In a recent post, Anna Salamon brought attention to the way Less Wrong's decline has left the community without a locus for discourse, leaving important conversations fragmented and hindering our collective truth-seeking and future-steering abilities.
We agree with this assessment, and think Arbital is well-placed to step up to fill this role. It fits within our broad vision of improving important information flows, and we have a strong set of wiki and explanation features which will allow the discussion be closely integrated with a usefully structured body of collaboratively improved knowledge.
I'll start by explaining the problem as we see it, go into details around the vision we have for Arbital, and outline the next steps.
Understanding the problem
What is the shape of the hole Less Wrong used to fill? What is the problem that needs solving? In a nutshell, I'd say it's: current inability to have a healthy, online discussion in order to build and improve our shared understanding of the world. %%note: This is similar in ambition to Google's mission "to organize the world's information and make it universally accessible and useful." It doesn't mean we are going to solve the entire problem in one fell swoop, but it does indicate our intent both in terms of the direction and scope.%% At Arbital we think the key parts of this problem fall roughly into three categories:
- Explanation. This involves standard wiki features with a comprehensive, easily searchable network of knowledge. The website should also be good at transferring the knowledge into the readers' heads.
- Without this part the knowledge is only accumulated in the readers' minds. If someone wants to catch up on the state of the debate, they either need to get a summary from someone, figure it out as they go along, or catch up by reading the entire discussion. This makes it hard for everyone, not just newcomers, to join an in-progress discussion. %%note: For example, this manifested on Less Wrong when new users would be told to go read The Sequences. If the concepts were more modular and had canonical explanations, one could instead send a new user to a specific concept they are missing and let them explore from there.%%
- Discussion. Knowledge doesn't precipitate out of thin air. It comes from discovery and discussion. Anyone should be able to see the current state of the important debates, see what the most relevant (counter-)arguments are, and what best predictors are thinking. The platform should make it easy to find the one place where the discussion on a particular topic should happen.
- Without any discussion, the platform would only represent the settled parts of the accumulated knowledge. That would make a great reference, but not a place you would go to for the latest info or to collaborate on figuring out the right answers. There is also no chance for such a website to steer the course of the ongoing research or debate.
- If the debate is not centralized, you end up with the current problem, where a particular debate happens in dozens of places, but each place only captures different sparse subsets of the relevant claims. If those discussions were aggregated (or never separate in the first place), one could hope for a fuller coverage, making it easier to spot and fill the missing parts.
- Community. How do you start a community that has a high value of X and help it grow, while preserving the high value of X? For AI safety X equals Epistemology. For Wikipedia X equals "neutral point of view, notable information, and verifiable facts". For many other communities it's something looser and broader, like "good vibes and accurate information".
- Without an empowered admin class, every community faces Eternal September. With an admin class gone too far, you could end up with stifling bureaucracy and deletionism. When balanced just right, most users are able to have productive, high quality discussions and find it easy to contribute to the platform.
- Without an empowered expert class, the quality of the content goes down. With an expert class gone too far, you sometimes end up with too much elitism and a hostile atmosphere. When balance just right, new expert users can quickly rise to prominence and best ideas receive the most views.
Most importantly, we have a really good team: Alexei Andreev, Eric Rogstad, Stephanie Zolayvar, Eric Bruylant, and support from some excellent advisers: Eliezer Yudkowsky%%note: Arbital was originally Eliezer's idea. The first iteration of Arbital was built directly following his product vision.%% and Anna Salamon%%note: Anna played a large role in helping us to explore and transition to the Less Wrong 2.0 product space.%%. We also have enough funds to spend at least a year experimenting with and improving the product. %%note: We have raised a modest pre-seed round in 2016 from individual rationalist / EA angel investors, which should last us for a bit while we grow the platform to secure future funding.%%
Arbital's first goal was to create a centralized place for math explanations. This allowed us to build the foundations for a wiki platform as well as learn how to think and act as a startup team. We got experience nurturing and working with a small community, listening to feedback, and quickly iterating on the product. This allowed us to take the present step towards our bigger goal: solving the problem of online discussion.
I think of Arbital as a grand experiment: both in terms of community building and software design. Community building is hard because writing and enforcing good guidelines is hard, and we still haven't figured out the best way to have productive disagreements. Thankfully, it seems like there are many people who would like to work together on fixing this problem.
The software part is going to be challenging as well, because the ultimate feature set is something like a union between Reddit, Wikipedia, StackExchange, and core Facebook. Thankfully we have three full-time experienced engineers on board and the product we built so far is flexible enough to support personal pages, external links, claims, discussion, and other entities we might want the platform to have.
All in all, I'd say we have most of the necessary ingredients, the capability to acquire the missing ones, and the relentless motivation to have a good chance at creating a great locus of discussion. %%note: It's also worth noting that our ambition is to grow very very large. Our current best strategy, in a typical B2C startup fashion, is to build a valuable product, get lots of users, and then find a way to monetize the platform.%%
Our eventual goal is to have an open platform with all sorts of communities and topics, but for now we will be running a closed beta. There are two ways you can helps us:
- You can be a part of our first experimental community, Arbital Labs. We are going to selectively accept people a few at a time, while we monitor how the platform and the discussion scale. We want to catch and address any issues early on, while it's still easy to make large platform changes. If you would like to participate, let us know.
- You can create your own content, write up your own thoughts and claims. There is no guarantee your content will show up in Arbital Labs feed, but others will be able to see your content if they have a link or if they follow you on Arbital. (You can think of Arbital as Medium or WordPress.) If you would like to do that, let us know as well.
Until we can support a wide array of users, Arbital will not be a suitable replacement for Less Wrong. However, it's one of our core priorities to implement the features necessary to open the doors to everyone, while not sacrificing content and community quality. if everything goes as planned, my best guess is that at some point LW will be archived and Arbital will become the official replacement. %%note: When and how that happens will be up to LW admins. We'd be happy to assist with porting over the content.%%
I'd like to hear your thoughts, both critical and constructive, on everything I covered in this post and anything related.