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Big Think: YouTube for Intellectuals

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Link-Up Digital

Millions of people turn to YouTube daily to watch offbeat, irreverent, and sometimes newsy videos. But another website presents videos that are more substantial and intellectually stimulating. The website Big Think offers videotaped interviews of Harvard University professors, dynamic capitalists, and talented authors. Instead of YouTube's array of talented felines and acrobatic canines, Big Think offers the insights of the leading minds of the world.

Aptly named, Big Think ( has interviewed more than 700 artists, intellectuals, and entrepreneurs such as investor/philanthropist George Soros; Chris Anderson, Wired editor and author of Free: The Future of a Radical Price; Harvard educational psychologist Howard Gardner; Reid Hoffman, one of LinkedIn's founders; and author Gay Talese. The New York Times described Big Think as "the YouTube of ideas."

Though the Big Think interviews may last for 30-40 minutes, each is presented in shorter clips of 5-10 minutes online. It describes itself as a "global forum connecting people and ideas" and says its mission is to help people "make better decisions in our personal and professional lives if our thinking is informed by expert opinion."

Editing the site is Paul Hoffman, a longtime contributor to The New Yorker, The Atlantic Monthly, and Wired and author of the memoir King's Gambit: A Son, a Father, and the World's Most Dangerous Game. Each interview focuses on "getting experts talking about what they do and giving insight into what they do," he says from his office near Union Square in New York City. For example, novelist John Irving didn't just discuss his latest novel Last Night in Twisted River but analyzed the craft of fiction. Irving noted that he starts each novel by writing the last sentence and then works backwards.

Hoffman compares Big Think interviews to James Lipton's Inside the Actors Studio question-and-answer format on cable TV. The goal of many of the interviews is to get people to talk about "their craft and how they do it. It's not about how to boil an egg, but could be about a cardiologist discussing the state of medical research to repair one's heart and offering five tips to keep the heart healthy," he says.

Most of all, Big Think is interested in ideas. For example, LinkedIn's Hoffman discusses why some social network sites are productive while others are a waste of time. And noted author Richard Dawkins insists that scientists must also be artists and should not just focus on drab facts. One interview focused on Larry Summer's view of what will end the recession, while Kaiser Permanente's CEO George Halvorson zeroed in on the public option and its effect on the healthcare bill.

The site is organized into the following areas: home, special series, topics, experts, blogs, idea feed, and good word. Topics covers a wide range of areas including arts and culture; the environment; the future; health and medicine; identity; media and internet; love, sex, and happiness; science and tech; and truth and justice.

Not all the interviews feature academics, and some profiles are confessional in tone, such as Native American novelist Sherman Alexie discussing how he overcome alcoholism. Other interviews are provocative, such as Talese's take on why people have lost their joie de vivre for sexual relations, or unexpected, such as why painter Ross Bleckner benefits from reading obituaries.

One of Hoffman's favorite interviews was of Bob Mankoff, cartoon editor for The New Yorker. Mankoff discussed how cartoon humor has changed over the last 2 decades, analyzed the line between bad taste and clever humor, and explained The New Yorker sensibility. Ted Kennedy gave one of his final interviews on Big Think.

Big Think launched in January 2008 and was started by Victoria Brown and Peter Hopkins, two former producers of The Charlie Rose Show. Brown and Hopkins felt that the internet didn't offer enough places to go to for intelligent voices, and they created Big Think to fill that void.

The site attracts about 300,000 unique visitors monthly but expands its viewership with a variety of partnerships. It has agreements with CNN and MSNBC, whose websites can also display Big Think's videos, and agreements with several overseas newspapers. Moreover, it has sponsors such as American Express, SAP, and Pfizer, whose banner ads help finance the site.

Like YouTube, videos form the core of Big Think. But it also offers transcripts of each interview for "serious research and scholarship," Hoffman says.

Unlike the Huffington Post (, news stories don't always fuel Big Think. The day after Election Day 2009, Big Think's lead story concentrated on what makes a great city, but it only mentioned Michael Bloomberg's New York mayoral victory in passing. Hoffman says interviews will sometimes be newsy, such as what generals say about the Afghanistan war strategy. But often, the lead story is cultural and timeless.

Having come from a magazine background, Hoffman says videotaped interviews are more direct and raw compared to journalistic articles. "Journalists clean things up," he says, referring to the fact that writers organize the thoughts of the people they interview, while videotapes, though edited, present the person's warts, digressions, and half-formed thoughts.

After 2 years, Big Think is doing well, expanding its viewership and strengthening its influence. In the future, Hoffman expects more multimedia components, greater use of slide and info-graphics, but a continued reliance on telling stories based on interviewing some of the most provocative thinkers of our time.

 Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.

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