<videovortex> A YouTube for Ideas
sabine at networkcultures.org
Tue Jan 8 21:57:03 CET 2008
Published: January 7, 2008, International Herald Tribune, France.
A YouTube for the intellectual set
By Tim Arango
In June 2006, Peter Hopkins, a civic-minded and idealistic 2004
Harvard graduate, trekked up to his alma mater from New York for a
meeting with Lawrence Summers, the economist and former U.S. Treasury
secretary. Hopkins, who finagled the appointment through his
friendship with Summers's assistant, had a business idea: a Web site
that could do for intellectuals what YouTube, the popular video-
sharing site, did for bulldogs on skateboards.
The pitch - "a YouTube for ideas" - appealed to Summers.
"Larry, to his credit, is open to new ideas," Hopkins recalled
recently. "He grilled me for two hours." In the age of user-generated
content, Summers did have one worry: "Let's say someone puts up a
porn video next to my macroeconomic speech?" he said.
A year after that meeting, Summers decided to invest ("a few tens of
thousands of dollars," he said, adding, "not something I'm hoping to
retire on") in the site, called Big Think, which officially made its
debut Monday after being tested for several months.
Big Think (www.bigthink.com) features interviews with public
intellectuals from a variety of fields, from politics to law to
business, and allows users to engage in debates on issues like global
warming and the U.S. two-party political system. It plans to add new
features as it goes along, including a Facebook-like application for
social networking, and Hopkins said he would like the site to become
a popular place for college students looking for original sources.
"I've had the general view that there is a hunger for people my age
looking for more intellectual content," said Summers, who resigned as
president of Harvard in 2006 after making controversial comments
about the relatively small number of women in science and
engineering. "I saw it as president of Harvard when I saw CEOs come
up to my wife and want to discuss Hawthorne." (His wife, Elisa New,
is a professor of English at Harvard).
A handful of other deep-pocketed investors also decided to chip in,
including Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and co-
founder of PayPal, the online payments site; Tom Scott, who struck it
rich by founding, and selling, the juice company Nantucket Nectars
and now owns Plum TV, a collection of local television stations in
wealthy playgrounds in the United States; the television producer
Gary David Goldberg, who was behind the hit shows "Spin City" and
"Family Ties"; and David Frankel, a venture capitalist who was the
lead investor in Big Think.
Scott said: "I tend to follow my own curiosities, and I know millions
of people are like me. I'm into this kind of thing. I do think there
is a market for this." Frankel, the lead investor, said: "The initial
investors may put in more. I imagine we will go out and raise more
money in the future." Hopkins and his partner, Victoria Brown,
germinated the idea for Big Think while working together at the
public television broadcaster PBS on the "Charlie Rose" show in 2006.
When they surveyed the landscape, Hopkins, 24, and Brown, 33, saw a
vast array of celebrity and sophomoric video content.
"Everyone says Americans are stupid - that's what we generally heard
from venture capitalists" when trying to raise money, Hopkins said.
He and Brown felt differently, and the success of the business
basically hinges on proving that Americans have an appetite for more
highbrow kinds of content.
Of course, Hopkins and Brown are not the first to see the Internet as
an opportunity to further public discourse. It was invented largely
by academics; numerous sites, like Arts & Letters Daily, an offshoot
of The Chronicle of Higher Education, seek to serve intellectuals.
Big Think's business model right now is rudimentary: Attract enough
viewers, then sell advertising. "We're going to wait until it gets
attention before going after advertisers," Hopkins said.
So for the time being, money will be flowing one way at Big Think;
out the door. Over the last several months, Big Think's handful of
producers , working from a pod of desks in an office in New York,
have amassed a library of about 180 interviews with leading thinkers,
politicians and business leaders, like Mitt Romney, the Republican
hopeful for U.S. president who co-founded the private equity firm
Bain Capital; the U.S. Supreme Court justice Stephen Breyer; the
British entrepreneur Richard Branson; and Pete Peterson, a co-founder
of another private equity firm, Blackstone. Many of the interviews
were conducted in a closet-turned-studio in a back room off the Big
Think office kitchen.
The interview style, which Big Think's founders said was derived from
a technique used by the filmmaker Errol Morris, places the
interviewer in an even smaller closet, behind a shower curtain,
hidden from the subject and making the person asking the questions
almost an afterthought. The subject hears the questions from a closed-
The finished product even eliminates the interviewer's voice, and the
questions appear as text on the screen. The goal is to avoid creating
a confrontation between interviewer and interviewee, or goading the
subject into saying something provocative (but if it happens, that is
"The whole idea is really to take the interviewer out of the
equation," Hopkins said. "It allows people to be very candid. Pete
Peterson went on about how his mother never loved him. It was like he
was coming in for his last testament."
When Peterson finished his interview, he surveyed the makeshift
studio and said, "You kids are really making lemonade out of lemons."
Tom Freston, a former chief executive of Viacom, has shown little
interest in publicly reflecting on his 2005 firing by the Viacom
chairman, Sumner Redstone. But he agreed to discuss it with Big
Think, saying during an interview: "Say if you're a CEO of a public
company, a lot of it you're playing defense. You're dealing with
problems or crises. At the moment in the smaller life I have for
myself, I've got a lot less of that, which is a good thing."
Those videos will be introduced piecemeal and used in a variety of
ways. For example, the site may pose the question, "Are two parties
enough?" and assemble clips from people like Senator John McCain of
Arizona, another Republican seeking the presidential nomination, and
Representative Dennis Kucinich of Ohio, who is seeking the Democratic
"The idea behind Big Think is that you do have to sit down for a few
minutes and listen to people who know more than you do," Hopkins said.
Hopkins knows his site will naturally appeal to secular
intellectuals, but he wants to challenge their secularism with
sections on faith and love and happiness. "There's a ton of
evangelicals," Hopkins said, including an interview with Rick Warren,
the pastor and best-selling author of "The Purpose Driven Life."
He said he also hoped that the site could transcend partisanship and
become a destination for thinkers open to hearing opposing views.
"We live in this hyperpartisan world with really smart people on each
side," Hopkins said. "But there's a lot of information not being
exchanged because of these false barriers. People should expose
themselves to the counterpoints."
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