Aaron Sylvan

From the Digital to the Business World


TED Conferences finally large enough to invite ignorant criticism

Posted on Feb 22nd, 2012 in Ideas | 0 comments

Each of the 10 times I attended the TED Conference, it was the most wonderful four days of my year. For the years from 1997 through 2006, every February I drew fresh inspiration from 60 people who had each changed the world in a dramatic way.

TED Conferences logo sign (photo by Aaron Sylvan)

TED Conferences logo sign (photo by Aaron Sylvan)

Signing up for the exclusive event required a significant leap of faith; ticket prices were 3-4x what other 4-day activities might cost, and the tickets would be sold-out a year in advance. The speakers hadn’t even been announced yet! But having the opportunity to hear mind-bending presentations which had never been seen before… and then to actually meet and spend personal time with the presenters… was a mindblowing activity and an invaluable opportunity. So, did TED cost triple what “comparable” events cost? Not really, since there is nothing comparable.

The first few years I bought TED tickets, the price was more than three times my own rent — and I still couldn’t imagine a better investment.

Recently, I’ve been asked about the “#antiTED” hashtag and whether the event has “sold out” (meaning “become a representative of a corporate agenda”, not meaning “successfully completed the objective of filling its venue with interesting people”).

Has TED become different, in a bad way?

One blog critique in particular was called to my attention, written by someone who has never been to the event: http://thenewinquiry.com/essays/against-ted/. Note that the guy who writes an essay about an event he hasn’t attended… also posts the article with no place for comments.

There is none so blind as he who chooses not to see.

My open response to the “essay against TED”:

Well, TED has certainly changed over the years… Three years ago he wouldn’t have even known it existed, because only 800 people per year were able to have “the TED experience”. Through Chris Anderson’s generosity in opening the doors to the public, last summer they celebrated the 500,000,000th download of a TED Talk. (Guys, are you up to a billion yet?)

The Uninformed Essayist is right about one aspect of TED declining, but not in the way he means: To me, TED was better before people like him knew about it.

I liked it better when it was a much more selective group of people… 60 speakers and 800 attendees, most of whom changed the world in a major way, discussing their visions for the future and private stories of their journeys to greatness… all within a rarefied community that was exclusive enough and small enough for any attendee to spend personal time with the speakers.

Chris’ shift towards philanthropy has meant taking on corporate sponsorship to fund the media drive necessary to help disseminate these transformative ideas — so that even numbnuts like that blog author can enjoy the benefit of the wisdom of people whose accomplishments likely dwarf any he’ll ever make.

Even though I preferred TED as a private secret for a few elite, its brilliance has not been diminished… and I’m willing to set aside my own selfish interests for the global benefit of opening the dialog a millionfold.

It’s true that not all speakers will appeal to all listeners, and it’s also true that the independently-operated TEDx franchise events tend to attract less earth-shaking presenters than the main event… but I still think TED has become all the more extraordinary for the number of souls it has touched and the number of projects it has mobilized.

And, of course, an event hasn’t truly “made it” until people who have never been to it start feeling qualified to criticize it.

This year, I will be attending the 2012 TED conference, which will be my 11th time as an attendee since 1997. Follow at @aaronsylvan if you’d like to keep up!