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On a discussion forum, you can do a project or a single activity. And you can post your own stuff or reply to other people. I’m going to explain how to use forums better. First I’ll discuss projects vs. activities, then give some project planning tips, and then discuss replies and collaboration. Ideas like projects vs. activities are also useful in other contexts besides forums.
Projects and Activities
A project is organized effort directed towards a goal or goals. That means you consider things like what your goals are, what resources you’re budgeting for the project, and what your plan is.
A single activity doesn’t look at the big picture. It means e.g. asking a question or bringing up one topic, and that’s it. There is no plan to follow up. Each post should provide immediate benefit since they’re the whole thing. More posts can happen later if convenient but there’s no plan for them to happen.
The main difference is a project is aiming at a benefit in the future – a goal that isn’t immediately accessible in one step. An activity aims for each individual action you take to give positive benefit now. A project may provide plenty of immediate benefit at every single step, even if you don’t complete it, but it often doesn’t.
With a project, stopping in the middle can be bad. You invested in the earlier steps hoping to achieve the goal. With individual activities, stopping at any time is OK, because every step has positive value on its own.
A project is about combining multiple things to build up to something bigger. An activity isn’t.
People are often ambiguous about whether they’re doing a project or activity. They don’t communicate about it. They don’t consider it. They do want longer term goals, but they don’t want to commit to those goals and possibly fail. They act like they are doing autonomous, independent activities, but they are kinda hoping for a successful project. They want risk-free individual actions to add up to something great. That sort of behavior doesn’t work well for the person doing it and it’s hard for others to deal with.
A project is about the idea that “the whole is greater than the sum of the parts”. If you pick the right parts, they can have more value together than they would individually. An activity is about an individual part being good. People do want the greater value of a project, but they also want the flexibility to quit whenever they start to feel bad or run into any difficulty, and they want to avoid any risk of failure. Activities are smaller and easier to succeed at. People try to have it both ways and do activities that might add up to a project but without stating the project (even to themselves in their own head) let alone planning it. This leads to lots of failure, but at least the failure is deniable.
This kind of ambiguity leads to ongoing problems on discussion forums. It’s hard to help people with a project that they don’t state. But people are often unsatisfied with replies suitable for activities. They want help getting to project completion. They want other people’s replies to take into account their unstated goals that they don’t even admit to themselves. They don’t like it when other people write activity-style replies, e.g. commenting on a tangent they’re interested in and find fun to write about – so there is immediate benefit for the person writing the tangent and not getting any replies is fine for them. But tangents screw up the plan to accidentally have the activities fit together into a great project in an unplanned way. People intuitively recognize when stuff isn’t adding up to their project goals that they haven’t put into words.
My suggestion: Try to be more honest with yourself. Plan out some projects (start with small projects). Doing some activities is OK too, but label them clearly and treat them as actual activities where you won’t be disappointed if people don’t reply or stop replying at any moment. If there’s no bigger goal that you were hoping would come later, then there’s nothing to be disappointed about.
This issue is related to the idea of every interaction between two people having mutual benefit. Some people believe that if you only do things you want to do, then you’ll never resent your friend or pressure them for more, because you’re benefitting from each activity individually. And you can just pick and choose to only do activities together where both people benefit. Allegedly, if everyone uses this approach then people will respect each other’s autonomy and independence better. This viewpoint has some benefits, and people should be careful about overdoing collaboration. But it’s problematic because it focuses people on doing activities, not projects, since it says no one should ever ask someone to commit to a whole project; everyone should always be able to stop at any moment if they aren’t benefitting at that moment. That makes it hard to complete projects where the whole project provides extra value over the individual activities.
Project Planning Considerations
If you decide to plan a project, here are some things to consider. You don’t have to consider all of them every time. You could do some small, simple practice projects until you’ve successfully used each consideration several times. Then if you have any difficulties planning a project you can revisit this list for reminders.
The first two points are required for all projects. A project must have at least one goal and some plan for how you’ll accomplish it. A plan is what organizes multiple actions to work together towards a goal.
- backup plans
- project scope
- prioritization (why choose this project over alternatives?)
- resources needed for project
- resources available/budgeted
- requests and asks to others
- offers to others
- contingencies for continuing alone if others don’t help
- expectations for success
- expectations for persisting to project completion
- risks, ways you might fail
- where to focus attention and resources
- hard parts, constraints
- easy parts, non-constraints
- why this topic?
- why now?
- do you want anything from specific people?
When replying to others, you should typically begin with single activities, like trying to answer one question. Don’t immediately commit to a longer term project involving other people. Collaboration is hard.
Try to make your answer self-contained and clear. If it doesn’t make sense by itself, or it ignores a major issue, then people will ask questions. If you don’t answer, they’ll be a little bit disappointed, because they spent time reading your post but didn’t get a payoff. Keeping posts short helps reduce risk.
If someone is doing a project, your replies to them should either be compatible with their project or be labelled as off-topic. If something comes up and you want to write about it, but you know it’s not going to help with their goals, you can just say that. Mention at the start that you’re talking about a tangent. That helps enable people not to get caught up in what you’re saying and stay on topic if they want to. Often they’ll find your tangent interesting and worth reading (since it was related to something they were talking about) even if they don’t want to have a discussion about it.
In general, people should do projects for their own stuff, but activities for replying to others. Joint projects are hard. You can start your own topics for your own projects where you manage the planning and organization, and you can contribute individual parts to other people’s projects without worrying much about planning or organization. When you contribute to other people’s projects, you should make a basic effort for the contribution to help with their goals, but you don’t need to worry about that in detail. They can figure out exactly how to fit it into the project. They can decide which parts of what you said are usable in their project and choose not to use some of what you said. Sometimes they will get several replies and will use something that someone else said instead of using your reply, and that’s fine. Don’t have big expectations when contributing to other people’s projects. You can have higher expectations if you and someone else agree to collaborate on a project.
Which is better, doing your own projects or contributing to other people’s projects? Do some of both. They both have benefits. If you had to pick just one for your whole life, you should do your own projects. But you don’t have to pick one. And if you had to pick just one for the next month, contributing to other people’s projects might work better. It helps you see how other people do projects and get more experience with projects. It lets you get better at projects without failing at projects. You can learn from other people’s experience, and what they’re doing right, and get some exposure to projects in small, low-risk chunks.
Communicating with others – both replying to them and receiving replies – is good because they know things you don’t and vice versa. Everyone has a different perspective on life, and generally each perspective has some value and upsides. Some things are easier for other people to figure out than for you, and more naturally fit how they think and what they know. Different people have different strengths and weaknesses. Trying to reinvent everything that other people know is way more work than listening to them. When you share your ideas with others, you get feedback. You can see what they understand, find unclear or disagree with. They may point out problems you missed. You can give more reconsideration to the ideas other people doubt than the ideas others think are great. Trying to explain ideas to others helps you look at the ideas objectively and organize them clearly, instead of relying on thinking “I know what I mean” for some parts.
As a beginner at something, your focus should generally be on catching up to what other people already know. You can learn the rules and status quo before trying to pioneer new ideas or break some of the rules. Children go to school to learn some of society’s best ideas, and they aren’t expected to contribute anything to human knowledge until they are an adult (and even then, most people don’t make any significant intellectual contributions to society, and that’s OK).
People often arrogantly think they’re an expert before they learn enough. What can you do about that? Don’t just trust your judgment, intuition, opinions or feelings. Try to be objective. How? Succeed at some things and write that down (and let other people question, challenge and criticize your achievements). Writing down what you think your history of success is – what you did and how you know it worked – establishes an objective track record of success. If you don’t do this, and you’re wrong, it’s hard for your error to be corrected.
People sometimes claim it doesn’t matter who is an expert or a beginner. Everyone can just do their best and if something is wrong then the error can be refuted with no discussion of the person who made the error. This is fine if there is just one error, but what if someone keeps making errors because they don’t know what they’re talking about? (Also what if they give bad answers to beginners who are trying to learn the standard views and get misled?) And what if most of those errors would be avoidable if they actually studied the issue and learned the basics? It’s very hard to teach someone the basics in the form of a debate where they keep screwing up. It’s easier for them to learn if they actually have learning as their goal, read a few books, watch a few lecture videos, ask some questions, etc.
You should consider how to do projects independently. How can you make progress by yourself? It’s easier and safer to avoid projects that require other people’s help to succeed. Plan things so other people can help, and that’s beneficial, but they don’t have to help. Don’t act helpless and expect other people to drive your project to completion for you. Don’t ask for help and then give up when you don’t get enough help. It’s much nicer to help people who will probably succeed with or without your help, so your help is unlikely to be wasted on a failed project.
If you do need other people, it’s preferable if you don’t need specific people. E.g. if you need a math tutor, but your math tutor quits, you can replace them with a different math tutor. You’re only relying on living in a society where some math tutors are available, not on a particular person. By contrast, if you do a parenting project with your spouse (have a child with them), that’s much riskier because they can’t really be replaced if they quit. An easier, safer case than relying on other people is relying on mass-produced resources such as educational books or videos that people already made.
If you want help from others, consider what you’re offering in return. If you’re an expert at something, maybe just seeing how you do a project is interesting and rewarding for them. Maybe you’re doing things in a high skill way that others could learn from. Maybe you’re willing to use your expertise to answer a few questions that others have. If you’re not offering much, keep that in mind and be appropriately respectful and thankful if people help you anyway.
What are some good ways to offer value on a discussion forum?
You can trade help. You primarily get help in your topics but give help in other people’s topics, and your posts involve a mix of both. Trades like this are typical on forums without anyone keeping track – there’s a general expectation that you’ll help some people sometimes, so people will help you without trading for something specific in return. If everyone contributes to the community, there will be enough help and benefit to go around. Not everyone has to give help – particularly newbies don’t – but some of the longer term members need to be helpful or the community won’t work.
You can promote people’s work on social media who help you. (You could build a social media following first so this would be more valuable. Some platforms, such as Reddit or TikTok, can work well without already having thousands of followers if you used effectively.)
You can pay for help, like hiring a tutor or making a monthly donation.
You can be a good learner. People like being listened to and having their ideas and advice actually be understood and used. People like helping those who are organized, keep track of stuff instead of asking for repeat answers, put in effort, and persist over time without quitting or taking long breaks.
You can share your perspective. Sometimes other perspectives can help inspire new ideas or find problems. That’s true even if the perspective doesn’t have a lot of knowledge yet. Beginners can point out when something appears to them to skip steps or be unclear.