[Attention conservation notice: if you’re not a rationalist [ETA: in the Bay Area or maybe New York– I was thinking “the Bay Area rationalist community” every time I typed “the rationalist community”] I can’t imagine you would get anything out of this one.]
At both this year’s Bay Area Solstice and last year’s, there was a speech given about disconnection from the rationalist community: about how many people feel lost and lonely and like they don’t really belong, and about how we as a community need to step up and reach out to each other more and build a real community. I wasn’t going to comment on this last year, but two years in a row is beginning to seem like a trend.
Do we have any evidence that this claim is the case?
I, personally, do not feel disconnected from the rationalist community. I have several close friends and partners; I can go to events as often as I feel inclined (which, to be fair, isn’t particularly often); on bonobo rationalist Tumblr I interact with so many kind and intelligent people that backreading my dash is becoming intractable. My recent top surgery is an excellent example: I had a well-attended and delightful sex party; I easily found a person to babysit me when my fiance was at work; I requested and received prayers from the two Catholics; several people have kindly offered to spend time with me post-surgery and take my mind off the pain; and I have an innumerable number of well-wishers.
Now, admittedly, I am an introvert. But that can be taken two ways! On one hand, I may have low social needs, and therefore I am satisfied by this fairly disconnected community; on the other, I am socially phobic and agoraphobic, and yet my refusal to interact with anyone has not driven away all the social support.
I don’t think I’m alone here. Scott Alexander has written about how much he adores the Bay Area rationalist community. On a more objective front, the rationalist community has helped our members miserably trapped in places like Russia, the Caribbean, and Iowa; I am personally aware of several people who, when in need, were helped by other rationalists with no expectation of return; we have several big events each year, and innumerable smaller events from Stanford EA to Alicorn’s dinner parties. On most of the possible metrics of a community I can think of, we’re doing well.
But I don’t mean to say that the rationalist community is 100% awesome, no alienation here. It seems perfectly plausible to me that people other than me feel alienated and alone, and I am sheltered by my charming personality, my blogging career, my many romantic partners, or my refusal to leave the house. I just want to say that, from anecdotes, we can make the case either way– and therefore we need to check.
I worry that, in the absence of metrics, the rationalist community would adopt a self-identity as The Community Where Everyone Is Disconnected And Alone. We would have no way of measuring when we’ve won, when we’ve built a decent community and can stop self-criticizing. I think that that’s harmful. For one thing, it’s terrible PR: who wants to join the community where everyone’s lonely? For another, it’s very easy, when you have that sort of self-identity, to stop trying. No matter what you do, someone is going to stand up at Solstice next year and talk about how we haven’t built a real community yet– so what’s the point in taking a step to make the community better? People can wind up feeling alienated about the fact that they aren’t alienated! Like they’re different from their community because, for them, the community is actually doing its fucking job.
I think that these speeches come from a good motivation: people want to make a deliberate effort to be welcoming to newcomers and to people who feel alienated, and it makes sense to do it at the one Big Rationalist Event they’re likely to attend. And I don’t want to get in the way of that goal. What I would suggest is to explicitly acknowledge both the connected people and the disconnected ones. Send the message of “lots of people in this room are lonely, and that doesn’t mean there’s anything wrong with them”, but also send the message of “and lots of rationalists have fixed this problem, and if you stay in our community we’ll do our best to fix it for you too”. Reassure those who are disconnected that we are kind and do not bite, but challenge those who are connected not just to stay in our little bubbles but to reach out to the people standing on the sidelines.
[ETA: I also think it would be a good idea to collect information about how well the community is doing in terms of social support on the LW survey.]