Tuesday, April 1, 2008

Video Mensa?

The title of Ari Melber's latest article for The Nation is impossible to ignore: "YouTube for Smart People." Appropriately enough, it was only published in the Web edition. This was probably a good idea, since, without the ability to quickly check up on the story through the hyperlink provided at the end of the second paragraph, it would have been easy to dismiss that story as an April Fool's Day joke for those of us who continue to prefer The Nation to YouTube. Here is the basic theme of Melber's piece (complete with the necessary hyperlink):

Apart from search engines, YouTube is now the second most popular website in America, drawing the average visitor for a solid sixteen minutes of video surfing--a web eternity. The site hosts a long tail of clips on every item imaginable, but the top videos actually track the vices of television: sex, celebrities and sensationalism. And as the web morphs from endless text to an increasingly video-focused platform, YouTube is ground zero for some of the dumbest crap online. Yet web videos don't have to be vapid, according to the entrepreneurs behind Big Think, YouTube for the Harvard set.

After working as producers for The Charlie Rose Show, Harvard grads Peter Hopkins and Victoria R.M. Brown saw an opening for thoughtful, short-form intellectual videos targeting online audiences. The idea was simple: take the brightest, most creative thinkers alive, plunk them down for a conversation straight to camera--reality-show style--elide the moderator and provide an intimate window into the "big ideas" of our time. The erudite site drew investments from heavy hitters like Peter Thiel, a PayPal co-founder and Facebook angel investor, and Larry Summers, the former Harvard president and treasury secretary.

The most important thing about Melber's article is that its very existence demonstrates what may be the most critical weakness in the Big Think business plan (and, make no mistake about it, once you see the word "entrepreneurs," you automatically know that "it is all about the business plan," rather than any more elevated concepts such as "public service" or, God forbid, "public trust"). That weakness is right there in the Hopkins-Brown "vision," in the failure to see that the phrase "thoughtful, short-form intellectual videos" may be inherently oxymoronic. Given the task of writing a "thoughtful" piece about Big Think, Melber had the luxury of not being constrained by "short-form" thinking. He could examine the issue from several points of view, drawing upon several sources and examples, thus avoiding the Scylla of evangelism and the Charybdis of flat-out condemnation. Could he have done this in a "short-form intellectual video?" I doubt it. Such an approach would not have allowed him to rise above the sound-byte trivialities than have made such a mess of our options for getting news on television.

Bearing this weakness in mind, however, I still felt it important to visit the Big Think site, particularly since Melber had mentioned that music, the topic about which I am most passionate, was one of the categories. The first thing you encounter at that site is the motto: we are what you think. That was cute enough but more glib than meaningful, rather like that fodder from the business world about working smarter instead of working harder. Next to the motto is a box informing you that 8,718 "ideas" (your mileage may differ) have been contributed. This is how you are welcomed to a business plan for the marketplace of ideas; and, if you have your wits about you, you will proceed with the same strategy you bring to any marketplace: caveat emptor (even if your only "expense" is your own precious time)!

Further impressions were heavily influenced by one of my strongest aggravations, which is the complete and utter oblivion that purveyors of "social software" seem to have to the role that Usenet played as a pre-Internet attempt to enable expert minds to interact within cyberspace. Just because Usenet was limited to "raw text" is no reason for it to be ignored by those who now seek such interaction through video, whether or not, as Melber put it, "Everyone knows video is taking over the web." Those of us who thrived on Usenet enjoyed not being confined by "short-form" means of expression; and the result was that a reader was as likely to encounter the first draft of a serious essay as a simple answer to a simple question.

More important than how Usenet thrived, however, was how it ultimately failed. With its complex system of gateways, Usenet anticipated what the Internet could be; but the Internet turned out to be its primary undoing. On rec.music.classical, where I spent most of my time, detailed discussions of the proper execution of a phrase in a Beethoven piano sonata or how much the "serial rules" matter when you were actually listening to twelve-tone music were displaced by the annoying recurrence of newbies who only wanted to talk about their top ten favorite recordings. So what caught my eye on the Big Think music page?

What are the top 10 greatest rock and roll bands of all time?

Who isn't in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame, but should be

Who is the greatest rock bassist of all time?

It was not the focus on rock music that annoyed me but that lowest common denominator of what I have called "top-dog thinking." If this is what constitutes "thoughtful, short-form intellectual videos," then I feel my time is better spent with The Nation and The New York Review, thank you very much.

I doubt that such observations will have much impact on the Big Think entrepreneurs. Usenet was not born out of a business plan. It actually emerged to satisfy a very low-level need for communication among software engineers maintaining and developing the Unix operating system. Only after that foundation was laid did it occur to users that it would support the computer-mediated discussion of other topics; and the rest became history. The problem is that such computer-mediated discussion is just not the stuff from which business plans are made; and those who promote such business plans are a bit like vendors hawking their wares in the agora where Socrates met with his followers.

This will probably be the point at which someone decided to draft a comment taking me to task for ignoring Facebook. To that person I say, "Save your (digital) breath. Just remember what happened when the business planners decided to beef up the "marketing potential" of Facebook. As I put it in my own analysis of the blowback from that decision, far from being "social software," Facebook had finally been revealed as the antisocial artifact it really was. That little episode was actually one of the first to get me on that hobby-horse concerned with the failure of the social software set (both developers and evangelists) to ignore Usenet as a valuable source of lessons-learned.

Am I arguing that those most important of those lessons was that the "quality of ideas" (to invoke the terminology of the Big Think header) declined as Usenet became less elitist? That is probably the case to the extent that "thoughtful" and "intellectual" interactions tend to take place within relatively small social networks (see, for example, the network graphs in Randall Collins' The Sociology of Philosophies); and business plans for social software do not think very highly of small networks. However, I think network scale is only part of the problem. Another significant part is the extent to which the software encourages reflective (rather than merely reactive) behavior. Reflection is not particularly well served (if at all) by the exchange of "short-form" content, regardless of its medium. Arguments have to play themselves out in the space they fill most naturally, just as Abraham Lincoln reminded us that a man's legs should be short enough to reach the ground; and, when those arguments are first beginning to emerge, they often require a fair amount of space in which to "grope around" before the core of the reasoning can be identified and expressed. The ultimate oxymoron of the "value proposition" that drives the business plan is the fundamental opposition between a "big think" and a "short form."

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