What have we learned from meetups?

post by sixes_and_sevens · 2015-03-30T13:27:26.119Z · LW · GW · Legacy · 23 comments

We've been running regular, well-attended Less Wrong meetups in London for a few years now, (and irregular, badly-attended ones for even longer than that). In this time, I'd like to think we've learned a few things about having good conversations, but there are probably plenty of areas where we could make gains. Given the number of Less Wrong meetups around the world, it's worth attempting some sort of meetup cross-pollination. It's possible that we've all been solving each other's problems. It's also good to have a central location to make observations and queries about topics of interest, and it's likely people have such observations and queries on this topic.

So, what have you learned from attending or running Less Wrong meetups? Here are a few questions to get the ball rolling:



If you have other specific questions you'd like answered, you're encouraged to ask them in comments. Any other observations, anecdotes or suggestions on this general topic are also welcome and encouraged.


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comment by Elo · 2015-03-31T08:20:52.578Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

(I run the Sydney group with @Taryneast)

We seemed to uncover our own version of dunbar's number with groupsize. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dunbar%27s_number in trying to hold a group discussion with more than about 11 people. very quickly we break off into two smaller groups. At first it was annoying because we lost focus and then we decided it was better and ended up being good discussions in two groups as long as we compared notes after between the groups.

We have 4 types of meetups; pub-social-type, dojo-focus-type, active-healthy-fun-social-type, indoors-home-online-type. These allow for a lot of variety and we seem to have 2-3 each month.

We (the organisers) had a genuine problem when after 6 months of good meetups we asked ourselves - how do we know we are being effective at our goals? (being something along the lines of; social, improve effectiveness of the people who attend, improve the lives of the people who attend)

Where its easy to be doing well at "social" its not so easy to work out if we were doing well at improving the lives of our constituents. We came up with one idea and that was to survey people; did it once. Did not yield valuable information (although we had doubts about self-reporting anyway). Would love to know how other meetups have worked out if they were being effective at what they are trying to do. Also what are the goals/purposes of your meetups?

We have a commitment ritual where in our dojo-serious meetup people can choose to commit to a task to be done by next month. tasks people have committed to include; tidying the back room, losing 1kg, mowing the lawn, one chapter of physics, read one book by next month, do a coze activity, set up a system to listen to music while running, spend 10 hours working on a programming project. Although anything could be a set-able task. We always make sure to ask for a concrete goal - one where you will know if you succeeded or failed. and make sure to get them all recorded, and check up one month later. We have a whole set of information about goals and goal-setting which we have run more than once (similar to the CFAR stuff because we have alumnis) which I am happy to write down if there is interest.

Lesswrong is less work than other things I have organised, and people are thrilled to attend, where in other groups I have felt burdened to be the one organising, as well as like it was hard work to do. people just seem to turn up. in other groups we seemed to be missing something in the "motivate attendees" equation. Also in other groups there have been fights to reach the top, and to be the leader or coordinator. I would happily give up my position of "the one who organises things" if anyone asked, but so far no one has.

We used to set topics for our pub-friendly-meetup, Usually following on from the conversation of the last meetup. Once the conversation was heavily about finance so we set the next meetup about finance and got a poor attendance. Shortly after (and now) we have been topic-less during the pub meetup and let the conversation flow. Anyone can ask a question to the group, and anyone can contribute. At the time of running the finance meetup it seemed like a really valuable topic to talk about, (following on from health management, organising life) and the discussion topic from the meetup before, I am still unsure why we didn't have piles of attendees.

I received a few piece of feedback that people felt "this topic is not my interest" and excused themselves from the meetup because of it, even though most of the meetup was free discussion followed by sharing ideas on the topic. This is why the pub meetup is now topic-less and will probably stay that way to encourage visitors from new people.

I recently had a battle with myself over encouraging attendees VS being content with as many as we have; on the one hand - growth is good, on the other - reaching out too far and we collect people who are not as interested and not ready to delve in. I have personally slowwed down to let people naturally find us.

Our core is around 10 people, of which 5-7 usually attend events, we have 3 organisers, we have a mix of age, profession, education, background, genders (basically everything). At most meetups our core will equal the number of new attendees (never before attended).

So far we have done no outreach rationality, we probably will not do any for a while.

the only really measureable outcome we have right now is that - yes we are being social.

The only systems we have in place to cutoff bad topics are knowingly placing eye contact between the 3 organisers to try to direct opinions as to whether to cut someone off or let them keep going. its a super secret that no one knows, we didn't even try to make it happen, we just do it. So far it hasn't been bad enough for any major action, only mildly bad for short periods of time.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke, Kaj_Sotala, luminosity
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-31T21:28:34.759Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

We seemed to uncover our own version of dunbar's number with groupsize in trying to hold a group discussion with more than about 11 people very quickly we break off into two smaller groups.

This is a well-known result from organizational psychology where meeting with more than 12 people just don't work. I first read about this in Christopher Alexander's 'A Pattern Language: Towns, Buildings, Construction'. A quick google returns e.g. this: http://www.iwritewordsgood.com/apl/patterns/apl151.htm

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2015-04-06T02:35:58.653Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

to clarify: by uncover I mean; we confirmed its existence by noticing it ourselves, then someone mentioned it by its name and we looked it up and found so many useful pieces of information.

comment by Kaj_Sotala · 2015-04-09T13:51:01.806Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

At first it was annoying because we lost focus and then we decided it was better and ended up being good discussions in two groups as long as we compared notes after between the groups.

Helsinki meetups have had a habit of explicitly breaking people into small groups (of about three people), letting them discuss the current topic for a while, and then breaking up and re-forming new groups so that everyone ends up talking to people they didn't talk with in the previous round. Repeat this until out of time.

Seems to work okay and is also useful in making sure that the quieter/less assertive people also have a chance to speak. I like to imagine it also helps reduce groupthink, if we ever were in a situation where that was relevant, because a person who proposes an idea in one group won't get to spread their idea to other groups until before the people in the other groups have already considered different ideas.

comment by luminosity · 2015-04-09T11:11:54.428Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

One extra note I'd add. We've had a few events where another group, or a fraction thereof, and our group combined for the event. I'd recommend strongly against these unless you think there is significant demographic overlap, as I felt it strongly diluted the event, both in terms of group feel and also in terms of group focus.

Replies from: taryneast
comment by taryneast · 2015-04-11T13:15:30.869Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

HPMOR wrap-party being a good example of an exception where it worked fairly well... but I'd be curious about your experience with examples that didn't work.

comment by taryneast · 2015-03-31T06:50:35.266Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I recommend splitting your meetups into "mainly social" vs "mainly actually doing exercises towards improving rationality"

As with many things, people split into "actually want to do some work towards this" vs "mainly want to hang with like-minded people and enjoy myself" (neither of which is a problem)... but keeping the activities separate so that those that want to work on each can self-select, worked much better than trying a mixture of the two.

comment by Vaniver · 2015-03-31T18:08:13.716Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

I'm the de facto organizer of the Austin meetup, which has been meeting weekly for approximately 4 years. It has mostly been socializing at a coffeeshop, eating dinner at a home, or board games, and typical attendance has ranged from 3 to 9. I think a dozen was the most people we ever had at one time outside of the HPMoR wrap party. We have a fairly smooth gradient from regular members (people that show up every week) to people only on the membership list.

My impression is that socialization starts to fall apart at about 4 people, and becomes very unwieldy by 8 (speakers; listeners are basically free, which is why talks and debates work). Outside of a party format (where creation and fragmentation of groups is easily encouraged), though, splitting up doesn't seem to work that well (if you're sitting at two tables at a coffeeshop, say, or having multiple conversations at one table, it's difficult to reconfigure people so that people are close to who they want to talk to, as topics and mutual interests change).

What's stopping you?

The main issue stopping us from doing more is a lack of spare attention and energy, I think. It seems like there's a low effort attractor where people meet up at the same time at the same place and just socialize, and the high effort attractor where there are lots of things going on that cater to many peoples' interests and accomplish things. A recurring question is how much energy to put into main projects and side projects--we could, say, go learn to swing dance as a group, which would have a number of positive effects, but would come at the expense of whatever people would have spent that time on otherwise--which, presumably, would have had their own positive effects. Time I would spend on, say, generating talks for a LW meetup probably competes with time I would spend on, say, writing posts for LW, and it's not clear to me that it's better to do the former than the latter.

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2015-04-08T22:34:36.784Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

you should allocate some time to free-experimentation. When you discover that one activity was clearly better than another, you can change to the better one. Until then (and even after) having time to experiment (try new things) is valuable in itself.

the advantage of taking LW participants swing dancing (for example) is that you get to swing dance AND spend time with LW friends at once. (being more efficient than just doing one or the other)

comment by Viliam_Bur · 2015-03-31T16:09:38.781Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you suppose are the dominant positive outcomes of your meetups?

Meeting interesting people.

Unfortunately, at the meetups I've organized we didn't get further.

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2015-04-08T22:35:37.531Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Did you at least talk about interesting things?

Replies from: Viliam_Bur
comment by Viliam_Bur · 2015-04-13T06:50:47.319Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Depending on the day. But most of the time, yes. As a chatting club, we were rather okay. As a rationalist group... not so much.

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2015-04-16T07:19:18.889Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

that was how we were in the begining. It got better.

comment by taryneast · 2015-03-31T06:48:11.229Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

How do Less Wrong meetups differ from other similar gatherings you've been involved with? Are there any special needs idiosyncratic to this demographic?

To mention one minor thing. I've helped run many self-catered events for a medieval recreation society.. and one for the Less-Wrong crowd, and the biggest difference in terms of catering was the significantly-different ration of vegetarians.

While in the medieval society the proportion tends to be around 5-10% vegetarian (which you can generally help out by providing a few vegetable dishes alongside your main fare), the proportion at the LessWrong group was 30% all-vegan, and required basically making two main meals - one catered to vegans.

Note: this is one datapoint on the LessWrong side of things - it caught me off guard when planning.

Replies from: Gunnar_Zarncke
comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-31T21:31:06.906Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Can confirm a high veg*an fraction.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-30T21:03:31.300Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Are there any activities that you've found work particularly well or particularly poorly for meetups?

A different location can help to focus and leaved beaten tracks.

Do you have examples of runaway successes or spectacular failures?

I had a spectacular success by preparing a complicated riddle which challenged everybody (a kind of combined paper chase/rally/puzzle). I had quite some fun preparing it and everybody in solving it (including unexpected shortcuts).

It was not for a LessWrong-Meetup but close.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-30T20:55:14.060Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What problems do you encounter with discussions involving [x] people?

(for x = 3 to 6): Keeping focus. In this group size everybody has a good chance to be heard and to contribute equally. This is good and well - as long as participants stay focussed. If two get engaged in a side topic the discussion may spontaneously split (and remerge) but focus is lost.

How have you attempted to remedy them?

Either by leading or at least moderating the discussion. Or acceptance of the splits. If the side topics have their own merit then it may be acceptable - at this group size.

I'd venture the guess that this could be a problem of early groups where no norms regarding this have formed osmotically.

I notice that having a large "FOCUS" card can help - if the group accepts that norm.

comment by Gunnar_Zarncke · 2015-03-30T20:48:32.825Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

What do you suppose are the dominant positive outcomes of your meetups?

The feeling of having achieved some understanding of some subject. At least the feeling. Probably some real understanding. Jointly achieving something, making progress feels good.

comment by [deleted] · 2015-03-31T15:55:53.664Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Here's a good post that came out of a meetup: http://lesswrong.com/lw/iri/how_to_become_a_1000_year_old_vampire/

Some people said they didn't like it but I think it's a very very VERY nice "foreword", in comparison to Eliezer's stuff which is kinda more "hardcore" in a way.

Replies from: Elo
comment by Elo · 2015-04-08T22:52:19.884Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Who wrote that post? I would like to chat with them...

Replies from: gjm
comment by gjm · 2015-04-08T23:57:07.709Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

A user who has deleted their LW account. It's actually pretty easy to find out who, but it seems kinda rude to say publicly since they presumably had a reason for the deletion. Someone who I bet is the same person has I-think-still-active accounts under the same or very similar names elsewhere on the internet.

If knowing that it's not hard to find out who wrote the post isn't enough to enable you to do it, PM me and I can tell you. This doesn't constitute an offer to tell anyone else; even this much seems a little rude to the original author.

comment by Elo · 2015-04-16T07:21:35.394Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

also worth adding to this thread - https://www.facebook.com/groups/LesswrongOrganizers/ this is where organisers talk sometimes.

comment by kingmaker · 2015-03-30T16:46:23.115Z · LW(p) · GW(p)

Seeing as I'm new here, absolutely nothing