Planet TEDx – WIRED

By Bill Wasik  11.16.12     12:00 PM

One afternoon this past spring, at the public library on Main Street in Bozeman, Montana, I sat in a room with 10 or so other people and watched a video projected on a screen. It was a TED Talk: a speech given the previous March at the annual TED conference in Long Beach, California, and then posted to the organization’s website,

 In the video, Eric Whitacre, a classical composer and conductor with blond surfer-dude hair, describes an online experiment he’d recently carried out. He posted the sheet music for one of his popular choral works, as well as a video of him conducting the work as a piano played along. Then he invited singers around the globe to perform their parts—soprano, alto, tenor, bass—in front of their own webcams. After hundreds of people responded with videos, Whitacre arranged them into a simulation of a real-life choir, with himself in front conducting. While showing this odd choral facsimile to the TED crowd, Whitacre explains that he was “moved to tears” when he first saw it—these singers “on their own desert islands, sending electronic messages in bottles to each other.” At that moment I turned to see the woman sitting next to me, a stern-faced Montanan in a dust-colored anorak, drying her own eyes.

When we think about digital communities today, we often visualize them in just this way, as online analogs of physical gatherings—as improvements, even, on their real-life counterparts, since Internet gatherings can bridge massive distances at minuscule cost while dispensing with all those sticky real-world inconveniences. And indeed, it’s tempting to see the recent evolution of TED itself in a similar light: By putting its talks online in 2006, what was previously a members-only affair—an annual Davos-like conclave of wealthy Silicon Valley and Hollywood types—suddenly became an enormous and almost democratic cultural force, reaching millions of viewers around the world.

The move online has undeniably transformed TED (the letters stand for Technology, Entertainment, Design) from a conference company into something more like a media company. Increasingly, the true audience for TED Talks is not the in-person throng but people staring at screens far from Long Beach. Much as we now use the word crowd (crowdsourcing, crowdfunding) to liken online collaboration to its physical analog, it’s tempting to consider TED, like Eric Whitacre’s choir, as a conference in a primarily virtual sense, with million-strong bleacherfuls of disembodied viewers twinkling in and out behind the real-life back row.

The truth, however, is far more interesting. Free online access is just one of two major initiatives that TED has undertaken to engage a wider audience. The other is fully physical and has equally changed the character of the organization. That initiative, called TEDx, began in 2008 as a way to bring TED-like gatherings to smaller communities. It quickly spread to cities and towns around the globe—1,300 so far, in 134 countries, hosting more than 800,000 people in total, many times more than have ever attended an official TED event. The video viewing I attended at the Bozeman library was not some random screening; it was an overflow simulcast of the inaugural TEDxBozeman, which had sold out its tickets in six days. Each event is required to show at least two videos from, but the rest of the speakers are in person, often local, creating a TED-style experience for places where “ideas conference” isn’t even part of the lexicon.

TED does place some restrictions on the independent organizers. The TEDx logo renders the x like an asterisk, with a tagline below that reads “x = independently organized TED event.” But in practice, TED has put its entire reputation in the hands of these organizers, if only because they’re so entrepreneurial and so plugged into their communities. These local showrunners recruit speakers unknown to TED central and coach them on how to present their ideas. The resulting one-day conferences draw huge crowds. For most of the world now, and even for most of the United States, these events are TED.

Chris Anderson (no relation to the editor of this magazine), a former media executive who has run TED since 2001, sees both TEDx and as in keeping with a larger philosophy of “radical openness.” But putting media online is a standard practice, whereas these satellite events have taken Anderson into entirely uncharted territory: He has given his nationally known brand away to thousands of complete unknowns, spawning independent TED events in cities and towns all around the world. Can “big ideas” really cover that much ground?

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