Response to Community-Building in Effective Altruism

The way I wrote it above was strongly worded for effective altruists do gain a background. I think immersing oneself in the more substantive, well laid-out, intentional blog posts is important. My prior comment made it sound like this applies to conversations on Facebook. One problem is some major historical discussions in effective altruism happen in groups like this. But those aren’t well-tracked, and nobody just copies and collects the hyperlinks for reading at a later date.

So what we’re is to follow the important Facebook posts all the time from the right people and the right groups to learn about positions which become tacit common knowledge as time goes on. It’s not just that we’re saying “pay more attention on Facebook”, but it’s like sorting through a puzzle to figure out what sources of information are considered acceptable or not. Effective altruism is an intricate network, and that some people have formed personal relationships over the years of social context making the network more intimate and not outgoing or attractive to newcomers can make entering some sort of “in-crowd” in effective altruism intimidating.

This is a problem Brian Tomasik has talked about in the past in “Why Make Conversations Public”. I think the long-time community members have institutional or community privilege in having the historical advantage of our experience in the community. We’re taking for granted everyone ought to know what we think are the best ideas now. If I think about this a bit though, I can empathize with those who find this attitude somewhat arrogant. These implicit expectations altogether can be intimidating, and can make gaining social traction in the effective altruism community unwelcoming. Like, moral excitement is touted and courted as a motivation for doing the most good, but people who get excited by EA and try to enter get shut down.

 

I think this is a problem that exists online, and if one can join a strong in-person community people form bonds which make them more welcoming to newcomers. While this solves the problem of joining the community for some, it can create a problem for others. Places like the San Francisco Bay Area or Metro London are expensive to live in, and in other ways, the difficulty of moving to these places isn’t publicly acknowledged even if it’s empathized with. I don’t know what percentage of effective altruists feel this way, so I don’t know the true scope of this issue, but I’ve been hearing anecdotes of a gap which generates a dissuasive sentiment for years. I know correcting these sorts of problems is hit and miss for the rationality community, but I know they have a record of trying to debug these problems with mixed success. I guess trying to find some best practices and accelerate the rate at which bugs in community expansion with community cohesion intact are being fixed is what Raymond Arnold is doing with his Project Hufflepuff.

I think if long-time members of the community like myself and others are going to gripe about people not catching up to speed fast enough, or not closing all their procedural knowledge gaps fast enough, have a responsibility to also make inroads to the community more welcoming. This is the sort of thing my friends in the closely knit Seattle Rationality/Effective Altruism community have been thinking about lately.   

I think people from some smaller geographic communities can feel more resentful, but those aren’t the feelings they’d defend. Really what’s the most damaging part isn’t so much a brain drain as it is community leaders form connections with organizations in the major hubs (e.g., Oxford, SF, Boston?), but this leaves a leadership vacuum.
Cultivating a culture of welcomingness and finding ways to socially and culturally invest in local communities all over the place are hard problems to solve. I think a start though would be for the EA Handbook to be updated, spread around or promoted at the level ‘Doing Good Bettter’ gets promoted at, and for there to also be a community organizer handbook written in chapters for tips from various local organizers around the world, as opposed to something centrally written by a single organization like LEAN or CEA. I may pursue online coordination on this sort of project with Project Hufflepuff, the Accelerator Project, Leverage Research, CFAR, CEA, LEAN, or Sentience Politics/EAF, or other groups.

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