While the annual TED Conference, a four-day, multimillion dollar extravaganza featuring 18-minute speeches on “ideas worth spreading,” unfolded in a dark theater in Long Beach this week, an idea began to spread online that TED has become involved in an ideas arms race of “intellectual lite.” Benjamin Wallace wrote in New York Magazine, “It’s also possible to see in TED’s recent growth strategies the marks of desperation and dilution.” Kent Sepkowitz, writing in DailyBeast.com, chimed in with this damning characterization: “TED is a direct descendant of another American favorite: the get-better-quick scheme.”
There are plenty of powerful and necessary ways to re-imagine TED. Thinking critically about the resource allocation at conferences like TED, particularly given their aim to catalyze social change, is a critical endeavor. Also critical is analyzing the role of an event that seems to do the impossible—draw influential people from the left and right to sit in one room and listen to one another—at this highly volatile political moment.
But having attended TEDActive (essentially the rowdier, more diverse “kid’s table” of TED, held in Palm Springs) for the first time last week, I think the finger-wagging critics actually have missed the most provocative component of the TED empire. Turns out that it’s not the highly curated “ideas worth spreading;” it’s the decentralization of curation altogether. TED is joining in on the renaissance of populist idea creation and distribution that can be seen in phenomena such as Occupy, Kickstarter, and the It Gets Better Project.
Three years ago, TED took a risky, paradigmatic shift when it created TEDx—a platform by which anyone, anywhere, can host their own TED-like event, as long as they register and abide by a few ground rules that keep events feeling culturally TED-like, whether they’re in Chile, Kenya, or the United Arab Emirates. To date, there have been 3,190 such events in 800 cities. Nonprofit start-up IDEO.org just created a TEDx-in-a-box that will make the events even easier to create in regions without dependable electricity or access to digital equipment.
It’s worth taking a little step back to understand just how radical this move really was for TED. It’s an entity, in fact a 501(c)(3) nonprofit, that has built its brand on being a discerning eye for the gold standards of big ideas. It’s an unmatched convener of the modern day oligarchy—the rich, powerful, and famous. And it decided to give away the keys to the kingdom. Some people thought that move was crazy, and, in fact, Chris Anderson, TED’s chief curator, admitted as much from the stage last week, and then added: “The loss of control is the whole point.”
Turns out that letting go of a little control can create mythic results: 126 countries have hosted one or more TEDx events with a total of 12,900 TEDxTalks; 128 of those have been featured on TED.com with 47 million views in total.
The TEDx effect is not unlike the phenomena we saw last fall and winter with the Occupy movement. Suddenly, a sea of inchoate frustrations and expressions found form. Many complained that they didn’t know exactly what the Occupy movement actually wanted, but the more important thing was not its content, but its role as a container. Resistance to economic inequality, Citizens United, and even the “romantic industrial complex” has found a home within the Occupy framework.
The catalytic power of these platforms is stunning. Though I saw wildly inspiring speeches from a range of voices last week, it was a dispatch from TEDx Director Lara Stein that gave me bona fide goose bumps. As she showed pictures and told stories of audiences all over the world, soaking up locally sourced knowledge, I felt like I was glimpsing the future. If you build a platform, they will come.
In some ways, it’s dumbfounding: Why would people feel that they need the TED brand to create an interesting event in their local communities? But in our increasingly chaotic, complex lives, the organizing force of the TED brand is calming and brings clarity. It’s also legitimizing.
TEDx organizers all over the world are essentially leveraging the reputation of the TED brand to have the conversations they want to have and to draw the crowds they want to speak to. For college students and young people struggling with global unemployment, TED helps counter the claim that they’re too young or too inexperienced. For citizens living in countries with idea-averse governments, those three big red letters signal that an international ally is watching.
For everyone who takes on the TEDx organizer title, it becomes a source of authority and a gateway into a global community. There were more than 250 TEDx organizers at TEDActive this week, from all over the world, including Argentina, Germany, India, Israel, Japan, Lebanon, and Pakistan.
Some might argue that something like Occupy is a far more virtuous container, but in some ways, a multimillion-dollar entity like TED giving up this kind of control and having this kind of influence in the world is actually more radical. Both Occupy and TED are providing a slab of stone on which modern day Michelangelos can carve out the inspired forms of their biggest ideas. Chip away the elitism and the anti-elitism, the private jets and the urban tents, the standing ovations and the “human microphone,” and what remains is what everyday people believe we need to say about the state of the world. Now that’s a platform worth spreading.