Wikia and Big Think: Contrasts in user-generated content concepts

The New York Times today featured articles on two nascent web sites: Wikia Search and Big Think.

There’s an intrinsic marketing problem in launching any site built around user-generated content:  The site is useful only once there’s lots of user-generated content, which is really hard to get until you have lots of users, which you achieve by getting lots of press coverage for your new site.  But of course, the PR drives people to a bare bones site that doesn’t showcase the site’s vision very well.  The more interesting question is whether the core concept will be compelling once the site is well populated.  In this case, I think there’s one potential winner and one site that’s missing the mark.

First a little background:

Wikia Search (by Wikia, the for-profit sister organization of Wikipedia) launched the alpha of its search engine today. The idea behind Wikia is laudable – it will rely on the user community to fine-tune search results by allowing users to rate search results for quality and relevance.  To his credit, Wikipedia co-founder Jimmy Wales admits that people using the search engine “should understand that they are part of the early stages of a project to build a ‘Google-quality search engine.’” Read the article. 

The Times also featured a large article on Big Think – a kind of YouTube for intellectual ideas.  It features video interviews with public intellectuals from a variety of fields, broken down into short snippets on various topics.  Users can post comments, creating an online debate, and also post their own original ideas. 

Of the two sites, Wikia Search has much less value as of today – the search results are laughable and the features to allow users to refine the content aren’t really there.  Yet I can easily see its potential. 

Big Think worked diligently to pre-populate its site with interviews of intellectuals and celebrities ranging from John McCain to Calvin Trillin, to Alan Dershowitz.  But I have a much harder time ever seeing it succeed as founder Peter Hopkins envisioned it:  “a web site that could do for intellectuals what YouTube did for bulldogs on skateboards.”  The sad truth that is that most people are pretty darn dull when they’re giving a monologue to a camera.  The short snippets are banal and the longer pieces are downright tedious.  (No, I didn’t check out every single example — but enough)  The big opportunity is to figure out how to empower the user community’s version of Charlie Rose or James Lipton to truly engage with Alan Dershowitz or you or me.  Till then, Big Think will have a bigger problem than just chicken and egg.


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