by Brian Tomasik
First written: 2009 - 2012; last update: 5 Oct. 2016
I suggest a few small, random ideas: Adding informational tidbits that you find to relevant Wikipedia entries, asking for donations for Christmas gifts, giving or receiving feedback earlier rather than later, using a freelancing site for tasks that can be outsourced, and backing up Google/Facebook data.
Save notes to Wikipedia
When I'm reading a good book or important article, I sometimes want to jot down notes about a key idea or save a link to the piece for future reference. Bookmarking sites are a convenient way to do this for quick website references, but often I want to save a particular piece of information in a way that I'll naturally return to it later on, which may not be very likely for notes in a Delicious bookmark. Plus, if I find the information useful or important, I want to share it widely.
In such cases, I sometimes use Wikipedia as a "personal notebook" of sorts. For example, in 2009, when I found some interesting studies on crustacean pain, I added a description and footnotes to the article on lobsters.
When I noticed that the Wikipedia article on Givewell lacked the most important information from a utilitarian standpoint -- what organizations Givewell has recommended -- I added a section summarizing Givewell's top charities, with some cost-effectiveness statistics. (As of 2013, GiveWell's page has been much improved.) And when I read an interesting perspective on qualia by Gary Drescher, I added it to the page on that topic.
Adding to Wikipedia while researching a topic seems plausibly one of the most beneficial things that intellectuals can do. Many more people will read content on Wikipedia than on your own website, and they'll trust it more as well. Wikipedia contributions are widely seen as a positive contribution to humanity, whereas on an ideological website, those same contributions may be viewed as less helpful. Often people share links to interesting content on Facebook, and while this is great, probably we'd make a bigger impact -- especially outside of the choirs that we typically preach to -- by sharing on Wikipedia instead.
For more elaborate discussion on this topic, see "The Value of Wikipedia Contributions in Social Sciences."
Differential intellectual progress
I think it's crucial to consider differential intellectual progress when making Wikipedia contributions. It's not clear whether greater understanding of neuroscience or computer science is net good or bad, because it accelerates risks as well as potential benefits. Such knowledge will come eventually, but what we need now is greater societal wisdom. So I would encourage altruists to focus on Wikipedia contributions in the social sciences, philosophy, and other disciplines that can help advance reflectiveness faster than technological power.
Ask for donations for Christmas
Economists are fond of pointing out the dead-weight loss of holiday gifts, and based on personal experience, I have to agree with the complaint. Considering how much suffering can be prevented by a single dollar, it's tragic to consider what the money is used on instead.
The economically ideal approach would be to transfer cash, and utilitarians would most benefit from this as well, since they could then use that cash for the purpose they consider optimal. However, cash donations may not be received well by many people -- cash doesn't feel "gift like," because people tend to put money into a mental category of "cold-hearted greedy stuff" rather than "a sincere expression of caring."
Instead, I suggest asking your family and friends to make a charitable donation on your behalf. I yearly send an email to those who might give me gifts requesting that, if they do give anything, please make it a donation to one of my preferred charities in my name.
Vegan Outreach shared this comment of mine on their blog.
Give feedback early, give feedback often. Especially the early part.
When it comes to writing a paper or planning a campaign or picking a cause to focus on, a little bit of feedback at the beginning is worth hundreds of micro-edits or small optimizations later on. The topic that you write about can matter more than everything else in your whole article. If you complete a research paper about something unimportant, it doesn't much matter how well written and well researched the piece is (unless your goal is to establish prestige as a writer or build an audience that you can then direct toward your more important essays). If you pick an inefficient activism campaign, it doesn't much matter how well you carry it out (except for getting practice, personal experience, etc.). With software reviews: "the earlier a technical document is produced, the greater will be the impact of its defects on any downstream activities and their work products."
Most of the time, feedback won't have the dramatic effect of reorienting the entire direction of a paper or campaign, but it may have smaller impacts, such as whether the author considers a given argument or whether the campaign undertakes measurement of its impact. A stitch in time saves nine, and it's easier (both physically and cognitively) to improve something at the beginning than near the end. The primacy effect in confirmation bias tends to dispose us to pay greater heed to ideas we hear early on. (Thanks to Michael Bitton for pointing this out.)
So why is it that people sometimes hesitate to share drafts, ideas, plans, etc. until they're almost completed? Maybe one reason is that slow feedback is sometimes more customary, and people fear that if they share totally incomplete drafts or brainstorms, people would judge them for not being thorough and polished and not having considered such-and-such objection. If this is the case, we should work to change the culture of feedback among the people we know, to make it clear that preliminary drafts are potentially better than polished products in terms of the benefit of giving feedback per unit time.
Another reason can be that when people comment on a rough draft, the author may already know that he needs to fix most of what the reviewer points out. But this can be largely allayed if the reviewer understands the stage where the project is. You don't (usually) give sentence-level edits on a paper outline. Also, the author could sketch out the areas that he knows are incomplete so that the reviewer won't comment on those.
A third reason, which I sometimes fall prey to, is that you don't want to know that the approach you want to take isn't the best approach. Sometimes ignorance is bliss, because you like doing things your way rather than the way toward which the aggregate of evidence points. But in the end, "That which can be destroyed by the truth should be" (P. C. Hodgell quoted by Eliezer Yudkowsky), and ultimately it feels better to know we're doing the right thing, even if the process of changing course can be uncomfortable.
The title of this section comes from agile software development, which is one area where the principles I described have been well recognized. But of course, the idea is more widely recognized, such as in lean startups, pilot projects, prototypes, etc.
Agile starting of nonprofits
It's common for people to have ideas about new nonprofit organizations that ought to be created. Sometimes people see the first step as formally setting up the charity as a legal entity. In some instances, this makes sense. (For example, the nonprofit that I cofounded in 2013 was created this way.) However, government paperwork takes a lot of time, so in many cases, I recommend waiting on paperwork until you're more confident that you actually want to create the organization and that it will be successful. In particular, you can create a basic website for your organization to see if there's interest. You can call yourself a charity and say that your nonprofit status will be coming soon. Then you can actually register the charity a few months later if things seem to be going well. And if the project fails early, at least you're left with an informative website (whose core expository pages can be left online or recycled to another site) rather than useless charity-registration documents.
Freelancing sites like Freelancer.com, oDesk, and Elance allow you to hire people anywhere in the world to do just about any general task that can be done remotely -- including web design, article writing, fact finding, proofreading, and translating. I registered with Freelancer.com because it's the biggest of the sites. Its functionality is excellent, allowing you to get 10-20 bids within a few minutes of posting your project. So far I posted two projects, and there were some bidders who appeared pretty competent without charging too much (~$10-15/hour for research/writing).
However, reliability isn't guaranteed. I posted both of my projects in Oct. 2014, and as of Apr. 2015, they still haven't been completed because both of the freelancers were preoccupied with other things. This is partly my fault, since I chose freelancers with little prior experience and at relatively low bids. I also didn't mind the delay, and if the projects had been urgent, I could have cancelled and hired someone else. Presumably most people have more success hiring freelancers than I did, given that many freelancers have project-completion rates above ~70%.
Google and Facebook data backups
This section has moved to "How to Back Up Most of Your Life's Data".