TED’s Chris Anderson: The Man Who Made YouTube Clever – The Guardian
Carole Cadwalladr 16 July 2011
With his TED Talks series, the former magazine mogul Chris Anderson has racked up 500 million web video views for speeches by academics and technological experts. But that, he says, is only the start of an educational revolution.
A few minutes after Alain de Botton announced to a packed auditorium in Edinburgh that secularism needed to learn the lessons of religion and reintroduce the concept of the sermon, Chris Anderson, the head of TED, needed to fill a few minutes and asked for questions from the floor. “Is TED a new religion?” asked someone. “I can answer that,” he said quickly. “Absolutely not.”
And yet TED has brought back the concept of the sermon – 18-minute talks delivered by absolute experts in their fields. Five years ago, when YouTube started out, it was assumed to be where you went to look at cats that looked like Hitler, or people falling off skateboards, but TED Talks, with its short disquisitions on everything from neuroscience to creativity, has just celebrated 500m views on the site. By the end of next year, that figure is expected to reach a billion. In the month when the News of the World folded, Anderson has demonstrated that there is an enormous and still largely untapped appetite for actual news of the actual world.
But then, as media magnates go, he is about as far removed from the chairman of News Corp as you could imagine. He founded and made his fortune from not one, but two, media empires – first with Future Publishing, the Bath-based company he founded in the 1980s which exploited the appetite for computer and hobby magazines; and later in the US with Imagine Media, which at one time had 130 titles and 1,500 employees – but he is in many ways the anti-Murdoch. Not least because, apart from anything else, few people have heard of him.
However, as the owner of TED and its self-styled “curator”, he has become a sort of global “ideas meister“. Appearing at a TED conference, as more than 70 speakers did last week at TEDGlobal in Edinburgh, can have a transformative effect on an academic career. “We try to make our speakers look like rock stars,” says June Cohen, the head of TED Talks. To a large degree, they succeed. A talk by Ken Robinson, a fairly obscure figure by anyone’s standards, a Liverpudlian former professor of arts education at Warwick University, has now been viewed eight million times.
Is it a religion, though? Not yet, though it has its rituals – attendees of the conferences check their cynicism in at the door; standing ovations at TED seem, at times, like mandatory acts of obeisance rather than spontaneous moments of appreciation – and it’s not far off De Botton’s description of the Catholic church: “collaborative, multinational, branded and highly disciplined”. Anderson himself is the child of missionary parents, born in Pakistan and educated in India. He isn’t, he says, “an earnest do-gooder”, though Bruno Giussani, TED’s European director, who programmed TEDGlobal, notes that he can’t hide his optimistic nature.
Giussani got his job at TED after sending Anderson an email out of the blue suggesting some speakers. “He wrote back within minutes. It tells you a lot about Chris. He’s just very open to new ideas. He takes decisions quickly and he has the courage to do things that others wouldn’t,” says Giussani.
Things like the decision in 2005 to give away the content for free. Because what’s most remarkable about TED and its transformation into an international media organisation and a global force for the dissemination for knowledge is that it all happened pretty much by accident. When Anderson bought TED in 2001 on behalf of his non-profit-making Sapling Foundation, it was more like an elite supper club for the masters of the universe.
It was where Bill Gates came to rub shoulders with Al Gore and Sergey Brin and Larry Page, and the annual Californian conference still has that feel. And it’s not cheap: the 850 attendees of TEDGlobal had paid nearly £4,000 a pop. But in 2005, Anderson listened to his speakers – people who had talked about the Creative Commons and the way the internet could be a force for good – and he put all the talks online.