Vidoyen founder Arshia Tabrizi
Is it possible to have intelligent debate online? Can we resist the urge to plunge into the fetid morass of YouTube commentary? Arshia Tabrizi thinks so.
Tabrizi has been ardently plugging away at Vidoyen, his new site that brings personalized, expert answers – on virtually any subject – right to your laptop. The answers are recorded in video format and posted, allowing for your own reactions and feedback. Ideally, he hopes, this will stimulate informed discussion.
“It goes down to my interest in technology as well as general public education. In my mind, there was still some kind of disconnect from reliable information and from finding that reliable information. I was trying to, in my own way, solve that problem.”
“There’s tons happening in the online education space. There are courses online, you can register for free at Stanford, and so on,” he said. But he saw a gap. “We want to have a place where the public can go and ask questions from trusted sources of information, in any area of interest that the users would have.” These trusted sources then produce and post their recorded ‘answers’. The short, 2-minute videos are more accessible than a lengthier text-based answer. The format allows for even the most techonologically naive contributors to easily load videos — all they need is an Internet connection and a webcam.
He’s been appealing to experts to act as contributors to the site. Former Mayor David Miller acted as an advisor during Vidoyen’s development, and Tabrizi has video responses from notable pundits like University of Toronto Professor Nick Mount, and In Praise of Slow writer Carl Honoré. The site tackles everything from “Is there a proxy regional war in Syria?” to “What was wrong with Fight Club?”. Tabrizi aims to cover the whole gamut of topics — TED-style — from sexuality to comics to science.
He’s in the process of assembling expert contributors to be ‘talking heads’- highly regarded academics, writers, public intellectuals, and public officials — who have some level of established reputation or expertise in a particular field. Anyone can log in to Vidoyen, pose a question, and have a short video answer relayed to them by one (or more) of these individuals.
The idea is to develop a mini-forum “where people can go and engage in conversation and debate on important and topical issues, not only locally but globally,” says Tabrizi. “In a lot of ways, it was driven by this idea of civic engagement and informed debate. You can have one question posed to a certain contributor on the site, but you can have multiple answers and perspectives.” Users can then further engage with the video contributors by adding further comments and questions underneath the videos. The idea is to create a space where informed debate and critical thinking is encouraged, and where the commentary doesn’t splutter into posturing and rants.
For the experts featured in the videos, Vidoyen is “a way for them to share their research, their discoveries, and their perspectives on societal issues. It’s an all-around personal platform for them. It’s very conversational — it is not like a prepared lecture that they’re going off and doing research for. It’s more that they look at the question and share their thoughts.” For Prof. Nick Mount, it’s a way of giving back. “I’m not sure yet if there’s anything in it for me, or even if there needs to be,” he noted. “I was, and am attracted to the idea of professors at public institutions sharing some of the expertise the public paid me to acquire and maintain with that public. I could do so through scholarly articles, but they are a bit dense for the general reader, and today are typically money-walled. Short videos seem to work pretty well for cute cats; maybe they could help the academy help our society.”
For users, it’s a chance to get some expert insight for free. It also allows them to explore issues that may not be the media-determined issue of the moment. They can access this knowledge without having to fork over for expensive tuitions or consulting fees.
Tabrizi studied computer engineering at U of T, worked as a software engineer at IBM, and went to law school. He has practiced as a tech lawyer for the last 15 years and assisted many entrepreneurs in their own start-ups. He’s considered this project a labour of love. “I wake up thinking about it. I’m thinking about it when I eat, and when I go to bed. I’ve worked for 15 years for entrepreneurs of start-ups — they’re all my clients. So, I’ve seen them kind of go through this, but I’ve never been through it myself. So it’s interesting to be on the other side. Now I’m relating to them even more closely than I have over the last 15 years.” Tabrizi will carefully monitor response and feedback when Vidoyen comes out of beta in the next few months. “The purpose is knowledge dissemination and public education, kind of taking from a local level and making it global, crossing national and cultural borders. Creating a place where people are engaging in discussion about topical issues that matter to the world. That’s what is driving me.”
If you’re interested in participating in Vidoyen, either as a contributing expert or a user (or both) visit Vidoyen.