Thursday, May 4, 2017

How To Build A Community Full Of Lonely People

[Some observations on a problem in the rationality community, and suggestions on how to fix it. Epistemic status: amateur sociology. See also: Project Hufflepuff.]

It's normal for some people to be more popular than others in social groups. Some people are more conversationally skilled, more socially at ease, have more interesting things to say than others, and it's normal for other people to gravitate towards them.

But this isn't fixed. People can change in social skill, in confidence, in how interesting they are to others. Popularity shifts. Yet social behavior in the rationalist community suggests that, for a bunch of people obsessed with growth mindset, we're surprisingly fixed in the way we think about popularity and who is most valuable to interact with. And that makes many of us feel lonely and sad, even when we're together.

How Loneliness In A Crowd Happens

Some people are regarded as interesting, popular, and open to meeting new people. Everyone else crowds around these people, jumping up and down to see what's happening, trying to bustle their way to the front of the line. They congregate around the most popular person in the room, waiting for gaps in conversation to say something, or just listening in hopes that something good will happen merely by being in their presence. They ignore all but the most interesting people in the room.

This has bad consequences:
  • The popular people don't have time to talk to everyone who wants to talk to them; they might feel bad about this or overexert themselves trying to satisfy everyone.
  • The less-popular people are sad because they don't get much engagement from others.
  • Sometimes the lonely people ascribe this to their own social incompetence and feel extra-sad, when in reality there just isn't room for everyone to be friends with these particular people.
Why does this happen? The lonely people don't try to engage with others who are lonely. Perhaps it feels like settling for less to talk to anyone but the most popular person in the room. Or perhaps they don't feel confident enough to impose themselves on someone else who hasn't publicly indicated they're open to that.

How Do Other Communities Solve This?

Mainly by splitting groups into hierarchies. In a large organization like, say, a megachurch, or a strip-mall karate dojo, you pull new people in by asking them for more commitment and responsibility, then bestow upon them the corresponding status, then ask them to help new people. And the cycle continues.

In a sense, this means that all big groups are a social status pyramid scheme. But this isn't as bad as it sounds. Creating new social contexts creates new popularity and belonging for people to have; it doesn't have to take that resource away from others. Moreover, many people don't have to be the most popular person in the room to be happy; they are just as happy getting a reasonable amount of attention from the people they consider important.

Popularity as a Dynamic Resource

In a given social context, there is only so much mental space people have for "who is important and interesting in this group."

Suppose you're in a Chess Club with 40 members. You'll remember the president, the vice president, and maybe a few others who are particularly good at chess or weird; you'll think about and pay attention to those people the most, and mostly ignore everyone else. Those people will be overwhelmed with attention, and others won't get enough. On the other hand, suppose there are only 10 members of the club. You still have the same amount of room in your head for interesting people, but now there's much more of their attention to go around. 

But while popularity in a given social context has a ceiling on how much of it total you can have - there can only be so many people who pop into your head first as "the most important and interesting in this group" - it's not actually fixed.

You can spread it around, especially if you're one of the more popular people, by raining accolades on other people with special skills or qualities, allowing them to build up their own credit with the rest of the group. In turn, the rest of the group will be more interested in socializing with those people; you've basically increased the supply of popular people, allowing more of the demand for access to them to be met. For example, if you're the president of the Chess Club, you might point out an interesting technique or strategy that someone else used, and suggest others talk to them about it.

On the other hand, it's easy to try to restrict total popularity in a group to just one or a few people: never spread appreciation to others; try to encourage all conversations to flow to yourself (or a single popular person); give others the impression that you have attention to give them, when you don't; only try to talk to the most popular person in the room, ignoring all others to the greatest extent possible.

Strategies to Encourage Healthy Group Division

For people whose dance card is full already, and often find themselves at the center of attention at gatherings: Try to spread around your popularity and use it to help others get a leg up.
  • Make a point of pointing out the good qualities of others around you.
  • When someone else brings up a topic that you like but someone else has more knowledge/interest in, mention that person.
  • If you have a specific skill that others admire, consider making time to mentor others in that skill.
In fact, even if you're not a popular person, pointing out the good qualities of others around you is helpful and a great way to make other people feel appreciated. But it's especially helpful to deflect attention away from yourself if you're someone who gets a disproportionate amount.

For people who feel lonely:
  • Don't always try to interact with the coolest person in the room. Make an effort to reach out to people you wouldn't normally think to talk to.
  • Find yourself thinking "This person is too cool for me"? Maybe that's your brain's way of telling you that if you try to give a lot of your time and attention to them, you may not get much back in return. Consider befriending people who are less socially saturated.
  • If you often feel frustrated by a lack of engagement in the social events you go to, take that as a signal to organize your own events and create your own social context.
Of course, improving your personal social skills might help, too. But remember that your ability to get a resource is dependent on how plentiful that resource is, not only your skill at extracting it from your environment. Yes, this feels counter to the rationalist impulse of "REACH FOR THE STARS! YOU, TOO, CAN HAVE SOCIAL SKILLS AND BEFRIEND ANYONE YOU WANT!" But having a general ability to befriend people is not the same as being able to befriend a particular person.

("Who gets to talk to this particular cool person at a party" is a zero-sum game. "Who gets to talk to a cool person at a party" is not, because cool people are not a resource with fixed supply.)


For people creating or maintaining social institutions*:

By default, your position as organizer will draw attention to yourself. Actively work to bring attention to others in the group. 
  • Build ways for newer people to contribute and feel important. Ask for their help.
  • Build ways for established community members to help newer people. Ask for their help.
  • Point out people with common interests to get them talking.
  • Engage people who look bored. Try to get multiple bored people talking to each other, rather than passively observing a larger conversation.
Most of us fit into all of these roles, at one time or another. By helping people on the periphery grow into active community members, we can build a healthier community for everyone.


*Say, a meetup, or regular parties, or a Facebook group. Any social context, really.

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