Alongside the originality, there’s a large amount of copying. After the spread of BarCamps, TED launched its TEDX program. After PopTech started a fellows program in 2005, Anderson, who attended PopTech that year, launched a fellows program at TED. Similarly, TED followed PopTech in adopting subtitling, and TED openly acknowledges that it scouts speakers from other conferences. Usually, though, it’s others copying TED’s DNA. Many less-known conferences have aped its eighteen-minute-talk format. Somewhere between mimicry and originality is BIL (as in BIL and TED), which started in 2008 as TED’s jokey stalker conference, held at a venue near TED on overlapping dates. (One of the first BIL talks was “How to Crash TED.”)
For people devoted to the ethereal buzz of cool ideas, the conferentsia can turn surprisingly catty. “What the Clinton Global Initiative is selling is the opportunity to stand up and sanctimoniously pledge in front of the president,” says one conference rival. PopTech is “a light beer,” says another. TED is “musical theater,” says a third. Davos? “Numbing.” Aspen? “Excruciatingly boring. My grandmother would love Aspen.”
The animosity extends to business tactics. At PopTech one year, according to someone who was there, “Chris [Anderson] bounded onstage and invited everyone to speak at TED. It was hugely predatory.” Where other conferences have happily allowed TED to republish their videos as part of TED’s “Best of the Web” program, PopTech has refused. Some competitors see opportunity in TED’s very success. As TED has grown, its vaunted egalitarian vibe has given way to more hierarchy, with the ability to pay more to be in the front rows or jump the line, and exclusive VIP dinners and parties in the evening. “There’s a lack of authentic interaction,” says someone who has attended TED in recent years. And outside of the inner circle, says another TED refugee, “it’s the people you don’t want to see. It’s the weird executive recruiter who has an office in Singapore. Like, who let you in?”
In 2008, TED’s attendee list was leaked to Valleywag. Anderson implored site owner Nick Denton “as a decent person” to take it down; Denton, who probably doesn’t even consider himself a decent person, ignored the request and posted Anderson’s e-mail. The list was revealing. “If you look at it primatologically,” one TED attendee says, “it was originally designed like an eighteenth-century salon, where the very smart and the very rich pretend they have something in common for a very short time. But now there’s a very small cohort of smart people and CEOs—alphas—and a huge panoply of betas: senior vice-presidents. What’s fascinating is how many betas are in the room.”
Four years ago, in the middle of a book tour, I was invited to talk at a conference called Taste3 at the Mondavi family’s now-shuttered Copia center in Napa Valley. The event was organized partly by TED staff; I was slotted to speak for precisely eighteen minutes with no Q&A and no notes, and I had to talk about something completely different from my book.
I decided to expand on a magazine article I had recently written for which I sampled a series of fancy, coveted objects—cat-shit coffee, single-estate olive oil, white truffles, 1947 Cheval Blanc—that seemed of potential interest to the conference attendees. I rehearsed repeatedly, but as a hedge, I took steps to distract the audience from the talk itself. There would be slides. Pictures of a dog enjoying the luxury items. A gratuitous take-the-celebrity-down-a-peg video—Tom Cruise failing to open a Bugatti Veyron’s door at the MI: 3 premiere. I would wash my face, the morning of the talk, with a $125-a-bar “silver nanoparticle” soap.
As the conference progressed, I got increasingly nervous. One speaker after another regaled us with the amazing, noble, world-changing work they were doing—a bee expert on colony-collapse disorder, a vintner who had staffed a Japanese winery entirely with mentally disabled people. I was here to talk about the night I spent in a $64,000 bed. And then I spoke, and bang: Two minutes and 45 seconds into my talk, the first time I said something resembling a joke, the audience laughed. Then they laughed at some other things. I felt myself relaxing, even as the large digital clock facing me from the foot of the stage ticked toward the eighteen-minute cutoff.
Over the years, the TED Talk has evolved to possess a precise aesthetic, one that my tarted-up talk stumbled into. You can see the change by comparing the two TED Talks Anderson himself has given. In the first, from 2002, he is seated, and as a single camera captures his talk, he awkwardly keeps shifting his weight and touching his face. He has stage absence. Eight years later, his talk on “crowd-accelerated innovation”—the phenomenon responsible for, say, far-flung kids’ competitively honing their break dancing after watching each other on YouTube—should be the poster video for high production values and media coaching. With six cameras recording, and plenty of tight shots that play well on smartphones, a standing, gesticulating Anderson seems more confident. He wears a stylish outfit and is accompanied by entertaining images and video.