Reasons for and against posting on the EA Forum

post by MichaelA · 2021-05-23T11:29:10.948Z · EA · GW · 13 comments

Contents

  Summary
  The scope of this post
  1. Reasons that sometimes push in favour of posting
    1.1 Test your fit for various things
    1.2 Improve your knowledge, models, and skills
    1.3 Help other people improve the world (via your posts themselves)
    1.4 Credibly signal good things about you
    1.5 Build your network
    1.6 Enjoyment, satisfaction, etc.
  2. Reasons that sometimes push against posting
    2.1 Opportunity cost (i.e., you’d have to spend time and energy that you could otherwise spend on other things)
    2.2 Posting might not really improve - or might actually worsen - other people’s knowledge, models, skills, and priorities
    2.3 Information hazards
    2.4 Posting might harm your reputation, make it harder to build a network, or similar
    2.5 Posting might lead to unpleasant experiences
    2.6 Fear, anxiety, or aversion about posting
  See also
  Acknowledgements
None
13 comments

I think many people should be writing for or posting on the EA Forum more! And when giving career advice or talking to people with interesting ideas, one of the most common things I say is “Maybe you should start posting?”

But of course, not everyone should be posting to the Forum, and not all the time.[1] So how can people decide?

This post discusses reasons for and against writing for / posting on the Forum, which readers can consider in light of their specific situation in order to make decisions that are right for them.

Feel free to skim or jump around this post; each section should make sense by itself.

This post doesn’t necessarily represent the views of my employers.

Summary

  1. Reasons that sometimes push in favour of writing for or posting on the Forum include that doing so could help a person:
    1. Test their fit for various things (more [EA · GW])
    2. Improve their knowledge, “models”, & skills (more [EA · GW])
    3. Help other people improve the world (more [EA · GW])
    4. Credibly signal good things about themselves (more [EA · GW])
    5. Build their network (more [EA · GW])
    6. Gain enjoyment, satisfaction, etc. (more [EA · GW])
  2. Reasons that sometimes push against writing for or posting on the Forum include the possibilities that doing so could:[2]
    1. Have substantial opportunity cost (i.e., take up time and energy the writer could otherwise spend on other things) (more [EA · GW])
    2. Not really improve - or actually worsen - other people’s knowledge, “models”, skills, and priorities (more [EA · GW])
    3. Create information hazards [? · GW] (more [EA · GW])
    4. Harm the writer’s reputation, make it harder to build a network, or similar (more [EA · GW])
    5. Lead to unpleasant experiences after posting (more [EA · GW])
    6. Be something about which the writer feels fear, anxiety, or aversion (more [EA · GW])

I’ve put those reasons in roughly descending order by how much I think they should influence people’s decisions, in a typical case. But:

The scope of this post

1. Reasons that sometimes push in favour of posting

I’ll use italics for statements that are more like guesswork or based on my own experiences.

(Many of these reasons relate to EA’s ability to scalably use labour [? · GW], including our ability to improve the EA-aligned research pipeline [EA · GW] and deal with vetting constraints [EA · GW] and organisation capacity bottlenecks.)

1.1 Test your fit for various things

1.2 Improve your knowledge, models, and skills

1.3 Help other people improve the world (via your posts themselves)

1.4 Credibly signal good things about you

See also EA hiring [? · GW], EA is vetting-constrained [EA · GW], and this comment by Rob Wiblin [EA · GW].

1.5 Build your network

1.6 Enjoyment, satisfaction, etc.

AKA acquire additional utils

2. Reasons that sometimes push against posting

As above, I’ll use italics for statements that are more like guesswork or based on my own experiences.

2.1 Opportunity cost (i.e., you’d have to spend time and energy that you could otherwise spend on other things)

2.2 Posting might not really improve - or might actually worsen - other people’s knowledge, models, skills, and priorities

2.3 Information hazards

2.4 Posting might harm your reputation, make it harder to build a network, or similar

2.5 Posting might lead to unpleasant experiences

2.6 Fear, anxiety, or aversion about posting

See also

Acknowledgements

I’m grateful to Neil Dullaghan, Aaron Gertler, Peter Hurford, David Moss, and Saulius Šimčikas for comments on an earlier draft of this post. This does not imply that these people endorse all aspects of this post.


  1. I said that “not everyone should be posting to the Forum”. I think this is obviously true for the total world population, but only probably true for the EA community. It seems plausible to me that it would be both net positive and worth the opportunity cost for everyone in the EA community to at some point write one shortform post, share an adapted version of one essay they wrote for university, or similar. (Note that the Forum team could make some changes to the site, its features, its moderation, etc. if this started happening.) ↩︎

  2. Here’s an alternative way of categorising the reasons against writing posts for / sharing posts on the EA Forum:

    • Opportunity cost

    • Reasons why writing posts for / sharing posts on the EA Forum may have little value

    • Reasons why it may have negative value

    • Reasons that are more like personal preferences or unwarranted (yet understandable) worries

    ↩︎
  3. See also Should pretty much all content that's EA-relevant and/or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum? [EA · GW] ↩︎

  4. A possible example is getting better at reasoning transparency. ↩︎

  5. See also Should pretty much all content that's EA-relevant and/or created by EAs be (link)posted to the Forum? [EA · GW] ↩︎

13 comments

Comments sorted by top scores.

comment by cole_haus · 2021-06-06T05:21:04.328Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

This maybe could be assimilated under "opportunity cost", but I think a major potential downside is skewed incentives. To avoid that drawback you'd either have to believe that posters mostly aren't influenced by the mechanics of the Forum or that the mechanics of the Forum are closely aligned with the good.

Replies from: MichaelA
comment by MichaelA · 2021-06-06T09:16:31.932Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

To clarify, what sort of skewed incentives do you have in mind, or incentives for what? Like spending too much time writing more posts? Or like shifting your beliefs and arguments in worse ways to match the incentives on the Forum? 

FWIW, I currently see the former as a bigger deal than the latter, though still not a huge deal. I mentioned it in this comment [EA(p) · GW(p)].

Also, I think there's a third way that this drawback might not apply: The incentives associated with posting on the Forum could simply be better aligned with the good than the incentives that the person would be influenced by otherwise, even if not especially closely aligned with that in an absolute sense. We're already influenced by some incentives.

Replies from: cole_haus
comment by cole_haus · 2021-06-22T21:51:19.607Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Also, I think there's a third way that this drawback might not apply

Yeah, I thought about that and meant it to be included (somewhat sloppily) in the "closely aligned" proviso.

Or like shifting your beliefs and arguments in worse ways to match the incentives on the Forum?

Or shifting your attention.

I think things like upvotes and comments here provide multiple incentive gradients which seem possibly harmful. For example, I think based on a vague gestalt impression that the Forum tends to:

  • Encourage confidence and simplicity over nuance at some margin less than the IMO optimal
  • Disproportionately reward critiques and "drama" of a certain sort
  • Discourage highly technical content
  • Encourage familiar content and content areas

Many of these claimed problems are very understandable and seem hard to avoid in this kind of setting. People like things they're familiar with (looseley: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mere-exposure_effect); understanding and evaluating highly technical content either demands more time from readers or outright limits the audience size; if you don't have the expertise to evaluate and contextualize claims, confident claims seems more informative than cautious ones; etc.

Obviously, my claims here are pretty subjective and fuzzy and others could disagree.

comment by MichaelA · 2021-05-23T11:34:29.388Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

I’ll use this thread as a sort of “appendix”, listing some additional possible reasons for/against which I think are less genuinely important and/or less often a factor in people’s actual decisions. (So no obligation to read this!)

---

Here’s one thing that could perhaps sometimes push in favour of writing posts for / sharing post on the Forum:

Posting might increase your engagement with & retention in EA, & mitigate value drift [? · GW] 

  • There are multiple ways in which posting to the Forum could do this, some of which are related to the points covered in Section 1. These ways include:
    • Building a habit of engaging with EA
    • Making EA more a part of your identity
    • Helping you find an EA-relevant role, funding for EA-relevant projects, etc.
    • Helping you build your network of EA-adjacent people
    • Causing positive associations between engaging in EA and gaining enjoyment, satisfaction, attention, etc.
  • It seems safe to say that this result would often be a good thing, though it’s unclear how often, and it may also often be a bad thing
    • Personally, I think that mitigating value drift away from EA as a whole - and increasing retention in EA - is probably usually a good thing.
    • I also think increased engagement with EA among people who are lightly involved in EA and would become more engaged via posting would probably usually be a good thing.
    • I don’t know how often increased engagement with EA among people who are already pretty engaged with EA is a good thing; it’s probably also sometimes/often a bad thing, primarily due to opportunity costs (e.g., maybe they should spend more time engaging with other bodies of knowledge or other communities)
Replies from: MichaelA, MichaelA, Samuel Shadrach
comment by MichaelA · 2021-05-23T11:35:22.864Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here’s another possible - but probably less common or less clearly bad - reason against writing posts for / sharing posts on the Forum:

It could lead to something analogous to a social media “addiction”.

  • E.g., feeling continually drawn to post or comment, solely in order to get more upvotes, replies, attention etc.
  • This would basically be bad inasmuch as it might lead to the “reasons against” mentioned in my main post
    • E.g., it could lead to people writing for the Forum even when it’s not worth the opportunity cost for them, or even when if they often have an overall negative experience when doing so
  • But I think a mild version of something like this could be not actually bad, or possibly even good, inasmuch as it lead to the “reasons for” mentioned in my main post
    • E.g., it could help motivate people to capture those benefits
      • (This can be good inasmuch as someone might’ve otherwise been not very motivated about anything or motivated about less valuable things. It could be bad inasmuch as they’d have otherwise been motivated to do things that make more sense in their situation - e.g., spending more time on a PhD, if that’s what they should be doing.)
  • In my personal case:
    • I think I have sometimes been moderately addicted to the Forum, and other times mildly addicted. 
    • I think this was sometimes somewhat bad for me, but mostly about neutral or slightly good
      • And it’s been more consistently neutral or good since mid last year, since I’ve been more conscious about “managing” the level and results of this “addiction” since then
    • It’s worth noting that, for me, this is basically replacing a mild “addiction” to things like playing video games, doing stand-up comedy, or becoming a better high school teacher, or a general listlessness
comment by MichaelA · 2021-05-23T11:36:11.989Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here’s another possible - but less important and common - reason against writing posts for / sharing posts on the Forum: 

It could mislead you about your fit for various things, and worsen your knowledge, models, or skills

  • This is the flipside of the benefits discussed in Sections 1.1 and 1.2; see those sections for some relevant thoughts
  • But I think it would probably be silly to worry about this, and I’m not actually aware of anyone worrying about it
    • It seems very unlikely to me that writing posts for, and sharing writings on, the EA Forum would predictably have a net negative effect on any given person’s self-knowledge, knowledge, models, or skills
      • [That’s why I ended up cutting this from the post itself]
      • It might happen to freakishly have a net negative effect for some people, but I think the effect would be positive in expectation for any given person
      • I do think writing / sharing posts on the Forum could in many cases have less of a positive effect on those variables than an alternative activity would 
        • But that’s just a worry about opportunity cost, which I already mentioned separately 
    • The only reason I mention this anyway just for comprehensiveness
comment by acylhalide (Samuel Shadrach) · 2021-11-14T08:07:12.499Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

It isn't clear to me why reducing value drift - either in favour or against some EA ideas - is a bad thing universally. Keen to get your viewpoint.

Replies from: MichaelA
comment by MichaelA · 2021-11-14T08:20:46.349Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Do you mean "It isn't clear to me why reducing value drift - either in favour or against some EA ideas - is a good thing universally"? 

Usually - and in my comment above - the term value drift is used to refer to something more like drifting away from EA values as a whole, rather than shifting one's focus between different EA values/ideas/causes, which I think is obviously often good and probably more often good than bad (i.e., people probably update in good directions at least somewhat more often than in bad directions).

I think value drift away from EA values as a whole is usually bad, but even that's obviously not always  bad (at least when you consider cases where a person was very focused on EA explicitly and then they move towards pursuing similar goals but with less focus on EA specifically). And indeed, I note above that "increas[ing] your engagement with & retention in EA, & mitigat[ing]  value drift [? · GW] "would often be a good thing, though it’s unclear how often, and it may also often be a bad thing".

Replies from: Samuel Shadrach
comment by acylhalide (Samuel Shadrach) · 2021-11-14T10:14:49.210Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thanks for your reply. Yup I meant "good".

And aren't your claims subjective, i.e., they come from your perspective. Like:

Person A believes EA is important. Person A's values are not drifting

Person B believes EA is important. However, person B's values are drifting towards EA being less important.

Your comment across as you being person A determining what is good or bad about person B. Which is a valid thing to do, but I was more keen on why person B themselves would reason whether drift in their own values is a good or bad thing for them.

Replies from: MichaelA
comment by MichaelA · 2021-11-14T13:46:14.317Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Yeah, I'm indeed thinking about what's good in a moral sense / for the world / "from the point of view of the universe" / from my perspective, not what's good from another person's perspective. But it can also obviously be the case that from Person B's current perspective, their values drifting would be bad. And we could also think about what people want in the moment vs what they want when looking back / reflecting vs what a somewhat "idealised" version of their values would want, or whatever.

In any case, this sort of thing is discussed much further in posts tagged value drift [? · GW], so you might find those posts interesting. (I won't discuss it in detail here since it's a bit of a tangent + due to busyness.)

Replies from: Samuel Shadrach
comment by acylhalide (Samuel Shadrach) · 2021-11-14T14:54:39.517Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Thank you, I will check those posts out.

I'd also be keen on understanding what you mean by "from the point of view of the universe", as a moral non-realist myself, but I totally understand your time constraint.

comment by MichaelA · 2021-05-23T11:31:46.303Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Further, less important thoughts on “1.6 Enjoyment, satisfaction, etc.”:

  • Various parts of the posting process could lead to various different benefits of this type. For example:
    • The writing process could be intellectually stimulating, involve doing interesting research, cause a sense of satisfaction or pride about the finished product, and scratch an itch for creative expression.
    • Your post might get upvotes, attention, or positive or interesting comments. Or people might indicate in other ways - e.g., in a private message, a newsletter, or at a conference - that they appreciated your post. Or you might see more direct indications of impact from the work. This could be enjoyable, boost your self-esteem, feel fulfilling, etc.
    • Building your network (see the previous section) could lead to enjoyable interactions, more social support, etc.
  • Personally, my experience of writing for and posting on the Forum has indeed brought me more enjoyment and satisfaction than unpleasant feelings or dissatisfaction, even setting aside benefits to my knowledge, career, network, etc.
    • The same is also true for my experience of writing for and posting on LessWrong, though less so
comment by MichaelA · 2021-05-23T11:31:23.426Z · EA(p) · GW(p)

Here’s a less important point that was originally part of the section “Credibly signal good things about you”:

  • This could perhaps help reduce the likelihood that you get hired or funded for something you actually shouldn’t have been hired or funded for
    • It seems like in theory this could happen, if your posts provide evidence that you’re not a good fit for something
    • That might be good for you, for the hirer/funder, and for the world
      • E.g., being accepted to and starting a job you’re actually not a good fit for could be a painful experience and could slow your career progression down compared to where you’d be if you’d used the time some other way 
    • But I’d guess that someone’s posts would rarely be a decisive factor in a negative decision about whether to hire them, fund them, etc. 
      • And I’d guess that, when it is, that would often or usually be a mistake by the decision-maker
        • E.g., it might be the decision-maker interpreting a quick throwing-an-idea-out-there post from a year ago as strong evidence of what the person is now capable of when really trying