The most successful EA podcast of all time: Sam Harris and Will MacAskill (2020)
My job is about helping people get involved in effective altruism, so I pay attention to how this happens.
I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any piece of content not named “Doing Good Better” get as much positive as Sam Harris’s two podcast episodes with Will MacAskill.
Both episodes seem to have caused a spike in GWWC memberships, and the second may have boosted EA engagement more generally. Some notes on that:
GWWC estimates that over 600 people have taken the pledge in part because of the episodes (with another ~600 signing up for Try Giving). To break this down:
~800 people who finished the sign-up survey mentioned a podcast as one way they found GWWC (the average person chose 1.8 sources).
Of the 123 people who said which podcast it was, 107 said Sam Harris (87%).
Extrapolating a similar rate to the ~700 who didn’t say which podcast gives another ~600 referrals on top of the original 107.
The “podcast” option was only added to the form in October 2020, before the second episode but after the first; another ~500 people who filled it out before then mentioned Sam somewhere.
I’d guess that most of these were coming from the first episode with Will, though he may have mentioned his giving in other episodes, and GWWC by extension.
An extremely engaged community builder told me in February 2021: “I feel like most new EAs I’ve met in the last year came in through Sam Harris.”
My subjective impression in the weeks after the second episode came out was that most of the ambient “positive EA chatter” I heard on Twitter (people tweeting out random EA endorsements who normally talked about other things) included mentions of the podcast.
Why was this so impactful?
Some factors I think were important:
Sam set an example.
One of the most persuasive ways to promote something is to do it yourself.
One of Sam’s explicit goals on the podcast is to get listeners to make ethical decisions, and I’d imagine that many listeners seek him out for ethical advice. This isn’t as much the case for podcasters like Tim Ferriss or Joe Rogan, or other sources of publicity (TED, op-eds, etc.)
From the transcript below: “The question that underlies all of this, really, is: How can we live a morally beautiful life? That is more and more what I care about, and what the young Will MacAskill is certainly doing.”
Sam made a rare endorsement.
Sam took several minutes to explain why he thinks giving is important, and gives GWWC a strong recommendation. This is a rare thing for him to do; most of his guests aren’t selling anything (save maybe a book), and he doesn’t advertise on his podcast.
Comparatively, Tim Ferriss (another major podcaster who had Will as a guest) has ~5 minutes of long-form advertising on every episode, and generally recommends lots of things every time a guest comes on. On the writeup of Will’s episode, GWWC was the 23rd item on a bullet list of “selected links”.
Tim’s podcast referred 8 people to GWWC. This is actually a solid number, given that the “where you heard about us” question wasn’t added until more than a year after that episode came out. But I think the true impact of the episode was still much lower than that of the Sam episodes, despite Tim’s larger audience.
The conversation is really good.
I listened to the second episode soon after it came out, before I knew anything about its impact, and was almost immediately struck by how good Will’s pitch was. It was clear he’d built up a huge amount of experience in the 5+ years since Doing Good Better came out, and it helped to have a friendly interviewer who was quite familiar with EA’s basic ideas.
Some things I liked about the conversation:
The expansive definition of EA (given by Sam):
“This does connect to deeper and broader questions like ‘How should we think about doing good in the world in general?’, ‘What would it mean to do as much good as possible?‘, and ‘How do those questions connect to questions around what sort of person I should be, or what it means to live a truly good life?’”
It seems really good to be clear that EA isn’t just about “doing good for others”, but also “living a truly good life” for one’s own sake.
The connection of EA to topical questions
Sam brings up the question at one point of whether people living on the streets in San Francisco could be said to be as badly-off as the world’s poorest people in other countries. Will gives a “yes, and” response to this — not just dismissing the idea that U.S. homelessness could matter as an issue, but acknowledging that it is important while noting that it probably isn’t tractable (without using those exact words).
It’s also nice that Will takes the chance to share his “current favorite climate change charity”, which shakes off a few more out-of-date stereotypes about EA as a movement.
The “lesson”-based structure of the conversation
My understanding (though I could be wrong) is that this discussion was set up to be broken into a series of mini-lessons for users of the Waking Up app. The conversation feels that way — lots of different topics, but with clear transitions between them.