Coordinating Commitments Through an Online Service


This is my first post to this fo­rum. I am not en­tirely fa­mil­iar with the norms and cus­toms or pre­vi­ous top­ics of dis­cus­sion. I am also still new to the effec­tive al­tru­ism com­mu­nity in gen­eral. Please feel free to point me to prior dis­cus­sions of this topic and give me ad­vice on how to bet­ter pre­sent my mes­sage on this fo­rum.


Many prob­lems so­ciety faces to­day can be clas­sified as co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems (see 80k hours pod­cast with Vi­talik Bu­terin). Th­ese are a class of is­sue where the biggest hur­dle is not tech­ni­cal nor even so­cial, but sim­ply a lack of co­or­di­na­tion. A prime ex­am­ple of a prob­lem in this class is meat eat­ing. Many peo­ple be­lieve that eat­ing meat is wrong, how­ever con­tinue to eat meat be­cause they be­lieve their in­di­vi­d­ual ac­tion would not be suffi­cient to have any af­fect on the prob­lem as a whole (one per­son stop­ping eat­ing meat will not hurt the meat in­dus­try). How­ever, if all of the peo­ple with this be­lief could co­or­di­nate and mu­tu­ally com­mit to stop eat­ing meat then they likely would due to the in­creased like­li­hood of hav­ing a non neg­ligible effect on the meat in­dus­try col­lec­tively. The prob­lem is not that peo­ple be­lieve that eat­ing meat is ac­cept­able, it is sim­ply that they are not co­or­di­nated enough to take ac­tion. (I don’t mean that ev­ery meat eater has this be­lief, but I do be­lieve many do)

Pro­posed Solution

I pro­pose an on­line ser­vice and com­mu­nity which would serve as a hub for co­or­di­nat­ing groups of peo­ple com­mit­ted to mak­ing small changes to their habits and ev­ery day be­hav­iors in or­der to help solve co­or­di­na­tion prob­lems.

The pur­pose of this ser­vice would be to co­or­di­nate groups of peo­ple to take small ac­tions in their ev­ery­day life which in iso­la­tion would have neg­ligible effects on a prob­lem, but when mul­ti­plied by many peo­ple have non neg­ligible effects.

Think of it as kick­starter for in­di­vi­d­ual ac­tion. Real­iz­ing that an in­di­vi­d­ual’s ac­tions have min­i­mal im­pact on large prob­lems, many peo­ple re­fuse to take these in­di­vi­d­ual ac­tions. How­ever, if these peo­ple could be as­sured that many other peo­ple were also com­mit­ted to tak­ing these ac­tions along side them they could be con­vinced to join in.

Ba­sic Functionality

I will de­scribe the ba­sic way I imag­ine a ser­vice like this func­tion­ing. I still have many ques­tions re­gard­ing what might be the op­ti­mal de­tails re­gard­ing its func­tion­ing, how­ever I am more in­ter­ested in re­ceiv­ing feed­back on the idea in gen­eral right now.

Users or mod­er­a­tors sub­mit cam­paigns which are posts which out­line the pro­posed ac­tion peo­ple would take. For ex­am­ple a cam­paign could be sub­mit­ted to re­duce your meat con­sump­tion to less than 1 pound per week or to drive less than x miles per month or any­thing along those lines. Th­ese cam­paigns would also in­clude a ex­pira­tion date and min­i­mum com­mit­ment num­ber. The min­i­mum com­mit­ment num­ber is the min­i­mum num­ber of peo­ple who must con­di­tion­ally com­mit to adopt the cam­paign for the cam­paign to go into effect. If the min­i­mum com­mit­ment num­ber is not achieved by the ex­pira­tion date than the cam­paign does not go into effect and no one who con­di­tion­ally com­mit­ted is obli­gated to adopt the cam­paign. If the min­i­mum com­mit­ment num­ber is achieved then the cam­paign be­gins and con­di­tional com­mit­ters are obli­gated to adopt the cam­paign.

This is a very ba­sic pro­posal of how such a ser­vice may func­tion to demon­strate the main idea. I have more ideas on how to im­prove the de­tails of the pro­cess how­ever right now I am pri­mar­ily in­ter­ested in feed­back on the big idea it­self and not so much on the de­tails.

Pri­mary Issues

1. How do we ver­ify peo­ple who com­mit­ted to a cam­paign are fol­low­ing through? The ser­vice only works if a com­mit­ment can be trusted. If com­mit­ments can not be trusted then not only will there not be progress to­wards the un­der­ly­ing prob­lem but also trust­wor­thy users will lose faith in the plat­form and stop us­ing it. I have some ideas on how to in­crease the like­li­hood that peo­ple fol­low through with their com­mit­ments such as limit­ing the num­ber of cam­paigns a per­son can com­mit to, man­dat­ing fo­rum dis­cus­sions, and fre­quent re­minders, how­ever ul­ti­mately this boils down to the or­a­cle prob­lem which as of yet there is no good solu­tion to.

2. Are there even enough peo­ple who would make use of such a plat­form that it could be im­pact­ful? In gen­eral, I am skep­ti­cal of tech­nol­ogy’s abil­ity to pro­duce be­hav­ioral changes in peo­ple (other than those re­sult­ing from ad­dic­tion). I won­der whether a plat­form like this could ever reach the crit­i­cal mass nec­es­sary to have any power.


I am a pro­gram­mer and am con­sid­er­ing work­ing on a proof of con­cept of this idea, how­ever first I would like to re­ceive feed­back from the com­mu­nity. Be­fore dis­cussing the de­tails of the pro­ce­dure and struc­ture of such a ser­vice I would like feed­back on the gen­eral idea.