In Vancouver, we're starting a Sequences reading group, because we're getting a bunch of new friends interested. Additionally, we have multiple CFAR alumni at our meetup, so that might lead to some interesting projects going on. I will attempt to take notes on this stuff, and I will either post it here, or generate a report about it in the future. Either way, I'm grateful for this reminder that taking notes and reporting them is something worthwhile. Thanks.
comment by eggman
· score: 5 (5 votes) · LW
Meetup report from Sunday: you'll notice I posted a meetup for a discussion group for Politics is the Mind-Killer.
For the last three years, the meetup has existed, but it wasn't so much of a 'rationalist community' as it was a 'philosophy and science fiction ideas discussion group'. There were about twenty people on the mailing list, but the average attendance for a meetup was 4-7, drawing from a pool of, like, 12, who ever showed up. It was mostly the same people over and over again. The highest number of people in attendance ever was at 9, probably.
This autumn we tried something different. We're trying to coordinate our meetup announcements, and generally invite more people. Attendance is regularly at least 10, and one time there was sixteen. We haven't adjusted for the meetup having more people, so when we overcrowd the cafe where we usually meet, we migrate our friend's house.
The problem is that we've brought in so many newcomers that we don't know how to prevent the meetup form diluting into a bunch of people spinning their wheels while they talk about vaguely intellectual sci-fi memes. Veterans of the meetup are mostly tired of that. We are also the problem, which is frustrating.
However, someone suggested the idea of a Sequences reading group.
My friends who suggested that meetup, and who I assumed would plan it, were very sick this weekend. So, I shouldered the responsibility. It was still an engaging afternoon, but it didn't go as planned.
Since we chose a location that couldn't fit all the people who showed up, we lost an hour to re-planning and moving around. I read the subsequence "Politics is the Mind-Killer" myself, and since I organized the event, I was assuming I was going to lead the discussion. What I was hoping for is that I could go over the major posts one by one for, like, ten minutes, and people could break into groups to discuss them. I didn't know where this would lead; the purpose of the group was to have a commitment to actually reading Less Wrong material, but I didn't know what we were supposed to actually do once everyone got to the meetup.
Since not everyone had read the sequence, I thought I would provide some examples of debates where political mind-killing happens. We went through a few examples, went through several more, and then we talked about the specifics of each issue. This went on for two hours. By the time people were talking about heliocentrism, and how to determine the status of a foetus, I realized this was far removed from talk about biases in political discourse.
I cannot find a source now, but I recall reading that it's a pattern in social psychology that conversations with more than six people naturally break up into two conversations. I've observed this doesn't hold for what appears to be a roundtable discussion where everyone assumes it's polite not to interrupt anyone else, even if it's only two or three people talking for ten minutes at a time about memetics, or something only they know about. The problem is the other ten people in the room are bored for a hour, and don't learn what we would hope they would learn, or anything else. In the future, I would hope that another friend and I can coordinate on giving the same presentation to two distinct groups at the meetup, so multiple conversations where everyone can participate evolve, rather than just one where at a given time only two people are participating.
I think some people were engaged. I think a lot of them will come back. I don't want them to think this is just a bunch of guys talking about things irrelevant to their lives, and they'll eventually get bored. The meetup has already had that problem. Reading facial expressions, and seeing people browsing their smartphones, I could tell a few were consistently bored. I suspect some of them left earlier than they otherwise would have felt inclined to because it was a stagnant conversation.
I don't mean to make it seem like the meetup was awful; it wasn't different than others. However, I was hoping for it to be something other than a generic discussion without a topic, and that is what it was. I want people to leave a meetup feeling like they've gained a valuable tool they can use to avoid mistakes in the future, not asking the question 'what do you mean by "rational", anyway?". So, I'm focusing on what went wrong, and I'm hoping for suggestions from others.
Note: edited for markup corrections and grammar.
comment by Ben_LandauTaylor
· score: 2 (2 votes) · LW
This is a great summary with lots of specific, actionable detail. I successfully transitioned the Boston meetup from "philosophy and science fiction ideas discussion group" to "awesome vibrant community," so I'll give some feedback.
The most important thing in making the transition is to have content at the meetings, such as presentations or focused discussion topics. It sounds like you're doing this already, and having some trouble with the execution. Some suggestions:
—Relying on people to prepare ahead of time doesn't work in practice, since not everyone will actually do the homework.
—Having someone prepare a talk is a great way to provide background info and a focus for later discussion. I bet a 10-minute, well-rehearsed presentation on mind-killing would've improved this meetup dramatically. Doing this reliably does take a bunch of work, so it's good to have several people willing to share the responsibility.
—It's really good if you can set up the space in a way that encourages people to break out into individual conversations. My best experiences at meetups have been in conversations with 3-5 people. It's also helpful if you explicitly establish the social norm that it's appropriate to leave a discussion when you're not engaged, both because listeners don't have to politely sit through stuff they don't like, and because speakers can trust that people actually want to hear what they're saying.
I'm happy to answer any questions or help brainstorm for future meetups. If you want to talk more, PM me to set up a Skype call or something.
comment by eggman
· score: 1 (1 votes) · LW
Thanks a lot for the input, Ben. The meetup has people trying to be heroes; we just need more practice. I'll install those social norms. I'll PM you if I have any more questions.