How TED Connects the Idea-Hungry Elite

By: Anya Kamenetz

September 1, 2010

TED, Speakers, Video, Bill Gates, Richard Branson

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."

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