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A YouTube for Intellectuals?

BY Ari Melber | Tuesday, April 1 2008

You are what you watch. That's what the "Kill Your TV" people used to say. But if TV is mindless, where does that leave YouTube?

Apart from search engines, YouTube is now the second most popular website in America, drawing the average visitor for a solid sixteen minutes of video surfing--a web eternity. The site hosts a long tail of clips on every item imaginable, but the top videos actually track the vices of television: sex, celebrities and sensationalism. And as the web morphs from endless text to an increasingly video-focused platform, YouTube is ground zero for some of the dumbest crap online. Yet web videos don't have to be vapid, according to the entrepreneurs behind Big Think, YouTube for the Harvard set.

After working as producers for The Charlie Rose Show, Harvard grads Peter Hopkins and Victoria R.M. Brown saw an opening for thoughtful, short-form intellectual videos targeting online audiences. The idea was simple: take the brightest, most creative thinkers alive, plunk them down for a conversation straight to camera--reality-show style--elide the moderator and provide an intimate window into the "big ideas" of our time. The erudite site drew investments from heavy hitters like Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and Facebook angel investor, and Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and treasury secretary.

Compared with the experts on serious television, let alone the pundit circuit, Big Think's interview subjects have remarkable depth, diversity and credentials. There are famous professors and renowned writers, award-winning scientists and prominent theologians, political activists and tech futurists. In other words, the site is full of intellectuals with ideas that can make for compelling video--but without the sound bites and sizzle that dominate TV and YouTube. (There are also interviews with traditional newsmakers like senators, governors, former government officials and celebrities.)

The prolific author and conservative Judge Richard Posner, for example, offers a meandering but intriguing answer to the open-ended question "What's your counsel?" After lamenting the cost of the Iraq War, he notes that only government can tackle existential problems like global warming and disaster prevention. "It's actually kind of heresy, but I think the American people are undertaxed," he says in a low-key confessional. It's the kind of policy-driven argument that would rarely make a cable news debate, let alone a viral hit. "We ask a range of questions that are open-ended, forward-looking and nonpartisan," explains Brown, who works out of one of the spare photo booths in Big Think's Manhattan office. The start-up does not have enough desk space for its five employees.

Big Think strains to transcend traditional media framing, self-consciously shunning categories like "news" and "opinion" for more trippy headings. A "physical" section lists videos on architecture and music, while a "meta" category covers concepts like identity, wisdom, death and inspiration. It's more nuanced than YouTube, but also more confusing. (Why is "justice" meta? Why is "media" physical?) Yet Big Think is not just striving to be a hipper PBS, blasting highbrow content at enlightened Millennials. The founders say they're aiming for a meaningful, interactive dialogue--the kind of audience participation that makes good blogs lively, social networking sites sticky and YouTube profitable...

The rest of this piece is available at The Nation.