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Those Fabulous Confabs

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Wurman is an auteur of the high-concept meeting, of the conference for conference’s sake: His only goal was to create the world’s greatest conference. Anyone willing to pay could attend—first come, first served. His TED drew its exclusivity from its $3,000-plus cost and from being a pre-Internet, word-of-mouth phenomenon.

By the late nineties, Wurman was bored with TED and ready to sell. An attendee named Chris Anderson, a British entrepreneur who had built a successful hobby-magazine publishing company, approached him, and ultimately Anderson’s public company, Future Network, bought the conference for $14 million. Anderson proved a shrewd deal-maker: Two million dollars of the consideration was in stock, which immediately lost 97 percent of its value in the dot-com bust, and when Anderson left the company in 2001, he negotiated an exit deal in which his nonprofit Sapling Foundation bought TED from Future for just $6 million, a 57 percent markdown.

Anderson was the son of missionaries. He was born in Pakistan and studied at Oxford. He had something very different in mind for TED: Under his leadership, the conference would serve a higher purpose. At first, this meant a more earnest mix of subjects—the plight of the oceans, the tragedy of child soldiers in Sierra Leone—that drove some eye-­rolling TED loyalists to stop attending. Bemoaning that TED had become “so elitist,” Anderson moved the conference from Monterey to a much larger venue in Long Beach; at the same time, though, he doubled the price, quadrupling revenues while making the conference even more of a rich person’s game. Anderson also instituted a restrictive new door policy: Now you had to be invited or fill out a humiliating application soliciting proof that you were a TED-caliber human. But Anderson’s real breakthrough, the one that turned TED into a global media brand, was the launch of TED Talks online in 2006.

By several accounts, there was dissension within TED about the idea of giving away content online, with Anderson initially opposed. But the talks were so wildly successful, beyond all expectation, that Anderson began to see TED as more than a conference. It was a platform for the dissemination of ideas, or “ideas worth spreading,” as TED soon branded itself. “When you think of how you could make a difference in the world, with limited resources, one approach is to nurture ideas, to find a way of communicating them and shaping them so that they take on a life of their own,” Anderson told Charlie Rose in 2008.

In the six years since its launch, ted.com has added over 1,100 talks—the most popular TED-conference talks, plus TED-approved talks from other conferences and events. The most popular of these include Jill Bolte Taylor, a brain researcher, recounting the story of her own stroke; a British educator, Ken Robinson, bringing an effortlessly droll delivery to the argument that schools kill creativity; and David Gallo, an oceanographer, narrating underwater footage of bioluminescent sea creatures and crafty octopuses defending themselves. The idea that would prove more contagious than any other, though, was that of TED itself. Collectively, the TED Talks have been viewed more than 500 million times.

A few other websites, such as Big Think, have tried to target the same market, but none has come close to matching TED’s popularity. It’s all the more impressive when you consider that the engine of TED’s success—eighteen-minute nerd-bomb disquisitions—flies in the face of what is commonly understood about the Internet’s viewing habits: Shorter is better. Dumber is better.

When Anderson sharpened the talks’ length from a fuzzily defined “short” to eighteen minutes, he chose the arbitrarily precise time limit to keep speakers aware of the clock. But it ended up proving key to viral replication. “It turns out to be about the right length of time people can really stay focused,” Anderson told Rose. “It’s long enough to not be trivia—you can really say something serious and important in eighteen minutes, you can develop an idea and argue it—but it’s short enough … for people to put aside a bit of time, drink a cup of coffee, and watch the talk. That means it can spread.” Even Anderson’s push away from merely interesting ideas toward ones that can “make a difference” proved a boon to Internet contagion; while occasionally tiresome, the shift in emphasis turned the act of spending nearly a third of an hour watching a TED video into almost a virtuous deed; now you can run out the clock on your workday watching Elizabeth Gilbert talk about creativity and feel good about yourself. It may still be brain candy, but it’s consciously sourced, organic, locavore, vegan brain candy. Online, a zealous movement has grown up around the talks, with 8,000 volunteers translating them into 85 languages, and reverent TED fans unironically debating such topics as: “Do TED men set the new standard for ‘real men’?”


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