Brief thoughts on CEA’s stewardship of the EA Forum
Epistemic status: This post is blunt. Please see the extended disclaimer about negative feedback here. Consider not reading it if you work on the EA forum and don’t have thick skin.
tl;dr: Once, the EA forum was a lean, mean machine. But it has become more bloated over time, and I don’t like it. Separately, I don’t think it’s worth the roughly $2M/year1 it costs, although I haven’t modelled this in depth.
The EA forum frontpage through time.
In 2018-2019, the EA forum was a lean and mean machine:
In 2020, there was a small redesign:
In 2021, the sidebar expands:
In 2022, the sidebar expands further, and pinned and curated posts take up more space:
In 2023, the sidebar splits in two. Pinned and curated posts acquire shiny symbols. Since recently, you can now add reactions
EA forum costs
Per this comment, the EA forum was spending circa $2M/year and employing 8 people as of July 2023. Per the website of the Center for Effective Altruism, the online team now has 6 members, including ¿one designer?
EA forum moderation
In the beginning, when the EA forum was smaller, there was one moderator, Aaron Gertler, and all was well. Now, as the EA forum has grown, there is a larger pool of moderators, which protect the forum from spam and ban malicious users.
At the same time, the moderation team has acted against disagreeable people that I liked.
Counterpoint: When I review the moderation comments log, moderation actions seem infrequent. I guess that disagreeable people whom I like getting banned or warned was memorable to me, though.
EA forum culture evolution
My impression is that the EA forum has been catering more to the marginal user; creating more introductory content, signposts, accessibility features, decreasing barriers to entry, etc. As the audience has increased, the marginal user is mostly a newbie. To me, the forum has been becoming more something like Reddit over time, which I dislike.
In stark contrast, consider Hackernews. Hackernews is an influential tech forum with 5M monthly users and 10M views/day. It has been able to retain its slim design through the years. Its moderation team has three persons, and they correspond with users via email.
Brief thoughts on cost-effectiveness.
The EA forum’s existence is valuable. It is still a place for high-quality discussion, and it helps the EA community collaborate on research, coordinate, identify opportunities, make sense of incoming challenges. But on top of the EA forum’s existence, are changes made in recent years positive at all, and worth $2M/year if so?
My individual perspective, my inside view, my personal guess is that a lean and mean version of the EA forum, in the style of Hackernews, would have done a better job for less money. From that perspective, the cost-effectiveness of the marginal $1.5M would be negative. Making a marginal donation to the EA Infrastructure or Long-term Future Fund would have been a better choice.
A different perspective one might take, that I don’t know quite how to inhabit, might be to make the argument that actually, a small improvement in user experience leads to an increased chance that a person will become more committed to EA over its counterfactual, and that this is valuable. For example:
- if the EA forum had 500k unique yearly visitors, and improvements to the forum in recent years mean that 1% of them continue interacting with the EA movement, that would lead to 5k counterfactual EAs. If think that creating more EAs is valuable, and we value this at $10k per EA, this would be worth $50M.
- if the forum influenced five to a hundred decisions a day each worth $1k to $100k, and improved them by 1% to 20%, this would be worth ~20M a year.
The problem with those two hypothetical examples are that I don’t buy the numbers. I think it’s easy to greatly overestimate small percentages: when one is inclined to model something as having an influence of 1%, it’s often a 0.01% instead. Less importantly, I think one should use Shapley values instead of counterfactual values in order to avoid double-counting and over-spending2.
If you are a user of the forum…
- Consider that the EA forum is currently pushing content on you. Make use of it if you are a newbie, but maybe actively filter it out once you are not.
- Consider using faster and more minimal frontends, like ea.greaterwrong.com or my own opinionated forum.nunosempere.com.
- Consider interacting with the EA forum frontpage through RSS or the all posts page, not the frontpage.
- Host your own content in independent platforms, like substack or your own blog, and build your own audience, rather than relying on a platform you don’t control. You can always cross-post it to the EA forum, but having an independent place to build your own audience and as a hedge costs you little.
If you are a CEA director or middle manager, you might have thought about this more than I have. Still, you might want to:
- Consider going back to ~1 developer and ~1 content person; save >$1M/year of your and your donors' money. My sense is that you are probably going to have to do this anyways, since you will probably not get enough money from donors3, to continue your current course.4
- Consider characterizing the EA forum’s team role to be one of lightly shepharding discussion, not leading it or defining it.
- Consider reflecting on which incentives led to the creation of a larger EA Forum team. For example, Google has well-known incentives around managers being rewarded for leading larger teams to develop new products, and doesn’t value maintenance, leading to a continuous churn and sunsetting of Google products. Might something similar, though at a lower scale, have happened here?
- As a distant fourth point, consider opening up authentication mechanisms so that users can make comments and posts using open-source frontends. This was previously doable through the greaterwrong frontend, but is no longer possible. It’s possible that this might not be possible with your current software stack, or be too difficult, though.
If you are working on the EA forum…
- I am probably missing a bunch of factors in this analysis. If you think that spending $2M/year, or having 6 to 8 people full-time on the EA forum is meaningful, you might want to post a BOTEC outlining why.
- I think that this post probably sounds very harsh, sorry. Note that these three things can be true at the same time: a) a more minimalistic forum would have been better, b) CEA leadership made a bad judgment call expanding the EA forum during the FTX days and will now have to downsize, c) given your work description, you did good work.
- It is possible that your current position is precarious, e.g., that you might be fired, or transferred to a different project within CEA.
- This is not a great amount in the grand scheme of things. Still, I am interested it in for two reasons: a) I’m working on a different piece, and this is a small, concrete case study that I can later reference, and b) I used to cherish the EA forum, and wrote over 100k words in it, only to see it become hostile to the type of disagreeable person that I am.↩
- E.g., I think that if four agents (80,000 hours; a local EA group; a personal friend; the EA forum) are needed to make someone significantly more altruistic, each organization should get ¼th of the credit. Otherwise the credit would sum up to more than 100%, and this hinders comparisons between opportunities. For a longer treatment of this topic, see this post.↩
- Realistically, this is going to be mainly Open Philanthropy, as other donors can’t support $2M/year.↩
- you could check this by creating a market on Manifold!↩