What caused EA movement growth to slow down?

post by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-12T05:48:44.184Z · score: 14 (9 votes) · EA · GW · 4 comments

This is a question post.


    16 casebash
    5 Denkenberger
    4 Habryka

Summary: It appears the annual growth rate of EA began dramatically slowing as late as around 2015-16, at around the same time EA started experiencing other bottlenecks, such as reported talent gaps at EA-aligned organizations. I explore the possibility of a relationship between a potential bottleneck for growth, and other bottlenecks in EA, and identify a potential common relationship between them to be a lack of organization or coordination of resources in EA. What specific factors have generated these bottlenecks is the answer I am seeking.

In my last question [EA · GW], I glossed over the origin of EA.

Historically, the following organizations were the earliest to be associated with what would become EA:
Givewell, launched in 2007
LessWrong, launched in 2009
Giving What We Can, launched in 2009
80,000 Hours, launched in 2011
It's with multiple organizations, and the communities that built up around them, connecting online that first developed the community that would become 'effective altruism.' This started in 2009. It was with the launch of 80,000 Hours in 2011 that community began to grow, and the label 'effective altruism' began to stick.

Going with the assumption EA began circa 2009, the following people would more or less qualify as part of the founding numbers of the what would become the EA movement at its earliest stage:

If we were to estimate the number of people who would have counted as 'effective altruists' in 2009 from this list, it could easily be around 100, and would probably not exceed 200. I joined the EA movement in 2011, so I would have been among the first several hundred people to join the EA community. In the first several years of EA, the movement was growing extremely rapidly, to the point it was nearly doubling in size, i.e., growing by 100%, each year. Some years the growth rate would have been lower, and some years higher, but a model assuming an average annual growth rate of 100% tracks the growth of the EA movement decently for the first several years of the movement's existence. If we assumed the number of people part of the EA movement in 2009 was 100-200, assuming EA had been doubling in size each year after, by 2010 the number would be between 200 and 400, and by 2011, between 400 and 800. If we plot this growth, we see how many people might be part of the EA movement by now.

2009 | 100-200

2010 | 200-400

2011 | 400-800

2012 | 800-1,600

2013 | 1,600-3200

2014 | 3,200-6,400

2015 | 6,400-12,800

2016 | 12,800-25,600

2017 | 25,600-51,200

2018 | 51,200-102,400

2019 | 102,400-204,800

In my last question, I also laid out what would be the peak estimate for the number of people part of the EA movement.

The biggest count for potential membership of EA is the 'Effective Altruism' Facebook group, which currently stands 16,482 members. So, at most, EA sits at between 10k and 20k members.

Were EA to have kept doubling in size every year through the end of 2019, we might expect to see up to ~200k people belonging to the EA movement. By the greatest estimate, no more than ~20k people are currently part of the EA movement. So, had EA sustained an annual average growth rate of 100% for each year of the 10 years it existed, it might be up to an order of magnitude larger than it currently is. It appears EA has been growing at a still significant but much more modest rate since. As it stands, it doesn't appear tenable to maintain EA sustained doubling in size each year past either 2015 or 2016.

As Jon Behar pointed out in his Framework for Thinking about the EA Labor [EA · GW] Market [EA · GW], the EA community has increasingly been discussing talent gaps since 2015. One thing that has significantly changed in EA since 2015 is the size of the grants made by EA-aligned foundation Good Ventures, and grantmaking organization the Open Philanthropy Project (Open Phil). Many other charities and other non-profit organizations the EA community has supported, through support from grants from Open Phil and other donors, are able to clear their room for more funding, and even their capacity for growth and expansion, each year. With a glut of people, and a glut of money, one plausible story for why the growth rate of EA slowed is because EA as an ecosystem acquired much greater amount of resources much faster than we have learned how to optimally allocate them. Ergo, growth of EA slowed as the community lost control of driving the growth rate of effective altruism as a movement.

From one angle, it is negative that the growth of EA has slowed. However, if EA has so many resources, it doesn't know how to spend them more to do the most good, it might make sense that resources are not wasted on extra growth that won't currently be applied to one or another cause. If there is a glut of effective altruists to either donate or work, but talent gaps remaining to be filled, and projects that don't receive sufficient funding that deserve it, a major problem in EA is a lack of coordination and organization of resources. Overall, the question of what the main bottlenecks to movement growth for EA remain, but it appears it may have a relationship to other bottlenecks in EA.


answer by casebash · 2019-05-12T22:48:38.877Z · score: 16 (9 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Maybe it's just a result of EA deciding to focus on fidelity rather than speed of movement growth + decreasing marginal returns on outreach

comment by Aaron Gertler (aarongertler) · 2019-05-13T07:45:52.688Z · score: 8 (4 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

This seems likely to me. I can think of several instances of cases where an EA organization had the chance to market certain content widely, but chose not to take it, because they preferred to focus on other work.

As one example, the EA Newsletter grew its subscriber list dramatically by advertising on Facebook, but no longer does so. I've surveyed subscribers to find out which actions the newsletter may have prompted (donating, career change. etc.), and almost all subscribers who took significant action found the Newsletter "organically" through prior involvement in EA (rather than having it advertised to them). This indicates that not trying to optimize for "number of subscribers" could make sense for the newsletter.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-14T05:40:02.882Z · score: 1 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Is there any reason the EA Newsletter no longer advertises on FB?

answer by Denkenberger · 2019-05-15T07:13:13.532Z · score: 5 (3 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

I hope that the slowdown is due to the high fidelity model. But I am concerned that it might be that we are getting closer to saturation, and following a sigmoidal curve. If you count all the media impressions for EA, I think it would be more like tens of millions (and many predisposed people have sought it out online already). Various people have posited the 1% of developed countries becoming EA. At points I have been even more optimistic by recognizing that more than 10% of people take 10% salary cut working for nonprofits or the government. However, for most people, there is a big psychological difference between taking a 10% pay cut and donating 10% (and there are other factors comparing jobs). Furthermore, you need not just effort or sacrifice, but to actually prioritize effectiveness. I am concerned that the coincidence of these two characteristics is relatively low. I think that we can continue to get growth by continually exposing new college students, hopefully in more colleges, and also by recruiting better in groups underrepresented in EA. But that probably won't produce the strong exponential growth of the past of EA. Has anyone done comparisons with say environmentalism or feminism? Because it seems like for them to have achieved such high penetration, they would have done something like doubling every year for decades.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-15T22:50:19.061Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

For me, one thing that is different about my perspective is I think the things that would need to change about EA that would make it tend to grow more are things that would make it more effective. I think I'm more willing to believe than other community members that EA as is isn't nearly as effective as it could be, and this is part of the reason why EA seems saturated. It's only saturated in its current form.

For example, I think it is possible to make the EA community both much more effective and much bigger while retaining its fidelity for each of its current goals, and I also think it would make things better and not worse for each cause. I think there is a fear that introducing new causes into EA is going to fracture the attention, and so whatever specific cause people are focused on, which they consider the most important problem in the world, will receive proportionally less attention from new people introduced into EA. However, I haven't seen evidence this is the default growth model EA actually follows. It also doesn't take into account the following:

  • Focusing on new, different causes will introduce new people into EA who are already put off of EA by its lack of focus on causes they consider fit for EA, like climate change. So, it only grows EA, and attention to EA as a whole, to introduce new causes, as opposed to steering away resources from cause areas with a pre-existing presence in EA.
  • EA as a whole has not previously employed growth strategies for the movement's overall goals.
  • Sub-communities in EA can capitalize on growth in EA for themselves, and have also not previously employed optimal growth strategies for their goals.

In general, I wouldn't be surprised if there are a lot of deficiencies in how we have thought and still think about movement growth, and community-building and consciousness-raising for various goals in EA.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-16T01:16:20.825Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Knowing about the history of various social movements, one thing about environmentalism and feminism is they were much more growth-oriented than EA is. I.e., massive growth was a necessary instrument for those movement's to achieve their historical goals. Some of the goals of the EA community will benefit from a strong, growth-oriented social movement more than others. For a lot of the EA community's goals, high-fidelity growth could be beneficial, but it doesn't seem like one of the most crucial factors in goal achievement.

So, there is a lot less enthusiasm to growth in EA than there historically has been in environmentalism and feminism. That isn't to say the quality or quantity of resources dedicated to community-building in EA is way worse than it could or should be. I think how EA has handled movement-building has been decent or adequate so far. I know a lot of other movements and communities that are a lot less organized and coordinated. Relative to other movements, environmentalism and feminism were two of both of the most growth-oriented, and most successful at growth, among all social movements of the 20th century. Since the achievement of feminism's and environmentalism's goals have historically required them to be much bigger than EA has needed to be so far, and for each member of these movements to be so involved, they have pursued these goals much more than EA has ever needed to so far. These movements have also been around for much longer, and because they are so much bigger, they have had opportunities in even the last several years to grow that EA never has.

Another thing to keep in mind with the model of an average annual growth rate of 100% I introduced for thinking about movement growth in the OP is not actually representative of real data in EA. For periods of exponential growth of various movements, I would think modelling the movement's membership size doubling every year would have a rough fitness for average growth of many different movements. However, it is very imprecise and often inaccurate for the quantitative reality of how different movements grow, and it excludes crucial info about the quality of growth. So, for example, in the history of EA, I wouldn't be surprised if the growth rate in EA from one year to the next was for some years much higher than 100%, and for some years somewhat below 100%. It just turns out the average growth rate of EA over the years 2009 to 2015 or 2016 can easily be modelled at 100%.

I know in the history of feminism, feminism has indeed come in waves.

  • 1st-wave feminism: started in the mid-19th century, but achieved its most critical growth and success in the English-speaking world between the 1890s and 1920s.
  • 2nd-wave feminism: hugely successful in the 1960s-70s. Fractures within feminism led to the movement's collapse by the early 1980s.
  • 3rd-wave feminism/4th-wave feminism: 3rd-wave feminism began in the 1990s, as the academic/intellectual turn feminism began taking with the 2nd-wave had developed over many years to the point it had solutions to the problems that had led to the 2nd wave's collapse. Intersectional feminism and sex-positive feminism began finding more success within the feminist movement among a new generation who didn't share the beliefs of second-wave radical feminists. While 3rd-wave feminism was characterized more by the evolution of feminism, as opposed to its rapid growth and superlative public success of the 2nd-wave, this laid the groundwork for the 4th-wave feminism of the present, with the return to political activism, consciousness-raising, and movement-building, and has seen huge growth.

Between the 1920s and 1960s; and between 1980 and 1990, the size of feminism, its rate of success, and its amount of influence, didn't merely decline but collapsed. So, it doesn't appear feminism has had average growth rates of 100% for the last century. Rather, between waves of feminism, the organized/activist feminist movement would have gone through a long period of negative growth, perhaps with an annual growth rate below -100%. Conversely, during a critical period of a few early years with each successive wave of feminism, the average annual growth rate appears as though it could have easily been well over 1000%. So, a generic 'doubling-every-year' model doesn't fit the historical peaks and valleys of feminism.

Environmentalism as a modern social movement has also existed in some form since the late-19th century. It doesn't fit a model of doubling in size or support every year until about the 1960s, at which point the rate of growth takes off to bring environmentalism to the level of support we see today. Looking at the history of environmentalism the growth rate of support has probably been in the triple-digits during some critical periods of growth, and definitely in the double-digits for most years since 1960.

As a political and social movement, public or institutional support of socialism of any kind around the world, outside of pre-existing communist countries like China, Cuba, or Vietnam, collapsed to virtually nothing after the fall of the Soviet Union. However, since then, support for socialism has regrown to the point:

  • Socialist parties have been elected to government in several countries in Latin America.
  • Socialist parties have occasionally formed government or part of a coalition government, and generally found continuing success (perhaps until the last several years) in Europe.
  • Support for social democracy/democratic socialism, and support social democrat/democratic socialist politicians like candidate for Democratic Party nomination for the 2020 U.S. Presidential election Bernie Sanders, is as high as it has ever been in the United States.

So, similar to feminism, support for socialism as a political movement rapidly collapsed, i.e., extremely high negative growth rate. Also like feminism, the growth rate of support for socialism has steadily increased in various countries around the world, and could be experiencing growth rates of over 100% in countries like the United States in the last few years.

comment by Denkenberger · 2019-05-17T05:15:01.764Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks! I was thinking environmentalism in the 1960s might have grown 100% per year from very niche to broad support. Of course the bar for considering oneself as an environmentalist is much lower than EA, basically consisting of recycling and saying one supports clean air and water.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-17T07:37:55.486Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, in the modern history of environmentalism and environmental movements, the highest period of growth, activity, and success was in the 1960s-70s. Environmentalism was one of the new social movements of the 1960s that was able to sustain a consistent amount of activity and progress of some kinds, such as the enduring popularity of conservationism, through to the present. Of course, one difference for environmentalism than those other social movements was the problems it was facing keep getting worse over time, with climate change, mass extinction, biodiversity loss, environmental destruction, and natural resource depletion. One of the greatest successes of the environmentalism since then was the role it played in the global response to ozone hole crisis. Since then the movement has expanded into countless other movements. As you yourself notice, this has led to environmentalism as its fractured becoming much more watered down to the point to lots of people it doesn't seems like a movement that currently accomplishes much at all. A lot of new energy has poured into environmentalism because of concern over climate change in the last several years, which probably constitutes the greatest growth of environmentalism since the '60s-70s.

Obviously climate change and those environmental problems remain unsolved. In spite of EA not focusing on this important problem as much because everyone else already seems focused on it, it doesn't seem like nearly enough progress is being made by others. So I understand why there is a great demand for more focus on climate change in EA, since a mindset effective altruism could bring to climate change seems like exactly the thing many effective altruists most worried about climate change think would produce the best solutions.

This is how the current inadequacy of both environmentalism and effective altruism in the face of climate change dovetail with each other. Honestly, I'm not sure what the next step is either than to figure out what an effective environmentalism or climate change movement would be like, and make a bold push through effective altruism and other movements to build that. Hopefully EA will begin tackling that issue in the future, since so much dissatisfaction with the lack of an adequate response to climate change in EA is finally motivating more effective altruists to start talking about the subject.

answer by Habryka · 2019-05-17T05:59:45.129Z · score: 4 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

As someone who is quite familiar with what drives traffic to EA and Rationality related websites, 2015 marks the end of Harry Potter and the Methods of Rationality, which (whatever you might think about it) was probably the single biggest recruitment device that has existed in at least the rationality community's history (though I also think it was also a major driver to the EA community). It is also the time Eliezer broadly stopped posting online, and he obviously had a very outsized effect on recruitment.

I also know that during 2015 (which is when I started working at CEA), CEA was investing very heavily in trying to grow the community, which included efforts of trying to get people like Elon Musk to talk at EAG 2015, which I do think was also a major draw to the community. A lot of the staff responsible for that focus on growth left over the following years and CEA stopped thinking as much in terms of growth (I think whether that was good or bad is complicated, though I mostly think that that shift was good).

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-17T07:19:53.023Z · score: 1 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, there were a couple other organizations that might have been able at one point to take advantage of naturally occurring opportunities for growth of the EA movement, or what we might call EA's constituent sub-communities. For various reasons, they also couldn't or at least didn't end up prioritizing the growth of EA.

I think it would be beneficial, and perhaps necessary for some goals, to attract more and more different kinds of people than are currently in the EA community to join. One could also specify just the 'existential risk reduction' community, or 'effective animal advocacy', but for whichever community, it's hard to imagine whichever group in EA as it exists now is more optimal than any other way they could be configured in the future. So to become better at achieving our goals, perhaps EA doesn't need to grow as much as we need to adapt or change. That seems like it will eventually entail attracting some more new people to effective altruism as a movement/community.

I think one reason other effective altruists are less optimistic about prospects of growing the EA movement than I am is because they think for the amount of resources that have previously been invested in movement growth, the success has been mixed, and it's unclear what among what has been tried worked best. I agree, and that is why I have been trying to figure out ways to grow EA as a movement with greater fidelity than we have a community have been able to in the past. I hope to publish some of those ideas in the near future.

A lot of those ideas are still more theoretical than practical. So I don't think they can be quickly applied to grow EA anyway. Ultimately, I agree it's not a bad thing that EA's movement growth has slowed, since it's unclear right now how the community would take advantage of such continued rapid growth.


Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by Peter_Hurford · 2019-06-02T04:17:09.791Z · score: 12 (6 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

You might be interested in a new set of EA growth metrics that I compiled [EA · GW]. It argues that EA growth is indeed slowing down (though EA has not stopped growing) and this could be mostly (but not fully) explained by the "high fidelity" model. In particular, I think the "high fidelity" model may have failed if we also see a plateau or decline in some metrics like career changes or donations made, which may happen soon (but hasn't clearly happened yet).

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-06-02T23:17:41.119Z · score: 2 (1 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, that looks interesting. Thanks for letting me know. I'll check it out.

comment by utilitarian01 · 2019-05-12T14:20:56.426Z · score: 5 (5 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

If you make the definition of EA "anyone who donates to an EA charity" then the movement is much bigger, there's more than 20K people in the world donating to effective charities. The Humane League alone has 1.1M followers on facebook, assuming only 200K of those donate, that's still the same as the double every year number. I'd say anyone that donates would be considered an EA in my book, even if they don't self-identify as one.

comment by Evan_Gaensbauer · 2019-05-12T22:04:10.748Z · score: 3 (2 votes) · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, this is an issue with defining EA. "Self-identification" is the only clear criterion for "being part of EA". There is nothing useful as a metric about it. EA is not the kind of movement where it makes sense to ask "how many effective altruists are there?" It's just how I framed my thinking about growth rates and bottlenecks, since that is the question I see lots of people asking people all the time. It is a familiar framing.

If someone has a specific question about change in the amount of resources moved through EA in a particular way, it is a lot easier to pinpoint a bundle of things to measure, and that usually provides an answer, like with what you're doing.