The cult of TED

From top left, clockwise: Hillary Clinton, Stephen Fry, empty TED chairs, TED delegates, Rory Bremner, Gordon Brown

Once a select forum of the great and good, the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference now has millions of avid online fans. How did an elite ideas-sharing gathering go mainstream?

Falling animals, misbehaving toddlers and footage of Justin Bieber may populate the bulk of any YouTube most-viewed list.

But amid the viral clips and pop music promos is a series of videos that seems to go against all received wisdom about what online audiences like to consume.

Their tone is sunnily optimistic, go-getting, Californian, with titles like Information Is Food, Crowdsource Your Health and Inventing Is the Easy Part.

They feature luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, JK Rowling and Bono delivering 18-minute lectures about big ideas - technology, culture, the environment, science, social trends.

Yet although there is nary a Lolcat in sight, the YouTube channel of the Technology Entertainment and Design (TED) conference has attracted nearly 112 million views.

Bill Gates in 2009 Bill Gates unleashed mosquitoes on a TED audience in 2009

The talks have a habit of catching on. TED attendees were given a preview of Al Gore's lecture on climate change lecture, later popularised in An Inconvenient Truth. Biologist Richard Dawkins' 2002 lecture on "militant atheism" laid the groundwork for the arguments set out in his hugely controversial book The God Delusion.

Others have entered the realms of the downright strange, such as when Microsoft founder Bill Gates unleashed live mosquitoes into the auditorium during a talk on malaria because "there's no reason why only poor people should have the experience" (the insects were not infected).

It's an impressive level of public interest in an event sneered at by detractors as an expensive talking-shop-cum-networking-event for latte-wielding, iPad clutching, West Coast blue-sky thinkers.

Indeed, the gathering at which the talks are filmed would appear to run counter to every principle on which the online era of interactivity is supposed to be based.

To attend the next TEDGlobal conference in Edinburgh from 25-29 June, potential attendees must apply for $6,000 (£3,700) annual membership.

Lectures are entirely one-way - delivered by the speaker to the audience with no question-and-answer sessions. But to be accepted, applicants must be judged likely "to be a strong contributor to the TED community, the ideas discussed at TED, and the projects that come out of the conference".

TED's top 10

TED sign

1. Ken Robinson on schools killing creativity - viewed nearly 11 million times

2. Jill Bolte Taylor's stroke of insight - viewed 8.7 million times

3. Pranav Mistry on sixth sense technology - viewed 8.3 million times

4. Steve Jobs on how to live before you die - viewed 8.2 million times

5. David Gallow shows underwater astonishments - viewed 7.4 million times

6. Pattie Maes and Pranav Mistry demo SixthSense - viewed 6.4 million times

7. Simon Sinek on how great leaders inspire action - viewed 5.7 million times

8. Brene Brown on the power of vulnerability - viewed 5.1 million times

9. Arthur Benjamin does "Mathemagic" - viewed 4.2 million times

10. Hans Rosling shows the best stats you've ever seen - viewed 4.1 million times

Viewing figures as of 20 June 2012 on TED website

However, internet users accustomed to open-access information seem scarcely put off by these barriers. TED has two million "likes" on Facebook and its own online social network, TED Community, with 120,000 members.

The answer lies in the decision by TED curator Chris Anderson in 2006 to upload videos of the event on its TEDTalks site as well as on YouTube and iTunes - opening up this unashamedly exclusive event to public consumption.

For many, indeed, TED has become more than just an online educational resource - it is a hobby, an identity, a key part of one's social networking profile.

Ray Willmouth, 33, a footwear buyer from Muswell Hill, north London, is typical of the conference's many Facebook fans.

A regular online viewer of the talks for four years, he cannot ever imagine spending thousands to attend an event in person - but he does enjoy being part of a community forged around ideas.

"People like to feel like they're part of a tribe," he says. "It's about how you identify as a person. I don't think that's a bad thing.

"I've heard people say it's a bit like a cult. But the difference between TED and being in church is that all the talks are verifiable by science - it's done within the spirit of critical thinking."

The first TED event took place in 1984. Since then, the non-profit organisation has branched out beyond its annual conferences (admission: $7,500, or £4,700) in Long Beach and Palm Springs, California.

As well as the yearly TEDGlobal fairs in Edinburgh, there are TEDIndia and TEDWomen events as well as a yearly $100,000 (£62,800) TED Prize. Fans are permitted to stage their own events under the TEDx banner.

TED audience The admission fee doesn't buy the chance to ask questions

"The paradox of TED is that it's the most elitist organisation for ideas and at the same time one of the most open," says blogger, academic and media consultant Jeff Jarvis.

This apparent paradox has been the focus of many critics. Despite this, TED's European director Bruno Giussani, who curates TEDGlobal, insists there is no contradiction between the ideals of openness and the price tag.

"The conferences are exclusive and expensive," he acknowledges. "But the revenue they generate pays for everything else.

"The web has expanded the amount of silliness out there but also the amount of seriousness. What TED reveals is that there's clearly a big thirst out there for different ways of sharing knowledge. This was under served and we tapped into it."

Not everyone, however, buys into the overarching philosophy of TED. A more cynical view is expressed in the Twitter feed @RandomTEDTalks, which offers "randomly generated" spoof titles (a sample: "Wearable Tech For Sexy Penguins", "My Dataset Channels The Power Of Awesome", "Let's Hide A Happy Secret In Orbit Around Saturn").

Others take issue with the very concept of a VIP event that less well-funded web browsers are invited to gaze into from the outside.

For social media theorist Nathan Jurgenson, the exclusivity undermines any lofty ambitions of idea-sharing.

"The basic idea of smart ideas being presented in a way that's accessible is a great one, but all you get from TED are the ideas of Silicon Valley," he says.

"It has a cultish feel to it. The speakers use a lot of terms like 'magical' and 'inspirational'. It's almost the religion of the knowledge class."

Certainly, there are overtones of the after-dinner motivational speech in many of TED's most popular talks.

But for its enthusiasts, the very fact it has induced such a wide audience to engage with often complicated ideas makes it a force for good.

"It is elitist, but thank goodness the best bits are there online for everyone to see," says philosopher Alain De Botton, who has delivered talks at two TED events.

Alain de Botton Alain de Botton has addressed the conference twice

"Unless you are a keen networker from Silicon Valley, the punters at home are getting the best bits."

And indeed, it's not difficult to conclude that the sense of belonging to a privileged elite is, consciously or otherwise, a significant part of the appeal for many ordinary TED fans with little prospect of ever actually attending a conference.

"They fancy themselves as smarter because they know TED," says Jarvis. "It's a status marker.

"You have the people who are inside TED, the people who are around TED - the fans watching at home - and people who are outside TED and mock it.

"Hasn't it always been thus? We always want to look through the keyhole and Chris Anderson knows that. It has increased the value of the brand."

If he is correct, then even TED's fiercest critics are a crucial component of the TED experience. The big idea juggernaut rolls on.


More on This Story

In today's Magazine


This entry is now closed for comments

Jump to comments pagination
  • rate this

    Comment number 118.

    I don't understand how people can really criticise this format at all. We are now in an age wear knowledge sharing is fundamental and with knowledge sharing comes out of the box thinking and ideas from people in all walks of life.

    I think the rather inspirational tone of many of the talks is a benefit and certainly not something to mark them down on. It is exactly that, which will inspire others.

  • rate this

    Comment number 117.

    I regularly watch a TED presentation as I have a quick lunch at the university where I am a Professor. I get new ideas and I find TED very interesting overall. Sharing bright ideas was a bright idea by itself. I learned about GAPMINDER and how to present statisticas to young people from TED, and I started using it in some of my statistics courses. I also explained it product design students.

  • rate this

    Comment number 116.

    I used to watch them - but the elitist pro-USA approach has turned me off and anyway the ideas they come up with are uninspiring, boring and often very corporate - I'd like to say that they have turned to GIGO.

  • rate this

    Comment number 115.

    The one good thing about these events is the fact that whilst those self-obsessed clowns are in an auditorium, they're not bother the rest of us who can't afford to fling money away on hot air. They all need to get a life and a real job.

  • Comment number 114.

    This comment was removed because the moderators found it broke the house rules. Explain.

  • rate this

    Comment number 113.

    Yes there's a touch of cult around it but I think it's still brilliant!

    And one way we web voyeurs are more priviliged than the attendees is that we can shut a talk when it's all style and no substance!

    One criticism I have of TED is that the heavy emphasis on presentation keeps out some truly brilliant minds who are not that at ease with presenting to large audiences

  • rate this

    Comment number 112.

    So it would seem that by 1/. criticising BBC / lefty darling Sir Jamie of Oliver and 2/. challenging the cosy consensus of smugness that underpins the chattering classes' latest moral crusade (obesity) I've earned myself the bottom-rated comment. Surely I can't be the only one who is tired of the O-word and the Left's constant banging on about it (200+ BBC and 150+ Guardian items in 3wks).

  • rate this

    Comment number 111.

    excuse me for being a bit thick but when i seen this headline i thought it was about father ted.

  • rate this

    Comment number 110.

    "They feature luminaries such as Stephen Hawking, JK Rowling and Bono"

    Bono on a pedestal next to Hawking? TED talks are watered-down versions of somebody else's reality and statements placing seld-serving dullards like Bono next to clever folk like Hawking are what many people find so utterly vacuous about TED.

  • rate this

    Comment number 109.

    No one with a sense of humour here then. . . . . . so i'll be off

  • rate this

    Comment number 108.

    So the BBC reports on TED and discusses the various strands of opinion about the organisation.

    Cue howls of outrage from the usual BBC-bashers. Why? For writing about TED?

    What on earth is wrong with you people?

    I'm fed up of listening to the frothing at the mouth ramblings of Beeb-bashers - you're so damn tedious.

  • rate this

    Comment number 107.

    What is controversial about Dawkins' "The God Delusion"?

  • rate this

    Comment number 106.

    Aren't these sort of knowledge and opinion sharing forums exactly the sort of thing that the internet was invented for? I may choose to disagree with what some speakers say or place little value to me on their chosen subjects, but I'm still glad that I can listen and make up my own mind. If some rich folks subsidize my viewing with their entry tickets, well jolly good for them.

  • rate this

    Comment number 105.

    2 Hours ago
    "Shame on the BBC for stopping their [OU course resources] transmission."

    The BBC didn't. The OU did as part of their move to more modern means of communication as they became more generally available. eg CD , DVD and now internet.

  • rate this

    Comment number 104.

    I found KhanAcademy through TED and for that alone I commend them. Like other users I'm using it less because it's hard to find the 'good stuff' now but when you do find a gem it's worth it. Agree with the less celebrities/more industry approach. I personally love the marketing stuff with Malcolm Gladwell and Seth Godin stuff, they guys deliver well and leave you feeling smarter at the end.

  • rate this

    Comment number 103.

    I'm not a BBC fanboy, but credit to the BBC where it's due.
    The Reith Lectures are excellent:

  • rate this

    Comment number 102.

    TED is superb. I personally have taken elements from TED talks and put them to action in my company to great effect. We're a UK manufacturer, growing & doing well, so we're doing something right.

    I also know of this ( fantastic visualisation of the global TED conference, done by another UK talent.

    Far from exclusive or narcissistic, I find TED open source and useful.

  • rate this

    Comment number 101.

    I discovered TED earlier this year, but the real problem with it isn't the exclusivity, it's the talks themselves. They don't actually say anything as no ideas are justified, and no evidence for or against the statement is ever given.

  • rate this

    Comment number 100.

    CULT/ELITISM!!! its about sharing ideas. anyone can access the web page and for the most part digest easy to follow, educated, interesting, maybe even life changing concepts. the source is irrelevant, of course the majority come from privileged background, but the information is free and designed to share enlightenment and make the world a better place.

  • rate this

    Comment number 99.

    So, Al Gore gives his prelude to "An Inconvenient Truth" and it's still a forum for ideas "verifieable by science"? What a bunch of cow methane. Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth is that he wants to use climate change to scare everyone into a global currency of pollution credits. Guess what people! Climate Change has happened millions of time and in short transition each time.


Page 7 of 12



BBC © 2014 The BBC is not responsible for the content of external sites. Read more.

This page is best viewed in an up-to-date web browser with style sheets (CSS) enabled. While you will be able to view the content of this page in your current browser, you will not be able to get the full visual experience. Please consider upgrading your browser software or enabling style sheets (CSS) if you are able to do so.