Wednesday 23 April 2014

The World's Worst Meme

A small office where two men in suits sit across from each other at opposite ends of a wooden desk. The Employer is mid-interview, explaining the details of his organization to a potential Marketer, who is completely unfamiliar. Both men are in high spirits. The Employer in particular is beaming with self-confidence.

MARKETER: So what'll I be selling?

The Employer winks.

EMPLOYER: Self-sacrifice.

MARKETER: I'm sorry?

EMPLOYER: Self-sacrifice.

MARKETER: I'm not sure I understand.

EMPLOYER: You'll be convincing people that they have far more money than they need and that they should be giving it away to people around the world that desperately need it.

MARKETER: Okay. So it's a non-profit. I've worked with non-profits before. It's simple. You pull on the heart strings a little. Show a picture of a sad African child. Single out one poor person from the millions and tell their story. Make people feel good about themselves and like they can change the world with their $1 a day. Compare that dollar to something that sounds insignificant by contrast - like their morning cup of coffee. Play some sappy music and end it with that same kid smiling. Boom! You got them.

EMPLOYER: Well... not exactly.

MARKETER: Not exactly?

EMPLOYER: Not exactly. You see, we're not quite asking for a dollar a day to save some poor kid from starving. And we're not targeting a specific group of people or even a specific issue. We just want people to donate as much as possible in the most strategic way possible.

The Marketer is a bit taken aback.

MARKETER: As much... as possible.

EMPLOYER: Your ad says people should give a dollar away because it can do a lot more good for the starving kid than it'll do for you with that coffee. Our organization thinks you should apply that principle to every dollar you have until it stops being true.

MARKETER: So you want me to tell them not to buy their kids an X-Box? Or an iPhone? Or art? Or toys? Or to go on vacation? Or to buy nice cars or houses or clothes?

EMPLOYER: Well, nobody's perfect. But yes. People shouldn't live too luxuriously while others live in abject poverty.

MARKETER: Okay. So... no fancy houses, cars, or fancy things in general. Give all your money away to poor people. Then feel good about yourself when you see the poor people get happy.


MARKETER: Didn't I just repeat what you said?

EMPLOYER: Not exactly.

MARKETER: Not exactly?

EMPLOYER: Not exactly. We don't actually really recommend giving to local people because they aren't those in the most need. Instead, donors should give to the world's poorest and most desperate - and those people are unlikely to live in the same country as you. So it isn't quite true to say you'll watch the money you donate fix things and make things better. You just have to know it in your heart that you did the right thing and that somewhere out there, people are better off because of you.

MARKETER: So scratch the watching people get happy part. You give away your money and get on with your life as a perpetual middle class person. I suppose that might be a bitter pill to swallow but I bet you feel good about yourself after. Kind of like how I feel good when I work for non-profits. Plus there's the personal connection to the charities that makes it all the more satisfying. "Your grandmother died of cancer? Well donate to cancer research and it'll be like you personally avenged her!"

There is a pause in which the Employer frowns and appears to be searching for the right words.

MARKETER: Not exactly?

The Employer shakes his head.

EMPLOYER: Not exactly. You see we don't just want people to donate anywhere. We want them to be strategic. We want them to donate to the charity where their money goes the farthest, so that they can maximize their impact.

MARKETER: Where can they do that?

EMPLOYER: Well, we aren't really sure. Us and our associates are constantly debating this. But we think the Schistosomiasis Control Initiative might be a good bet.

MARKETER: Schistoso-- what?

EMPLOYER: Schistosomiasis. It isn't very well known to the American public but it's a major threat and very cheaply treated. If only they hear about how much more good they can do here than with cancer research, then they might donate to SCI instead of trying to avenge their grandmothers or purchasing warm fuzzies or whatever.

The Marketer is starting to sweat. He wipes his brow with the back of his hand.

MARKETER: Let's try to recap this here. You want me... to convince...

EMPLOYER: As many people as possible.

MARKETER: You want me to convince as many people as possible... to give away as much of their money as possible so that... instead of buying extra fancy things for themselves and their families, they give it away to people in far off poor countries that are way more desperate for the money and... and - they suffer from that disease, the sistosomosis, or well, anything else, it could be any disease really, or not even a disease at all, and then they know in their hearts that they did the right thing and that somewhere out there, people are happier because of their donations.

EMPLOYER: I'd say you nailed it. 

The Marketer loosens his tie.

MARKETER: Do we have any celebrity endorsements?

EMPLOYER: Couple of philosophers.

MARKETER: Are you associated with any... popular brands?

EMPLOYER: No. You can say that we're all about substance over style.

The Marketer frowns and nods.

EMPLOYER: Oh, and tell the people not to worry about the fact that there's a whole community and social movement built around these ideas that has online discussions about things that are a little bit "out there," you know, like the moral relevance of video game characters and insects, the economics of futuristic whole brain emulated societies, the oncoming AI apocalypse, the ethics of terraforming other planets, why people shouldn't have kids, signing up for cryonics, transhumanism, etcetera, etcetera. You don't have to take interest in any of those things in order to give more and give it more strategically. Also, I know it's 90% white guys and many of us are in our 20s, but our arguments are blind to demographics. We care about maximizing expected utility, not who you are or where you're from. I mean, most of us have above average but unspectacular achievements so far but it's our arguments that make us impressive.

MARKETER: I guess I'll add those to the list: (1) don't be intimidated by the "out there" community, (2) find a way to work with the fact that you only have representatives of a very narrow demographic despite our goal of convincing as many people as possible, and (3) keep the focus on arguments and away from the fact that most of you guys don't have that many degrees, publications, awards, fame, or high status jobs.

EMPLOYER: I think we're on the same page.

MARKETER: How much am I being paid for this again?

EMPLOYER: We currently have an unpaid intern calculating the lowest possible salary we could give you for the highest possible rate of productivity. Now if you'll excuse me, the Pomodoro technique only allows me to allocate 20 minutes toward this interview, so you're going to have to leave.


  1. I know this is humorous, but "the world's worst meme" is, in my opinion, an exaggeration. Richard Stallman's campaign to get everyone to use only free software is clearly a worse meme. You're supposed to give up Apple, Google, Facebook, etc., and use a crappy computer that runs Linux on top of open-source firmware. In return, you get "freedom." And nobody else benefits.

    There have been hundreds of cults that are far weirder than effective altruism, and hardly any of them catch on.

    I think you could write similar satire about Teach for America, the Peace Corps, vegetarianism, etc. Effective altruism is pretty new. And it has the advantage of being right. Just give it some time.

    1. The "world's worst meme" part was referring to "self-sacrifice," so it apples equally to Stallman's campaign as it does to effective altruism. I don't know what the world's actual worst meme is but self-sacrifice could be in the running.

      The idea behind the post is that EAs are staring up an unusually steep hill when it comes to marketing and outreach because genuine self-sacrifice is so unappealing. I think EAs often act as if the product they are selling is like any other product when this isn't the case.

      I've mentioned in past posts that I don't think EA ideas can spread much without becoming "cool" or for there to be some type of payoff. This post is just an extension of that idea. It's also relevant to debates about whether to pitch EA from the perspective of moral obligation or the perspective of "excited altruism."