The EA forum is not a forum in the traditional sense, and this difference in structure may be limiting the spread of good ideas and reducing the amount of engagement people have with EA online.
When looking at other forums, they usually have quite a different structure (student room, financial independence, skyscrapers). The main difference is having many sub-forums, each having different posting expectations and topics. The EA forum acts more like a news feed, with highly voted content staying visible for a bit before disappearing.
It may be that there isn’t enough traffic to warrant having sub-forums but it could also be that the current design of the EA forum limits the breadth and depth of conversations that can happen here. This may be why there is quite a lot of EA related discussion on Facebook, there are over 300 different Facebook groups related to different causes, topics and locations.
TL/DR bullet points
Hard to find relevant groups/topics
Forum can give an underwhelming impression
Hard to find the current best knowledge about a particular cause or career
Missing out on possible connections
Can be intimidating to post on the forum
Conversation is forced onto Facebook which limits some people from engaging
When people want to see what is going on in EA, it can often be quite hard to navigate the different groups and topics, and they may be unaware of different groups, or the latest charity and career recommendations for a specific cause.
I have spoken to a few people who have been underwhelmed by the forum content, they spend a few minutes navigating, check out all posts and see a random assortment of topics that can usually be quite badly written with little engagement and decide not to come back. Also if people have a particular expertise it’s hard for them to know that a relevant post was here a month ago and they could contribute, if the only way to filter is via two tags.
If instead, an example engineer interested in biosecurity, checks out both the “careers->engineering” sub-forum and the “causes->biosecurity” sub-forum, see the top stickied posts which give an up to date landscape of both areas and scrolls down to see relevant conversations, they may be more interested in adding to the knowledge base. At the moment it can sometimes seem that even good posts can just drop off the news feed and only stick around if people create google docs with links or commit to their long term memory.
It could limit connections being made if people are unaware that there is a Schelling point space for someone in their career and don't come across the relevant Facebook group until a few years later or potentially never.
People have also mentioned that it can be intimidating to post on the EA forum, or that they are worried about getting attacked in the comments. If there were areas where people could post in a more casual way, it may encourage more conversation. At the moment this is only seen in the open thread every few months rather than a dedicated sub-forum where these kinds of questions could be asked, or an area for new people to ask questions or introduce themselves without fear of being reprimanded or wasting the time of other users.
Another disadvantage of having lots of conversation on Facebook is there is a substantial minority of people who don't use or try to limit their Facebook usage.
Some possible drawbacks of having a more traditional style forum could include:-
It may be harder to connect with someone else as you can’t just click on their name and add them as a Facebook contact
There may not be easy ways to restrict entry to certain sub-forums. At the moment there are Facebook groups with people working in specific careers or locations that can filter new members with closed groups which ask questions before joining. If this wasn’t possible it could lead to lower quality discussions with people who don’t know a topic dominating sub-forums
People don’t use their real names as much, which may affect how people discuss
People may check the forum less than Facebook, and conversation could be slower
There may not be enough usage to justify many sub-forums
To create something like this would take time/money that could be better used
It may reduce usage of Facebook groups which are providing more value in their current set up, and end up just duplicating what already exists and splitting conversations
There could be more visibility of off putting and idle conversations that happen on Facebook, that new people may take as representing EA
The average post quality would likely be lower
I think it is at least worth spending some time to think about what you would want the EA forum to be if you were to create it from scratch. What the purpose of the forum is, and the best ways of achieving those goals.
It sounds like maybe a low-touch / low-effort way of resolving this issue would be a more robust tagging system for posts? So that you could just tag your post "careers" "biosecurity" for other people to easily find it? And anyone interested in biosecurity could browse (or even subscribe to) the "biosecurity" tag?
I do think lost content is a big issue, especially given that it seems surprisingly difficult to find EA Forum content via online search.
I've been searching for EA articles on some issues lately and discovered so many old posts that were made even before I knew about the EA forum, but are just as relevant today. If volunteers would add tags for old posts, they could be rediscovered by newer EAs and I think there is a lot of value in that. And I think you could easily find volunteers for this task because they would learn a lot about EA when browsing and tagging old posts.
Another option is to use topic modeling software to automatically infer & assign tags. I might be interested in working on this. An advantage of using software is that it doesn't require continuous volunteer commitment.
A recommendation system which displays related posts could also be helpful for discovery.
People often assume that tagging is strictly better than sub-forums because it is more flexible, but categories have advantages too. For one, it is easier to filter them out, since there are less categories. Additionally, if you visit one category, then another, you are less likely to see duplicate posts.
But I think first and foremost it is important to be "low touch" - my guess is that the population of EA Forum readers who wants subforums is a minority and hopefully they can be satisfied enough by growing to use tags while the majority* who like the forum as-is won't have to see a big change.
"low touch" also helps minimize needed dev time - tags and browsing do not seem nearly as difficult to implement.
When you consider more relevant costs that I mention in addition to the benefits, does that change how you think of tags as a solution? Or maybe you thought of these already?
*though again, guessing here - I don't have actual user data.
I think tags might be helpful, but would probably be used by very few people and still miss out the most important reasons for having a different structure.
Another thing to think about is that the forum as it currently is might be favoured by people who use it, but may miss out on the counterfactual people who would use an actual forum if it existed or bounce upon impact with this forum.
EA Forum dev here. At a high level, I think of the EA Forum* as being a group blog where anyone can post. I would group two themes of the problems as
1) “relevant content discovery is hard” and
2) “posting can be intimidating”.
My model is that you think 3) “discussion happens on facebook” is downstream of 1 and particularly 2.
I have progress to report on 1, so I can start with that. Finding good, old content is hard on any Forum, and I’m pretty happy with the way the Posts by Timeframe feature (previously mentioned [EA · GW]) worked out. You can see it live on the LessWrong version of the page [LW · GW]; we’ll be deploying it soon. Now you can scroll back through the weeks / months / years and find popular posts that you missed. I’m also most of the way through adapting the sidebar (seen on the left side of LW here) to make it easier to discover that the All Posts page exists.
It’s possible that sub-forums is the best way to solve this. However, I’m worried about a couple of things: a) that sub-forums would cause the specializations to ossify and remove valuable cross-pollination of ideas, and more mundanely, b) that I really want to be careful with the hard-to-reverse and disruptive change of moving to a sub-forum format. Both point in favor of tagging, which I’m somewhat more optimistic about.
Problem 2 I’m more uncertain about. I want people to have a lower bar for asking and answering questions [EA · GW]. The new shortform [LW · GW] feature from LessWrong will also help somewhat. But making the Forum easier to post to without lowering the quality level is a hard problem. See above for why I’m less optimistic about too hasty a switch to sub-forums to solve this.
Thanks for being an attentive observer and providing feedback.
* This also applies to LessWrong, whose codebase we forked.
On the topic of "writing posts is intimidating": This can definitely be true! I still remember the first time I submitted a full post to LessWrong, checking back every few hours for comments and wondering whether certain Famous (To Me) Internet People would see it.
On the content side, I'm trying to make writing posts easier by offering review of post drafts [EA · GW] (and ideas that haven't become drafts yet). I've only heard from a couple of people so far, and have lots of capacity to provide feedback!
sub-forums would cause the specializations to ossify and remove valuable cross-pollination of ideas
I really don't think this is a problem, I think there is already so much cross-pollination between people in different unrelated cause-areas within EA at EA Globals, other EA events, friendship groups created by these events, facebook groups, etc. And I'm not sure it's useful, there's too little overlap between topics like AI safety and animal welfare.
I somewhat agree. When I say "I'm worried about", I don't mean "I'm confident but using softening language" – I'm actually pretty uncertain. The meta point is that I'm worried about it and predict it would be hard to reverse.
On the object level, I'm less worried about AI safety and animal welfare so much as on the boundaries of related cause areas. For example:
1) Hardening currently fuzzy boundaries between different specialties of long-termism
2) Reducing the flow of context from object level work into the meta-EA space
3) Specialty knowledge sharing between cause areas, like outreach knowledge between farm animal welfare and global poverty
These seem like problems that one could at least largely address, but (back to the meta point) I'd expect doing so well would require at least a month's worth of work.
RE: 2) Posting on the forum can be intimidating is because a lot of EAs working at EA orgs read and interact on the forum fairly regularly (which is good!) and there may be the fear that by posting you will waste their time or (if you post under your real name) it may affect your reputation in the community.
In facebook groups on the other hand, there tends to be more interactions with the average community member, and the groups are semi-private, so only a small subset of the community will see what you post. (These are my impressions of the two platforms, I'm not sure if others feel that way) I'm optimistic about the shortform feature improving things, but i'm not sure by how much.
I think the present EA Forum is most like Reddit, among forms of social media, so yes, kinda like a news feed. But I think the Possible Drawbacks of switching to a classic forum are probably larger than the stated Problems with the current setup. I'd rather see the problems fixed within the current framework.
On the problems,
I would note that it's not super-easy to improve search, as Facebook and old-school forums were never particularly easily searchable either. My preferred way to fix this would be to have a search bar, where you can type any term and see the posts on that topic sorted by upvotes like here. [EA · GW]
The forum can indeed give an underwhelming impression. But perhaps this could be addressed by (i) having posts accompanied by some of their content a la Reddit, by (ii) simply placing grey horizontal lines between the commented posts, in order to delineate them, or by (iii) darkening the text to improve readability and ease of engagement
On the drawbacks:
Increasing overall post quality is one of the primary challenges for the forum, so that seems like a serious cost of switching to a forum. Although sometimes people who will produce great content are intimidated from doing so, the reverse is also a problem, even in the current setting - that people who produce low-quality content will proceed to do it. I don't have a strong feeling that at present we should be pushing hard in one direction nor the other.
Overall, the picture is that the current problems might be easier to fix than those that would arise in a switch to an old-school forum.
Regarding making it less intimidating to post. I remember reading somewhere on the forum that one suggested solution if you have a more casual post is to ask moderators to classify it as a "Personal Blogpost" (or to write that you want your post to be classified as such in the post). Instead of this, there could be a checkbox "I want this to be a Personal Blogpost" with an explanation what that means. Posts that are classified this way do not appear in the front page and can only be seen by clicking on "All posts".
I don't think this would solve much but it is a low-touch change. Despite being aware of this, I myself have been hesitant to post some of my casual thoughts on the forum. I think it's because it's not obvious when something is classified as a personal blogpost and what does that mean. I'm afraid that my "I worked on this for three months, here are my conclusions" posts will lose legitimacy if I start making "I thought about this for 15 min" posts. It's a bit weird that we are trying to use the same website for both of these.
BTW, it's inconvenient that I can only see them amongst all the other posts, and I'd like it to be possible to filter for them in "All Posts" page so I could see what I missed by looking at the front page. ↩︎
LessWrong has a "Moderators may promote [to the frontpage]" checkbox (defaults to checked), which allows you to keep your post on your personal blog. We removed it because it was confusing and we have a different view of personal blogs than LessWrong does. I could imagine trying to make personal blogs more of a thing and reenabling that checkbox (with a better name).
...an area for new people to ask questions or introduce themselves without fear of being reprimanded or wasting the time of other users.
The "Ask Question [EA · GW]" feature is meant to give people a way to ask questions about introductory EA concepts (or other questions, of course).
When I communicate with new people, I try to emphasize that they aren't wasting anyone's time, and I hope that our About page also helps to get this message across.
It's possible that a dedicated "introduce yourself" thread could be useful (though I'd probably want to disable voting, as it's a bit weird to have your introduction voted on). Forum bios [EA · GW] are also a reasonable way to do this without a dedicated thread.
Also, I've been happy to see that the Forum hasn't developed a pattern of "reprimanding new users". I wish this were easier to communicate to new users! (As I mentioned elsewhere on this thread, it's understandable to feel intimidated when you join a new community.)