author: niplav, created: 2022-04-14, modified: 2022-05-07, language: english, status: abandoned, importance: 4, confidence: emotional
I critique a recent prize from the Effective Altruism movement for being misguided, offer some alternatives, and then proceed to discuss the general downfall of epistemic infrastructure on the internet.
Recently, the Ideas Project announced a $500,000 prize for new blogs.
The prize will award an up to $100,000 prize each to the five best recent blogs, in order to encourage the discussions around effective altruism and related topics. Blogs need to be public, generally concerned with effective altruism and longtermism, and should have been started within the last 12 months.
I believe that this prize is flawed in some subtle and not-so-subtle ways, which I first lay out, and then propose some alternative prizes which solve some of the underlying issues.
‘Blog posts’ might be the answer. But I have read blogs for many years and most blog posts are the triumph of the hare over the tortoise. They are meant to be read by a few people on a weekday in 2004 and never again, and are quickly abandoned—and perhaps as Assange says, not a moment too soon. (But isn’t that sad? Isn’t it a terrible ROI for one’s time?) On the other hand, the best blogs always seem to be building something: they are rough drafts—works in progress¹⁵. So I did not wish to write a blog. Then what? More than just “evergreen content”, what would constitute Long Content as opposed to the existing culture of Short Content? How does one live in a Long Now sort of way?¹⁶
— Gwern Branwen, “About This Website”, 2021
Except for rare exceptions (Slate Star Codex being the most notable one), blogs usually don't provide much long-term value—who cares enough to read the whole archive of a blog, unless the author is exceptionally skilled? Even in the case of Scott Alexander, additional effort had to be made to curate the best posts and order them by topic, something still sorely missing for blogs like Overcoming Bias and Marginal Revolution or econlog. How much value is provided by reading the whole Marginal Revolution archives or all posts Robin Hanson has ever written? A lot, probably, but with extremely low value per post (compare to a post by Gwern, such as the one on spaced repetition—comprehensive, up-to-date, all in one place; built up over 10 years). I should know, I started reading the Marginal Revolution archives and quickly abandoned the endeavour, I persisted a bit longer with Overcoming Bias, reading at least all posts from 2006 and half of the posts from 2007.
What advantage, if any, do blogs have over other media? Books can be (and usually are) far more comprehensive and high-status, instant messaging and social media are more engaging, but move from one fashionable topic onto another, and imageboards—well, we don't talk about imageboards here. Blogs (or, in the best case, sites), allow for content to be accumulated slowly, and still stay up to date, connecting a larger network of ideas from a single person (in ways that wikis usually don't).
As with software projects, the first 80% of the work is finding the idea and doing the work to have a basic prototype, the second 80% are writing clearer explanations with images, citing the claims, updating the text with new facts or arguments after they come out, and perhaps completely rewriting it after it has turned out to be wrong.
We can then look at the prize from another lens: Which algorithms' measures does this prize increase? Surely not the one of people who are willing to put in a decade into a post about spaced repetition, since one of the requirements is that the blog should have been started at most 12 months ago (‽), so the algorithms you incentivize is not “puts a lot of effort into a blog”, but “puts a lot of effort into a blog as long as there is a juicy prize at the finish line”. (The website states that only blogs started "within the last 12 months" are eligible for the prize—does that refer to the 12 months before the announcement of the prize, or the date at which the prize is given out?)
Of the blogs that will win the prizes, how many of them will persist after the prize is given out? Not many, I reckon.
Rewarding this kind of unmaintained one-shot content creates not epistemic infrastructure (posts that come to fruition slowly, that potentially will still be read in five years), but epistemic fireworks (or, in the best case, epistemic tinder that sparks discussions).
This would be okay if it were a prize for blogs about current event or news, but the website states that the blogs in question should "explore themes related to effective altruism and longtermism" and that the Effective Ideas team has "a particular interest in iconic blog posts that stand the test of time."
That, of course, makes perfect sense: You'd obviously like to exclude anyone who has put any real effort into their blog in the past, and prevent any possible evidence for which blogs and their posts actually stand the test of time. After all, there's nobody around who has already shown some capability for working on things for a long time, right⸮
DID THEY NOT SEE THE IRONY OF PUTTING OUT A PRIZE LOOKING FOR BLOGS FOCUSED ON LONGERMISM WITH POSTS THAT STAND THE TEST OF TIME, BUT EXCLUDE ANY BLOG OLDER THAN 12 MONTHS? AM I GOING CRAZY?
Supported by the FTX Future Fund™ and Longview Philanthropy®
Luckily, they include some blogs in the "A Few of Our Bloggers" section, so I can take a look at how well they have fared so far with regards to producing long-term content.
(If you are one of those bloggers, please don't take this as an indictment against your blogging abilities—but I'd like to do a case study. I'd be delighted if you proved me wrong :-)). For the time being, this will unfortunately be limited to collecting few datapoints (number of posts, date of last post, length of post) and rough impressions (in the long term, I plan to add all those posts to my collection).
Verdict: two webpages that aren't actually blogs, two young (but potentially promising) blogs with few posts, two medium-age blogs that have a lot of content (to the degree that I fear the authors might burn out or get disillusioned from the endeavour), and a very cute & old site.
I imagine the organizers of the Effective Ideas blog prize have several objections, here's two I can anticipate:
The prize exists explicitely to encourage new & young writers, so I imagine the organizers perceive a current lack of blogs about longtermism and effective altruism (and related areas).
There certainly is no Marginal Revolution of effective altruism, and not as many people comment on posts on the EA forum as on ACX open threads.
Is that true? To be honest, I don't quite know: I recognize ~all blogs on this page, and most on this blogroll, but I would be a lying lier telling dirty lies if I said I'd read any non-negligible fraction of their posts. But I looking over those lists, I don't get the impression that there's a dearth of blogs about effective altruism, but rather a lack of discoverability or aggregation (why doesn't everyone of those post their texts to the EA forum?).
This is relevant: If there were very few EA blogs around, then it would make sense to incentivize the creation of new ones. If many old and semi-regularly updated EA blogs existed, but if they were just limited by funding or time, it would make sense to incentivize those blogs to increase their output (or reward them for their past contributions), and encourage them to better curate their content.
Further, we think EA needs more strong writers who can share key ideas in prestigious and popular venues — to persuade people to work on the most pressing issues of our time and to advance our thinking about them. We want to incentivize EAs to develop those skills.
— Nick Whitaker, “We're announcing a $100,000 blog prize”, 2022
The goal of a blog, really, is not to produce really viable long-term content—it's often just about The Discourse™: Getting certain ideas into public perception, making the EA perspective a more acceptable stance in public perception. We want more people to at least know about effective altruism, and most people don't actually read a 180 page about iterated embryo selection—a short blog post is much more likely to be actually consumed by anyone (many people I've talked to tell me they've never finished a Gwern post—sad, of course, but understandable).
Blogging peaked in 2009; I was there, just.
— Gavin Leech, “Blogging is dead, long live sites”, 2020
But then, blogs occupy an uncomfortable spot in the informational ecosystem: The days of glory for blogging are unfortunately over, The Discourse™ is happening on social media now, in Twitter threads and Discord messages. All the substacks in the world will not change that if you want to be plugged in, you might want to make YouTube videos about effective altruism instead. (Sorry, the era of BoingBoing is not coming back).
Alternatively, I could see an EA newspaper as a good idea: having an institutionalized content & Discourse-producing machine à la Works in Progress or Jacobin will reach a different kind of people who demand the air of respectability of a newspaper—after all, blogs are not exactly high-status (perhaps this perceived lack of status is why I am so enthusiastic about long sites: they just feel classier).
Since I obviously have opinions about blogs, but don't want to just criticize other people's hard work, here are some suggested improvements I believe would be quite beneficial.
On the less invasive side, I can propose one small improvement:
The 12 month age limit in the current prize makes little sense: If someone has been producing valuable content for a long time, they will probably continue doing so for quite a while. The current prize is unfairly excluding past effort.
There's also more experimental structures available: Don't give out prizes; instead perform credit assignment for past work. Zack M. Davis outlines the idea in a personal context, transferring it to an organizational one should be reasonably easy:
So, I had an idea. You know how some people say we should fund the solutions to problems with after-the-fact prizes, rather than picking a team in advance that we think might solve the problem and funding them? What if ... you did something like that, but on a much smaller scale? A personal scale.
Like, suppose you've just successfully navigated a major personal life crisis that could have gone much worse if it weren't for some of the people in your life (both thanks to direct help they provided during the crisis, and things you learned from them that made you the sort of person that could navigate the crisis successfully). These people don't and shouldn't expect a reward (that's what friends are for) ... but maybe you could reward them anyway (with a special emphasis on people who helped you in low-status ways that you didn't understand at the time) in some sort of public ritual, to make them more powerful and incentivize others to emulate them, thereby increasing the measure of algorithms that result in humans successfully navigating major personal life crises.
It might look something like this—
• If you have some spare money lying around, set aside some of it for rewarding the people you want to reward. If you don't have any spare money lying around, this ritual will be less effective! Maybe you should fix that!
• Decide how much of the money you want to use to reward each of the people you want to reward.
(Note: giving away something as powerful as money carries risks of breeding dependence and resentment if such gifts come to be expected! If people know that you've been going through a crisis and anyone so much as hints that they think they deserve an award, that person is missing the point and therefore does not deserve an award.)
• Privately go to each of the people, explain all this, and give them the amount of money you decided to give them. Make it very clear that this is a special unilateral one-time award made for decision-theoretic reasons and that it's very important that they accept it in the service of your mutual coherent extrapolated volition in accordance with the Bayes-structure of the universe. Refuse to accept words of thanks (it's not about you; it's not about me; it's about credit-assignment). If they try to refuse the money, explain that you will literally burn that much money in paper currency if they don't take it. (Shredding instead of burning is also acceptable.)
• Ask if they'd like to be publicly named and praised as having received an award as part of the credit-assignment ritual. (Remember that it's quite possible and understandable and good that they might want to accept the money, but not be publicly praised by you. After all, if you're the sort of person who is considering actually doing this, you're probably kind of weird! Maybe people don't want to be associated with you!)
• To complete the ritual, publish a blog post naming the people and the the awards they received. People who prefered not to be named should be credited as Anonymous Friend A, B, C, &c. Also list the amount of money you burned or shredded if anyone foolishly rejected their award in defiance of the Bayes-structure of the universe. Do not explain the nature of the crisis or how the named people helped you. (You might want to tell the story in a different post, but that's not part of the ritual, which is about credit-assignment.)
— Zack M. Davis, “"Friends Can Change the World"; Or, Request for Social Technology: Credit-Assignment Rituals”, 2017
Look at the Wikipedia pages for EA-relevant topics, and find the contributors who have participated most in the creation of those pages, contact them and grant them after-the-fact prizes for their efforts.
The advantage is clear: Wikipedia is not going away, and the go-to resource for ~everybody on a new topic is the Wikipedia page. 10 minor edits to Wikipedia might outweigh a year of blogging in terms of eyeballs and social utility.
Instead of rewarding blogs, look explicitely for sites with long content, the more long-term, the better (ideally complete with Wikipedia contributions and archiving & tagging papers and open-source contributions and predictions and URL archiving), if they don't have sufficient funding, offer to fund them completely for a year. Make online conscientiousness be worth it.
I hope I have made a true case for why the Effective Ideas prize is currently misguided, and perhaps even suggested some pontential avenues for improvement.