Authors: fkarg (my blog), crtltab, wilm


Backstory and Intentions

In October 2020, wilm moved to Karlsruhe and was disappointed by the lack of a local LessWrong community. In order to change this, he reached out to fkarg and together they decide to try to establish a LW Meetup Group in Karlsruhe.

Despite the ongoing pandemic, which made in-person gatherings impossible, the Meetup Group has been going great! In this post we want to share what we have learned about starting and running a local meetup group during lockdown.

By sharing our experience we want to encourage others (you, YES YOU) to also initiate a meetup group. Lockdown is no excuse, and online might just work out!

In the following we will explain how we got started, how we organize our meetings in terms of content and structure and provide information about what did and did not work well.

Obligatory disclaimer: What worked for us might not work for you, and things that didn’t work for us might work very well for you.

Why create a Meetup

Our reason to create a meetup was simple: to bring together aspiring rationalists from our area, to learn together, to share progress, to help each other, and to socialize. It also helps to get to know new people and to learn about how other people think.


Overview

The first step in creating the meetup group was writing a post on LessWrong to announce the meetup. Since the initial video-call, we have been meeting online almost every week. With a regular influx of new members, our group has grown to about a dozen regular attendees.

Similarly, the structure and content of our meetings has evolved over time. Our weekly schedule looks something like this currently:

  • 19:00 – 19:10 People slowly coming in and welcoming each other
  • 19:10 – 19:20 Introductions (if someone new is present)
  • 19:20 – 20:00 Topic 1: Hammertime Sequence
  • Topic 2
  • [Topic 3]
  • Scheduling Topics for next Week
  • Feedback
  • [End of Meetup]
  • Open Socializing

The first few meetups were considerably shorter, but recently the open socializing went until around 21:30 to 22:00 o’clock.

(If you want to start your own meetup, it is advisable to adjust the structure and content to the interests and preferences of the people attending.)

From our experience, coming up with interesting and worthwhile content is nothing to be worried about as (so far) we always had more ideas for discussion topics or other activities than we manage to schedule.

One of the cornerstones of our meetup has been working through the Hammertime Sequence. We started committing to work on one or two days of the sequence each week on our second meetup. This way, working on Hammertime and discussing our experiences and insights is giving our group a ‘baseline-purpose’ to get together, but this is rarely the highlight of the day. This honor usually belongs to Topic 2 or 3, if not to some discussion that started randomly.

After talking about the most recent Hammertime days, we usually have discussions, and sometimes presentations by one or multiple members. Often enough this is not structured: having an initial topic people are interested in talking about is sufficient. Over time, numerous digressions occur and topics shift repeatedly, usually with additional topics written down to talk about in more detail later.

Other times, especially when a topic has been explicitly scheduled in the previous week, there might be prepared talks or interactive sessions.

Some topics we recently talked about are:

  • note-taking systems (e.g. Zettelkasten, roam and obsidian.md, emacs Org-Mode)
  • personal management systems and workflows (e.g. GTD-implementations or parts of OS setups)
  • book recommendations and reviews
  • how to track data and visualize it (e.g. health, finances)
  • HPMOR

Another activity we often did is something we called ‘Opinion-Speed-Dating’. For this, we split into groups of 2-3 people and pick a conversation topic from a curated list of topics designed to favor personal or philosophical discussions.

After 10 to 15 min we then come back together and share the most interesting thoughts and ideas from each sub-group, sometimes continuing the discussion and digressions. While being fun on its own, it also works well as a way to get to know each other.

Initiating a Meetup

If the idea of attending a meetup sounds appealing to you, why not try creating one yourself? In our experience, there is less to do organizationally than expected.

Here is what we did.

First Meetup

To get started, we read guides like the How to Run a successful LW Meetup Group or the Meetup Cookbook. We tried to figure out what we want to achieve and roughly plan the first meetup (mainly getting to know each other and sharing expectations). Finally, we wrote a post in order to announce the new meetup. Don’t forget to invite your friends!

Weekly organization is very manageable. Writing a post to announce the next meetup takes about 10mins, and (from our experience) it’s not a problem to rely on the topics being scheduled during the previous meetup or getting decided spontaneously. No thoroughly thought-through plan needed.

Roles

How to Run a successful LW Meetup Group mentions a number of implicit and explicit roles, such as content provider, welcomer (someone that includes and introduces new people and greets meetup veterans), networker, or organizer.

So far (after about half a year) we did not need to explicitly assign most of these roles. fkarg emerged as a moderator, but many others help out with organizing, providing content, and writing the posts.

Infrastructure

We of course needed infrastructure to run an online meetup - but we didn’t want to host it ourselves. Using publicly available instances is absolutely fine.

Our infrastructure changed drastically early on, so here is what we’re currently using.

Video chat

The most important part for a virtual meetup is the platform for video calls. We use a Big Blue Button instance hosted by our local university for our meetups (provided for free to students). This allows for high-quality video chats with breakout sessions and screen sharing. Additionally, no one needs to install anything and the university setup guarantees privacy. The link to the room does not change, but it can only be entered when a moderator is present.

Coordination

Having an instant messenger group (Signal in our case) is useful for coordination between meetups (e.g. ‘I’ll be late today’ or ‘I won’t be able to make it’) and sharing information.

Everyone who shows up to a meetup is invited to that group.

Shared documents

We use a few collaborative online documents that can easily be edited by multiple users in order to store more permanent information. We have a couple of HedgeDoc (formerly CodMD, formerly HackMD) documents that every member can access. Google Docs would probably work just as well.

Currently, we use these documents for:

  • Ideas for future meetups (mostly discussion topics)
  • History of recent meetup topics
  • Book recommendations
  • Questions for Opinion Speed Dating
  • A Meta-Pad with links to the other pads, every other pad links to this one
  • A list with our expectations to this meetup and people attending it
  • Numerous lists about various topics

We found this useful to establish common knowledge within the group (e.g. for future meetup topics if someone wasn’t present, and looking up information).

Links are provided during a meetup, when it is being talked about, or in the messenger group for coordination.

Yes, that’s it. Really.

Reasons for Success

So far the atmosphere during our meetups has been really great and people are thoroughly enjoying getting together. This allows for sharing personal problems and subsequent solving or at least iteration on them from everyone present (important: beware of other-optimizing).

We think that there are a few factors beneficial for fostering such a friendly atmosphere. Be aware of us being lucky and survivorship bias.

Below, we share a few of these factors along with general tips and reflections.

Success Factors: Social

Cameras

Something that helped create a more personal atmosphere is that we don’t communicate via speech only. Video offers additional communication bandwidth which allows for a lot more nuanced interactions. Seeing how others react, even just for a split-second, reduces a lot of the inherent ambiguity in communication.

This is not an explicit policy, but rather an implicit one. We also have the feeling that people in general like to use cameras for interaction more than they ever did before the pandemic.

Breakout Sessions

We found that with fewer people, a very comfortable atmosphere allowing for honest exchange and topic digression presented itself naturally. Establishing such an atmosphere got a lot harder with more and continuously new people attending. An easy solution for this was to create breakout-sessions (i.e., splitting up the video conference into multiple rooms) with up to five people.

The ‘comfortable’ atmosphere from the small groups tends to spill over to the ‘big’ meeting even after breakout sessions have concluded. This is one of the reasons we try to have breakout sessions early in our Meetup.

Benefits are multi-faceted:

  • People are less afraid to talk longer
  • People have less inhibition to speak up or mention related anecdotes and information
  • People are more comfortable sharing personal details and asking for help with problems
  • Smaller groups are much more self-directed, needing little moderation
  • It’s easier to actively integrate everyone (especially newcomers)
  • It’s easier to establish trust with each other
  • It’s easier to ‘synchronize’ with each other to establish a group mentality / atmosphere

Hand-Signs

When your group hits a certain point (~8 people or more), receiving input from everyone becomes a communication challenge and can easily take a long time. In-person meetings sometimes have rules for a number of hand-signs, signaling a number of different things:

  • ‘I want to talk’
  • ‘I have an objection to this’
  • ‘This is wrong, I can tell you how’
  • ‘Applause’
  • and many more

We do of course not use all of these gestures to the same degree, the one used most often is the temperature probe: receiving immediate feedback on how people feel about a certain proposition.

Allow Topic Digressions

Something we see a lot of value in for ourselves is the ability to have frequent topic digressions. Even when a topic is provided, it’s not rare to stray to another - sometimes related, sometimes not - topic for a few minutes before continuing the original discussion.

These digressions are usually started by someone asking a question about a personal challenge related to the topic or sharing related information.

These very valuable interventions happen less in larger groups:

  • It’s not clear that everyone is interested or wants to participate in a topic digression
  • No one wants to take up a lot of ‘talk time’, because it would prevent others from doing the same
  • It’s harder to keep track of everyone, which limits the energy available to keep track of frequent jumping between arguments and topics

We noticed that having space for these kinds of digressions is what’s enabling the previously mentioned friendly and open atmosphere in the first place. The value gained from deeper discussions with digressions is a big part of why people participate.

Shared Culture

We noticed that most members have a number of common interests. They might be interested in certain (niche) subcultures, having just read HPMOR, or spent a lot of time configuring their computer setup.

Having discovered these common interests, delving into them is a nice way of connecting with each other. These tend to be more off-topic than usual (but also fun, e.g., who would have thought that a large fraction of attendees uses a custom keyboard layout).

Success Factors: Other

Posts on LessWrong

Everyone who joined found us directly through a post or indirectly through getting invited by someone who joined through a weekly post. This means that the obvious method of attracting members seems to work quite well. Most people who joined us at some point also stayed.

In order to find a balance between attracting new people and retaining the personal atmosphere, we only make a post for every other meetup. This has also worked well so far.

Make your physical meetup location noticeable

Most of our meetups have been in German. We spontaneously decided to hold some in English when someone was not able to participate in German.

We very much welcome new faces, and are more appropriately a ‘Karlsruhe Area’-Meetup. Still, we would appreciate it if people were at least aware of where Karlsruhe is, and that we might speak German.

We noticed that the quality of expression takes a small but noticeable hit when switching to English. To reduce unnecessary friction in discussions, a policy going forward is that we will hold Meetups in German.

Since we added ‘Germany’ in parentheses to our description, almost all newcomers were able to participate in German.

Having Community Experience

While it’s hard to define what an ‘experienced’ rationalist would constitute, it’s much easier to define ‘community experience’. Community Experience is time spent with other rationalist meetups - how they were organized, and what worked for them.

‘How to organize a LW meetup’ is a great guide - and one we consult frequently - but having seen an implementation in person as a reference is worth a lot.

Luckily, we have a few people with community experience (e.g. through the LW European Community Weekend in Berlin, the meetups at Chaos Communication Congress or other events).

Having people who had exposure to other rationalist communities is incredibly helpful for initial formation and later iteration.

Don’t talk too much about the Meta

We had a point earlier to allow for digressions. Thing is, you shouldn’t let them get out of hand either.

If necessary (and they absolutely are) have meta-discussions about the structure of your meetup. This includes frequency of LW-posts (every meetup?) as well as general structure and topics, as well as why you participate and what your expectations are. Do try not to discuss too much about things that do not matter much, like how to vote properly.

Make separate meetings or at least a separate session for those wanting to discuss meta-meta-topics, and present results to the others. Those presenting meta-suggestions to the rest of the group need to be really thorough in explaining their reasoning behind the proposed changes - rationalists will spot everything that’s even slightly odd or not the ‘ideal’ solution. That’s what we are trained for. If that happens, the most immediate discussion will be about details you miscommunicated. Take in new ideas, but don’t stall making decisions.

Things to keep in mind

There is a number of things to keep in mind, however. Here is a few we think are important.

Diversity

One of the goals of our meetup was to establish a local community that allows rationalists and adjacent interested people to meet and connect with like-minded individuals and talk about the art of rationality. For this, having a variety of different viewpoints is very valuable.

We did not have this luxury for some time. When we reached the size of almost ten regular attendees, all of us were associated with the same faculty - computer science. We had students of varying semesters, graduates and postgraduates, but we were all associated with computer science. In short: our views did not differ about most things, and we had a number of topics thought through for ourselves. This allowed for much more in-depth technical discussions - sometimes even far out of our areas of expertise.

This has changed recently, with a number of new people - not associated with computer science - joining us.

While it is to be expected that a LessWrong meetup group attracts certain groups more than others, listening to a broader range of voices is beneficial for all of us.

A change of perspective is worth 80 IQ points – Michael Nielsen

Still, this is something to watch out for, as new attendees might feel uncomfortable if they don’t have CS knowledge and technical discussions occur frequently.

If you have experience with similar situations or have some tips for how to foster diversity, we would like to know more about them. Feel free to share them in a comment below.

Moderation

Moderation is not really needed when it’s only three or four people, but larger groups need a moderate amount of moderation to stay at least somewhat on topic and schedule.

Non-Public Meetups

At some point we started having (every second) meetups without announcing them on LW first. The goal was to have a balance between including new people and deeper and more personal discussions, with unannounced meetups focusing on these profoundly valuable meetups going deep.

Hammertime Integration of New People

While a clear path to working on Hammertime is great for cohesion with current participants, it’s hard to integrate new people. Some newcomers tried catching up, others started doing the same days we did. At the same time, not everyone is interested in doing or discussing Hammertime anymore.

To accommodate for that shifting interest, we start out with creating a separate Breakout Session to talk about Hammertime - those not following usually quickly find their own topic to talk about.

Changing Plans

Of course, not everything you try at first works out. Here are two examples of things we tried, but changed soon after.

Public Jitsi

The first few meetups were on the public Jitsi instance. It was difficult to organize, but only since we were paranoid about it.

It was complicated, because we rotated the Meeting id without using the same Room every time. Video quality suffered with every new member. Having our meetups on a private BBB instance is much more comfortable, with less lag and much better scaling.

Public Telegram Group

We had a Telegram group initially. We then made the mistake of publicly posting the invite-link on LessWrong to our meetup posts. We cannot explain what caused bots to join and advertise esoteric cryptocurrencies otherwise. This, and a meta-discussion, resulted in us migrating to a closed Signal group instead.

Key Takeaway: Even on LW, don’t publicly post invite links to private groups for popular messengers - you’re asking for spam.

Ideas for the future

These are things we plan to try at some point in the future, some closer and some further away. If you tried them with your group or meetup, feel free to share any experiences about them.

Meeting in Person

This goes without saying: we would love to meet up in person once it is a reasonable alternative. We haven’t thought about this yet, as it seems to be a bit further off.

Gather.Town

ctrltab managed to get us access to the LW town, and we tried it a few weeks ago.

This did not work out so well, as it took us half an hour to get everyone there first. Someone was always muted, and we didn’t quite know how it all works. We do think it’s ideal for dynamic breakout sessions and discussions though.

Not just due to lag, but for large-group discussions we prefer our BBB instance after all.

Own Infrastructure

Something we thought about is having some form of own infrastructure; primarily a wiki and pads. Our shared documents (HedgeDoc) are on the publicly hosted instance, and ‘security’ happens by not sharing the pad-links publicly - everyone could edit them.

Having our own infrastructure with backups and access control (at least for writing), would make us more comfortable. Our demographic is, after all, mostly CS people with detailed knowledge of what could go wrong. You need to make the backup before you need it.

What to do when Hammertime is over?

Hammertime is one of our basic ‘pillars’ for meeting. We are now close to being done with Hammertime, but we have many more ideas with which courses or similar exercise collections to follow up with. Examples include the Training Regime, the series on Guilt-Free Motivation and others.

Conclusion

If you think about organizing a new meetup yourself, or you want to try online-meetups with your group, we encourage you to just try it out. We would like to know what other Meetups are doing during lockdown - or did, during lockdown.

The “How to run a LessWrong Meetup” booklet is very helpful to get started, and we have consulted it multiple times.

If you would love to interact more with other people on LessWrong - join a Meetup, or create your own!


Please share any advice or other relevant experiences.