I see a lot of interesting myths perpetuated about TED, and while I risk being seen as a TED-promoter, I want to take them head-on and — perhaps — help address them more directly with a few facts.
(Some context about me. I am only a four-time TED conference attendee; pay my own way, etc. I’m not a trained journalist and am speaking for no one else but my experience. That’s me in a picture from Session One of TED2011. Duncan Davidson took this shot.)
Six common myths of TED and my take on them:
1. It’s Snobby.
To get into TED Long Beach, you have been picked because you are at the top of your game, in business, politics, education, social media, or whatever. So yes something with an application has a certain snottiness to it. I got rejected the first time I applied. So what I learned, is that you just need to apply and wait your turn, it’s not a closed club. And, I’ve already shared that being with this crowd has allowed me to stop playing small. Because most people are already established, the energy that many take into impressing each other is (largely) gone. That let’s us have more real conversations.
The conference looks like no other. You’d be surprised if you looked around at the demographics to see that there’s a vast range of economics, age, sex, and geographies represented at the TED Long Beach conference itself.That tells me TED is being intentional about the mix of who they bring together.
It has about 25% of the stage full of women, the highest I know of, besides an all-women’s conference. And, about 30% of the participants are women, which represents a pretty good mix. Not great – I’d love to see more gender parity, and this is a place of improvement that SheTalksTED as well as others advocate.
2. It’s pretentious.
What I do see is a lot of people who come to TED for the first time, tweet comments from it to show their friends’ back home that they are at TED and their friend’s are not. I can see the temptation of tweeting that you are, say, sitting next to @ev, or Cameron Diaz, or Jeff Bezos or Tony Hsieh. But I think that’s the behavior that happens when first-timers are just a wee-bit impressed that they are “in” the club. Most people, thankfully, do not do this. And perhaps if the new-bie understood the cultural norms of TED better, they would be more self-managing.
#TED organizers are not pretentious. Selecting great ideas is necessary and that’s what they do.
Curators of TED see what they do as a huge responsibility. One curator works in a sort of 24×7 way and is currently helping curate and support the folks in Cairo, and other Middle Eastern cities have neutral (non-political, non-sectarian) conversations that could truly change the world. He won’t get credit, or money, and neither is his goal. TED has come to represent the best ideas to change the world. His goal is truly to help change the world by the possibility of great ideas, being told well, and then discussed amongst that community. I don’t know about you, but I am so seriously hoping for what might happen. (I don’t have permission to share his story but I’m hoping he’ll forgive me.)
3. There is no action out of it.
A good friend of mine, Michael Dila, said something a few years ago that has stuck with me: conversations are truly the only way in the world is changed, not technology. Conversation drives a new way of thinking, therefore new states of being, and the results that follow from that. The purpose of having loads of white spaces into the conference is to talk about ideas. I got into an interesting conversation with the head of WPP, one of the largest advertising organizations in the world about the situation in Nigeria, which was a deeply thoughtful idea about how to change an entire country known best for corruption. I don’t underestimate this discussion or what could happen if the head of WPP thinks about how to change the world with any of the ideas presented but without this venue, there is little likelihood most of us would spend 18 minutes thinking about Nigeria and corruption and how to influence the situation. Action follows from a shift in mindset. So I think TED creates context, the rest is up to us. And there’s plenty of action actually going on from the stage, within the community, flowing out of these discussions.
Second thing related to action. Bill Gates curated a session where he highlighted the Khan Academy. I didn’t know of this organization, founded by a former hedge fund guy creating YouTube videos, to help his cousins in NO learn. those videos are now live to anybody….and quite interesting. This was where I wanted people to tweet and many did. Education could be changed dramatically if this idea that Jennifer Pahlka captured: reverse homework and classwork, let them watch the videos at home and work on problems in class. So while no action was done right at that very moment, the 1000 or so conversations people had when they called home might just bring that idea into the system so that 100, 1000, or 10,000 educational institutions try something new in the next few years.
Of course, many other good efforts that flow from the TEDPrize to help create the change we wish to see in the world. I applaud the work done on the Compassion Charter with Karen Armstrong as the TEDPrize winner. Architecture for Humanity, an amazing organization creating a more sustainable future, through the power of architectural design. They got hyper-boosters on their mission, by TED and the TED community.
4. Money goes to line their pockets.
One big myth is that Chris Anderson and the folks at TED must be doing this to be rich. TED is owned by the Sapling Foundation, a 501(c)3 foundation and all the profits are reinvested in things like the TED Prize and distributing the talks free online. Chris Anderson doesn’t even take a salary (he made his money when he founded Business2.0) and he took over the TED conference and a short 7 years later he (and his team) opened it up with TEDEd, TEDFellows, TED.com, TEDx and so on. I don’t know about you but I get pretty tired when I just think of all they have done…
Add to this mix, the 40 or so TEDFellows, a group of innovators, artists and change agents, curated by Tom Reilly, from around the world, to amplify the work of people who are working to change the world. All those Fellows need funding and support and the Sapling Foundation does that. So if my measly thousands of dollars can help fuel access to ideas globally, I gladly give.
One important thing that Todd Lombardo helped me remember is the Sapling Foundation may not be transparent enough to ward off the critiques. How much money does it cost to run these events? Are all the amenities necessary? Palotta Teamworks who ran the AIDS Rides were registered as a for-profit company and weren’t transparent about the flow of capital through their organization… This ultimately ruined that company. I suspect the TED braintrust is working on this.
5. You limit access to great ideas by limiting who gets to see it live.
While I love the immersive experience of TED Long Beach, I recognize there are many ways to experience it. Did you know there’s the simulcast at $500 where people can organizer a crowd of people in one’s own living room (and split the costs to $50/head)? That means most people who really wants to see it live, can. [Earlier version of this post had a different set of math; i didn't realize there was a cap to 10 people per simulcast. thanks to @SmithMillCreek for helping me improve this.]
Add to that, TEDActive and TEDx audiences and you can’t possibly say “it’s limited” cause “it” is now available to “us”. Laura Stein has set the TEDx licensee policy so that one **cannot** charge for attendance. Anybody could organize a TEDx, curate the best TED talks or local TEDxtalks and create something themselves. So, definitely not limited if you consider how accessible TED can be, if you’re willing to roll up your sleeves.
TED talks (ted.com…run by the amazing June Cohen) are translated, for free, by people from around the world, allowing 400 million people to view the well-produced talks online. That flows out of the conference work, and distributed — worth saying again — for FREE. You could argue that, by editing well, instead of streaming live, it creates a library of high-production content that will let it be seen by more people than the streaming version would allow.
6. Aren’t they Hypocritial?
Consider the Sarah Silverman episode of 2010. She did what she was asked to do, Her brand of humor, her story. But because some (Steve Case was notable visible around this) felt uncomfortable with what she did, she was viewed as banished by Chris and some of the TED community.
I was there when this happened, and frankly I thought Chris was very genuine when he posted he hated it, but then he retreated. I think he could have said he hated it, others liked it and that’s what TED is all about — many ideas being discussed. A slightly awkward moment on twitter got caught into a huff but I am hopeful it was a learning moment… I don’t know.
While I do think TED is full of elite people of many disciplines, ages and economics, it is not, in my opinion, Elitist. Elitist would suggest that once people are in, they work on closing the door behind them. Elite, says, says we want more good people to participate in this conversation. Whether at TEDLong Beach or TEDx or TED.com or whatever.
This I will vouch for: I have never seen a more open, curious, respectful group of people who truly want to understand the world better and to apply their skills and talents to contribute their part to make the world a better place. I tweeted yesterday that a great audience allows a speaker to step up his/her game and deliver the best idea that could change the world, well. So having TED the conference is important in the mission.But it is only 1 part. (Perhaps the only elite part.)
I notice that most of the people who “hate” on TED are people who have never been, as demonstrated by Sarah Lacey, Umair Haque, and Jeff Jarvis. Sarah posted a one-sided argument from someone this week that could have benefitted from a little more journalism. Umair posted something years ago that could have been much tighter given a simple Google search. And Jeff Jarvis, whom I respect, was definitely taking jabs from afar calling it a cult. To all 3, can I ask you to come? [actually to all readers, please do come if you are feel moved to do so...] Or at least attend a simulcast. Taking shots at TED while on twitter seems a disservice to all of your talents of perception, and problem solving. We can change things from the inside out. Robert Scoble, who once “hated” on TED, did a very thoughtful critique of TED, called Elephants in the Room, after coming and I respect him for what he shared. Robert did not “go cult” but simply saw a fuller picture. I hope this post helps others to see more of the full picture.
It is easy to form an impression of a thing having never seen it or experienced it. However, I would suggest that would be like someone outside your family, having never even seen its dynamics upclose, explaining your own family back to you. Not quite possible, is it? At least, not without some serious research …
It is Up to Us.
I’m not saying TED is without it’s flaws. The Long Beach event is a bit elite, but the TED brand is not at all about elitism. By belonging, I hope to roll up my sleeves within that community to shape it also.
I hope to improve the women-speaker thing by continuing to nominate great folks. I invite any of you who want to come to TED to work with me on your applications. 1 of the top 20 speakers on the ted.com site is someone I nominated (I suspect others did too, so am not taking full credit) with the speakers’ help and her ideas are truly changing the world. I’m glad I could contribute that. Being on the inside surely helped a little.
I critiqued Indra Nooyi’s talk, and such …. but I would be just as willing to work with her to help her understand what happened and how to learn from it since I understand how to reinvent cultures and companies, and I know a bit of TED, and perhaps have a point of view given the intersection point.
I am willing to raise my hand to give feedback to people within the community – and would love to talk with TED-sters about how our sometimes inane tweets we send out as a signal of our “coolness”, is really not so cool.
I welcome, as always, your thoughts as I’m sure I’ve missed a bunch of points of view. As always, make it about how we make something better not what is wrong. It takes a special person to move beyond being descriptive, and attacking, to be prescriptive and problem-solving.