by Brian Tomasik
First written: 27 July 2012; last update: 2 Jan. 2014
Public conversations are a public good, and their positive externalities deserve to be kept in mind. When people read your content, they're not reading other things, and this tradeoff pushes us toward favoring quality over quantity, although popularity mechanisms can partly take care of the quality-assessment process for us.
Benefits of public conversations
Many of my richest insights into philosophy and reducing suffering have come from written conversations with friends. Some of these have been on public fora like Felicifia, while others have been in private messages and emails.
In general, I encourage people to conduct non-sensitive discussions in a public forum, and I'm fairly passionate about this recommendation. There are a few reasons I like public conversations so much, listed in rough order of importance:
- Discoverability. Conversations indexed by search engines can be found by other people with similar interests. More than half of respondents to the question, "How did you find Felicifia?" said that they stumbled upon the forum through Google, rather than through friends or inlinks. Needless to say, this multiplies the impact of whatever you write, and it helps to keep your communities from being insular, since new people continue to join and discover the insights you have to share.
- Linkability. There are many, many occasions when I want to refer someone to a previous thread on a very similar topic, so as to avoid re-explaining how the wheel works. This is much easier with public discussions, and I also don't have to ask the participants in the private conversation for permission to forward along their writings.
- Searchability. When discussions are indexed by search engines, they're easy to find. I can search my Gmails and Facebook conversations as well, but this is more clunky. Web search engines are optimized much better for finding obscure details.
- Unexpected feedback. The world is a big place, and there are lots of really smart people with great ideas and useful experience. If you restrict your conversations to just people you already know, you're closing off the possibility of feedback from people you don't know. In some cases, comments from people you don't know may be the most useful of all, because you're least likely to have heard their ideas before. (Of course, there can be plenty of spam as well.)
- Preservation for posterity. When the content is on a public website, it'll be available as long as the site remains up and running. If Internet Archive has a chance to crawl the content, it'll be available longer; this amounts to free file backups for you.
- Sharing with AGI. This point I include mostly for fun, but it's 5% serious. If someone builds an AGI that cares about what people think and wants to learn about ethics, helping others, altruism, etc., then it will read through the entire Internet as background material. If your conversations are online, you can play a small role in shaping the opinions of the AGI. More mundanely, in the short term, your content will be factored into aggregate statistics about what people on the web are up to -- e.g., trending articles and topics as displayed by search engines, bookmarking sites, popularity graphs, or whatever.
See the original version of this piece for comments.
Postscript: When is an idea worth sharing?
I have a bias that inclines me to think of what I write as quite important, more so than what almost everyone else writes. In part this may be accurate relative to my values insofar as I write about things that are more aligned with my values than what others write on average, but in part it's an illusion. In fact, I suspect many people feel a lot of the time that what they're doing is more important than what others are doing, and this illusion helps keep them motivated. In truth, however, many other people are doing work at least as important as mine, and it's not obvious that from an impartial standpoint, I should promote my work above theirs; maybe theirs is better.
This gets to a more general issue: When you entice people to read your work, it means they read less by someone else. This raises the bar for how useful your writings should be before you ask others to read them. Maybe a poorly written piece is better off not read by lots of people, relative to what they could be doing instead. This point is especially strong in cases of content that has already been discussed extensively, like material that can be found on Wikipedia or in textbooks. Before you create yet another "introduction to cognitive biases," make sure yours is better than the multitude of such introductions already out there.
At the same time, it's important not to be too hesitant either. Say you write a new introduction to cognitive biases. The worst case, apart from wasted time on your part, is that it gets a few readers who could have instead read something slightly better. The best case is that it actually is better than existing readings in some way and so becomes popular. The cream tends to rise, so if your work is really good, it should be promoted (on Facebook, by links from other authors, etc.). You can let readers decide how much publicity your writing should get. Of course, this can be distorted by advertising, author reputation, or other manipulations (e.g., hooking readers in even though the content is not very substantive), but in general, absent those factors, you can often rely to some extent on others to decide how much air time your work should get. While I do promote my writings in some ways, I also don't necessarily try too hard, because I partly feel like "I'll concentrate on doing good work, and if it's actually worth sharing, others will tend to do that organically." Of course, this is not strictly true if others don't hold your values or if they're less inclined toward reading long essays than you might wish they were.
In general, we should be less hesitant about writing up new ideas than re-writing existing ones. Even if the new idea is probably not important, it will be read by at least a few people (perhaps your friends), and if it's good, it should stick in their minds and maybe be disseminated more widely. So I think people shouldn't feel too inhibited from sharing their thoughts. In particular, even if your public conversation seems unimportant, share it anyway, just in case someone does find it useful. That said, it remains a good idea to indicate the relative quality of material; for example, I try to do this on my website by consigning the less useful pieces to an "Additional Essays" page.
Incentives to over-publish
Both academia and industry reward people who can "produce output" -- new papers, ideas, implemented plans, etc. Unfortunately, this has the effect of encouraging people to produce output even when they shouldn't. For example, if your experiments don't lead where you were hoping, you could abandon them, or you could massage them into a form that would appear to give the result you wanted. Because publishers usually only accept positive findings rather than negative results or half-baked ideas, there's incentive to do this massaging rather than represent the facts on the ground in a purely straightforward manner.
The same goes for results in industry. Say you propose a new organizational scheme, and you do planning for a few months to redesign the system in ways that you think will improve it. You present your proposal to others, and they see numerous flaws. But you don't want those months of work to go to waste, so you push for your proposal anyway, and with enough arm-twisting, you may get it through, resulting in net harm. We can see this, among other places, in the drive to "change" software products like Windows, even when doing so makes the result worse than the old version.
I was once asked how I force myself to write when I'm not inspired. My reply was that I don't write when I have nothing to say; I wait for the muse to come and only write when I feel what I would write is worth reading. I suppose there could be cases where forcing yourself to write stimulates creative juices and results in an appreciable improvement of output, but I find that the limiting factor on my output is that I need to learn more, not that I don't have enough ideas. Data, experience, and education almost always knock down the most elaborate theorizing you could do in isolation.
I personally try to avoid pressure to produce output, because it distorts proper incentives. If I really don't have anything important to say, I shouldn't make something up. Seemingly unproductive reading is likely to have higher long-run returns than coming up with yet another rehash of old ideas.