Had any bystanders witnessed the attack on Duncan Davidson late one evening three years ago, they could never have guessed its epochal significance. It was a February night in Long Beach, California, and Davidson was walking to his hotel after a long day of work. West Ocean Boulevard was unusually dark. The streetlights were out. The sidewalks, thickly over-treed, were invisible from the road. As Davidson made his way through the gloom, a man grabbed him from behind and said, “I need your badge right fucking now!”
Dangling from Davidson’s neck was an all-access staff badge for TED, the four-day ideas conference he had been hired to photograph. TED is best known for its eclectic eighteen-minute talks, videos of which often go viral online, and the expensive and clubby annual event where the talks are given. Davidson was also carrying a backpack containing cameras and lenses worth tens of thousands of dollars, but it went ignored. The man squeezed tighter. “I don’t want to hurt you, but I will,” he warned.
Davidson thought quickly. At this hour, it would be difficult to notify everyone that a violent, credentialed TED impostor was at large. The attendees included famous people like Bill Gates, Al Gore, and Meg Ryan. Davidson told the mugger he couldn’t give him the pass.
“No, you don’t understand,” the man said. “I’ve got to get in there and meet those people.”
“I made the decision,” Davidson recalls, “that I don’t have arms, but I have legs.” With the guy hanging on his back, Davidson dragged himself toward the street. As they reached the curb, the mugger let go and took off running. From behind, Davidson saw that he was a professional-looking man wearing jeans and a light jacket.
The Long Beach Police Department seemed doubtful of Davidson’s description. “The police kept asking,” Davidson remembers. “They didn’t want to believe it was a well-kept white guy. They really thought it had to be an itinerant or gang type. It was cognitive dissonance.” The attack perplexed Davidson too. This was an attempted identity crime the likes of which the world had never seen—the strong-arm theft of an ideas-conference badge—and he was the first victim. “It’s easy to think that money is the currency of the world,” Davidson says, “but there are other currencies.”
In January, in Davos, Switzerland, global leaders—prime ministers, central bankers, Mick Jagger—gathered for the annual World Economic Forum, the planet’s most high-powered schmoozefest. Simultaneously, in Lake Tahoe, 650 twentysomethings and their fellow travelers were hanging out with Questlove and the president of Georgia at Summit Series, an event focused on networking and social entrepreneurship. And this week, in Long Beach, a more tech-savvy crowd will convene for TED 2012. The high season of the ideas conference is upon us.
At least since the early seventies, when Davos was founded, there have been exclusive gatherings that mix fizzy ideas with major-league networking. The eighties gave rise to Renaissance Weekend, for a largely political crowd; Allen & Co.’s Sun Valley retreat, for media machers; and an early version of TED, for the titans of the converging worlds of (as the organizers had it) Technology, Entertainment, and Design. But recent years have seen a furious proliferation of these status events. There’s PopTech, FOO Camp, the Clinton Global Initiative, Solve for X (Google’s conference for “moonshot thinking”). And beyond the higher-profile events, a lengthening tail of gatherings you’ve never heard of like the Feast, Do Lectures, the 99% Conference, and Techonomy. All promise much the same thing: a velvet rope to keep out the attitudinally unwashed, serendipitous interaction, quirky content, and at least the illusion of egalitarian elbow-rubbing. They have their own vocabulary, too. These are “thought-leader gatherings” where “rock stars” emerge from their “silos” to learn about “disruptive” ideas that have been carefully “curated.”
The appeal is complex. For would-be world-savers enthralled by “the power of ideas,” these conferences are a stand-in for “a time when governments did shit, like put people on the moon,” per one curator. For even die-hard technologists, interacting via disembodied avatars gets old, and occasional 3-D mingling is refreshing. For a certain prosperous tier of the citizenry, the conferences serve as a higher-brow Learning Annex. But most simply, these events are about establishing and reinforcing new hierarchies. In a culture where social rank is ever more fluid, an entrepreneur who overnight goes from sleeping under his desk to IPO-ing into a billionaire needs a way to express his new status, stat. “We don’t have castles and noble titles, so how do you indicate you’re part of the elite?” as Andrew Zolli, PopTech’s executive director, puts it.
Thus the rise of a cohort of speakers and attendees who migrate along the same elite social-intellectual trade routes. Throw in Sundance and SXSW and Burning Man, and you get what Michael Hirschorn has called “the clusterfuckoisie,” tweeting at each other as they shuttle between events. This is so exactly the sort of thing that David Brooks lives to break down into one of his fictive comic-sociological characters that, in his latest book, The Social Animal, he describes Davos parties as “rings of interesting and insecure people desperately seeking entry into the realm of the placid and self-satisfied.” But Brooks is himself a leading citizen of the realm, having spoken at TED and, regularly, the Aspen Ideas Festival. For public intellectuals with books and brands to promote, the new conferences are force multipliers, unpaid gigs that offer intangible yields. “Obviously it’s not the money,” Brooks says. “For me, it’s the chance to get out of my political-pundit circle and meet people I wouldn’t otherwise meet. There are psychic rewards.”
Of all the gatherings, it’s TED, which might as well be the official event of digitization, that has acquired an outsize cultural footprint. Giving a talk at TED, the technology journalist Steven Levy has written, is “a rite of passage for an Internet-age intellectual.” The conference makes the Stuff White People Like list. In last year’s The Muppets movie, the character Scooter is updated to be a Google employee and TED attendee. And just as Davos is darkly symbolic to those who believe the world is controlled by 300 people, TED is uniquely able to stir up the Internet’s latent intellectual-class resentments. To attendees, or “TEDsters,” as they refer to themselves, tweeting from behind the velvet rope is a chance to camouflage pride as wonderment. From the 2011 conference, Ashton Kutcher shared that he was “jazzed to be here” and “Wow.” To speakers, filing a dispatch from TED is the jackpot of false modesty. “As I was stepping onstage,” Eboo Patel blogged in 2008 in a classic of the genre, “I thought to myself, ‘Literally everyone in the audience is smarter than me.’ ”
André Balazs could come up with an even more lucrative nightclub by studying TED’s marketing model: Create a Boom Boom Room that not only won’t let you in but also videocasts what’s happening inside so you’ll know exactly what you’re missing. Imagine, further, that everyone in the club is miked, so you hear them going on about how “amazing” it is and how “combined our contacts reach pretty much everyone who’s interesting in the country if not the planet,” as TED’s curator, Chris Anderson, told one TED crowd. TED Talks, curated clips of the eighteen-minute lectures that are gathered on ted.com, have become today’s Cliffs Notes to sounding smart. They are, despite their length and seriousness, some of the most popular material on the Internet.
TED is now on something of a populist kick. Three years ago, it spun off a franchise version of itself, called TEDX, of which there have been thousands so far. Last month, it announced a global American Idol–style search for speakers for next year’s main conference.
To judge by TED’s remarkable success, we may well be living in a golden age of ideas, a time not just of counter-counter-counterintuitive concepts but of their exhilarating democratization. Yet it’s also possible to see in TED’s recent growth strategies the marks of desperation and dilution. With more and more conferences fighting over the same speakers, sponsors, guests, and ideas, the sustainability of the movement has begun to look increasingly tenuous. Might there be a cap on the number of interesting ideas in the universe? “Then it becomes Coke and Pepsi,” says Jolie Hunt, the global head of PR for Thomson Reuters, who has gone to virtually all the big status confabs. “Then it becomes: ‘Whose curation, whose guests, whose audience is better?’ ” Or, as Zolli says, “What’s happening to the whole category is it’s all becoming commoditized. The secret sauce has been fully digested. There’s a general feeling of replication and fatigue. Most of this conference explosion will die.”
Richard Saul Wurman lives at the end of a gravel drive in Newport, Rhode Island, on the old Firestone estate called the Orchard. He and his wife mock the area’s Waspiness with his-and-hers license plates that read MOMSEY and POPSEY.
Wurman is an impish 76-year-old designer and professional pattern recognizer. He was a protégé of the modernist architect Louis Kahn, coined the term “information architect,” created the Access city-guide series, and invented TED. Jay Walker, the founder of Priceline and current owner of TEDMED, a health-care conference Wurman also founded, told me Wurman is “clearly a genius by several different measures.” Perhaps above all, Wurman is a theorist of conversation, and a couple of months ago I went to have one with him. We sat in an outbuilding that housed both his “receiving office” and his “winter greenhouse,” where his banana and hibiscus plants were sitting out the cold weather. Over green tea and sushi, he told the story of TED.
The first, in Monterey in 1984, was a bust. Only 300 people came, and Wurman had let half of them in for free in order to fill seats. By 1990, when he held the second TED, the convergence of T. E. and D. among the California elite was further along, and the conference was a hit. It became an annual event. Wurman emphasized short talks, and eschewed podiums, because they covered speakers’ genitals. We were sitting at a glass table now, he explained, for the same reason, “so we are vulnerable to each other.”
Wurman’s TED was an animated curiosity cabinet. It included the ultimate insider show-and-tell, with early viewings of the Macintosh, the Segway, Shrek. It had talks both mind-bending (mathematician Benoît Mandelbrot on fractal geometry) and whimsical (former Microsoft executive Nathan Myhrvold on “how dinosaurs fuck”). “Larry and Sergey” first publicized Google in a TED talk. A hallway conversation at TED led to the creation of Wired. A few celebrities, like Michael Douglas and Herbie Hancock, were always on hand to glam things up. “Doing the conference was just sort of doing everything I felt like doing,” Wurman recalled. “It was like being a child being able to say what I wanted to have happen. ‘I’d like a juggler. I’d like a magician.’ ”
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’?”
The feeling that you may have just boarded a Scientology cruise ship is not accidental. It’s rooted partly in Silicon Valley’s techno-Rapturist soil, and partly in Anderson’s own evangelical yearnings. Those invited to speak at TED are mailed an actual stone tablet engraved with “The TED Commandments.” (One is “Thou Shalt Not Sell From the Stage.”) June Cohen, who runs TED’s media operation, told an audience two years ago that her sister-in-law calls the TED Talk “a secular sermon.” The atheist Daniel Dennett suggested that TED could “replace” religion, observing that it “already, largely wittingly I think, adopted a lot of the key design features of good religions,” including giving away content.
At times, the piety grates. Gabe Rivera, creator of the news aggregator TechMeme, tweeted during the 2010 conference: “Learning today that many of my friends at #TED are anti-slavery. I’m proud of them and admire their outspokenness.” After comedian Sarah Silverman riffed at TED 2010 that her wish to adopt a terminally ill “retarded baby” made her an “amazing person,” Anderson, who had invited her, tweeted to his million-plus followers that she had been “god-awful,” and AOL co-founder Steve Case tweeted, “Shame on you.” (In an ensuing tweet war, Silverman schooled both Anderson—“a barnacle of mediocrity on Bill Gates’ asshole”—and Case—“should be nicer to the last person on earth w/ an AOL account.”)
But such flaps are sideshows. TED has not only cracked the Internet’s popularity code and established a preeminent status marker for the digital economy; it’s also a money machine, aggressively introducing premium pricing ($125,000 for “patron” privileges), brand extensions (TEDGlobal, TEDActive), and other new sources of revenue (TEDLive, a conference webcast), while taking in an estimated minimum of $23 million per conference.
Over coffee in Dumbo, Andrew Zolli is laying out his theory of dolphins and whales. Whales, he explains, are large, slow-moving, well-known entities. Or, as Zolli says, “Whales are boring as shit. Does anyone not know what Bill Gates thinks about the world? Does anyone not know what Bono and Clinton think?”
PopTech is interested in dolphins, less famous innovators like Jay Keasling, a synthetic biologist who has found a way to genetically modify microbes and accelerate the production of a cheap anti-malarial drug and is now working on using the same process to generate biofuel. “Fuck yes,” Zolli says, “sign me up.”
Though Zolli doesn’t say it, PopTech, a scrappy contender in the ideas-conference game, is a dolphin, too. Founded in 1996 by a group including former Apple CEO John Sculley and Ethernet inventor Bob Metcalfe, the PopTech conference is an annual innovators’ gathering with a decidedly more intimate feel than TED. It’s held in an old opera house in Camden, Maine. Lights stay on, so it doesn’t feel like a show. The swag is modest. If TED is a launchpad for the marketing of memes, PopTech brands itself as a network for converting those memes into action. PopTech’s “theory of change,” Zolli says, is that by fostering collaborations between “new disrupters” and “new forms of capital,” PopTech can “accelerate the edge.” (For instance, since 2007, through its Accelerator program, PopTech has gotten its hands dirty guiding several projects, most impressively a game-changing anti-HIV/AIDS initiative in South Africa.)
In the ideas-conference boom, everyone is staking a claim. At the Aspen Ideas Festival, well-heeled empty-nesters congregate to hear people like Thomas Friedman featured on broad-topic panels like the future of Israel. Summit Series is the anti-Aspen, targeting twentysomething entrepreneurs, 1,000 of whom last year paid $3,500 to spend four days on a cruise to the Bahamas. The event featured glow sticks, condoms, Russell Simmons–led yoga, a shark-tagging excursion with Timothy Ferriss, and talks on philanthrocapitalism by people like Richard Branson and Peter Thiel.
Jay Walker, who bought TEDmed last year, is moving it from San Diego to Washington, D.C., in April and wants to turn it into the Davos of health care. FOO Camp, short for Friends of O’Reilly, brings a geek-heavy group to the Sebastopol, California, campus of Tim O’Reilly’s O’Reilly Media, where they pitch tents and design their own “unconference.” There’s no preset agenda, and the attendees spend the first night filling in an empty grid with a program they design on the spot. (One year featured a spontaneous group disassembly and reassembly of someone’s Prius rental.) BarCamp is a free, open-source foo Camp knockoff co-founded by a disgruntled foo Camp veteran. A few years ago, David Hornik, a venture capitalist and frequenter of status gatherings, noticed that he spent all his time at them yakking in the lobby. Thus was born the Lobby, his invite-only annual gathering that sidelines the traditional “content” and expands the informal social aspect into an entire conference devoted to it.
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.
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.
The Babble Bubble: A HistoryPhotos: World Economic Forum (Davos); Ron Frehm/AP Photo (New Yorker) ; Joi Ito (Foo); Auberjon/TED (TEDX); Courtesy of Picnic (Picnic )
Julianne Wurm, the organizer of New York’s TEDXEast, has attended TEDXes in Colombia, Kenya, and seventeen other countries as part of her own academic research into how ideas spread and has come to see that “these events make you feel intellectually and emotionally elevated. There’s research about how if you hear a good idea, you feel as if you’re part of the co-creation of it.” But if that explains some of the audience appeal of TED, the speaker appeal of TEDX is slightly different. “People can become little heroes and celebrities locally,” Wurm says. And there’s always the seductive hope that your TEDX talk will get posted on
But with so many events competing for similar speakers, there’s a natural unevenness to the quality of TEDXes. People who’ll jump at the chance to speak at TED sometimes balk at invitations to speak at TEDX. When Jason Johnson, an entrepreneur, was seeking speakers for TEDX San Francisco in 2009, Malcolm Gladwell turned him down. “His exact words were: ‘The time I would spend preparing for and speaking at your event I could be working on my book, which would be more beneficial to me,’ ” Johnson says with no trace of resentment. Nassim Taleb, author of The Black Swan, spoke at TED in 2008 but was upset that his talk wasn’t posted online and later called the conference “a monstrosity that turns scientists and thinkers into low-level entertainers.” Now his website specifically implores TEDX organizers not to ask him to speak at their events. “I think TED has overfranchised,” says Reuters’ Jolie Hunt, who joined PopTech’s board in 2010. “There are not that many interesting undiscovered people left in the world.” She compares the state of the TED talent pool to America’s Next Top Model. “I look at these girls, and you can tell it’s season ten or twelve because they’ve all figured out how to get noticed.”
You could hear the air hissing out of the bubble on a Saturday in November, at TEDX Montclair, in New Jersey, where a local psychologist gave a reasonably interesting talk about lying-related brain research. Because of a technical video problem, he had to repeat the talk verbatim. He was considerably less enthused the second time, as was the audience forced to fidget through it. And both times, the speaker was plainly aiming for some of Jill Bolte Taylor’s glory when he reached into some Tupperware and pulled out … a glistening human brain. There was no chance it would merit inclusion on ted.com, though. There wasn’t even a spinal cord attached.
What happens when the idea of ideas worth spreading gets spread thin? What happens when the concept of innovation itself becomes stale? One person who thinks he has the answer is TED’s originator, Richard Saul Wurman. In the years since Wurman sold TED to Anderson, their relationship has been high drama, with alternating acrimony and rapprochement. While Wurman is quick to credit Anderson for his achievements (“I am amazed truly at what he’s done”), he has continued in interviews and speeches to issue backhanded compliments (“I think TED is the greatest conference of the twentieth century”) and fronthanded insults (saying the eighteen-minute format is now “ungenuine”). Anderson, somewhat understandably, has been antagonized. Last year, Wurman, having gotten his TED ticket and booked a hotel room, suddenly found himself disinvited. “He won’t let me back in,” Wurman says. “I love TED. I was very hurt not being able to go last year. I’m unforgiving about that.”
Rather than stewing, though, Wurman is planning four new conferences. Prophesy-2025, in 2013, will be about the future. Geeks and Geezers Summit, in 2014, will pair young and old. fedmed, in 2015, will be about global health. But the one he is most focused on right now is what he calls the WWW Conference, which is scheduled for this coming September. Completing his new-TED dis, Wurman envisions WWW as “the first great 21st-century conference.”
The title stands for lots of w words like wealth, war, and water. Wurman has already lined up more than 50 speakers—many of them, it’s hard not to notice, TED veterans—including Steven Pinker, Arianna Huffington, Julie Taymor, David Blaine, and David Brooks. He will pair them off and put one of 33 premises to each pairing, then have them talk about it in a kind of “intellectual jazz.” Wurman is especially excited about “a new modality” he is working on, an app through which you and I will be able to access the conference content in a Siri-like fashion.
As much as WWW is a conference of the future, it seems a return in spirit to Wurman’s TED and a repudiation of Anderson’s. Wurman is stripping down a form he sees as having become overly packaged. Speakers will likely not know what they’re going to talk about until Wurman poses a question. There will be no time limit. “People will have a conversation onstage until I get bored.” And there will be no tickets. The only people at the conference will be the speakers, a guest each, and a few sponsors. “I’m having nobody come,” Wurman says, merrily. “That’s the ultimate ‘fuck you.’ ”
The Five Most Popular Talks Given at TED
1. Ken Robinson on Creativity
“By the time they get to be adults, most kids have lost the capacity to take a chance. They have become frightened of being wrong. Our education system has mined our minds in the way that we strip-mine the earth: for a particular commodity. And for the future, it won’t serve us.”
2. Jill Bolte Taylor on Her Own Stroke
“In the course of four hours, I watched my brain completely deteriorate in its ability to process all information. At first I was shocked to find myself inside of a silent mind. But then I was immediately captivated by the magnificence of the energy around me.”
3. David Gallo on Underwater Life
“Today we’ve only explored about 3 percent of what’s out there in the ocean. And in a place where we thought there was no life at all, we find more life, we think, and diversity and density than the tropical rain forest, which tells us that we don’t know much about this planet at all.”
4. Arthur Benjamin on Mathemagics
“I combine my loves of math and magic to do something I call ‘mathemagics.’ I know as a magician we’re not supposed to reveal our secrets. [But] without any more stalling, here we go. Now, 57 times 68 is 3,400 plus 476 is 3,876, that’s 38,760 plus 171, 38,760 plus 171 is 38,931 … ”
5. Hans Rosling on Stats
“I would like to compare Uganda with South Korea with Brazil. You can see that the speed of development is very, very different, and the countries are moving more or less at the same rate as money and health, but it seems you can move much faster if you are healthy first than if you are wealthy first.”