Big names, big ideas at Big Think

A few weeks ago Peter Hopkins went on The Colbert Report to talk about the recent launch of a site he co-founded. Big Think, he said, is a site about ideas.

“But wait, isn’t that what the Web is?” you ask aloud. “Isn’t this whole thing just a digital farm of ‘ideas?'” Fair enough. But to Big Think’s credit, there is quite a difference between the ideas they are peddling—or inviting others to peddle—and, say, this.

Nor is it simply “YouTube for intellectuals,” as some like to call it. Says co-founder Victoria Brow: “We are trying to catalyze a global dialogue. YouTube is a wonderful site but that is not its mission.”

Big Think taps a gamut of experts to wax spontaneous on a range of topics—from atheism to Iraq to the greatest rock bands of all time—and invites users to comment via text, audio or video.

Users are also encouraged to start the conversation with experts, not just react to it. Throw up an idea about vegans, for example, and Moby could come forth with some thoughts. The two-party system? Denny Kucinich may have a few things to say.

And come to think of it, maybe some OJR readers are Big Thinking already.

We swapped e-mails with Brown to find out more about the mission, its future and just how the hell they lured all those experts.

OJR: So how exactly does Big Think work?

VB: Big Think is a forum for ideas on the Internet. We catalyze the conversation with the thoughts and words of thought leaders and influencers from many many pursuits (with many more to come) and then we open the conversation to users. Ideas are rated and popular ideas surface to the top.
There are experts on the site (designated by the purple background) and there are users (green background) but both appear on the home page. The top window is an editorial window that Big Think staff puts together each day—it highlights content on the site, usually around a specific question or theme. We have four features in the window at any one time. Each category also has a feature window. People can create ideas with audio, video, text or slideshow. They can comment on others’ ideas. Users can also compare how different people have responded to the same question.

OJR: And how do you plan to keep them coming back? What are you doing for marketing and publicity?

VB: We are greatly enhancing our social networking capabilities. In the next few months, users will be able to find like minded thinkers on the site, see recent activity on the site, see what others have looked at or commented upon, create playlists of their favorite clips, receive updates about content that may be of interest to them, e-mail other users on the site, etc.

We also have an interview platform that we will use to interview guests in remote locations. It is a specific platform created for Big Think that functions with webcams. Transcripts are being added currently to all interviews, so students and others interested in the content can use them as a research resource. We will also be greatly adding to our experts, getting experts in more specific categories so that they may not appear on the home page, but will be searchable in our expert network and will provide users with specific information on specific topics. The broader interviews will continue as well.

OJR: I’ve seen the mission statement, but could you please talk a little about where the idea came from in the first place? Did you see a particular void to fill?

VB: There is a void to fill. There is not an awful lot of thoughtful content on the Internet, and there is nothing that puts the value of user participation in terms of addressing global issues at the fore as our site does. There are a lot of conversations that go on behind closed doors with elite participants, and we wanted to catalyze a global conversation with some of these individuals, then open it up to everybody so they could participate at the same level. Change comes when people feel they have a place at the table.

OJR: Can you talk a bit about your recruitment tactics? What are you doing to get your name out there and attract “experts” to comment on these topics?

VB: We explain the purpose of Big Think, and most people that we are able to reach, really like the idea of expanding the conversation. Also, once several notable individuals had participated, it has become easier to have others accept to participate. We are now receiving requests for people to become experts.

OJR: And once you do attract them, how does the production process work? Where do you shoot them?

VB: We shoot them mostly in our studio in New York, however this will change as we have more and more remote participants, using their own webcams. We shoot on a white background, edit out the interviewer and cut the interview into specific clips on specific subjects. The entire interview will become available in the future. Our effort is to make the viewing experience as useable for Big Think users as possible—i.e. they can watch clips on precisely the topics they want, rather than having to watch the whole interview.

OJR: How about the user-submitted content? I’m reading a particularly heated thread on atheism right now. How is that different from a discussion board on a faith site? In other words, what’s to draw an atheist away from those sites to instead share his thoughts on Big Think?

VB: The user submitted content is growing well. Why come to Big Think? Well, it offers a platform with many types of thinkers, not just ones already committed to a specific view point—so it’s an opportunity to reach many people from many different backgrounds and parts of the word.

OJR: So I imagine you get some pretty outrageous video posts. Has that been an issue? Do you have much of a hand in screening that content?

VB: So far, not an issue. But we are prepared. Inappropriate videos are flagged by users and reported, and we also look through the site. We do want engaging converstations and won’t take things down that are serious arguments so long as they are not illegal or offensive.

OJR: Finally, what’s the allure for advertisers? How do you plan to segment the ad space?

VB: We have a three-tiered strategy:

1. Regular sponsorship and advertising–banners, pre roll, post roll
2. Category sponsorship opportuniites
3. Conversation sponsorship opportunities–a conversation can be sponsored and a corporate entity or foundation or other can submit a request on a specific topic and people to speak to it, and if it falls within our purvue, we will accept and gather other experts on the topic to round out the converation and invite users to weigh in. Very good for corporations who have specific areas of focus that they want attention brought to—and a good market research tool.

OJR: Finally, which topics are emerging as the most popular so far? And which aren’t getting much love?

VB: Business and economy, technology, faith and beliefs, truth and justice getting a lot of attention

Some categories we have are not full of content yet, but they will be in the coming weeks.

About Jim Wayne

After three some-odd years as an advertising ashtray on Madison Avenue, an impulsive career switch sent Jim in pursuit of a life in the (relatively) civilized world of online journalism. He arrived at USC Annenberg in 2007 and is still struggling to understand Los Angeles.


  1. says:

    After about 10 clicks on Big Think, I think I saw a dozen white male experts thinking there.

  2. margaret barstow says:

    To trivalise life into drama packed negativity is todays press. Think Big NOT little. Go outside the square – the world is a Big Place- It is indeed a big think!!!!