TED, perhaps the world’s most beloved nonprofit organization is gearing up for its annual 4-day conference in Long Beach, in California where the world’s leading thinkers and doers give 18 minute talks.

The 26-year old organization shares its TEDTalks online, for free and also produces its TEDGlobal conference, the TED Prize, TEDx conferences, and the TED Fellows program. This month, TED launched its latest initiative, TED Conversations, a social and connective, Quora-like platform for the TED community, which includes more than 15 million monthly users.

Screen shot 2011 02 25 at 3.50.22 PM June Cohen talks about TED Conversations, its new social platformThe experience of a TED conference isn’t just about the talks, it’s about the people you meet in the hallway, the sparked discussions over a glass of wine in the lobby and the follow-up questions you can ask speakers at dinner. So as TED Talks, which have surpassed 400 million views, inspire online viewers around the world, TED Conversations act like a virtual hallway, lobby or dinner party for “Ideas Worth Spreading.”

I had the immense pleasure of interviewing TED Media’s Executive Producer June Cohen to discuss the nonprofit’s new social media driven initiatives and the future of TED Media.

87380 291x218 June Cohen talks about TED Conversations, its new social platformCBM: How did the idea for Conversations evolve?

June Cohen: TED conversations grew out of two different needs and requests we were hearing from our global audience. They wanted a way to connect with each other and also to act on the ideas that were brought up in the TED Talks. They needed a venue and forum to do so. Similarly, we had requests from the conference attendees for a way to continue the conversation after the event.

We are moving TED.com into a more social platform. We want to create the complete TED experience online. What people really take from the conference is only partially based on the stage program.

CBM: What is the most interesting conversation you’ve observed or participated in?

JC: One conversation particularly comes to mind, led by TED speaker Jane McGonigal, a games designer. As a thinker, she is an ambassador for the gaming community, helping people understand what we get from games. She started a debate, stating that as a species we’re spending 3 billion hours a week playing games. She then wrote: Is it worth it? She invited gamers to come in and discuss what they get from games and then asked non-gamers to ask questions.

CBM: Which TED speakers have been particularly active in Conversations?

JC: Hans Rosling, a Swedish professor of Global Health, who we call our “TED rockstar”; Seth Godin, author of Permission Marketing and Tribes; Technologist Kevin Kelly; and Tim O’Reilly, who runs O’Reilly media started a great conversation saying, “The future is already here its just not evenly distributed.”

CBM: TED Conversations are divided into three categories Ideas, Questions and Debates. Why choose to divide up conversations by categories and not topics?

Screen shot 2011 02 25 at 5.19.39 PM June Cohen talks about TED Conversations, its new social platform

JC: We were trying to answer the question, “How do you inspire great conversation online and how do you create a forum in which ideas can be exchanged?”

Certain kinds of conversations and ideas need different types of framing or shaping. Some ideas are a chance for a vigorous debate. Other times, you just want to ask a question. The types of categories respond to the different way people respond to ideas. Meanwhile, I’m fairly conflict averse so I’m less likely to enter into a spirited debate. I’m more of a brainstormer and I like to shape ideas and be in a collaborative setting. So some people want a vigorous discussion, others thrive on brainstorming.

Conversations are moderated by a community manager who reaches out to TED members when they are out of line, encouraging them to act otherwise as opposed to simply deleting comments.

*TED does tag conversations by subject so users can search for specific topics such as “architecture,” “alternative medicine” or “clean energy.”

CBM: Unlike Quora, TED Conversations have an expiration date. This is the first time online conversations have had a time limit. What inspired this decision?

JC: The idea was pitched to us by Clay Shirky when we were talking to him about what could make this venue work. We loved it. A TED talk is limited to 18 minutes, so it makes sense that Conversations should also be limited.

Aside from the fact that most of the people in the TED audience are pressed for time, there’s a philosophy behind the limit that brings out users’ best contributions. The notion of scarcity and time limit drives interest, in the same way Gilt Group has been successful in the retail space.

Once Conversations close they will be archived and available online in view only mode. We hope those will become a valuable tool to our community as well.

CBM: How do you envision TED Conversations evolving?

JC: Simple things will make them more engaging such as email alerts, notifications and allowing people to follow their friends and specific conversations. We will also be integrating Facebook and Twitter.

In one month, we will provide multilingual support to complement our TED talks, which are now available with 15,000 translations thanks to TED’s Open Translation Project, which allows volunteers worldwide to translate TEDTalks into their own languages. Since we launched in May 2009, we have more than 2,000 translators working in 80+ languages.

Also coming soon, we will be geo-tagging conversations. Locations will not be based on the user’s location but the conversation topic. So, if you’re having a conversation about New York City or Lima, Peru, it will be easier to use the platform on a local level.

CBM: What’s in the future for TED Media?

JC: Since we first launched TED talks, we’ve see ourselves as platform independent. In fact, we designed our production systems so that TED talks could be watched on any platform. YouTube is a really clear player for us to spread our content virally. We launched TED Books a month ago, which are short, digitally based books. We have an official TED iPhone app coming next month. We have a Boxee app and will be staying ahead of the curve on Web TV platforms. We recently partnered with Hulu and our TED Talks will be viewable for free soon on Hulu.com. Keeping up with media, means keeping up with a moving target. Media habits are changing so quickly today.

Horse8 748244 220x154 June Cohen talks about TED Conversations, its new social platformCBM: Can you give me any peaks at this week’s upcoming conference, TED2011, “The Rediscovery of Wonder,” which will be held February 28-March 4, 2011, in Long Beach, California?

JC: We’re really excited about the lineup this week. We have a number of excellent speakers in both the sciences and the arts. We have the founders of the Handspring Puppet Company who’ve made slightly larger than life-size horse puppets to be manipulated by puppeteers; Felicia Wolf Simon, a female scientist, will be speaking about her recent shocking discovery of arsenic based lifeforms; We will also have Morgan Spurlock, the documentary filmmaker who created Supersize Me, recently directed The Greatest Movie That Ever Sold, which was ironically the first movie to sell at Sundance this year.

CBM: What is your favorite TED talk of all time?

JC: I shouldn’t play favorites, but I will. It was Wade Davis on Endangered Cultures. The single most beautiful sentence ever uttered on the TED stage was in 2003 when I was an attendee of TED.

“Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind.” – Wade Davis

Context: “When each of you in this room were born, there were 6,000 languages spoken on the planet. Now, a language is not just a body of vocabulary or a set of grammatical rules. A language is a flash of the human spirit. It’s a vehicle through which the soul of each particular culture comes into the material world. Every language is an old-growth forest of the mind. A watershed, a thought, an ecosystem of spiritual possibilities.”

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The launch of TED Conversations marks a major step in TED.com’s evolution as a social platform. I highly recommend checking out the site; I promise it will be time better spent than in any other social forum.

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