Big Think, small audience

brain-computer120.jpegA few weeks ago I was interviewed on CBC Newsworld, discussing Facebook as the technology story of the year. At one point the host asked me if I thought we would one day need two versions of Facebook: one for adults and one for children.

“Facebook is popular now,” the host said to me, “but what about once Mom’s on it. Then it might not seem so cool!”

I refrained from pointing out that Mom is already on Facebook, but suggested that it really doesn’t make any difference. Just in the same way that we all use the same telephone networks to communicate, we can all use the same social networking platforms. That doesn’t mean niches won’t keep on springing up, however.

This week, for example, saw the debut of Big Think, which Computerworld in the U.S. described as “YouTube for intellectuals.” The idea is to post video content from prominent politicians, journalists and other provocateurs and create something of greater value than “the less controlled freestyle of the online social media,” as the company behind the site put it.

The notion of online elitism was equally apparent in this week’s launch of Wikia Search. Derided as inferior to Google, most critics failed to appreciate that Wikia Search is not the launch of a finished product but the beginning of one that will never be complete. Wikia is also tapping into a sort of reverse elitism – instead of employing staff to create algorithms that direct people to URLs, the masses govern the process. Either form of search engine, depending on your outlook, could be said to represent a more sophisticated way of managing information.

Typically online elitism springs up only in response to the Everyman version. This was true in online dating sites for example, where each new entrant promises a more selective client base from which to form relationships. Something like Big Think might have had a lot more credibility had it preceded YouTube, but instead it’s like all the smart people decided to leave the party and go off into a private room by themselves. And yet somehow they hope the rest of us will occasionally pop our heads in and offer some feedback.

Online elitism may actually explain problems in the enterprise. Most knowledge management and collaboration systems, for instance, are designed to foster contributions from all employees in a project, a department or the company at large. These systems often fail to attract the level of activity the designers intended, possibly because users don’t see themselves as having much to offer them. I would imagine for the layperson would be intimidated to have themselves videotaped for Big Think, but they probably wouldn’t mind posting something funny but insightful on YouTube. IT managers may have to spend more time studying the techniques necessary to encourage the uncontrolled freestyle of social media, even as the elitists attempt to leave it behind.

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