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.

Got something to say? Then say it!

The skill set for managing an online community lies somewhere between carnival barker and drill sergeant. You’ve get the crowd’s attention, draw ’em in… then train them and keep them in line once they’ve enlisted.

The job becomes even tougher for journalists, who want to draw traffic and elicit discussion while maintaining journalism fundamentals. It’s easier to open the doors for an anonymous shouting match than it is to craft a well-sourced and enlightening conversation.

Although we at journalism schools teach our students to write in an engaging and conversational manner, journalism is not casual conversation. The work we do to report and source our information tends to lend our words a formality beyond that offered by someone pulling their words from “thin air.” Ideally, we minimize that sense of formality in an effort to earn credibility for our work without intimidating the reader.

In addition, a reporter’s job, ideally, is to answer questions. If you’ve worked in a newsroom, think back to your first editor, or your basic reporting professor. When he or she told you to check out a lead, what would have been the reaction if you’d responded, “Uh, I don’t know”?

1) “Oh, gee, that’s okay.”
2) “Well, find the heck out!”

Journalists are trained from their first day on the job to find answers. That makes it hard for reporters to turn to their readers publicly and declare, “I don’t know. Help me out here.”

All these factors stand in the way of journalists running vibrant online discussion communities, even as our reporting skills and community know-how make us ideal candidates for those gigs.

We’ve offered dozens of articles on OJR over the years with advice on managing online discussion communities. And, as editor, I’ve tried to ensure that we’ve practiced much of what we’ve preached. Which is why I’m here to explain today a change we are making in the way that we are handling comments on the website.

Since I rewrote OJR’s content management system in the fall of 2004, OJR has required that readers register with the website in order to post a comment on the site. Our registration process is two-step, and requires registrants to retrieve a password from their e-mail accounts in order to log into the site.

In my experience, this system offers the best protection against spam bots and flame war trolls. The registration requirement keeps automated agents from exploiting input forms and the e-mail requirement deters anonymous hacks who want to cause trouble without consequence.

It’s not a perfect system; some spammers employ sweatshop labor to manually labor and submit comments to highly-linked websites. And even those who proudly attach their name to their comments can be jerks sometime. (Do I get some Fifth Amendment opportunities here?)

But, on the whole, I’ve found that this system, employed on other websites, helps keep the signal-to-noise ratio quite high, with a minimum of effort from site editors and moderators.

Yet a high signal-to-noise ratio doesn’t help readers that much when that signal remains weak. And in the relatively small world of the news publishing industry, sometimes people do not want their names attached to comments about their company’s vision and practices (or lack thereof.)

So, today we’re implementing a change at OJR: Readers may now submit comments to the site without registering.

That doesn’t mean we’re opening the gates to anything. Comments submitted by unregistered readers will be held for review before being posted to the site. And those comments will be identified by the poster’s IP address, rather than a log-in or reader’s name. (Unregistered readers will be able to include their name within their posts to OJR if they choose, of course.)

I hope that this alternative provides a way to readers to get introduced to commenting on OJR without having to go through the extra steps of creating an account and retrieving an account password. And that it provides a way for newsroom employees to add to the conversation in situations where they fear reprisals if their names were attached to their comments.

Of course, as journalists those of us reading the site will have to decide how much credibility to give to posts that come from unregistered readers versus those submitted by readers who have registered and supplied OJR with a working e-mail address. (You will know the difference because posts from unregistered readers will include an unlinked IP address, rather than a linked author’s name. Hey, at least we’re not slapping on the label “anonymous coward“.)

Ideally, from my perspective as editor, folks will try commenting using the anonymous system, decide that they like it, then register and becoming frequently contributing registrants on the site.

Spend more than a few days on the Internet, and you’ll see the whole range of conditions that sites impose on posting: from wide-open input forms without captchas to locked-down systems that require credit-card-verified user accounts.

Ultimately, we want more conversation, and less lecturing, on the site, and I hope that this change will move us toward that goal. And, as with everything on OJR, we reserve the right to change our minds — to make commenting either more or less restrictive than we will have it now.

Wanna share your experiences/frustration/success in running an online discussion. Hit the button and talk to us. Even if you haven’t registered yet.

Take a fresh look at your site's posting rules

When was the last time you took a look at the rules you ask readers who post to your website to follow?

Social media evolves without pause. From politicians editing their Wikipedia entries to bloggers creating “sock puppets” [scroll down linked page for definition] to intimidate online foes, Web users are finding ways to manipulate social media that application designers may not have intended or foreseen.

If you last modified your content-submission rules 10 years ago, they might not address all the conflicts that could arise today on your discussion board or in your comments sections. I’d like to offer a few suggestions for rules that you might want to consider adding to your interactive website.

First, I’d like to credit Damon Kiesow, managing editor for online at The Telegraph in Nashua, N.H., for raising this issue. Earlier this month, he posted to The Poynter Institute’s online-news e-mail discussion list his staff’s discovery that a local elected official was posting anonymously about other election contests and candidates on the paper’s discussion boards. In addition, the official had created at least three other user accounts and was using them as sock puppets in the forums.

Kiesow asked for guidance, sparking dozens of responses from other online journalism pros. Several warned against allowing anonymous posting on discussion forums (ground that is well-plowed for long-time OJR readers), but a few noted that the paper could be exposing itself to charges of hypocrisy, if not legal sanction, if it chose to “out” the official, due to the paper’s published website privacy policy.

Kiesow eventually deleted 14 posts from the three accounts, and explained the move to readers in a forum thread on the Telegraph’s website. However, the paper did not reveal the identity of the official.

The incident should remind all of us to be proactive about discouraging reader abuses, both through communicating with our readers up-front, as well as implementing back-end technical strategies.

I’ve long believed that websites which accept content from users, from comments to discussion boards to wikis, ought to tell those users, in the plainest possible language, the rules that the site expects those readers to follow when they post. (The eye-glazing, mind-numbing legalese of a site’s terms of service or privacy policy isn’t enough.)

If you want readers to use their real names, not to post copyrighted content and to be nice to one another, tell them. On OJR, we ask our readers to click to and abide by our guidelines for writers whenever they submit content to the site. Based on the Telegraph’s experience, I’ve added a few elements to those guidelines, so that we make explicit to OJR readers some of the actions that the Telegraph found that we do not want to see on OJR.

In addition, I’d like to propose a few other elements that I believe are worth considering for a site’s posting rules, but that often are not included.

No impersonation

Insist that readers be who they are, and not attempt to pass themselves off as someone else. If you site allows pseudonymous posting, insist that readers use a consistent handle or account name, and take whatever technical steps you can to keep people from posting under others’ names.

Don’t allow readers to mislead others about their identity, either. Warn readers against omitting information from their profiles or posts that would lead other readers to believe that they are someone other than who they are. Elected officials shouldn’t be allowed to pretend that they are not when posting to a discussion about local politics, to use the Telegraph’s example.

No unlinked multiple accounts

This is the “no sock puppets” rule. On many websites, you should simply prohibit readers from having more than one account. However, if there are valid reasons for allowing certain readers to control multiple accounts (a parent who has one account for himself and others for his kids, for example), they should be linked in such a way that the reader can’t easily turn them into sock puppets, making that individual appear like a crowd.

No offline harassment

Many forum rules prohibit readers from attacking one another within the forum by using profanity, hate speech or other threats. But I’d ask you to consider a prohibition against off-line harassment as well. Here’s what I’ve added to OJR’s guidelines: “We also will not tolerate members who use any means, including offline communication and messages to third parties, to intimidate or harass fellow members over their posting on OJR.”

On another website I’ve managed, we banned members for calling other posters to berate them for their forum messages. No, people should not expect that the words they publish online will not have consequences. But when other posters move past respectful disagreement into harassment, a website should retain the authority to toss those offenders, no matter where that harassment occurs.

Explicit rules for commercial solicitations

Strong communities have a knack for developing into economies. Just take a look at some of the markets that have developed within multiplayer role-playing games online.

In many cases, readers selling and buying with other readers is a good thing. That creates great opportunities for publishers to make money through advertising, sales commissions and lead generation. But one or two bad deals can be enough to poison an entire community. And a growing ad-to-content ratio will likely drive away readers, too.

Don’t wait for trouble. If you anticipate a problem, make explicit to readers where and when they can hawk stuff and services, or look for work or people to hire.


Finally, make explicit the potential consequences to readers if they violate any of your site’s rules. Check to ensure that your site’s formal privacy policy and terms of service do not conflict with your new rules, enlisting the help of a lawyer or company legal team to make changes, if necessary.

If there is one characteristic which distinguishes lively, informative discussion communities from others, it is leadership. Show your leadership by taking a fresh look at the rules governing your site, then work with your community to make changes your community needs to prevent situations might hurt the community or its members.