[Question] Does the status of ‘co-founder of effective altruism’ actually matter?

Sum­mary: For first-time au­thors who are also long time mem­bers of the EA move­ment, they have used the ti­tle of ‘co-founder of effec­tive al­tru­ism’, or some vari­a­tion thereof (e.g. “co-founder of the effec­tive al­tru­ism move­ment). How­ever, it does not ap­pear be­ing among the co­hort of in­di­vi­d­u­als who formed the ini­tial core of the EA com­mu­nity by join­ing be­tween the crit­i­cal, ini­tial years of 2009 and 2011 is highly pre­dic­tive of how im­pacft­ful an in­di­vi­d­ual effec­tive al­tru­ist might be judged to be. Nei­ther has any­one in EA ever as­sessed if EA as an idea or move­ment has gained enough pub­lic ex­po­sure for the dis­tinc­tion ‘co-founder of EA’ to have an im­pact on the pub­lic per­ceives a given in­di­vi­d­ual co-founder. So, it ap­pears to me that the dis­tinc­tion be­tween who qual­ifies as a ‘co-founder’ of EA has thus far been of lit­tle to no con­se­quence.

There are a few peo­ple who have been cited as ‘co-founders of effec­tive al­tru­ism’, usu­ally au­thors of books on EA top­ics, per­haps as part of an effort to sell books, or as pres­sured by the pub­lisher.

  • I re­mem­ber on some edi­tions of Do­ing Good Bet­ter, William MacAskill is cited as a ‘co-founder of effec­tive al­tru­ism.’

  • Jacy Reese is cited as well on his re­cent book The End of An­i­mal Farm­ing as a co-founder of EA as well.

  • Peter Singer has writ­ten a cou­ple books about EA now, and I don’t know if he is cited in or on any of them as a co-founder of effec­tive al­tru­ism, but he would definitely qual­ify.

I’ve seen peo­ple ask ques­tions about this on so­cial me­dia, since ‘co-founder of effec­tive al­tru­ism’ is a vague, and po­ten­tially con­tentious, ti­tle. The qual­ifi­ca­tion I’ve seen given is each of these in­di­vi­d­u­als are those who have been part of the EA move­ment since the be­gin­ning, even be­fore the nascent com­mu­nity was called ‘effec­tive al­tru­ism’, and that they helped shape the prin­ci­ples and goals of the EA move­ment that com­mu­nity would be­come.

His­tor­i­cally, the fol­low­ing or­ga­ni­za­tions were the ear­liest to be as­so­ci­ated with what would be­come EA:

It’s with mul­ti­ple or­ga­ni­za­tions, and the com­mu­ni­ties that built up around them, con­nect­ing on­line that first de­vel­oped the com­mu­nity that would be­come ‘effec­tive al­tru­ism.’ This started in 2009. It was with the launch of 80,000 Hours in 2011 that com­mu­nity be­gan to grow, and the la­bel ‘effec­tive al­tru­ism’ be­gan to stick. How­ever, EA’s growth rate dra­mat­i­cally ac­cel­er­ated in 2013 with Peter Singer’s TED talk on effec­tive al­tru­ism, which re­ceived over 1 mil­lion views.

So, to be a “co-founder of EA” would be to some­one who joined as a cen­tral mem­ber of the com­mu­nity some­time be­tween 2009 and 2013, most likely be­tween 2009 and 2011. Depend­ing on what other fac­tors one would ap­ply to qual­ify or dis­qual­ify a “co-founder” of EA, this would put the num­ber of co-founders be­tween a cou­ple dozen to a few hun­dred peo­ple. To do more than that gets into who is some kind of pri­mary co-founder of EA, i.e., who de­serves the most credit. It’s not my ex­pe­rience the EA com­mu­nity con­sid­ers that a de­bate worth hav­ing. With the num­ber of peo­ple who could qual­ify as ‘co-founders’ be­ing as many as it is, qual­i­ta­tively, it might make the ti­tle feel less spe­cial. How­ever, it’s not clear to me be­ing a ‘co-founder of effec­tive al­tru­ism’ is a dis­tinc­tion that pre­dicts a lot about how im­pact­ful a given mem­ber of the EA move­ment is.

As far as I can tell, most peo­ple who would qual­ify as co-founders of EA I’ve talked to would say EA has be­come much bet­ter, and suc­ceeded much more, in the years since its be­gin­nings. Chang­ing to be­come more effec­tive is a prin­ci­ple of EA, and it was nec­es­sary for EA to change be­come more effec­tive over the years. A nec­es­sary part of chang­ing to be­come more effec­tive was grow­ing as a move­ment, and on­board­ing new mem­bers who made unique and valuable con­tri­bu­tions nec­es­sary to EA’s suc­cess. Ergo, there isn’t a com­mon be­lief in EA that the move­ment’s founders are a spe­cial class in the com­mu­nity whose credit for launch­ing the move­ment ex­tends be­yond grat­i­tude from peo­ple who joined EA since it started. This makes sense, as EA os­ten­si­bly cares about do­ing what’s effec­tive, not who was part of the com­mu­nity first.

It’s also not clear cit­ing a found­ing effec­tive al­tru­ist as a “co-founder” of EA when they au­thor a book does much for the book’s sales, or the cred­i­bil­ity of EA. I don’t know the ra­tio­nale for cit­ing Jacy Reese and William MacAskill as co-founders of EA for their books, or if that was a pub­lisher’s idea. Per­haps it was thought that the EA move­ment had re­ceived enough cred­i­bil­ity and at­ten­tion that as­so­ci­at­ing Jacy or Will with EA would boost their cred­i­bil­ity. How­ever, while at least a cou­ple mil­lion peo­ple may have at least heard of EA, through Peter Singer’s TED talk and other me­dia, most of that hasn’t trans­lated to last­ing growth for EA. The biggest count for po­ten­tial mem­ber­ship of EA is the ‘Effec­tive Altru­ism’ Face­book group, which cur­rently stands 16,482 mem­bers. So, at most, EA sits at be­tween 10k and 20k mem­bers, at least two or­ders of mag­ni­tude lower than the num­ber of peo­ple who have pre­sum­ably been ex­posed to EA as an idea or move­ment.

It’s not clear the ini­tial im­pres­sions of EA the 99%+ of peo­ple who didn’t fol­low through in even­tu­ally join­ing the EA com­mu­nity had much of a last­ing im­pact on them. So, it might be in­cor­rect to as­sume as­so­ci­at­ing a first-time au­thor with effec­tive al­tru­ism will make peo­ple think more highly of the au­thor, sim­ply be­cause not enough peo­ple may have yet heard of EA for such an effect to ma­te­ri­al­ize. It seems just as plau­si­ble as­so­ci­at­ing EA with a first-time au­thor will make read­ers think more highly of EA, since they’ll then have heard of EA as a move­ment im­por­tant enough to be as­so­ci­ated with a pub­lished au­thor. It’s funny to say, but EA could still have reached so few peo­ple that that could be the re­al­ity.

Of course, for a va­ri­ety of rea­sons EA won’t ap­peal to a lot of peo­ple, or per­haps even most peo­ple. To my knowl­edge, there has been no pub­lic con­clu­sion yet on what pro­por­tion of peo­ple EA ul­ti­mately could or should be aiming to reach. The top source for ex­po­sure to EA is ap­par­ently Peter Singer’s TED talk, which cur­rently has ~1.7 mil­lion views on TED.com. Through other me­dia sources, and word of mouth, it seems like EA would have been ex­posed to at most sev­eral hun­dred thou­sand peo­ple. I doubt more than 3 mil­lion peo­ple have heard of EA.

EA has had its great­est ex­po­sure through­out Europe, and English-speak­ing de­vel­oped coun­tries. With the pop­u­la­tion of the United States at ~320 mil­lion; ~740 mil­lion in Europe; and ~67 mil­lion across Canada, Aus­tralia, and New Zealand, there is a pop­u­la­tion of ~1.127 billion across the coun­tries EA has gained a rel­a­tively wide ex­po­sure in. If we were to as­sume only 1% would want to po­ten­tially be­come part of EA in the first place, that is a pop­u­la­tion of ~11 mil­lion peo­ple who might po­ten­tially join EA if they were ex­posed to the idea/​move­ment. Of course, even fewer peo­ple than that might join the move­ment in prac­tice. Still, since there is only ev­i­dence for only a cou­ple mil­lion peo­ple hav­ing been ex­posed to EA as an idea, 1% of the com­bined pop­u­la­tion of the coun­tries EA has cre­ated a last­ing pres­ence in would leave al­most 10 mil­lion peo­ple who we would want to ex­pose to EA to see if they might join.

Note that this hy­po­thet­i­cal model doesn’t ac­count for:

  • How EA might be ex­posed in the fu­ture to more peo­ple in the coun­tries it’s already es­tab­lished a pres­ence in.

  • How EA will ex­pand to coun­tries around the world fur­ther from the coun­tries it origi­nated in (mainly the UK, the US, and Ger­many).

  • That the 1% of the pop­u­la­tion who ‘might po­ten­tially join EA if ex­posed to it’ is just an as­sump­tion, and not a real num­ber. Whether a con­structed met­ric like that is the most sen­si­ble mea­sure to go with; how difficult it would be a mea­sure; and what its amount would be are all cru­cial fac­tors which have not been re­searched or es­tab­lished in EA.

Still, the num­ber of peo­ple who have heard of EA, and who also have a good im­pres­sion of it, seems small enough it seems very un­likely ran­dom peo­ple who come across books writ­ten by au­thors from the EA com­mu­nity will have pre­ex­ist­ing good im­pres­sion of EA. The same goes for if a ran­dom per­son were to hear some­one was a ‘co-founder of effec­tive al­tru­ism’ in con­ver­sa­tion. Part of do­ing what’s effec­tive is do­ing what works, which means fol­low­ing up on the con­se­quences of our ac­tions.

Over­all, the idea of brand­ing some­one as a ‘co-founder’ of EA for the pur­pose of boost­ing their rep­u­ta­tion by as­so­ci­at­ing them with EA is based on the as­sump­tion a suffi­cient pro­por­tion of the pop­u­la­tion has a pre­ex­ist­ing, good im­pres­sion of EA for that to make a differ­ence. How­ever, there is not nearly enough ev­i­dence to back that as­sump­tion. Thus, there isn’t much rea­son to ex­pect some­one bear­ing the ti­tle ‘co-founder of effec­tive al­tru­ism’, as an au­thor or an­other kind of pub­lic figure, has much effect on how the pub­lic per­ceives them, pos­i­tive or nega­tive.

Re­gard­less of who qual­ifies as a ‘co-founder’ of EA, it doesn’t ap­pear the pre­cise at­tri­bu­tion of this cre­den­tial is su­per crit­i­cal for the achieve­ment of the EA com­mu­nity’s goals, and no­body has as­sessed if it has an effect on the pub­lic per­cep­tion of the co-founders. Of course, credit is due to who­ever would qual­ify as a co-founder of EA un­der what­ever crite­rion, and this doesn’t mean the rest of the EA com­mu­nity should not be grate­ful to the founders of the move­ment. There is just ev­i­dence one way or an­other if the ti­tle of co-founder of EA has an im­pact on the pub­lic per­cep­tion of ei­ther the in­di­vi­d­ual in ques­tion, or EA as a move­ment.

One im­pact of this anal­y­sis is that first-time au­thors, or other as­piring pub­lic figures or pub­lic in­tel­lec­tu­als, who are also part of the EA com­mu­nity, might do bet­ter by pri­mar­ily build­ing up a pos­i­tive pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion for them­selves, and a pos­i­tive re­la­tion­ship with their au­di­ence, in­stead of pri­mar­ily em­pha­siz­ing their as­so­ci­a­tion with EA. There isn’t ev­i­dence as­so­ci­at­ing with EA will have nega­tive con­se­quences ei­ther. It’s just the case that the rep­u­ta­tional effect could be re­versed than has pre­vi­ously been an­ti­ci­pated, and that an EA-al­igned au­thor or pub­lic figure who es­tab­lishes a pub­lic rep­u­ta­tion will cause many more peo­ple to be ex­posed to EA ideas, or join the EA com­mu­nity.

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