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How TED Connects the Idea-Hungry Elite

Inside the World’s most exclusive and most accessible club.

Inside the World’s MOST EXCLUSIVE (and Most Accessible) CLUB with SPECIAL GUESTS including

Elizabeth Gilbert • Richard Branson • Jamie Oliver • Malcolm Gladwell • Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala • Barry Schwartz • Ken Robinson • Sarah Silverman • Bill Clinton • David Byrne • Bill Gates • Craig VenterJill • Bolte Taylor • Dave Eggers • Sharmeen Obaid-Chinoy • Sunitha Krishnan • Tony Robbins • Julia Sweeney • Isabel Allende • E.O. Wilson • and the chief himself, Chris Anderson!

The other day, I got an email from a new friend. The subject line read “Are you a TED talk person?”
It linked to an 18-minute video of MIT behavioral economist Dan Ariely talking about the bugs in our moral codes. Other friends have sent me videos of Eat, Pray, Love author Elizabeth Gilbert on the spiritual dimension of creativity; rocker David Byrne on how venue architecture affects musical expression; and UC Berkeley professor Robert Full’s insights into how geckos’ feet stick to a wall.

Each of these emails is like a membership card into the club of “TED talk people.” I love being a member of this club. The videos give my discovery-seeking brain a little hit of dopamine in the middle of the workday. But just as important, each one I see or recommend makes me part of a group of millions of folks around the world who have checked out these videos. What links us is our desire to learn; TEDsters feel part of a curious, engaged, enlightened, and tech-savvy tribe.

These two things — great ideas and the human connections they create — make TED a unique phenomenon. Other conferences, such as the World Economic Forum in Davos and D: AllThingsDigital in Rancho Palos Verdes, California, have similar elite A-list rosters. But TED, which takes place annually in Long Beach, California, is the only one that fully exploits the power of what you might call, with apologies to Cisco, the human network. In the nine years since publishing entrepreneur Chris Anderson bought TED, it has grown way beyond a mere conference. By combining the principles of “radical openness” and of “leveraging the power of ideas to change the world,” TED is in the process of creating something brand new. I would go so far as to argue that it’s creating a new Harvard — the first new top-prestige education brand in more than 100 years.

Of course TED doesn’t look like a regular Ivy League college. It doesn’t have any buildings; it doesn’t grant degrees. It doesn’t have singing groups or secret societies, and as far as I know it hasn’t inspired any strange drinking games.

Still, if you were starting a top university today, what would it look like? You would start by gathering the very best minds from around the world, from every discipline. Since we’re living in an age of abundant, not scarce, information, you’d curate the lectures carefully, with a focus on the new and original, rather than offer a course on every possible topic. You’d create a sustainable economic model by focusing on technological rather than physical infrastructure, and by getting people of means to pay for a specialized experience. You’d also construct a robust network so people could access resources whenever and from wherever they like, and you’d give them the tools to collaborate beyond the lecture hall. Why not fulfill the university’s millennium-old mission by sharing ideas as freely and as widely as possible?

If you did all that, well, you’d have TED.

Its “faculty”: A roster of speakers that runs from Bill Clinton to J.J. Abrams, from Desmond Tutu to Isabel Allende — anyone who’s driving change across the globe. Their topics range from biophysics to graphic design, covering all that Roman playwright Terentius might have had in mind when he said, “Nothing human is alien to me.” The economic model? With attendance fees, advertising, and corporate sponsorships, TED ran an operating surplus of more than $2 million last year, which was reinvested into expanding its reach.

That’s because unlike fearful old-school colleges, TED is finding that the more open it is, the more it becomes the global education brand of the 21st century. The runaway success of the TED talk videos, Chris Anderson tells me, persuaded him “to completely rethink what TED was, from a conference to a platform for ideas worth spreading.” When you frame your mission in those terms, transformation follows. TED’s Open Translation Project has in the past year made its videos truly accessible to a global audience; 3,100 community volunteers have translated the videos into more than 77 languages, adding a potential audience of 2.2 billion people. Anderson has gone even more radical, doing something that few universities would ever consider: He has started licensing the TED name and video content to anyone who wants them — for free. The result: In just the first year, with comparatively little input from the mothership, TEDsters from around the world have put on 615 independent conferences, called TEDx, in locations from Kiberi, Nigeria, to Amsterdam. “We’re exploring TED as a global classroom,” Anderson tells me. “It’s very much part of what we’re dreaming of.”

The story of TED goes back to 1984, when Richard Saul Wurman — everyone calls him Ricky — started the Technology, Entertainment, Design conference. As the former chair of the American Institute of Architects, Wurman had helmed the Aspen international design conference. But with TED, he says, “I just wanted to throw the world’s best dinner party.”

Wurman wrote the elegant, distinctive design rules that have been key to TED’s success: A single track of programming (“They think people want choice, but the people talking at the break don’t have a common memory and all feel that they went to the wrong session”); no Q&A (“Out of the first 20 questions you get, 19 are either speeches or bad questions”); and, most famously, an 18-minute-talk length. Wurman is Jewish, and 18 is a significant number in Judaism, representing the word chai, or life. But don’t bring that up with him. “It’s become mystical — it’s not fucking mystical,” he says. “Fifteen minutes would be trivial, too short. If you said 20, people would talk for 25; 19 seems perverse, 17 is a prime number, so I made it 18.”

Wurman, who’s a cross between Ricky Jay and P.T. Barnum, turned TED into a three-ring circus of ideas. (One year, in fact, a Barnum descendant handed out red noses to attendees.) “I had the stage decorated with Norman Lear’s copy of the Declaration of Independence valued at $25 million here; a couple million dollars’ worth of Chihuly glass there; a cast of the head of Sue, the big dinosaur from the Field Museum, in Chicago,” he remembers. “I had animal acts with live snakes and cheetahs. I kissed a brown bear that was as tall as I was. I had magicians and I had jugglers and I also had Nobel Prize winners and Bill Gates and Billy Graham and the Google guys when they were just two kids from Stanford — everybody you could think of.”

With that kind of mix, speakers (who have never been paid, but don’t have to fork over the $6,000 admission fee) would hang around for the entire week, mingling with celebrities, writers, moguls, and their moms in a marathon bull session. These days, TED’s atmosphere is more Sundance than circus, but the bull session still thrives. And that’s something, sadly, that you won’t find on a conventional college campus. “I teach really smart kids,” says Swarthmore professor Barry Schwartz, whose TED talk on the paradox of choice was based on his best-selling book, “but mostly I’m teaching them. Maybe once or twice a year, some particularly sophisticated, talented, imaginative kid will come up with something I haven’t already thought of.” The same holds true, he says, of his fellow faculty. “The problem is I’ve been in this place for a long time and after awhile you develop this lazy attitude that you no longer have anything to learn from your colleagues. You withdraw into your own cocoon. Well, people who come to TED are open to being changed by their interactions and conversations. They’re in an environment where they’re going to learn something new every five minutes. You could create something like that on a college campus, but generally that doesn’t happen.”

It’s “networking extraordinaire — just a total bonanza,” says Cyndi Stivers, editor of Entertainment Weekly‘s EW.com. And out of that networking comes action. Wired magazine was born there. An Inconvenient Truth got a big push at the conference. Researchers and not-for-profits find sponsors; writers and scholars find agents and publishers; Web geeks find a path out of obscurity. Esra’a Al Shafei is a 23-year-old from Bahrain who runs an online hub for journalism and free expression called MideastYouth.com. In 2009, she was made a TED Fellow at the TEDGlobal conference in Oxford. “TED gives you a sense of credibility,” she says. “I’ve been running Mideast Youth for four years, but before the fellowship, nobody talked about it.” TED connections have led her to sources of technical and moral support that helped her launch CrowdVoice, which tracks voices of protest around the world.

In 2007, biologist E.O. Wilson won TED’s annual prize, a $100,000 grant intended to make a world-changing wish expressed from the TED stage come true. Wilson and his team are creating an open biodiversity database called the Encyclopedia of Life. But if you ask them, their TED connections have been even more important than TED’s money. Microsoft and Adobe loaned programming expertise, and the high-profile ad agency Razorfish made an award-winning four-minute video of the project. “We’re constantly getting messages from people who have heard about us from TED,” says Bob Corrigan, the project’s acting deputy director, “and their energy has made real contributions.”

This is exactly what Anderson hoped for when he bought TED in 2001. “I showed up there in 1998 for the first time,” he tells me, “and basically fell completely in love with the conference, the people attending, their willingness to think big, crazy thoughts. From my point of view, it felt like something you could devote your life to.”

Like TED, Anderson himself is a blend of technology, shiny entrepreneurialism, and do-good zeal. As the son of a missionary doctor, he grew up in Pakistan, India, and Afghanistan, and as an adult he sold two tech-related publishing companies. After purchasing TED, he changed its status from for-profit to not-for-profit, and went about trying, in Wurman’s words, “to save the world.” According to Bruno Giussani, a former journalist who now directs TEDGlobal, “Chris believes in the fact that when you put smart people together into a room, they tend to engage, and he wants to use that to make a contribution toward a better world.”

The most important thing Chris did,” says EW.com’s Stivers, “was take this inward-looking, exclusive dinner party, and have it face outward.” The TED videos best manifest this about-face, yet they’re an idea that almost didn’t happen. June Cohen, executive producer of TED Media, says, “Friends of mine thought this was professional suicide. It was not at all obvious that there was an audience for taped lectures online.”

Think of online video and what’s the first thing that comes to mind? Piano-playing cats? Lady Gaga? Maybe Paris Hilton? The instant popularity of TED talks might say something more promising about both our collective consciousness and our collective attention span. Cohen tells me, “When we launched, the example I used to help size the opportunity was a Malcolm Gladwell podcast that had been downloaded 40,000 times. Actually, the talks were watched 10.5 million times in the first year.” People emailed Cohen from all over the world, saying that they had shared a video with their entire address book, or that they’d watched a video with tears running down their face. That passion reset TED’s mission. “Within three months, we relaunched ted.com and realigned the entire organization around this mission of spreading ideas,” says Cohen.

It was a risk. Would lecturers who typically pull down five-figure fees agree to sign release forms and give their speeches away online? Would attendees grumble about sharing the secret sauce? “Releasing all the content to the world for free had the potential to capsize our business model,” Cohen says. Not so. TED first put the talks online in 2006. “That year,” she says, “we increased the fee for the conference by 50%, and sold out in one week with a 1,000-person waiting list.”

If you visit ted.com today, you’ll find more than 700 talks. The most popular clock 5 million or 6 million views apiece, and are backed by advertising from sponsors such as IBM. “It is absolutely amazing,” says Nicholas Negroponte, who spoke at the first dozen TEDs. “I met a man in South Africa recently who told me that his wife is angry because he is spending all his time with a ‘mistress’ ” — that is, the TED talks.

TED talks appeal to some needs a little further up Maslow’s hierarchy than Paris Hilton’s video, but they’re not steamed broccoli. “Most staged presentations,” as Cohen says, “are filmed like a high-school musical.” TED uses multiple cameras, ready to catch a close-up when Bill Gates decides to unleash mosquitoes on the crowd to demonstrate a point about malaria. It edits out throat clearing, aiming to grab the viewers’ attention in the first 30 seconds. Its techies are expert in what Cohen calls the “black art” of encoding video in various formats — an embeddable player, streaming video, YouTube, podcast.

One thing that it does have in common with the Hilton video is that when a TED talk goes viral, it changes the star’s life. Just ask Jill Bolte Taylor, whose video about her spiritual awakening following a stroke went online in 2008. “My name was placed on Time‘s Most Influential list for 2008,” she says. “Oprah saw the video and interviewed me immediately for her Webcast Soul Series. More than a dozen book publishers saw the video and wanted to republish my self-published book, My Stroke of Insight. It was a remarkable six weeks.”

Kevin Kelly, journalist, visionary, Wired brain truster, and TED veteran, puts it best: “This is a new genre of communication. Now, just like people running to The New Yorker with short stories, there’s this global competition to do the perfect 18-minute TED talk.”

Sure, these talks have their limits as an educational medium. An 18-minute presentation, no matter how expert, can’t accommodate anything overly theoretical or technical — the format is more congenial to Freakonomics than economics. Sometimes the earnestness threatens to overflow, while trendy technophiles and bullish business folk are often too slick. And there’s a more fundamental problem with the model: In the age of free, members of TED’s virtual faculty don’t get rewarded directly for their contributions. They must have a foundation, a consulting business, a book, or a job at a traditional university — something else to do that ugly work of monetizing their ideas, even as the videos bring TED money from sponsorships.

Nevertheless, the videos are finding their way into classrooms across the world. After posting on Twitter, I heard from educators using them to teach 10th graders at a private school in Arlington, Virginia; MBA students at Indiana University; and even a freshman seminar built entirely around TED talks at the University of Mary Washington, in Virginia. And thanks to volunteers like Anour Dafa-Alla, an Arabic-speaking Sudanese PhD student who lives in Seoul, the Open Translation movement has subtitled 10,000 videos in just one year, bringing them into global classrooms too. This year, 61% of ted.com traffic is from outside the U.S., up from 49% in 2009.

Let’s stop to review. With the best minds, an experiential aspect that doesn’t burden the venture with ridiculous overhead, a business model that works, a brand name that creates great opportunities for alumni, and a fantastic way of disseminating this learning to the world, TED seems pretty far along in creating a 21st-century education model that’s open, yet high in prestige. So what’s next? And what’s still missing?

“When we put the talks online for free,” says licensing director Lara Stein, “the brand was increasing in visibility. The concept was, how can we leverage the power of that and allow people to create something with it?” Stein, previously at Microsoft, championed the idea of allowing the community to create spin-off conferences called TEDx. She established a short-and-sweet set of guidelines designed to affirm the balance TED has always sought between intellectual freedom and quality control. TEDx licenses are free. Events can’t be longer than a day. At least 25% of the content must be existing TED talk videos. Local speakers must be recorded, with the videos released to ted.com and also to a YouTube channel. If more than 100 people are to attend, one of the organizers must have attended TED proper and “experienced the TED DNA,” as Stein says. Live by those guidelines and you too can set up a TEDx event.

Anderson told me that the response has been overwhelming. “We thought we might get a few dozen and that they’d be small. Instead, we’re getting 20 every week, and the ambition is breathtaking. Jeff Bezos was knocked out by [one]. He was saying it’s an astonishing phenomenon. It’s not exactly a franchise — there’s really no direct obvious precedent.” The TEDx events have been on all kinds of themes in all kinds of places, from Sydney and Tel Aviv to the Great Wall, a village in Rajasthan, an American school for the deaf, and a shantytown in Nigeria. Last spring, people stranded in London because of the ash cloud created by Eyjafjallajökull organized a TEDx Volcano in 24 hours, and TEDx Oil Spill took place in Washington, D.C., in response to the BP Deepwater Horizon disaster.

I gave a talk at TEDx Atlanta this May, on the future of higher education. The other talks were meaty, and as promised, the networking was even better. I hit it off with fellow speaker Gever Tully, who runs an unusual camp called the Tinkering School. I went to visit him later on the cloudy northern California coast. We played with cardboard and copper wire, as his students do, and he showed me a catamaran designed and hacked together out of PVC pipe by grade-schoolers, as we talked over future plans to collaborate. The experience drew me further into the learner-centered education movement. The Atlanta event was one of three organized by Tod Martin, president of Unboundary, a strategic and brand consultancy in Atlanta that has FedEx and Coca-Cola as clients. “It’s more of a self-governing system than a TED-governed system,” he says. “But people police the brand reverently once they’re entrusted with it.”

Giving the store away so successfully has softened even some of TED’s harshest critics. In 2008, veteran tech columnist Sarah Lacy wrote a much-noted BusinessWeek piece called “Why I’m Fed Up With TED.” Now, Lacy says, “From what I’ve seen on the ground, TEDx is doing a better job of walking the TED talk of including people from more underprivileged backgrounds in this conversation. I hope that continues. That is way more meaningful than a bunch of famous people sitting in Long Beach together and comes closer to actually changing the world.” Even Wurman, who dismisses TEDx as “amateur night at the circus,” says that the one he attended was of high quality.

That said, TEDx remains nerve-wracking for the TED team. “One of the mantras of management for the past 20 years has been that you must be obsessive about protecting your brand,” says the European director, Giussani. And frankly, there are any number of ways that risk could backfire. What would happen if a TEDx event hosted a junk scientist or a hate-spewing cleric, or had a misfire like the Sarah Silverman debacle this February? (She gave a crude talk at the Long Beach TED conference, Anderson promptly tweeted his disapproval, and TED had its first celebrity fiasco.) And what would happen if TEDx events, by their sheer numbers, start to decline in prestige and excellence? It’s hard to see how organizing, participating in, or attending one can give someone the same caliber of contacts or reputational boost as doing the same for TED proper. How can you keep up quality control if you let everyone play?

I don’t know the answer. What I do know is that you have to admire an organization that has consistently doubled down on its philosophy of trusting the power of connected individuals and great ideas. “It is truly a new model,” Stein says, “this willingness by a community to volunteer and change the world through education, and leveraging the platform to do that. There’s nothing I can point to quite like it.”

That’s why I’m not surprised by TED’s next move, which is to help its global community connect online. Global Conversation, which launches this fall and is sponsored by GE, is a set of tools that will allow people to hold conversations and plan meetings through ted.com. “Those tools will have a great impact, by empowering conversations and connection,” says Cohen. “That’s part of what fascinates me about working at TED: We’re catalysts. What happens when you create a platform that can be used by people in a way you never predicted?” The answer, so far, is bold and promising. Here’s hoping that promise is fulfilled.

[Video: Graphics and editing by Adam Barenblat]

About the author

She’s the author of Generation Debt (Riverhead, 2006) and DIY U: Edupunks, Edupreneurs, and the Coming Transformation of Higher Education, (Chelsea Green, 2010). Her next book, The Test, about standardized testing, will be published by Public Affairs in 2015.