How do I allocate attention? Here are some things I look for.
I prefer public, asynchronous, unmoderated, text discussion with permanent archives and no editing messages. This is available on my curi website and Fallible Ideas email discussion group. Discord, Twitter, Reddit, Facebook and personal emails don’t qualify. This facilitates discussion over time. I don't want recency biases or discussions that automatically end in a day or two.
I prefer non-parochial discussion. That means I’m writing something of general interest. It’s best if the topic is general interest and what I say about the topic is easy to share, or easy for someone else to read, rather than mixed up in a bunch of back-and-forth discussion. I prefer discussion formats where I can easily link to things I wrote and can easily copy/paste parts of the discussion without the formatting being screwed up.
I prefer productive discussion with people who are making an honest, friendly, serious effort over time (e.g. 2+ months of regularly working on learning something and sharing what they’re doing so I can see the effort for myself and can critically comment on it).
I prefer discussing with high-initiative, independent people who have their own motor. I prefer people who are going to learn whether I help or not, and who will guide themselves. Then my help or comments are an extra bonus. I dislike helpless behaviors.
I prefer people who will brainstorm a bunch of ways of making progress, and try them. I don’t like people who get stuck easily and don’t have any ideas to get unstuck. It’s best if you’re self-sufficient enough that my comments can help you do better at what you’re already doing (and sometimes reconsider it and change projects), rather than my comments needing to somehow get you unstuck. It’s OK if you’re getting low on great ideas about how to proceed and starting to try some more marginal ideas and you want help. It’s bad if you have no ideas for proceeding on your own and gave up.
I prefer paying attention to people who have a significant writing or discussion history, e.g. a blog or dozens of past, reasonable, effortful messages. If you’re posting anonymously and have no past reputation, you should put some extra effort into making your message clearly worthwhile and nice to engage with. I also generally like people with websites, and people who write public things which are meant to still be read years in the future.
If you want to post anonymously, I prefer that you pick a pseudonym and use it for at least an entire conversation, preferably longer.
I prefer people who use quotes effectively (such as including relevant context so that their message is self-contained, while also excluding irrelevant text), format their posts well, respond to what I actually said, don’t talk past me, don’t put words in my mouth, don’t misquote me, don’t respond to something different than what I said, don’t straw man me, and don’t reply with non sequiturs.
I prefer talking with people who don’t do social pressure behaviors. I dislike people who treat discussion as a popularity contest and pander to the non-participating audience.
I prefer good questions which talk about what you already did to solve your own problem and where/how/why you got stuck. I prefer questions which build on something that’s already written (e.g. by me or Rand). I don’t like vague questions. I generally like questions that explain your perspective.
If you don’t ask a question, I can write about a topic without you. I can create my own generic writing prompts and questions without you. Your questions, to be useful, need to have an advantage over that. They need to add some upside for me. There are two main ways to do that. First, you can include information about your perspective, what you tried, how you got stuck and your own experience with the problem. Suppose you have a question about capitalism. You can e.g. tell me which specific sentences you didn’t understand from one of my articles about capitalism, and what’s confusing about them for you. That’s more useful to me than the question “So, how does capitalism work?”, which I already thought of myself and wrote about. Second, you can write a high effort, detailed, organized question. You can e.g. write about the current state of the field, what are the open questions, what is already answered and how, etc. You can do research or think about the best way to approach the issues. In that case, the upside for me is that you put work into the topic. So, to make a good question, give me information I don’t already have – either info related to your personal learning or info from doing some good thinking about the issue.
I don’t like questions which essentially ask me to start over and explain the issue from scratch in cases where I (or someone else like David Deutsch) already wrote a one-size-fits-many, generic explanation addressing the matter from scratch.
I don’t like being asked questions that I preemptively answered in an article or in a previous discussion message. I understand that you had trouble understanding, but be more specific than “I don’t get it” or “How does X work?”. It’s important to give me some information about what you don’t get – which part of my explanation don’t you get, what’s the problem, what do you think it says in your words, what’s your best guess at what it means, what seems wrong about it to you, what criticism of it do you see no way to deal with, something.
I prefer cooperative discussion. Adversarial debates are overrated. The main benefit of them is that they’re better than no discussion at all.
If you want an adversarial debate, it helps if you communicate your background and why you think you have the skill to keep up and potentially win. Even better, bring up stakes or tests – e.g. if you’re wrong about X (something relatively easy to objectively evaluate the correctness of, e.g. a factual matter), then you’ll do Y (concede some points, read and comment on some books and FI articles, be extremely appreciative, impressed, surprised, pay me money, behave differently in your career, whatever – the more the better). It’s important to have clear criteria for what’d satisfy you in a debate, to have clarity about what it’d take for you to concede, and to have ways to objectively test who is right instead of it all being evaluated with freeform judgment. And it’s important that there be consequences to the debate, something actually happens if a conclusion is reached (it should be something that has value for me if I’m right). It’s also good to say why the issue you want to debate is important, why it matters, why it’s worth debating. And tell me how I would benefit from being corrected about this.
For all discussions, and especially debates, I prefer people who are persistent about reaching a conclusion. And people who will slow down and stop skipping steps or jumping to conclusions, will clarify things, will put effort into making the discussion organized, and will deal with tangents and sub-issues.
Communicate goals you have that I’ll appreciate, e.g. to debate to a conclusion, or to learn philosophy. If your question is the first of 20+ questions you plan to ask over a period of months, that’s a good thing, tell me that. I don’t like the people who ask one question, get their answer, and leave with no comment. I prefer helping people with bigger goals than to get one answer to one thing. (The one thing is almost never very important on its own, it’s just good as a step towards bigger stuff.)
Don’t try to have it both ways with being a beginner who wants leeway and also an expert who is challenging my ideas and expects to win debates with me. You can’t simultaneously be both. And, in general, pick one and say which it is. If you think you’re my peer or intellectual equal, say so, and then I’ll hold you to the same standards I hold my own work to. If you don’t think you’re my peer and don’t want to be held to the standards for my own work, say that. If your thinking and claims are not being held to the same quality standards as mine, and it looks to you like I’m wrong, your default assumption should be that you’re missing something (or, at least, there was a misunderstanding), because your ideas are less rigorous than mine. If you don’t have a comparable amount of learning and studying activity in your past (compared to me), including public writing exposed to criticism, then you shouldn’t expect that the criticism or critical question you just thought of is new to me. It’s not literally impossible, but it’s a bad default assumption because I’ve already heard or thought of so many ideas before.
I like talking to reasonable, smart, knowledgeable people. And honest, especially honest. I dislike talking with people who assume I don’t have enough information to make judgments about them that I’ve made. I have a lot of knowledge about how to judge discussion statements which have been exposed to a lot of critical commentary and tested extensively. Lots of your behavior, which you’re blind to, is expressed in your words and is easy for me to judge as e.g. dishonest.
I like when people talk to people other than me and have discussions that I can comment on. I don’t like being a major participant in 90% of discussions at my forums. Practice discussing with others (both on my forums and elsewhere), try things out, share what happened, and ask for help with problems.
I prefer people who answer my questions or, in the alternative, say why they aren’t answering. It’s hard to deal with people who ignore direct questions. I also dislike ambiguous answers, including giving one answer to three questions (and not even specifying which one is being answered). I also want direct answers like “yes” or “no” when possible – if you want to explain your answer with nuance, you should generally give a direct answer as the first sentence of your answer, then give extra information after.
I also prefer people who ask clear, direct questions. If you say some stuff with no question, I’m less inclined to answer. Tell me what you want. Don’t imply them or hint. Don’t think a key part of your message goes without saying. Even a generic comment like “Does anyone have criticism of this?” or “I’d like criticism of this.” (which is fine despite not being a question or request) is much better than nothing. It takes away wiggle room (both honest and dishonest) where you could later say you didn’t actually think what you said was true, or weren’t looking for criticism, or some other excuse for why you don’t appreciate the criticism you received. Even better is to say something less generic about what you think or want.
I like people who care about errors instead of making excuses about why those errors aren’t important. I find people dramatically underestimate what errors matter and don’t understand how they matter, and mostly don’t ask or want to know, either.
If you value my attention, say so explicitly and act accordingly. Or pay for it (contributions, consulting, digital educational products). Money is good. Money is actually a lot easier to come by and provide to me than high-quality discussion messages are. I don’t mind helping some people who are bad at stuff, and paying customers have priority there (as do friendly, cooperative, honest people who appreciate the help).
It’s good to share your goals, intentions and plans for a discussion or for your learning. And how much do you care? What will you do about it? What resources are you allocating to this project and what will you do with them? What resources do you estimate the project needs to succeed? How hard a project is it? What have you done to build up to being ready to do it by doing a series of easier project successfully and sharing the results publicly on your blog? These are areas you should be interested in critical feedback on. Many learning projects fail because of project planning errors, e.g. people think something is a much smaller project than it is. Many people start discussions and quickly drop out. They weren’t really interested in the topic they asked about, don’t want to think or talk about it much, don’t want to take actions to learn more such as reading an article, and don’t want to discuss and learn from their error either.
I dislike when people ask for my help with a project which is already in progress and they won’t share or revisit the project planning. They want my help with goals they already decided, using an approach they already decided, but they want to exclude me from discussing or criticizing that stuff. Lame!
The more you do the above things, the more attention you’ll get. If you don’t do them, don’t expect much attention.
I wrote this post partly to help people deal with me better and partly to clarify this for myself. I’m trying to change to better follow these guidelines. Expect me to be less responsive than I’ve been in the past if you don’t follow the above advice. I plan to ignore more stuff that I think is low value.
But what if I make a mistake and ignore something important? What if I’m biased? What about Paths Forward? My Paths Forward Policy is still in effect as a backup so that mistakes can be corrected – it can be used if I don’t allocate attention to something that you think I should. And, along with this post, I’ve just written introductory questions people can use, made a How To Discuss blog post category, written an explanation of how debates and impasses work and how to conclude a debate, and written a new debating policy.