Have any economists competed yet on American Idol? This new "YouTube" for nerds will give us a chance. I must admit that I'm intrigued. There are endless possibilities here related to open source and idea sharing. Will Greg Mankiw post videos of his Harvard Ec10 lectures? Would this increase or decrease his intro book sales? How many people would tune in to watch Jim Heckman discuss the benefits of early investment in children? How many people would tune it to watch me crack jokes and talk about the costs and benefits of living a green life? Economists like data --- what field experiments would be ran to test what hypotheses?
Which economists will use this site as an audition tape to try to make it to the big leagues like Jeff Sachs and make it on to HBO or the morning TV talkshows? Will bald economists or fat economists have to deliver higher quality presentations to generate as many "downloads" as more attractive economists? How will the Hammer use this data in his work on Beauty?
Will the pay premium for good teachers increase as this website will highlight which university professors are good teachers? Until now, publishing was an observable verifiable output but this new website may shine a spotlight on good teachers; by identifying them and letting the market speak.
Will Universities who are considering making an offer to 1 of 2 candidates demand that the 2 candidates duel on "Nerd Tube" to see who gets more votes? Or do you trust the tenured faculty to make this decision? Is there wisdom in crowds or do you trust the Yodas?
New York Times
January 7, 2008
Ex-Harvard President Meets a Former Student, and Intellectual Sparks Fly
By TIM ARANGO
In June 2006, Peter Hopkins, a civic-minded and idealistic 2004 Harvard graduate, trekked up to his alma mater from New York for a meeting with Lawrence H. Summers, the economist and former Treasury secretary. Mr. Hopkins, who finagled the appointment through his friendship with Mr. Summers’s assistant, had a business idea: a Web site that could do for intellectuals what YouTube, the popular video-sharing site, did for bulldogs on skateboards.
The pitch — “a YouTube for ideas” — appealed to Mr. Summers. “Larry, to his credit, is open to new ideas,” Mr. Hopkins recalled recently. “He grilled me for two hours.” In the age of user-generated content, Mr. Summers did have one worry: “Let’s say someone puts up a porn video next to my macroeconomic speech?”
It took awhile, but a year after that meeting, Mr. Summers decided to invest (“a few tens of thousands of dollars,” he said, adding “not something I’m hoping to retire on”) in the site, called Big Think, which officially makes its debut today after being tested for several months.
Big Think (www.bigthink.com) mixes interviews with public intellectuals from a variety of fields, from politics, to law to business, and allows users to engage in debates on issues like global warming and the two-party system. It plans to add new features as it goes along, including a Facebook-like application for social networking, and Mr. Hopkins said he would like the site to become a popular place for college students looking for original sources.
“I’ve had the general view that there is a hunger for people my age looking for more intellectual content,” said Mr. Summers, who resigned as Harvard president in 2006 after making controversial comments about the lack of women in science and engineering. “I saw it as president of Harvard when I saw C.E.O.’s come up to my wife and want to discuss Hawthorne.” (His wife, Elisa New, is a professor of English at Harvard).
A handful of other deep-pocketed investors also decided to chip in, including Peter Thiel, the Silicon Valley venture capitalist and co-founder of PayPal, the online payments site; Tom Scott, who struck it rich by founding, and selling, the juice company Nantucket Nectars and now owns Plum TV, a collection of local television stations in wealthy playgrounds like Aspen, Martha’s Vineyard and the Hamptons; the television producer Gary David Goldberg, who was behind the hit shows “Spin City” and “Family Ties”; and David Frankel, a venture capitalist who was the lead investor in Big Think.
“I tend to follow my own curiosities, and I know millions of people are like me,” said Mr. Scott. “I’m into this kind of thing. I do think there is a market for this.”
Mr. Frankel, the lead investor, said, “The initial investors may put in more. I imagine we will go out and raise more money in the future.”
Mr. Hopkins and his partner, Victoria Brown, germinated the idea for Big Think while working together at PBS on the “Charlie Rose” show in 2006.
When they surveyed the landscape, Mr. Hopkins, 24, and Ms. Brown, 33, saw a vast array of celebrity and sophomoric video content (remember the clips of cats urinating in toilets that caused a sensation on YouTube?).
“Everyone says Americans are stupid — that’s what we generally heard from venture capitalists” when trying to raise money, Mr. Hopkins said. Obviously, Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Brown felt differently, and the success of the business basically hinges on proving that Americans have an appetite for other kinds of content.
Of course, Mr. Hopkins and Ms. Brown are not the first to see the Internet as an opportunity to further public discourse. It was invented largely by academics; numerous sites, like Arts & Letters Daily, an offshoot of the Chronicle of Higher Education, seek to serve intellectuals.
Big Think’s business model right now is rudimentary: attract enough viewers, then sell advertising. “We’re going to wait until it gets attention before going after advertisers,” Mr. Hopkins said.
So for the time being, money will be flowing one way at Big Think, out the door. Over the last several months, Big Think’s handful of producers, working from a pod of desks in a Manhattan office space, have amassed a library of about 180 interviews with leading thinkers, politicians and business leaders, like Mitt Romney, Supreme Court Justice Stephen G. Breyer, Richard Branson and the co-founder of Blackstone, Pete Peterson. Many of the interviews were conducted in a closet-turned-studio in a back room off the office kitchen.
The interview style, which Big Think’s founders said was derived from a technique used by the filmmaker Errol Morris, places the interviewer in an even smaller closet, behind a shower curtain, hidden from the subject and making the person asking the questions almost an afterthought. The subject hears the questions from a closed-circuit monitor.
The finished product even eliminates the interviewer’s voice, and the questions appear as text on the screen. The goal is to not create a confrontation between interviewer and interviewee, or goad the subject into saying something provocative (but if it happens, that is a bonus.)
“The whole idea is really to take the interviewer out of the equation,” said Mr. Hopkins. “It allows people to be very candid. Pete Peterson went on about how his mother never loved him. It was like he was coming in for his last testament.”
When Mr. Peterson left his interview, he surveyed the makeshift studio and said, “You kids are really making lemonade out of lemons.”
Tom Freston, the former chief executive of Viacom, has shown little interest in publicly reflecting on his 2005 firing by Viacom Chairman Sumner M. Redstone. But he agreed to discuss it with Big Think, saying in an interview, “Say if you’re a C.E.O. of a public company, a lot of it you’re playing defense. You’re dealing with problems or crises. At the moment in the smaller life I have for myself, I’ve got a lot less of that, which is a good thing.”
Those videos stockpiled over the last months will be introduced piecemeal and used in a variety of ways. For example, the site may pose the question “are two parties enough?” and assemble clips from people like John McCain and Arlen Spector and Dennis Kucinich. Readers would then have an opportunity to submit their own views.
“The idea behind Big Think is that you do have to sit down for a few minutes and listen to people who know more than you do,” Mr. Hopkins said.
Mr. Hopkins knows his site will naturally appeal to secular East Coast intellectuals, but he wants to challenge their secularism with sections on faith and love and happiness. “There’s a ton of evangelicals,” said Mr. Hopkins, including an interview with Rick Warren, the pastor and best-selling author of “The Purpose Driven Life.”
“People, whether or not they believe in God, these issues really resonate,” said Mr. Hopkins. “Look at the success of ‘The Secret’ and ‘The Purpose Driven Life.’”
He also hopes the site can transcend partisanship and become a destination for thinkers open to hearing opposing views.
“We live in this hyperpartisan world with really smart people on each side,” Mr. Hopkins said, invoking John Locke and John Stuart Mill, two enlightenment thinkers who believed in being open to hearing out the other side. “But there’s a lot of information not being exchanged because of these false barriers. People should expose themselves to the counterpoints.”