Creating Individual Connections via the Forum
I believe that creating personal connections is one of the most valuable things CEA can do.
There’s some evidence that the Forum could be useful in building these connections.
In this document, I list possible use cases/types of connections people might want.
I would appreciate any feedback readers have on these use cases, including “I was too busy to read your document but think being connected to someone in XYZ way would be useful”.
This document should be taken as “initial ideas Ben has”. CEA is not committing to implement any of these ideas, and my colleagues at CEA have varying levels of agreement with these ideas. That being said, I would be surprised if CEA does not put meaningful effort towards building individual connections through our online properties over the next year in some manner.
I am grateful for conversations with many EA group organizers, the EA Hub team, my coworkers at CEA, and other community builders about these ideas. I generally am not the person who deserves the most credit for each of these ideas.
Individual connections are a major reason why people get involved with EA, and why they stay involved with EA. For example, the most recent EA survey found that personal contacts were the most-cited reason why people got involved with EA, by a substantial margin.
Several platforms for building and maintaining individual connections between EAs already exist. The most recent EA survey listed the following online sources through which respondents made new interesting and valuable connections:
EA Facebook groups (8.8% of respondents)
International EA social events (8.7% of respondents)
EA Forum (5.9% of respondents)
LessWrong (5.3% of respondents)
EA Hub (1.9% of respondents)
I suspect that Twitter is responsible for a similar number of connections as the other ones listed, though it was not on the survey. There have also been smaller projects not listed on this survey, such as EA Pen Pals.
It’s interesting to note that the EA Forum is responsible for a similar number of connections as Facebook, despite having very little functionality that is targeted towards instigating these connections.
Classic new product advice is that you should look for features your users like despite them being very poorly made, because if they’re willing to use a poorly made version of your product, they will probably love a well-made version. It seems like we have initial evidence of people making connections using features not well-made to facilitate this (comments, private messages).
In summary: We have evidence that
Personal connections are extremely valuable, and
People are interested in forming these connections on the Forum
What types of connections are people looking for?
It’s possible that we should just naïvely build out a list of EAs and let users filter it however they want. My guess, though, is that it’s better to be targeted towards some specific use cases. Here are the most common use cases I’ve heard from others in the community, and my thoughts on how to provide solutions.
New person has new person questions
Most people have some questions when they first encounter EA. Some standard ones include:
Where should I donate?
My career so far has been in (whatever). How can I change that to be more impactful?
Basic questions about longtermism, AI safety, animal welfare, etc.
Currently, answering these questions is mostly done by group organizers, and my understanding from speaking with them is that these questions generally don’t require a large amount of expertise to answer: it’s helpful to simply point these newcomers to 80,000 hours for career advice, some key blog posts for questions about longtermism, etc.
A possible way to handle this use case is to have “guides” who are trained to answer these basic questions. These people need to be friendly and reasonably up to speed on EA, but don’t need cutting-edge knowledge in specific areas. Newcomers can easily schedule a call (or chat?) with these guides. (The past few EA globals have had “guides” programs which were similar to what I’m describing here, and were fairly successful, as was our pilot of an “EA Librarian”.)
One worry I have with this implementation is that it’s very targeted towards the median use case of someone who has basic questions but hasn’t done much research. It could be frustrating if you are someone who has done a bunch of research and talks to a guide hoping to get in-depth questions answered, only to get referred to introductory resources. Possibly this could be handled by having guides refer “advanced” new people to those with more expertise.
I frequently hear mentorship listed as a bottleneck in the EA community: we have a lot of talented young people who want to work on priority causes or career paths, but they have limited experience. Mentorship can unblock them.
Unfortunately, I currently don’t think this is a bottleneck that the Forum could easily help with. My impression is that the bottleneck is that we simply have a lack of senior staff who can be mentors. I would be interested to hear alternative viewpoints from others.
Note: I think this is the one my coworkers most disagree with me about; particularly if you are someone who would be willing to be a mentor but feel blocked on doing so, I would be interested to hear what those blockers are.
Looking for people who work in the same somewhat obscure area as you
There are a number of “special interest” groups within EA, e.g. the EA Consulting Network or EA for Christians. Many of these groups started with a couple of people connecting with each other over a shared interest, and we could possibly instigate more of these connections on the Forum.
My impression is that the driving motivation here is more frequently a desire to connect with similarly minded people than to e.g. start a specific research collaboration, though collaborations do sometimes come out of these connections.
One approach to addressing this use case is to make Forum bios more robust, e.g. by letting people indicate specific, searchable areas of interest. These could potentially just be the tags we already have on the Forum. It may also be valuable to add fields for LinkedIn or other social media URLs to Forum bios, to prompt more people to share this information (giving potential contacts a sense for whom they are connecting with).
I am intentionally excluding “mainstream” interests from this use case. If you are a consultant, then probably you should use the EA Consulting Network instead of whatever we build on the Forum. It’s possible I’m wrong about this: maybe we should make something like Meetup which could be used by online group organizers. I currently am skeptical that we would have an advantage over existing platforms, but would be interested in contrary opinions.
Looking for people who live in the same obscure geographic area as you
Some of the most powerful personal connection stories I’ve heard have been of the form “I lived in a small town and I randomly found that there was one other person in my small town who was into EA and it was super exciting!”
This use case seems to be very heavily reliant on location and the person being friendly; people care less about whether the person they are meeting with has similar interests to them, expertise in a given area, etc.
I think it’s possible that the Forum currently handles this use case at a technical level through our map. However, very few people are on the map, and addressing this use case might be more about getting people to fill out that data.
Many EAs live in group houses. It’s nice to live with others who share the same values or are involved in the same community.
I’m currently less excited about this use case because it seems fairly hard to do well (it’s very possible for EAs to be bad roommates, and I don’t know how we would filter for that). I’m also not sure how much of an advantage we would have over e.g. Facebook groups to organize housing.
EA’s tend to be frugal travelers, and couch surfing is a nice way to travel cheaply while making friendships. To this day, I am friends with people whose couches I slept on (or who slept on my couch) when I first got involved with EA a decade ago.
However, I’m not that excited about this use case. As with shared housing, it seems hard to screen people, and I’m doubtful that many people would be interested in couchsurfing in the first place.
Reciprocity is used by a number of EA’s to find romantic partners. While I think that this kind of app can be useful for many people in the community, I think that matchmaking should be done outside the Forum, and not done by CEA at all.
A lot of EAs get substantial value from having friends who are also involved in EA, even if these friendships don’t directly involve EA. Some of the more promising ideas I’ve heard for instigating these types of connections are:
A “videogame directory” where people can indicate the games they play and then join up with others online to play those games.
A similar directory, but for boardgames.
Games are good ways to build friendships in a spread-out community like EA because they can be played with people anywhere in the world at a relatively low cost. I would be interested to hear other ideas in this space.
CEA currently organizes reading groups for The Precipice. East Bay Biosecurity is an example of a group of people with relatively little biosecurity experience who got together regularly to study; several of the group’s members have since been hired into impactful biosecurity positions. We may want to build infrastructure that helps community members organize their own reading groups.
There are many sites which help you organize reading groups already. For example, Goodreads has this. A simple implementation to target this use case might just be for people to write brief posts about reading groups they want to make, with links to Goodreads groups, to see whether other people are interested. We could consider showing these posts separately in a special view, listing them on the sidebar, etc.
Which of these use cases are the most interesting to you? Feel free to answer either for yourself, or on behalf of others (e.g. if you feel like you know what people who are new to EA would like).
Are there any use cases I’ve missed?
How valuable would solving these problems be to you? In general, I think we should target solving problems that affect some EAs very deeply, even if they only affect a small number. So I encourage you to post any ideas about connections you would find very valuable, even if you don’t think they would apply to most people in EA.
Appendix: What special advantages does the Forum have?
When choosing a problem to work on, we care not only that the problem is important, but also that we will be well-placed to solve it. (See e.g. YCombinator’s suggestion to filter for ideas where you have an “unfair advantage”.)
It’s not obvious that the Forum should expect to be good at building connections. LinkedIn’s mission statement, for example, is “connect the world’s professionals to make them more productive and successful.” We have a tiny fraction of LinkedIn’s resources, and it’s plausible that they will just outcompete us at building connections.
However, while many EAs use platforms like LinkedIn, my impression is that there are substantial gaps where existing products do not meet people’s needs, and use cases they do not serve.
The primary advantage we have over LinkedIn et al. is that they just don’t really care about these use cases. Beyond that:
We are able to get EAs to populate bios about themselves, by using information from existing CEA forms (EAG registration, virtual programs applications, etc.). The EA Hub used this strategy to greatly increase the size of their user database.
We have existing traffic which is very targeted. We have much less traffic than LinkedIn, but a very high fraction of the traffic which we do have is people who are interested in connecting with other EAs.
The EA Forum and CEA have some level of social capital which we could use to e.g. convince people to participate in a beta test.
I am more excited about use cases which leverage these advantages.