It’s an evolution that was instrumental in TED’s success but has become increasingly manic (this week’s event is billed as “full spectrum”: more multimedia than ever). TED says that it posts on its website only the talks that get the highest audience ratings. And so, just as the conference itself struggles to keep its attendees continuously entertained amid growing competition, there exists another arms race inside the auditorium: TED speakers who want their talks posted online are keenly aware that they need to deliver. This has resulted in what Chris Anderson might call TEDster-accelerated innovation, as speakers strive to one-up each other with their onstage stunts. It is not easy, considering that past TED Talks have included a presentation from space and Jill Bolte Taylor holding a glistening human brain with the spinal cord attached. In 2009, Bill Gates, giving a talk about malaria, released mosquitoes into the auditorium.
Even usually dignified penseurs succumb to the dog-and-pony spirit—it’s too valuable a platform not to. My Taste3 talk was posted on ted.com, and while it has enjoyed middling success compared with the most popular TED Talks, it has been translated into 32 languages and viewed over 400,000 times on TED’s website. (At a house party in Fort Greene, not long ago, I was recognized by a man who had just viewed my talk as a podcast on the subway over.) For those whose talks go seriously viral, their lives can be transformed. “People like me have a shocking amount to gain,” says a journalist who, since speaking at TED, could earn a living solely from speaking gigs. “It’s impossible to overestimate the impact it’s had on me.”
The speakers seemingly most affected by their talks on ted.com are academics previously unknown outside their specialties. Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of international health, had researched in obscurity before being asked to speak at Davos in the mid-aughts. He was then approached by TED. At first, Rosling declined; TED sounded frivolous, and he considered himself a serious scholar. But he was eventually won over by the invitation to be “a part of the future,” and his talk, in 2006, was a small miracle of popularization, bringing to life inert data like comparative infant-mortality rates with animated statistics-visualization software coded by his son. (Onstage, Rosling narrated what the audience was watching as if he were calling a horse race.) When TED later asked him for permission to put the talk online, he again declined, because he was put off by the BMW ad that would accompany it. Again, he was won over. That talk is now one of the most watched videos on the TED site, with more than 3.6 million views.
Since then, Rosling has overcome his ambivalence and given seven additional talks at TED conferences. In his second, he unbuttoned his dress shirt to reveal a lightning-bolt T-shirt and swallowed a sword. Most recently, he made a case for the washing machine as a socially transformative invention. Collectively, his talks have been viewed more than 8 million times. Rosling has calculated that his TED Talks have garnered more “hours of attention” than his entire preceding life’s work. He has largely given up teaching to work full time on his nonprofit, non-advocacy Gapminder foundation. “TED changed my life,” Rosling says. And not just his: After Larry Page saw Rosling’s first TED Talk, Google acquired the software and ended up hiring Rosling’s son.
Until recently, the universal self-actualizing creative ambition was to write a novel. Everyone has a novel in them, it was said. Now the fantasy has changed: Everyone has a TED Talk in them. There are people on YouTube who upload webcammed soliloquies about whatever and title them things like “My TED Talk.” There’s now even a genre of meta–TED Talks. For a TEDActive talk in 2010, Sebastian Wernicke, a statistician, crunched the data of extant TED Talks to reverse-engineer both the best- and worst-possible talks. Elements common to the most popular TED Talks, he determined good-humoredly, included using certain words (“coffee,” “happiness”), feeling free to “fake intellectual capacity and just say et cetera et cetera,” and growing your hair long. He created an app, the TEDPAD, a kind of TED-omatic that can generate “amazing and really bad” TED Talks.
If TED’s platinum brand is at risk of becoming a generic, it has been with the full support of the brand’s owner. As the TED Talks online uncovered a far-flung global yen for idea videos, TED’s TEDX program, in which the company grants would-be curators licenses to organize local mini-TEDs, has been unexpectedly popular. Since it launched in March 2009, there have been more than 3,000. There has been a TEDX Hunstville (Alabama), a TEDX Timisoara (Romania), a TEDX Gujranwala (Pakistan). There is now one TEDX, and usually more, every day somewhere in the world.