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Written Speech

January 14th, 2017
communication, writing

Some kinds of writing are formal and strongly considered, the product of a careful revising and editing process. Other kinds are casual and off-the-cuff. In response to recent controversial articles I've seen people suggesting that we treat all writing as being formal, and that people should restrict informal communication to speech. [1] I think this would be harmful, and both kinds of writing serve important roles.

One thing I really like about the EA community is that we can build ideas collaboratively over large distances, where many of us have never met in person. This works in part because we have public venues where people can write the way they would speak at a meetup. You try to make yourself understood to the people you're talking to, mostly talking in the moment as opposed to taking time out to research and reflect.

As ideas become more developed it's also good to have formal venues, like papers, blog posts, [2] and conference talks, where people can carefully put together the strongest version of their thoughts for wide distribution and careful consideration by others.

This is another aspect of being responsible about transparency. If writing in casual public discussion gets you jumped on, that pushes that kind of discussion toward private venues. The benefits a community where people everywhere can freely participate are very high.

(Disagreeing with people is still fine. Mostly it's just important to avoid escalating without good reason. Perhaps you misunderstood, or they weren't thinking clearly or something. In generally, the right response to a fb comment making a bad claim is another comment countering it.)


[1] See also: Jessica Livingston's The Sound of Silence.

[2] Blog posts are also tricky because different blogs vary enormously in their level of formaility. Additionally blogging as a whole has gotten a lot more formal over time: compare the early GiveWell blog posts (2006) to their more recent ones (2016). Same with Google: 2004 vs now. I'm wondering if there might be a general process where existing forums become progressively more formal, and new ones open up to hold informal stuff? Another data point here is activity in LessWrong moving from main to discussion to open threads. RFCs as well; compare the first RFC to the most recent one.

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