Despite my best efforts, there was no way that I was going to actually manage to blog while I was still at the TED conference this year. I don't know how anyone can do it. I suppose that is why there was such an explosion of tweeting at TED -- you can do it on the fly. But if you want to sit down and write anything vaguely coherent, it takes time. And the TED conference isn't about free time. In fact, I managed to get about 10 hours of sleep over the last three nights of TED. But now that I am back and rested, I figured I'd tap out some thoughts.
As with every year, now that TED is over, the debate has begun -- is TED an elitist event that is nothing more than a party for the rich and self-involved? I am reluctant to jump into the fray on this one. Not because I don't have an opinion. Nor because I fear angering those who will see my defense of TED as ... well ... elitist. Mostly because I think this debate is pretty well trodden territory. In fact, Robert Scoble just wrote a great post on the issue called "The Elephants in the Room at TED." But before getting to the content of this year's excellent TED, let me share a few thoughts on the democratization of TED.
When I first started attending TED a decade ago, I was blown away by the people in the room. I was by far the smallest house on the block, metaphorically speaking (still am). In fact, I distinctly remember my friend Andrew Anker leaning over to me before the start of one TED session back in the early 2000's and saying:
Don't look now, but if this row blows up, the New York Times will report "7 people died today, five of whom were Herbie Hancock, Yo-Yo Ma, Frank Gehry, Rupert Murdoch and [someone amazing who I can't remember]."
The TED conference was a spectacular salon of interesting, thoughtful, brilliant people. I considered myself lucky to participate. And while the conference didn't go out of its way to be elitist, there was no question that TED was in fact a gathering of the elite (from Technology, Entertainment and Design). What's more, the only way that you could enjoy TED was to be a member of that elite (or, maybe, borrow the coveted DVDs made of the conference that were only distributed to the attendees).
But that all changed a few years ago. In 2002, Chris Anderson took over TED. He loved TED and wanted to nurture the fantastic stuff that had come before him. But he also wanted to add pieces of himself to the event. He cared about the discussion. And he cared about the community. But he also cared about the world. And about the ideas. So he brought in some amazing people to work with him on the event. And he did what great CEOs do (after all, he had been a wildly successful entrepreneur before becoming the curator of TED) -- he asked anyone and everyone how they would make TED a better experience. What's more, he listened.
As a result of those conversations, rather than tighten the elite nature of the TED conference, Chris sought to democratize it. The first, and most significant, thing he did was to opened up his archive of amazing talks to the world. At the urging of June Cohen, TED's digital media czar, Chris made TED.com the home of "Ideas Worth Spreading." And boy have those ideas spread. As of today, over 200M TED talks have been viewed around the world. What's more, the TED team has created a user-generated translation engine for the TED Talks which allows the talks to be translated into a vast array of languages. Today TED Talks can be viewed with subtitles in over 80 languages. And those numbers are growing in all dimensions.
The good-news/bad-news of the success of the TED talks was that, as the talks spread throughout the world, interest in the TED conference grew massively. Suddenly there was more intense pressure than ever on the TED team to accommodate a larger number of people at the conference itself. In response to that huge demand, Chris and team did several things. First, they moved the conference from its beloved home in Monterey to a venue that could accommodate a much larger number of attendees. Second, they created something called TED Active -- a separate venue in which hundreds more attendees could enjoy the conference in simulcast. Third, they created the TED Associate Membership which allowed people to watch the conference streamed live into their homes and offices. Anyone who wanted could be part of the TED "elite" and watch the talks in real time. While attending TED in Long Beach remains a tough ticket to get, thousands upon thousands of individuals now experience the TED conference in real time throughout the world.
The TED team was not content for their conference to involve only well-known thinkers and doers. They recognized that up and comers had a huge amount to contribute to the discussion. The result: the TED Fellows program. Some 40 young scientist, environmentalists, artists, musicians, magicians, designers... joined this year's TED conference on "scholarship." They presented their work in sessions before the conference and several joined the main stage during TED proper to describe topics ranging from the emerging tattoo culture to the future of scientific discovery. As the best of the TED Fellow talks make their way to the Web, the broader public will benefit greatly from what these emerging influencers have to say.
But perhaps their boldest and most democratizing move the TED team made was to lend the TED brand to independent gatherings. The TEDx program was launched about a year ago. Under the TEDx moniker, hundreds of TED-like programs have been hosted around the world -- from TEDxBuenosAires to TEDxBrisbane to TEDxBudapest. These independent gatherings bring the power of TED to a local level. While it was a huge risk for TED to allow these independent events to carry the TED brand, the impact has been nothing shy of spectacular. The TED conference experience is literally everywhere now. In fact, if there isn't a TEDx event being put on in your community, grab the bull by the horns and start one yourself. TED is yours for the making.
I know that it is easy to point to the $6,000 price tag of TED and cry elitism. And it is hard to deny that attending the TED conference in Long Beach is a lucky privilege that can only be lived by a small number of people. But Chris Anderson and the TED team have done everything in their power to democratize the TED experience. They coined the phrase "Ideas Worth Spreading" and are living by it. They have worked tirelessly to make the TED and these "Ideas Worth Spreading" accessible to the largest number of people possible. TED is not about elitism. TED is about the democratization of ideas -- a powerful goal which Chris and his team continue to pursue maniacally. For that I am grateful.