to see if others are interested (and/or reaching out through whatever your usual community-channels are).

My past experience is it hasn't been been worth it to arrange skyping in for this sort of event, but I think it'd be worth collaborating on ideas beforehand and sharing notes afterwards between people in different geographic locations.

Replies from: oge
comment by oge · 2017-05-17T08:14:05.262Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Hey Ray, would you mind posting the notes from the unconference? With the CFAR hackathon coming up, the notes might give me ideas of hacks to work on.

Replies from: Raemon, Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-05-17T13:47:42.625Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yes, will do soon. I kept putting it off because I wanted to do a good summary of said notes but kept not having time. But I'll err on the side of posting something soon

comment by chaosmage · 2017-04-03T14:18:01.237Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One of the skills to talk about would be the skill of actively proselytizing and getting people into rationality. I don't mean onboarding people who are already interested, I mean actually going up to people who you wish were rationalists and trying to make them.

Successful communities do this, although the specifics vary widely. EA does it, which I think is why EA is growing while LW isn't. We've been largely coasting on Eliezer's wave.

Thus is difficult because LW rationality arose in the tech culture of California, I.e. an unusually individualistic culture within an unusually individualistic part of the most individualistic country ever. Only in California could one be called a "cult" for seeking a consensus philosophy. Any active proselytizing would definitely encounter the "cult" charge again.

But proselytizing works. It keeps a movement young - we're already noticably older on average than we were ten years ago and we're starting to look like a cohort of tech nerds who were in their impressionable college age when Eliezer wrote the sequences. And it keeps a movement dynamic - if new people are coming in all the time, you don't have to suffer the ossification that it takes to retain people as they get older. LW rationality has no less need of this than other movements.

And there are definitely people who are much better at it than others, so a systematic study of what works is eminently doable. I think this fits squarely into Project Hufflepuff.

Replies from: JenniferRM, Raemon
comment by JenniferRM · 2017-04-07T17:49:35.837Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Personally, I think cohorts happen automatically, and LW is "yet another cohort" and if we want to be part of a movement with inter-generational significance then maybe we should pause to consider why we think we should be "the first generation" in a movement that lasts forever...

In this vein, I appreciate previous places and groups like:

If I was going to name the entire thing, I think I might call it "Outsider Science" (taking a cue from "Outsider Art" and contrasting it with "Vannevarian Science").

So if you wanted to be so Hufflepuff that you sacrificed the whole group on the altar of being social (rather than just sacrificing yourself for the group) I'd argue that it would be a natural progression to work on reconnecting, resuscitating, archiving, and generally paying attention to these older places and communities, and putting yourself in service to their long term goals.

The hard thing here is that the diagnostic criteria looking backwards seems to be having a certain mindset towards physical reality and being a kind of a cultural orphan at the same time. The standoffishness and founding a tiny little institutes is part of what this movement seems to do by default?

Thus, projecting forward, you would predict that new instances of "the outsider science movement" would form on their own, start their own thing, and reject the notion of intellectual parentage, as much as we (the hypothetical intellectual parents) try to bring them into the loose confederation of previous attempts at self organized scientific research aiming at eternal intellectual challenges.

A lot of the future people you'd be trying to bring into the fold might very well prefer to struggle on alone.

Arguably, Vanevarian Science (with government credentialed universities doing government funded research) is already doing what you would evolve into anyway, and has succeeded so far and so thoroughly that its "highest mid level hierarchs" have become members of the deep government of the world? So maybe the right thing to do is just let all the various orphans struggle on by themselves, and just go try to get a job at NSF while retaining fond feelings for the strugglers?

So my guess is that Bacon's Effecting Of All Things Possible has run for a long while now, and maybe "the orphans" who might have belonged to the high church version (but somehow never connected with the central culture) were never really noticed until the internet came along and then could start to find each other and form little clumps and clusters.

So maybe the most Hufflepuff thing possible would be to somehow be encourage a larger internet culture that finds and welcomes these autonomous orphan clusters, while also extending an olive branch to the high church "Heirs of Bacon" who exist in the deep government, and see if there is some way to establish a state of communion between the main tree and all the little saplings :-)

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-10T09:38:24.710Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that "cohorts happen automatically", and the organisations that prevent this usually care explicitly about the next generations, whether we are talking about the Scout movement, religious groups, or academia. Ignoring this would be detrimental to the rationalist movement in long term.

Understandably, most of us have negative connotations associated with "spreading the word". It is yet another "motte and bailey" situation, where on some level it's true that increasing the number of people who e.g. read Less Wrong is not our terminal value, that gaining followers is almost orthogonal to being 'less wrong', and that trying to be attractive for too many people could dilute the message; but on the other hand, it can easily become reversed stupidity, something like people refusing to eat food just because Hitler did that.

There are two basic ways how can rationality movement could disappear from the world. One is gradual shrinking: people individually deciding that e.g. Pascal's wager actually makes sense, or that making their political faction win is more important than getting statistics and logic right, or otherwise trade rationality for something more appealing. The other is gradually becoming a group of old farts, whose debates are gradually reduced to talking over and over again about the things that happened decades ago. -- Where do we see ourselves, as a group, 50 years from now? (Conditional on Singularity not happening, humanity not going extinct, etc., or course.)

Of course, if we are not willing to enter a "loose confederation" with the previous generations, we should not expect a different approach from the next generations. Telling them to "read the Sequences" would be like telling us to "read Science and Sanity"; maybe one in a hundred would do, but nothing would change as a result, anyway.

Seems like two things need to be done, probably in this order:

1) Agree on a larger definition of "confederation of reason", "scions of Bacon", or whatever we decide to call it. Yes, this will be difficult, it goes against our nitpicking instinct, and it is going to rub many people the wrong way.

2) Make a strategic effort to recruit people, a lot of them (not just a few mathematical prodigies), into the "confederation of reason". This could mean joining what other organisations are already doing, instead of reinventing the wheel. This again goes against our instincts.

I expect that many rationalists will be not able to overcome their insticts on these matters, so we should not expect a wide consensus here. Instead, a few people who like this idea should just create a team, and do it. Which is how generally things get done.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-03T14:55:45.442Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually think it's important for a given project to have a fairly narrow focus in order to make progress, and I see Project Hufflepuff as related to outreach, but not directly about outreach. (I also don't think proselytizing is the right word - we don't have Good News to share - we have a bunch of ideas and models we're in the process of figuring out.)

Right now, the community has something of a backlog of people who want to get more involved, but aren't sure how, and people who are hanging out on the periphery and have value to contribute, but various things about the culture make them not want to. As well as people in the community who aren't succeeding/thriving at the things they want to.

Project Hufflepuff is about making internal community infrastructure better. This will hopefully remove bottlenecks that make outreach harder, but isn't the same thing.

comment by mindspillage · 2017-04-02T06:00:51.979Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Some of this reminds me of a talk by Sumana Harihareswara, a friend of mine in the free software community, where she tries to exmaine which strange and offputting things are necessary and which are needlessly driving people away: Inessential Weirdnesses in Free Software

I think there are in fact a lot of parallels between issues in free software and the rationalist community--similarly devaluing Hufflepuff skills even when they're necessary to get the full value out of everyone's contributions, similarly having concerns about not watering down the core philosophical commitments while still being open to newcomers and people who are not yet committed to the entire culture.

(FWIW, I am a weakly-connected member of the Bay Area rationalist community--it's not what I think of as my primary community so I'm not particularly present.)

comment by grumphrey · 2017-04-02T23:03:49.971Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Let me tell you about a specific thing that I saw in a different community, that I thought was a good way to make the community more welcoming.

I was in a meetup community about D&D. There was a guy who did a great thing there: every four or five months, he would create a meetup called "Meet And Greet For Players And DMs". You could show up to the meetup and talk about the specific game you wanted to play in (or run). You could meet other people who wanted to do the same thing, and you could trade contact information, and after the event you could send people messages: "hey, come over to my place and let's play that game that we both want to play!"

This is a great way to forge intercommunity connections of the sort that you're talking about. It's also remarkably low-effort: the guy would say "yeah, we're going to meet in X location", and then he'd show up at X location to proctor the event and make sure everyone got a chance to speak, and that was all he had to do.

comment by chaosmage · 2017-04-07T14:19:37.243Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

This might be too obvious to mention, but Eliezer's2009 post "Why our kind can't cooperate" seems quite relevant to this.

comment by Elo · 2017-04-02T00:29:00.829Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

My feedback on these points:

Many people in rationality communities feel lonely (even the geographically tight Berkeley cluster). People want more (and deeper) connections than they currently have.

"I am feeling lonely because I am needing connection."

In the NVC sense this is a very clear and valid statement. Except within NVC no one else is responsible for your feelings other than yourself. Other people cannot make you feel lonely. They can take actions that cause you to feel lonely but they cannot force or guarantee you will feel lonely following the actions they take. In this sense I can drop you in the desert where there is no one around but I cannot force the loneliness out from within you. You can be thousands of miles away from anyone and still not be made to feel alone. You can equally be in the same room as all your friends and they cannot force you to feel "not alone any more".

I found myself in some position of not being happy with my situation. I run my local lesswrong group. I started the slack and can now be found on the discord. I blame no one else for my feelings, nor do I expect anyone else to rectify the problems. If the problem is loneliness, then the solution is not to force people to feel un-lonely. It is to get people to work it out for themselves. (Which may be a valid but different project)

There are lots of small pain points in the community (in person and online) that could be addressed fairly easily, but which people don’t dedicate the time to fix.

This would be easier if there were concrete and clear examples of them. Particularly because with concrete and clear examples the solutions become more obvious. I don't see a systemic problem, other than perhaps with agency or communication. For example the recent arbital post. Many people would have contributed earlier if we had known it needed help. But the way Alexie talks; it was not in need of help.

People are rewarded for starting individual projects more than helping to make existing ones succeed, which results in projects typically depending on a small number of people working unsustainably. (i.e. a single person running a meetup who feels like if they left, the meetup would crumble apart)

I agree. Part of this is about being proactive about describing what you are doing and what you are working on. To this end - a weekly thread about "this week I am working on" seems like a good idea, one I am willing to implement inside the next open thread, and if it takes off - separate to a new thread.

Some newcomers often find the culture impenetrable and unwelcoming.

Each and every one of us was once a newcomer. Each and every one of us lurked for a time. Our surveys show that our ratios of lurkers to commenters to posters are like 100:10:1. Perhaps a strategy of

  1. telling people why they should step up, or
  2. asking why they don't, then removing all the barriers.

In addition - more responses on the welcome thread would be good. The current thread - can be subscribed to so that you too can welcome people and engage with what they have to say.

Not enough “real-time operational competence” - the ability to notice problems in the physical world and solve them.

That's a thing. I and others (i.e. lifelonglearner) are working towards more instrumental writing about noticing personal problems and fixing them. It takes time to write. We welcome other interest in drafting ideas. \

Future post topics:

evaluating interpersonal relationships - the good, the bad, the defaults, the ones you want to curate. time management - 168hours and breaking down where it goes. financial planning - runways, wealth and growth. health/fitness management, and having good vices.

Even at events like EA Global where enormous effort is put into operations and logistics, we scramble to pull things together at the last minute in a way that is very draining.

I think this is inherent to planning major events. I imagine a friend of mine who is an engineer involved in big projects like switching on a power plant and such. With those projects, the "flipping the switch" moment is probably the most calm, boring, ordinary event in the scheme of the process of planning and organising things. That is - no one is running around, no sparks are flying. Someone might have a clipboard and tick a box as it happens. As ordinary as drinking a cup of tea. With experience comes the skill to plan a conference like one might go about drinking a cup of tea. But you start with people who have never done these things, and we have to learn somewhere.

Many people communicate in a way that feels disdainful and dismissive (to many people), which makes both social cohesion as well as intellectual understanding harder.

In recently investigating emotions and vulnerability I came across this talk:

In it she talks about how when we seek to numb the negative emotions we also numb all emotion and this gets in the way of connection. I currently stand on the fence of - numbing emotions is neccesary to a certain amount because for people in the category of having difficulty managing emotions (either having too many or not enough), having them not there (very cold communications) makes it very easy to see the communication. Yes, this means coming across cold and unwelcoming at first. But if you look very carefully at that "cold an unwelcoming" it's not unfriendly, it's also not friendly. It just is. I can't say what I will believe in the future (that talk is persuasive to the value of not numbing things). But right now I can explain the coldness for the safe feeling that it permits to communication. There is less misunderstanding emotions when there is no emotion. There is also less connection.

We have a strong culture of “make sure your own needs are met”, that specifically pushes back against broader societal norms that pressure people to conform. This is a good, but I think we’ve pushed too far in the opposite direction. People often make choices that are valuable to them in the immediate term, but which have negative externalities on the people around them.

I disagree. getting one's own needs met is crucial to being able to function in this world. In addition EA came about to do things that are helping others.

This was a lot of work to write out, but I want to say that I feel like you are off in many small and nuanced ways. Not sure if I got that across quite right.

Replies from: Raemon, Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T02:25:18.852Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

If the problem is loneliness, then the solution is not to force people to feel un-lonely. It is to get people to work it out for themselves. (Which may be a valid but different project)

I'm not sure how much of a disagreement we have regarding the NVC paradigm. I very much didn't mean for the solution to be "force people to be un-lonely", so if that's how it came across, sorry for that miscommunication. (The OP was just a high level summary of what sort of problems I'm trying to address)

I very much agree with NVC that it's important to have an internal locus of control. But you can still look at an overall situation, notice that a lot of people are struggling to make things work, and notice things about a culture that are making it harder to solve a problem.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T02:21:39.877Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't see a systemic problem, other than perhaps with agency or communication.

Yeah, this particular problem I largely see as about agency and communication (and noticing).

comment by freyley · 2017-04-04T07:00:02.195Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it'd be interesting to have an online unconference, as well. Maybe put up a post here on the day, and people can write in comments with a time, topic, and google hangout link.

comment by blacktrance · 2017-04-01T20:08:55.338Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm a peripheral member of the Berkeley rationalist community, and some of this sounds highly concerning to me. Specifically, in practice, trying to aim at prosociality tends to produce oppressive environments, and I think we need more of people making nonconforming choices that are good for them and taking care of their own needs. I'm also generally opposed to reducing barriers to entry because I want to maintain our culture and not become more absorbed into the mainstream (which I think has happened too much already).

Replies from: tristanm, Raemon, bogus
comment by tristanm · 2017-04-01T20:50:50.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can you explain more about what you consider to be the current barriers to entry and how they work? The things that seem to turn off people to the rationality community are more like cultural issues, then things deliberately put in place to filter out unwanted members. I'm not necessarily against barriers in general as long as they are well engineered, but this post seems to be more about reducing the problems with the things that have emerged somewhat organically within the original rationality groups.

Replies from: blacktrance
comment by blacktrance · 2017-04-01T21:00:31.481Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The maintenance of already existing cultural traits that are off-putting to outsiders may be more effective than intentionally designing filters, because the former are already part of the community, so by keeping them we're not diluting the culture, and the process of designing filters is likely to cause contestation within the community.about which of its traits are essential and which are peripheral.

It's hard to explicitly describe what the current barriers to entry are, but they include familiarity with LW ideas (and agreement with a lot of them), enjoying the analytical style of discussion and thought, etc. I occasionally see someone come across rationalistsphere and respond with something like "Ugh, a community of robots/autists started by essays written for aliens" - I want to keep whatever it is that repulses them.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T02:16:06.070Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think it is both the case that:

1) a really valuable thing the community provides is a place to talk about ideas at a deep level. This is pretty rare, and it's valuable both to the sort of people who explicitly crave that, and (I believe), valuable to the world for generating ideas that are really important, and I do this this is something that is at risk of being destroyed if we lowered barriers to entry and scaled up without thinking too hard about it.

but, 2) it's also the case that

2a) there are a lot of smart people who I know would contribute valuable things to the community, but feel offput by things that are not necessary to have the kind of valuable conversations this community is good at

2b) a thriving community really needs things beyond being-good-at-thinking. Especially a community whose thinking has always been tied to "actually doing." An environment where only being clever is rewarded, will neither be able to provide for people's emotional needs sufficiently, nor actually achieve any of its broader goals.

I have thoughts on how to resolve this, but I'm trying to stick to the "talk about the problem" part, rather than the "propose solutions" part. For now, I'll note that I do not expect a single monolithic shift in the community, but I hope for better coordination between different sub-communities.

Replies from: Kisil
comment by Kisil · 2017-04-13T15:38:15.044Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

2a here seems like a major issue to me. I've had an essay brewing for a couple of months, about how the range of behaviors we tolerate affects who is willing to join the community. It's much easier to see the people who join than the people who are pushed away.

I argue that the way we are currently inclusive goes beyond being a safe space for weirdness, and extends into being anti-normal in a way that frightens off anyone who already has strong mainstream social skills. And that we can and should encourage social skill development while remaining a safe space.

If there's interest, I'll finish writing the longer-form argument.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-13T16:35:51.932Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

being anti-normal in a way that frightens off anyone who already has strong mainstream social skills

Any quick examples before the long-form essay?

Replies from: Kisil
comment by Kisil · 2017-04-14T17:33:45.879Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Sure. The biggest one is that when someone has poor social skills, we treat that as a thing to tolerate rather than as a thing to fix. E.g. someone shows up to a meetup and doesn't really get how conversation flow works, when it's time to talk and when it's time to listen, how to tell the difference between someone being interested in what ze has to say and someone just being polite. We're welcoming, at least outwardly, and encourage that person to keep showing up, so ze does. And the people who are both disinclined to be ranted to and who have the social skills to avoid the person learn to do so, but we don't seem to make any effort to help the person become less annoying. So ze continues to inflict zirself on newcomers who haven't learned better, and they walk away with the impression that that's what our community is.

Which is sad, because we spend plenty of time encouraging self-improvement in thinking skills. If we siphoned some effort from "notice you're confused" to "notice your audience", we should be able to encourage self-improvement in social skills as well. But since we don't treat it like something fixable, it doesn't get fixed.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-01T20:37:31.047Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I agree that enforced prosociality can be oppressive, and plan to discuss it in an upcoming post.

(I'll respond to each comment separately for easier threading).

Replies from: blacktrance
comment by blacktrance · 2017-04-01T21:42:07.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Upon further consideration, it seems to me that while it being enforced can make it worse, much of the prosociality cluster (e.g. guess culture) is oppressive in itself.

Replies from: ChristianKl, lahwran, Raemon
comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-02T13:54:05.736Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

It might be my German background but not everybody who's social operates on guess culture.

comment by lahwran · 2017-04-02T06:47:50.408Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think you can escape guess culture. you only can pretend you don't have it, and then pay the price.

Replies from: Good_Burning_Plastic
comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2017-04-02T21:11:56.236Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I don't think you can escape guess culture.

Sometimes you can escape it literally, e.g. move to a different city or find a different social circle.

Replies from: lahwran
comment by lahwran · 2017-04-05T19:25:39.589Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No, I mean this more strongly than that. I literally do not think it's possible to interact with humans without using guess culture. all of human interaction is the same as the thing that got labeled guess culture; sometimes it can also be ask culture or also tell culture, but I think it's meaningfully true that ask culture is just different defaults for guess culture, and you're still actually doing just as much guessing. I do think you can reduce guessing via trust, and that guessing with the goal of building trust is something people automatically do, but I think people who say[1] that guess culture only exists some places are meaningfully confused.

I also think that "tell culture" is a subset of interaction that only works with high trust - and I think people who "are" guess culture will naturally do things that look more like tell culture when trust is high.

[1] (or have said in the past, before updating on my saying this)

Replies from: Good_Burning_Plastic
comment by Good_Burning_Plastic · 2017-04-05T23:05:12.403Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I think people who say[1] that guess culture only exists some places are meaningfully confused.

Or maybe they just don't fall prey to the fallacy of gray and realize it sometimes might make sense to call something black even though it doesn't literally scatter exactly no light at all (otherwise there'd be no point in having a word if it didn't apply to anything at all).

Replies from: lahwran
comment by lahwran · 2017-04-06T05:45:59.088Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I understand that. I wrote the post you're replying to with that in mind. I think the thing that people call guess culture actually applies almost everywhere, and anything but high trust between very close friends will secretly be only using different words, but have the same guessing patterns. I'm not making some wordplay claim here, I actually think there is a high magnitude error in the theory and that the update is to apply guess culture almost everywhere.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T02:41:29.549Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I wouldn't conflate guess culture and prosociality - I think those are pretty different axes.

comment by bogus · 2017-04-02T18:00:02.213Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Specifically, in practice, trying to aim at prosociality tends to produce oppressive environments

I don't think this is really true. I think that lots of authoritarian-minded people nowadays try to use pro-sociality and vague ideas of "social progress", "a safe and welcoming community for everyone", "a well-tended garden" and the like as cover for what are really oppressive environments (often focused on enforcement of petty etiquette and narrow, cultish shibboleths, to the detriment of actual, ethically significant issues). But supposing that "trying to aim at prosociality tends to produce oppressive environments" amounts to arguing that open and non-oppressive environments are inherently "antisocial". I see no reason to assume this is the case.

comment by Rubix · 2017-04-02T04:34:15.392Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

"Some newcomers often find the culture impenetrable and unwelcoming" seems like a feature (not a bug). If anything ought be changed about it, I think the unwelcoming attitude ought be more discerning - excluding people based on properties most of the community actually doesn't want around, rather than or in tandem with whatever criteria it's currently operating on.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T15:53:40.992Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Yeah - What I meant to argue is more like "valuable people who could be contributing a lot a leaving or getting turned away from the community, for reasons I think are bad or shortsighted."

comment by grumphrey · 2017-04-02T23:31:18.877Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I would like to know of more examples of "projects" that Project Hufflepuff would like to support.

Like, of course there's the Solstice celebration. (Yay Solstice!) Are all of Project Hufflepuff's projects going to be Solstice-like events, where a small group of people come together to create something the community can enjoy? Is the goal to have, like, the existing Solstice, plus a different group running the Summer Solstice, plus Rationalist Easter and Rationalist Halloween and et cetera? If that's not the entirety of the goal, what other sorts of things are part of the goal?

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-02T23:37:12.361Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm trying to hold off on proposing solutions, but the sort of thing I'm imagining here looks less like specific events, and more like changing attitudes and building skills.

You might do particular events as part of an approach to changing those attitudes and skills, but the events are not the end goal. The endgoal is to have the "problem" bullet points listed in the OP reversed - people have an easier time forming close connections, various projects are more successful because people have soft-skills they need to improve their group dynamics, etc. (And, importantly, to do that without sacrificing the things that make the LW-descended community unique and valuable)

comment by CrimeThinker · 2017-04-20T22:33:22.841Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Thanks. :)

comment by AlexD · 2017-04-13T03:02:30.631Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

In the spirit of avoiding unnecessary weirdness, do you really want to cloak this project in a name assuming familiarity with specific literature? (And I get that HPMOR is cool, but it's niche, and HP* is for kids.)

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-13T17:11:54.236Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm totes aware of the irony here, and have thought about alternate names but not really came up with anything that

a) communicates the particular combination of things I'm going for here b) is memorable and curiosity inducing

(I do plan to eventually port this whole thing over to the EA community in a fashion that's more respectable looking. If you have suggestions for a good alternate name, lemme know)

comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2017-04-04T18:10:02.437Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The Doodle poll hurts me in my soul to look at. The thing where everyone is too busy with other plans to coordinate on a single day to meet feels fundamentally wrong and broken to me somehow, although I don't know if the bay area community is particularly bad along this axis relative to other communities.

Replies from: Raemon, Elo
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-04T22:17:58.036Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Qiaochu - I'm curious if you felt like you were talking about the same thing Elo was talking about, or a different thing? (it was unclear to me)

Replies from: Qiaochu_Yuan
comment by Qiaochu_Yuan · 2017-04-05T20:57:42.942Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Different thing. I'm just sad that everyone's lives are out of sync. By contrast, there's the thing where everyone goes to church on Sunday, so everyone can at least rest assured that however busy they are the rest of the week they'll all see each other at church on Sunday.

comment by Elo · 2017-04-04T21:09:13.218Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I say this every time a poll comes up like doodle. Doodle permits people to democratically have their attendance voted against.

(for someone on the edge of the group) Which is to say if our days are Tuesday and Wednesday and I vote Tuesday but more people vote Wednesday then my attendance was voted against. Democratically. More people could show up on the other day and so I am excused from attending because I can't make it.

For someone in the core of the group it's no different. Being voted against is unfortunate.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-04T22:15:14.501Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Would this be addressed if Doodle kept individual responses hidden or names obscured?

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2017-04-04T22:40:51.040Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

No it would not be solved.

The problem with classical democracy is that people lose. poor Mr president has to turn to the 49% and say, "look I know you didn't vote for me but you are 49% of the <nationality's> way of life, to ignore that and disrespect that would be a very bad thing to do".

My experience comes from being on a committee that tried to organise by doodle poll. we had meetings more frequently than every four weeks and for a year, none of those meetings was fully attended by the committee.

Better to organise by dictator/ do-ocracy.

Replies from: Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-04T22:51:20.167Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm confused about how dictatorship solves the problem in this case

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2017-04-04T22:56:04.908Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

people respond to the problem of, "I cannot attend because the event is run at a time when I am busy" in a different way. instead of thinking, "well I tried to attend but I got voted against", the options include:

  • Talk to the organiser and let them know that I am always busy on a Wednesday and ask for different days of events
  • Reorganise my life to fit the community event in
  • skip my other commitments once to see if I want to attend this event

These solutions do not always occur if I participated in the poll but "lost".

comment by PotterChrist · 2017-04-03T09:28:30.728Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Regular I'm fairly certain phrasing things like Harry Potter reference is actually bad for the rationalist community.

Replies from: Raemon, Raemon
comment by Raemon · 2017-04-04T22:17:11.027Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I actually (somewhat) agree - I'm using HP terminology out of experience and because it allows me to gesture at a complicated thingy with few words and have some built in community mythology to support it. BUT this definitely has costs, and if anyone has ideas for a name for this thing that is

a) catchy b) communicates the gist of the idea, but c) still leaves people wanting to know more without immediately thinking they know what the project is entirely about but being wrong, so they ask following questions

I would probably be in favor of such a name change.

comment by Raemon · 2017-04-09T03:56:02.331Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Now I'm curious why this was retracted?

comment by grumphrey · 2017-04-02T22:57:22.979Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(Disclaimer: I'm not a member of the community you're seeking to change, so my consent is not necessary to your plans.)

A lot of the themes I'm seeing here ("many people feel lonely", "some newcomers feel unwelcome", "some people are disdainful and dismissive", and especially "culture of making sure your own needs are met") remind me of the Geek Social Fallacies post. I can summarize the Geek Social Fallacies post as follows: "some people are jerks; if you encounter a jerk, you shouldn't feel obliged by politeness or niceness to interact with them."

This aspect of Raemon's post seems directly in opposition to the GSF post: Raemon admits that some people are "disdainful and dismissive", and I'm guessing he would admit that some of the people that are attracted to the rationality community are sometimes socially awkward, but he nonetheless asks how we can make the community more open and welcoming.

I think this post would be improved if it addressed this issue directly.

Replies from: Viliam
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-03T14:41:23.033Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seems to me that talking about "social awkwardness" conflates things that should be addressed differently.

For example, there are people who are too shy to speak, and hate to compete for attention, so at a LW meetup they would just sit in the corner and quietly listen. These people don't harm anyone else, only perhaps themselves. You may try to think about gentle ways to encourage them, for example by having a part of meetup where people split into smaller groups and have an informal debate e.g. while eating some food.

Then there are people who, for example, regularly try to monopolize someone else's time, and ignore subtle and gradually-less-subtle hints that the person is not interested. This is potentially harmful, although the intensity of the harm may greatly vary depending on the personality of the target. A more assertive target will leave the interaction after a minute or two, and feel mildly annoyed. A less assertive target may find themselves unable to escape, will spend the whole LW meetup in an unwanted interaction, and never come back.

While on individual level, a good strategy against unwanted interactions is becoming stronger (mentally, socially, physically); on group level, we should protect the weaker members and visitors against unwanted interactions.

Sometimes people use animal metaphors of e.g. "sheep" and "wolves", the good but defenseless people, versus strong predators. This typically includes a "shepherd dog" role, i.e. someone strong (and potentially dangerous) who uses their powers exclusively for protecting others. I would like to add two new species to this zoo.

A "hyena" is a relatively weak predator; unlike the wolf who attacks more or less indiscriminately (and consequently gets attacked by the shepherd dogs), hyena carefully avoids conflicts with anyone stronger, and tries to isolate a sheep from the herd, and attack it in privacy. And a "rabid sheep" is technically a sheep, and is correctly recognized as such by the shepherd dogs, except that it keeps biting everyone around. The difference is that while the shepherd dogs may have a difficulty to recognize the hyena, if they finally spot it, they know how to deal with it. But when they see (or even get bitten by) the rabid sheep, they are quite confused about what to do, since they are supposed to protect all the sheep, and more importantly, to attack any non-sheep who attacks the sheep (which would include any shepherd dog who would decide to intervene, which is why they don't).

To unpack the metaphor, a "hyena" would be a person with undesired behavior who carefully avoids the assertive or high-status members, and targets the weak and unconnected ones.The organizers may fail to notice the problem, or underestimate its importance, because they were not exposed to the worst forms of the behavior. A "rabid sheep" would be a member of a protected (formally or informally) group who makes the situation unpleasant for other members, but people outside the group are afraid that any action against that person would be interpreted as an action against the whole group; and sometimes the unpleasant person makes it quite explicit that this is, indeed, how they would publicly interpret any opposition. The remaining members of the same group are the only ones socially allowed to object, which is an unfair burden.

Seems like different kinds require more nuanced approach, i.e. greater social skills and better coordination in the group. To solve the problem of wolves, it is enough for the shepherd dogs to create a coalition... but this ignores the hyenas. To solve the problem of hyenas, a naive approach is to give a blanket power boost to the sheep... which creates the problem of rabid sheep. To solve all three problems together, and to do it in a way that can scale... well, I don't have a simple answer.

Replies from: ChristianKl, Lumifer
comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-11T11:10:17.527Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

For example, there are people who are too shy to speak, and hate to compete for attention, so at a LW meetup they would just sit in the corner and quietly listen. These people don't harm anyone else, only perhaps themselves.

There's no big harm but a person who sits in the corner can still influence the overall atmosphere of a meetup in a way that's not pleasant.

comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-03T15:45:11.213Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I like the zoo :-)

So a rabid sheep is distinguished from a wolf by, basically, being weak and incompetent? Kinda like a yappy chihuahua?

Replies from: Viliam, ChristianKl
comment by Viliam · 2017-04-04T11:26:29.850Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

There is the "confuses the shepherd dogs by technically being one of the sheep" aspect.

Imagine a situation when e.g. organizers of a huge rationalist meetups realize there are few women, and they decide to work extra hard to make the place friendly to women. And later, there comes one specific woman, let's call her Ms. X, who participates at the event, but also does something quite annoying. Asking her gently to stop doing the annoying thing has no effect. Some men feel annoyed, but they don't know what to do about it: friendly reminders don't work, and they have all precommited to make this a friendly place for women, so they don't want to be too confrontational. (A man with the same behaviour would probably at this moment be told to leave.) The women in the group are too few to create an opposition: let's suppose there are three women, first one actually doesn't mind the behavior, second one is shy and feels threatened by Ms. X's strong personality, and the third one is like "why am I supposed to solve the problem of Ms. X alone?". -- And this is just being annoying; now imagine that Ms. X is also verbally aggressive, or worse. But no man wants to be the one who tells a women to leave the group, after everyone has agreed that gender imbalance in the group is a problem that needs to be taken seriously. (And Ms. X has already complained in her blog about the perceived sexism in the group.)

Perhaps less political, but equally real example from different settings: Imagine an elementary school that makes its utmost priority that teachers are as friendly as possible towards the children. Makes sense, right? Now imagine that one child in a classroom starts bullying a classmate. The teacher tries various nice approaches, but none of them works. Less than nice approaches are explicitly forbidden by the school policy. Attempts to escalate the problem higher in hierarchy fail, because the director says something like "oh, they are just kids, stop exaggerating", or perhaps the director spends 5 minutes talking to the bully, and the bully is very polite to the director and explains that this is all just a big misunderstanding; then the director tells the teacher to stop bothering him with such trivialities anymore. Meanwhile, the victim is getting visibly depressed, stops paying attention in the class, etc.

Both situations have in common that you (in the position of the "shepherd dog") are unable to solve the problem without being pattern-matched to a wolf and most likely attacked by other, well-meaning dogs.

Replies from: Lumifer
comment by Lumifer · 2017-04-04T17:04:59.037Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Your example highlights the problems that arise when "this particular person" is replaced with "a representative of this class of people" -- a common thing in our age of identity politics.

The solution should be simple -- don't define sheep by what they look like, define them by what they do. That which spends its time munching grass is a sheep, that which runs around biting everyone is not, even though it may look like a sheep when standing still.

comment by ChristianKl · 2017-04-11T11:10:12.584Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

The first person that came to my mind was a shy insecure guy at a meetup with very strong body odor where nobody wanted to be near him because of the body odor.

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