TED, the granddaddy of all tech summits, is on a path to becoming a global brand.
For most of its 25 years, TED (for "technology, entertainment and design") was an exclusive, seaside gathering of a few hundred of the globe's top techies and thinkers. Al Gore trotted out his speech on global warming at TED in 2006, shortly before the issue became a worldwide cause. This year, Bill Gates illustrated the dangers of malaria by unleashing mosquitoes on the crowd.
Now its organizers are building an international following by aggressively expanding the show. This week, a TED conference in Oxford, England, marks its expansion into Europe. A show in India is set for November. If all goes well, there will be some 300 smaller regional shows, called TEDx, in the U.S. this year. The first was at USC in March. TED organizers hope TEDIndia paves the way for similar regional events in India. Some 500 "TEDTalks" videos are available for free downloading or viewing on YouTube and Facebook.
"It's become more global, more philanthropic and riskier," says venture capitalist Roger McNamee, a TED attendee the past several years. "And it is now a 12-month enterprise."
The new shows build on changes that TED curator Chris Anderson has already instituted. A few years ago, he introduced the TED Prize, designed to motivate audience members to do something socially significant. Winners of the $100,000 prize include Bono, former president Bill Clinton and Cameron Sinclair, founder of Architecture for Humanity. And in 2007 Anderson started making videos of TED sessions that can be downloaded free from the Net. The videos have been viewed nearly 145 million times, more than half from outside the U.S.
Fans say the downloadable talks can have a powerful influence. College student Sol Tran says a speech on poverty motivated him to learn more on the topic and write two papers. "TEDTalks make you think," says Tran, who is considering hosting a TEDx event at his school, Santa Clara University.
TED is the rare tech confab that has become an enduring worldwide brand — unlike trade-show casualties such as Comdex and PC Expo. Both shows were victims of sagging attendance and rising costs, say tech analysts such as Roger Kay, president of Endpoint Technologies Associates.
"It is about faith in the power of a good idea," says Anderson, who acquired the show in 2001 and has extended its reach and scope. (Although he shares the same name, he is not the same Chris Anderson who is editor of Wired magazine and author of the book The Long Tail.)
"We're interested in the truth, or people on a journey to find the truth, and how different parts of knowledge fit together," he says. As curator of TED, Anderson oversees a staff of 45. The New York-based non-profit charges $2,000 to $6,000, depending on the conference, to attend a TED. Profits are invested in projects such as the free distribution of talks on ted.com and the TED Prize. TEDx events are free, although small contributions are accepted.
The first TEDx conference, on the USC campus in March, drew a capacity crowd of 1,200 students, faculty and business leaders. For half a day, they were entertained by talks such as the use of music for peace and a performance by Melissa Etheridge.
In bringing TED to the masses, Anderson relocated the main show from Monterey, Calif., a few hundred miles to Southern California to accommodate more people. The larger venue in Long Beach accommodated more than 6,000 at the February event. "It was like going from horse-and-buggy to car," Anderson says. "But it was necessary because TED was so elitist."
The arc of TED
TED has come a long way in a short time. The eclectic show used to be an exclusive party among the rarefied ranks in the seaside hamlet of Monterey. "It was the dinner party I always wanted to have but couldn't," says Richard Saul Wurman, an architect and graphic designer who founded TED in 1984. He succeeded wildly.
The convergence of thinkers has led to noteworthy outcomes. A 1992 meeting of journalists Louis Rossetto and Jane Metcalfe and Nicholas Negroponte, founder of the Media Lab at MIT, led to key funding from Negroponte for the launch of Wired magazine. "That was the magic of TED — fortuitous meetings outside the presentations leading to unforeseen and sometimes remarkable outcomes," Rossetto said in an e-mail.
It was at TED that the Macintosh was seen for one of the first times, in 1984. (Apple CEO Steve Jobs, however, has yet to attend.)
Since Anderson took over, he has infused it with a sense of social purpose. In February, oceanographer Sylvia Earle addressed the plight of oceans and aquatic wildlife. The talk was so good, one TEDster — Addison Fischer, an inventor and investor — donated $1 million. She also won a TED Prize.
Dictionary evangelist Erin McKean argued for a change in "the form factor" of dictionaries during a TED presentation in 2007. Her speech led to funding from McNamee that helped her create Wordnik, a website devoted to the "discovery of words."
"People actually paid attention at the conference," McKean says. "They weren't staring at their laptops during my presentation." She spent five minutes talking to Lostcreator J.J. Abrams about mechanical pencils. "It was kind of Dadaist."
"It's about spreading great ideas and making a profound impact on society and the greater world," says Cyan Banister, editor-in-chief of Zivity.com, an adults-only social network. She now considers herself a "TED person for life" after attending it for the first time in Long Beach.
When invited, she was asked to fill out a questionnaire listing her personal achievements and their impact on society. Upon arriving, she — like others — was encouraged to interact with other attendees. "It is a creative catalyst," she says. "People say innovative, challenging, contrarian things. There are no scripted answers."
The globalization of TED has not come without some trepidation, however.
Some entrepreneurs want a nod to the past, and have discussed a simulcast of the Long Beach event in Monterey, where it all started. Max Levchin, CEO of social-networking applications maker Slide, is among those who someday hope to recapture the show's intimacy and "ocean" vibe.
"Monterey was fundamentally an overgrown dinner party where the very cool people were invited," Levchin says. "Maybe if enough people want a return to that, I'll do it."
TED says it has no plans for a Monterey event.
For the most part, though, most TED participants say they are happy with the show, as is Wurman.
"Chris Anderson has put together an amazing organization," says Wurman, who last hosted TED in 2002 but attended the Long Beach show. "My hat's off to him. I don't want to turn the clock back. He has taken the DNA I gave him, and transformed it in a positive way."
'Thou shall not sell'
TED was never intended to be a typical tech show. In many ways, it was the anti-trade show: a summit focused on the convergence of technology and entertainment, and on ideas colliding. While selling was the central theme at Macworld, Comdex and PC Expo, TED dabbled in intellectual curiosity.
One so-called TED commandment underscores its vibe: "Thou shall not sell." (Another restricts featured speeches to 18 minutes, to avoid long-windedness. Audience members can comment for three minutes.)
"Back in the day, we had execs but they were specifically told not to sell," Wurman says. "I remember when (former Microsoft chief technology officer) Nathan Myhrvold did not once mention Microsoft."
As tech becomes more mainstream with the sweeping popularity of iPhone, Facebook and Twitter, TED has transitioned with the times into a bigger brand, says Steve Case, the AOL co-founder who is now CEO and founder of Revolution, his investment firm.
"There will always be people who reminisce to how it used to be," Case says. "It's like a rock band. Someone who saw (Bruce) Springsteen in a club will long for that same experience after he moved to arenas and stadiums."
Anderson credits the show's increasing sweep and growing vitality to the resurgence of the dramatic talk, as exemplified by Gore's work on global warming in An Inconvenient Truth. (Gore delivered the same speech, before the documentary's debut, at TED in 2006.)
The art of live presentations "is experiencing a renaissance," Anderson says. TED is "like a campfire, with a camp elder sharing a story. There is no man in a suit and tie, reading behind a lectern."
"It used to feel like a gathering of the cool, trendy kids," says Jason Pontin, editor-in-chief of MIT's Technology Review, the world's oldest technology magazine. Today, he says, it is a "glossy, elegant piece of intellectual theater." After skipping TED a few years, he says he's decided the show is now "too big to ignore."
To be sure, the show can be esoteric, but it is still considered vital after 25 years — eons in Internet time.
"They can joust with windmills and lose focus (with some of their presentations), but this stuff never ceases to blow my mind," says McNamee, who has been to TED several times.
"It is brain candy," McNamee says. "For four days, you see and hear (stuff) that blows your mind."