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This article was published on October 14, 2011

What I love, loathe and would change about TED

What I love, loathe and would change about TED
Alex Wilhelm
Story by

Alex Wilhelm

Alex Wilhelm is a San Francisco-based writer. You can find Alex on Twitter, and on Facebook. You can reach Alex via email at [email protected] Alex Wilhelm is a San Francisco-based writer. You can find Alex on Twitter, and on Facebook. You can reach Alex via email at [email protected]

It’s an important day in Chicago: the TEDxMidWest event is in full swing. An elite, more on that word later, crowd of people are currently packed into one of this city’s better theaters, listening to some of the world’s best talk about what they love.

I love TED. Honestly, I do. I’ve seen dozens of TED talks online, and have watched with great satisfaction as TED has spread its brand, effectively, under the aegis of TEDx program, allowing for the idea (of ideas) to seep across the world. I’ve never been invited to the original, official, TED in California, but I am now nifty enough to warrant an invite to the TEDs in my area. Color me tickeld.

Simply because there are more TED-flavored events does not mean that they are easy to get in to. Last year I only managed to attend the second day of the event, and several of my friends (excellent people that they are) actually volunteered at the function to ensure they could enjoy the show. This year I was invited in normal fashion, early, and in advance. I heartily accepted. There is some risk of brand dilution, as the university that I attend is currently working on TEDxUChicago (I know the people running it and doubt). But that remains a minor concern.

I want to deal with two issues today: Elitism, and livestreaming. Both are critical in regards to TED.

Too Cool

TED is too cool for me, mostly. I’m not welcome at nearly every TED event because I don’t matter at all. Fair enough, I know it is a fact, so I am hardly offended by it. Being honest with oneself is difficult, but remains mandatory. TED, however, has a massive history of being too cool for you.

Just dig back through the Sarah Lacy and Robert Scoble discussion on the topic. It’s well worth revisiting. So what is the issue? TED won’t let most people in, period, even if you are a cool kid from the press corp. That impacts me, just as it impacts you. I feel your pain. Once one is press, as it turns outs, it is very simple to become spoiled to special access and treatment (what do you mean there isn’t coffee in the press room?). TED helps to kill that. It doesn’t care about you.

And that is awesome. It lets TED do its own thing. Run its own show, and not worry about keeping us happy. Frankly, the idea of TED is all the best, for the best, and at high prices. Too bad for you and me. I honestly aspire to be an interesting enough person be invited to the main event at some point in my life. That I get to go to a smaller event is a welcome upgrade, however.

TED is a beautiful thing, and to make it available online as they do in video form is excellent of them. To give it away for free, as they do, is even better. And that brings us to our next topic.

Don’t Do It Live

TEDx events are sometimes livestreamed. TEDxMidwest is being streamed right this moment. So what? This means that instead of going to TED today I am at home, working, and partially watching. I should be there. But with a livestream how can I explain taking a whole day off, to my team, and bumming about a theater? But I am missing the magic. Scoble nails this:

First, the stage is hand built. During some talks my mind got a little bored (not every talk is interesting, one talk about spiders didn’t have the famous TED payoff and I found myself back in Chemistry class, learning stuff I probably will never use so my mind went elsewhere). My eyes started wandering around the stage. I looked at this stage for two days before I noticed a little model airplane hanging from the top. Did you see the stack of National Geographics at the front left? Or the microscope at the front right? Those details don’t sound important, but they weave together a fabric that encourages your mind to explore new ideas.

My guilt at leaving the office (my kitchen, natch) and going to TED is preventing me from enjoying it as I should. If there was no livestream, I would be there, in full zoot (shorts, sandals, and unshaven).

I want to make the case that TED should live as either a video archive, where the talks can be edited and filtered and brought to full impact, or be consumed while physically present, in a room of people, each interesting enough to buy dinner for just to ask them questions. Anything else is a degradation.

A final note, if you have never seen a TED talk, watch one this moment. Right now. Call in sick. Punch yourself so that your nose bleeds and you can go home. Something. But do it. Now. This remains one of my favorites.