I sent the below letter to SENS, which is a medical research non-profit seeking to solve human aging. I like them because they have a good plan for how to do this which makes sense. Aubrey de Grey is their leader, I had a long discussion with him which you can read here.
SENS claims to be basically the most important thing in the world. SENS' web presence is inconsistent with this claim. SENS' web presence communicates low-prestige, low-intellectual-seriousness amateur hour. I offer criticism for several issues, partly on Aubrey's direct invitation, in hopes of helping.
The SENS website LOOKS like a very standard generic format that doesn't stand out at all or get attention.
The SENS website has many basic web design errors such as:
- requires giving your country and even US State to sign up for newsletter. email should be the ONLY required field, period. and don't even ask for stuff like people's zip code. it's not OK to add friction to newsletter signups.
- the February newsletter webpage does not link to the previous newsletter, or the archives, at the bottom.
- SENS has 3 blogs instead of 1 blog with categories. this splits up viewer attention. and since all 3 are very inactive, it just makes them look even more inactive – even with triple content in one place it'd still look bad and like SENS is inactive.
- It just plain looks like a cheap generic site in terms of layout and design. It's hard to explicitly explain why it does, but lots of people can tell because they've seen many other websites that look similar. The look of the site doesn't stand out and doesn't DIFFERENTIATE SENS. It doesn't communicate that this is something special or important.
- The images used look generic and unimpressive too. They don't stand out.
- It's not a .com site. That's bad because lots of people don't understand other TLDs besides com. (People given the website URL in person will literally do things like try to go to sens.org.com or just forget and go to sens.com. This especially applies to older people who I'm guessing are a larger part of the SENS audience. This issue is well known and makes a substantial difference.)
- The site doesn't have a bunch of awesome impressive essays (or other content) with amazing ideas. Or if it does they aren't prominent and I managed to miss them.
The SENS newsletter isn't even consistently once per month (which would be the bare minimum frequency to not look bad and have people forget about you).
The SENS newsletter looks like a normal newsletter, it doesn't stand out, it doesn't communicate SENS is SUPER FUCKING IMPORTANT.
The SENS contact form looks like a generic "we have to put up a contact form to pretend we listen to feedback" black hole. I don't know whether it is or not, but it looks that way. It looks generic and boring, and like you won't get a reply just like you don't from many other organizations. And it even adds annoying friction like making you categorize your inquiry – which is asking people, if they want to contact SENS at all, to do extra work which they aren't good at and don't want to do.
The SENS website homepage links to the SENS subreddit. This is not OK because that subreddit is very inactive (the 15th highest submission is 3 months old!). Do not send homepage visitors to a dead site, only link them places they should actually go and will be glad they went.
When you claim SENS is super duper important, but lots of the stuff you do implicitly contradicts, you destroy your own credibility and drive away most people.
Here's an example of acting inconsistently with your claims from Facebook:
Jonathan Weaver That's $10,000 in 2-3 days. Nice booster.
Like · Reply · December 5, 2014 at 6:45am
SENS Foundation Jonathan Weaver That's right! We're very thankful.
Like · Reply · December 5, 2014 at 8:31am
SENS claims to need something like $100,000,000/yr for the RMR project to go full speed and save everyone's lives. 10k/2.5 days would be too little by a factor of 68 if you got it constantly all year. 10k fundraising also just looks bad for being a small amount of money, all kinds of unimportant projects get more than 10k on kickstarter in 2-3 days. By being happy with a small amount, you accept it as appropriate to SENS, and accept a status below all sorts of stuff that can raise more.
If you really think you need 100mil/yr or MILLIONS OF PEOPLE DIE (which is what even a few year delay for SENS means), then sound the alarm instead of saying you're happy with an amount of fundraising that kills millions. When you act happy with pennies, you are telling people SENS isn't really that big a deal.
You may doubt the importance of these things. Keep in mind the cultural context. People don't expect to be listened to. If SENS is any different (which I'm unclear on), you have to shout it from the rooftops before anyone will notice. You have to make the difference extremely clear.
When Joe Random has what he thinks is a good idea, he knows he'll have a hell of a time getting anyone to listen, be it a big company, a small company, a scientist, a politician, etc. It's true that the majority of Joe Randoms have bad ideas, but some have good ideas and some others could learn to have good ideas with some pointers in the right directions. If you want Joe to communicate with SENS, you have to get his attention, not blend in with every other organization that he expects to ignore him.
I posted at the subreddit per Aubrey's recommendation and got replies which said, basically:
1) Leave and email Aubrey personally (or Michael Rae or SENS) instead.
2) Leave and go to the longevity subreddit which is more active. [Note: the longevity subreddit isn't really active either.]
3) I like SENS but got discouraged from the SENS subreddit because my posts kept getting downvoted.
4) You could try posting here and hope that somehow things will work out, contrary to your reasonable expectation.
I was not impressed. And the subreddit does nothing to stand out and communicate SENS IS IMPORTANT.
I think the talk to Aubrey/Michael personally plan is problematic because they are busy. For SENS to succeed on a big scale, there needs to be division of labor rather than expecting Aubrey/Michael to do most stuff personally. It also communicates that SENS is small time and un-prestigious if it doesn't have anyone below the top people to answer questions and have discussions with the public – there should be tiers with only a few things being escalated to the top people.
I checked the SENS Facebook page that Aubrey mentioned. It, again, does nothing to stand out and communicate that SENS is something different that's really important. It's more active than the subreddit. I dislike Facebook so I'm not familiar enough with Facebook pages to say if the activity level is OK or not, but it's definitely not GREAT.
I'd like to differentiate between three different styles of promoting SENS. Three categories of how to approach this. SENS is not doing well for any of them.
Style 1) Prestige
Impress people and say how SENS is smarter than you, and works with prestigious people and has a fancy reputation, etc, etc
This is irrational and will alienate the best and smartest people, but will impress the second tier people. It could work I guess (I'm not a fan of this style and don't recommend it).
SENS does some stuff clearly in this direction, but overall isn't good at this. An example in this style is writing, "Extramural research at PRESTIGIOUS universities and other state-of-the-art laboratory facilities throughout the world". Which isn't even well done, it's crude and blatant. Achieving prestige works better with more subtlety.
Style 2) Generic
You can just be yet another charity organization for yet another undifferentiated cause and try to get somewhere anyway. Some organizations have success with this. They aren't super important, they aren't super prestigious, but they put in the work and get somewhere.
SENS does some stuff in this direction (e.g. runs yet another small stakes matching fundraising), but isn't by any means great at it. For example the website isn't very well done, nor the subreddit, blog or newsletter.
Note, btw, that matching donation drives are bad and should not be done. See: http://blog.givewell.org/2011/12/15/why-you-shouldnt-let-donation-matching-affect-your-giving/
I tried explaining the problems with matching donations to "Reason" (the Fight Aging guy) at more length at the GRG email group but he was unwilling to address/discuss the problem.
Style 3) Reason
The third style is to focus on ideas and the intellect. Really seriously, not in the token way that's common. Here is one way to do this to give you the flavor:
Have high quality public discussions and challenge the entire public to offer any criticism of SENS, and answer every single criticism so you can honestly say there are literally no unanswered criticisms of SENS.
Saying that properly requires not just answering all the criticisms you know of, but also making a serious effort to seek them out in the first place, which involves, for example, having discussion forum of some kind for people to post criticisms at where they expect to be heard and taken seriously. For criticism to be fully possible, you also have to answer questions so people can get you to take stances on every issue and potentially criticize your answers to the questions. They have to be able to draw out more claims from you and get things clarified.
This approach isn't just about telling people SENS is super important and intellectually correct, and acting the part. It also means SENS will get all kinds of ideas, suggestions, comments, feedback and criticism from the public. And some of it will be correct and SENS will learn something too. And it also means one member of the public can answer the question of another member of the public – there can be an interested group of people being helpful.
Broadly, I would say if people are too damn stupid and irrational and have no interest in thinking, SENS is pretty screwed anyway. But I don't think they all are, and I think you ought to try and give people the benefit of the doubt and stop treating them like they are beneath you. I think SENS ought to take the position that people really do have minds, and they matter – if they don't there honestly isn't much point in saving their lives anyway. Don't just ask for monetary donations, show you care about ideas by seeking them out too.
Note these 3 styles are incompatible. The prestige approach appeals to the irrational side of people. Focusing on reason isn't generic, it would stand out. Being generic isn't prestigious. So it's important to pick something and focus, rather than do a little of everything badly.
I recommend the Reason style because it's the only one where SENS is at an advantage. SENS does not have the most expertise at impressing fools with prestige, or at grassroots hard work and community building and running charities. And SENS has no inherent advantage at those activities. That SENS could save millions of lives, and has some good arguments for its importance, is only a major advantage intellectually. In the prestige and generic games, people with much worse causes will say they are important too or whatever else, and since there isn't an intellectual atmosphere they can get away with those claims.
I think SENS should focus on where it has a large advantage over almost all rivals. (I am not personally convinced SENS is the most important cause in the world. But I agree it's a top cause, much better than the vast majority of causes.)
As a separate topic, consider that SENS would like a LOT of money. Like $100,000,000/yr for a decade. SENS, therefore, could use knowledge about money and economics. This kind of knowledge is necessary to use the money well. Consider that you wouldn't want an economically illiterate person deciding how to spend a million dollars. Well, at the billion dollar level, you wouldn't want a person with, say, "above average" economics knowledge either, you'd want world class knowledge to be involved. And it really helps to know how to deal with this money before asking for it, instead of telling people to trust that you'll figure it out correctly after getting it. And understanding these things is important for speaking intelligently to potential donors about these subjects.
This means, for example, familiarity with economics books such as _Capitalism: A Treatise on Economics_ and _Human Action_ (the best two major economics books). Preferably much more.
This does NOT mean that Aubrey should read those books. Understanding economics (not just reading a few books but studying it enough to really understand the material) is HARD and TIME CONSUMING. Therefore, it is an appropriate area for specialization and division of labor. SENS should have access to SOMEONE who knows this stuff, and who can relay important points to Aubrey and others when they are relevant.
Economics is not something everyone should learn, but it is important to basically everyone, and certainly to SENS which wants to deal with huge quantities of wealth. This is just like science: not everyone should be a scientist, division of labor is good, but science is important to everyone (and many organizations ought to have science advisors of some sort).
Similar lines of reasoning apply to quite a few other areas besides economics, such as epistemology (an understanding of the best methods of reasoning, and of philosophy of science, are two things that could aid SENS), moral philosophy (some of the objections to SENS involve moral issues), political philosophy (some actual and potential SENS projects involve the government), and computer science (maybe instead of preserving our bodies, we should upload our minds into computers. if we could accomplish that faster and cheaper than SENS, it could be the better option).
For each area, there are ongoing debates about which ideas in the field are right, which specialist experts are actually fools in disguise, which books are good, and so on. How is SENS to deal with this?
There is no way other than open rational public discussion. It leads back into the issue of discussion. Get a SENS economics expert who will address all public criticism, address all questions and issues about his economics claims, and so on. Open-ended rational discussion addressing all the issues is the only way to sort out the messes in all the various fields full of disagreement. I know this is hard and not SENS' expertise, but there is no way around it. This is what reason, truth-seeking and getting stuff right requires. The truth isn't easy to come by, too bad, suck it up and deal with it; there are no shortcuts.
SENS should not BET ITS FUTURE on the proposition that economics is irrelevant and ignorance of it won't lead to any major mistakes. Nor should SENS bet its future on siding with any particular side in the economics debates and not have that stance fully open to criticism and revision in case it's mistaken. And the same goes for other fields besides economics too.
SENS is struggling. It's badly underfunded. This stuff is URGENT and LIFE OR DEATH. SAY SO. CLEARLY. EVERYWHERE. Don't tell people everything is fine, tell the truth, it's NOT. Most current SENS communications act like these ideas about SENS' urgency are FALSE and actually everything is fine and not too urgent.
I think the most important thing is consistency. Have a consistent message and act commensurate with it. Have a consistent plan instead of a little from several styles.
I have more to say (lots), and more details for these points, but I think this is enough to get started. Please do not say "good points, you're very smart" and then proceed to do your (inevitable) initial misunderstandings of what I meant, without further discussion, in private (as is typical with this kind of thing).
PS Why didn't I write this sooner? Partly because of the contact form, as addressed above, and also the lack of any good SENS discussion place. Another major reason is b/c even now I don't really expect much to change, I don't expect this to have much effect. One reason is because I don't expect you guys to agree with everything I say INITIALLY (which is completely fine and reasonable). And I don't expect you to discuss all this to resolution (which is problematic, it blocks Paths Forward, which is irrational). One reason for these low expectations is SENS does little to differentiate itself from all the other non-profits out there, and I certainly wouldn't expect most orgs to really listen to comments like these and make big changes.
But Aubrey asked me to write (some of) this, and anyway I think it's interesting. And SENS is important – as far as medical science, it impresses me more than anything else I've seen – so I hope this helps.
Update: I received a bad reply from Michael Rae and wrote some comments on it.