Let’s not have a separate “community building” camp

Here’s a cartoon picture I think people sometimes have:

EA divides into two camps: the direct work, and the community building (ultimately in service of the direct work). Individuals should pick one of the sides and commit to it.

I think this is misguided and can be harmful.

The appeal of the picture is that specialization generally brings big benefits; since there are two large buckets of work it’s natural to think they should be pursued by specialists working in specialist orgs.

The reason that the specialization argument doesn’t just go through is that the things we’re trying to build communities for are complicated. I think community-building work is often a lot better when it’s high context on what’s being done and what’s needed in direct work.[1] In some cases this could shift it from negative to positive; in others it merely provides a significant boost. By default in the “separate camps” model, the community-building camp simply isn’t high enough context on the direct work camp to achieve that.

Rather than separate camps, I think that it’s better to think of there being one camp, which is oriented around “direct work”. A good amount of community-building work goes on there, but it’s all pretty well integrated with the direct work (often with heavy overlap of the people involved).

At an individual level, I think it’s often correct for people to multi-class between direct work and community building. After you have expertise on direct work and what’s needed, there are low-hanging fruit in leveraging that expertise in community building (this might be e.g. via giving talks or mentoring junior people). Or if you’re mostly focused on community building I think you’ll often benefit from spending a fraction of your time really trying to get to the bottom of understanding direct work agendas, and exactly why people are pursuing different strategies. A possible way of getting solid grounding for this is to actually spend a fraction of your time aiming to do high-value direct work, but that’s certainly not the only approach — reading content and (especially) talking to people who are engaged with direct work about what their bottlenecks are also helpful. As a very rough rule of thumb, I think that it’s good if people doing community-building work spend at least 20% of their time obsessing over the details of what’s needed in direct work.[2]

Clarifications & caveats to these claims:

  • 20% time doesn’t need to mean a day every week. It could be ten weeks a year, or one year every five. (It probably shouldn’t be stretched longer than that, because knowledge will go stale.)

  • I mean to refer to people trying to build communities aimed at increasing direct work. I think it’s fine to have separate specialist people/​orgs for things like:

    1. Education — e.g. if you had an org aimed at getting more people to intuitively understand scope-sensitivity

    2. Building communities that aren’t aimed at direct work — e.g. if you want to build a community of AI researchers who read science fiction together and think about the future of AI

  • It’s fine to have professional facilitators who are helping the community-building work without detailed takes on object-level priorities, but they shouldn’t be the ones making the calls about what kind of community-building work needs to happen

  • The whole 20% figure is me plucking a number that feels reasonable out of the air. If someone wants to argue that it should be 12% or 30% I’m like “that’s plausible”. If someone wants to argue that it should be 2% or 80% I’m going to be pretty sceptical.

  • I think a lot of people who are working professionally in community building understand all of this intuitively. But it doesn’t seem to me to be uniformly understood/​discussed, so I thought it was worth sharing the model.

Corollaries of this view:

  • People who want to do community building work should be particularly interested in doing so in environments which give them high access to people doing direct work

  • People doing direct work should be excited to look for high-leverage ways to apply their knowledge to help community building, like:

    • Spend time uploading their models to community-builders (so long as they can find ones they’re excited to work with)

    • Meeting directly with promising people, perhaps referred to them by community builders, even when it isn’t immediately helpful to their goals

  • More people should consider moving between community building and direct work roles through their careers

    • (For especially technical direct work roles it may be relatively hard to move into them later, but there are plenty of roles which aren’t like this)

  1. ^

    A straightforward case is that it’s often very valuable for people who might get involved to talk to someone with sophisticated models of what’s being done in different areas, so that they have a chance to interrogate these models.

  2. ^

    And probably more than that early in their careers; cf. Community Builders Spend Too Much Time Community Building.