Thoughts About BigThink

big-think-logo-2.pngA new video site featuring big thinkers from the worlds of politics, academia, science, and business launched today in beta. Called BigThink, it counts Peter Thiel and former Harvard president Larry Summers as investors. It raised an angel round in the low seven figures from South African VC (and lead investor) David Frankel, who invested personally, as well as Summers, Thiel, entrepreneur Tom Scott of Nantucket Nectars and Plum TV, and TV producer Gary David Goldberg (Spin City and Family Ties).

The site is set up to as a place to find intellectual video snacks. Typically, each video shows a public intellectual or pundit against a stark white background answering a single pointed question in three to five minutes. Big Think launched with 2,000 clips from 85 “guests”, including Senator John McCain on the two-party system, psychologist Steven Pinker on human nature, and economist Paul Krugman on whether future generations will hate us. Summers and Thiel have their own videos (hey, they paid for the site). Even Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales, the Wall Street Journal’s Walt Mossberg and Engadget’s Peter Rojas have videos. (I’ve embedded Uncle Walt’s below, in which he debunks the notion that the Internet is a game-changer in politics).

Even with 2,000 clips, the site can feel spare right now. But it should fill out fairly quickly. Founder Peter Hopkins tells me that he has another 100 hours of video already captured that needs to be edited, and the startup will soon commence a daily interview schedule. The quality of the videos is generally good, although the lighting makes some people like Mossberg and Richard Branson look pink. And some public intellectuals just should not be on camera no matter how smart they are. The site’s design does a good job of avoiding clutter, but the navigation needs work. It is hard to find all the videos from a particular person, for example.

bigthink-screen-2.pngThe whole site is designed to spark intellectual debate. Each video is designed to convey one important thought, and the audience can rate each video, vote on whether they agree or disagree, add their own comments, or suggest new ideas they would like to see discussed. “Going forward,,” says Hopkins, “we will be soliciting questions from the audience for invited participants and will be asking selected guests to respond to the feedback they receive from users.” Audience members can submit questions in writing, in video form, or as audio slide shows. The quality of this back-and-forth debate is what will make or break the site. Either people will find the debate stimulating and keep coming back, or they won’t.

BigThink is competing for the same audience segment as Fora.TV (see our earlier post), which gathers a lot more video of public intellectuals, politicians, and business celebrities from conferences and other public-speaking venues and presents them in three-minute clips on its Website. Hopkins sees his effort more as YouTube meets Fora.TV. He says via e-mail:

I’m a fan of Fora and think they have a good approach to one aspect of making more high quality content available online. They saw the potential of capturing content as it’s made and making it available in that raw form. This gives them an incredible ability to scale their offerings. On the produced content front, we compete by offering content produced specifically for the 8-inch viewing experience. But, we don’t intend to match the scale of their produced offerings any time soon.

Where we differ and hope to distinguish ourselves is in the ability of the user to contribute actively and in the same manner as our invited participants. Whereas Fora is about delivering lots of high-quality content in one direction, Big Think is about using some high quality content to begin an exchange of ideas in two directions.

Fora has some interactivity built in as well in the form of forum discussions for each video. I think the real difference is that Fora’s content tends to be culled from longer speeches, whereas BigThink starts with the three-minute clip as its primary unit of production and consumption. One question is whether that is enough, or whether BigThink can come up a way to string its video microchunks together into long-form videos when warranted. That might not matter on the Web, but if BigThink ever wants to package its best videos for other formats such as DVDs or regular TV, it should figure out a way to do that now. Just a suggestion.

A bigger question is the ever-present YouTube factor and whether we even need a niche site for “smart” videos. Yes, you can find smart videos on YouTube, although they tend to have a different style. What would you rather see, this British professor blather on about the history of America or this “Drunk History” of the duel between Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr (embedded below) that is currently a top video on YouTube? That’s what I thought.