Is a famous thinker better than a great one?

Does a bestselling author have more to say than someone who has written a brilliant book that didn't sell?

Does a tenured professor at Yale deserve more credence than someone doing breakthrough work at a local state school?

If the violinist in the subway has played to packed houses, does that make him better than the previously unknown singer around the next corner?

For physical goods, a trusted brand name certainly increases the likelihood of purchase, because the risk is lower. We figure that Nabisco is less likely to sell us an unflavorful dust cookie than some unknown brand at the health food store. For a new flavor, the brand makes it an easier choice.

An idea is different, though, because the only apparent cost is the time it takes to hear it. (That's not really true, of course).

And yet we hesitate to invest the time to hear ideas from lesser-known sources. It's not fair to the unknown inventor, but it's true.

I think this is changing, and fast. The permeability of the web means that you don't have to start at the top, don't have to get picked by TED or a by a big blog or by anyone with influence. Pick yourself.

It's true that when you pick yourself, people aren't as likely to embrace your idea (at first). That's because the personal risk of hearing new ideas from new places is the fear that our opinion of the idea might not match everyone else's. The real risk of interacting with unproven ideas is the fear that we might not react in a way our peers expect. The desire to fit in often overwhelms our curiosity.

It takes quite a bit of work (and a lot of luck) to acquire a level of fame. The question that might be worth asking is whether or not that effort is related to the quality of ideas underneath. Harvard has been around for nearly 400 years. That doesn't mean the brand name is worth as much as we might be inclined to believe.

Branding started with pottery, beer and biscuits. Now it affects the way we think about ideas, people and even science. Buyer beware.