The Good, The Bad, and the TED is a lecture I wrote & developed for my upper-level elective course, New Media & TED. It provides an overview of TED's history as an organization without overlooking its criticism and controversy throughout the years. This talk encourages student ambassadors of TEDxUGA to act as conscious consumers and reminds them that it's okay and important to be critical of the things we love.
You can listen to a recording of the lecture in its entirety above or read the full script below.
The first TED talk I ever watched was Tali Sharot’s The Optimism Bias. It was my senior year of high school and my AP Lit teacher at the time, Mrs. Crawford, had decided to show us this video as a journal prompt.
The idea behind this TED talk is simple, but still very compelling. Humans tend to operate under this bias that we’re totally oblivious to: we overwhelmingly believe—even against all reason—that good things will happen to us.
In retrospect, this seems like an exceptionally bleak message to share with a group of seventeen-year-olds, particularly those in the midst of applying to college and pretty much obsessed with the idea of what will happen to them. So while I can’t remember exactly why Mrs. Crawford wanted us to watch this talk or what it was that she wanted us to journal about—I have always remembered this idea.
And bias or no bias, a few good things to did happen to me: I passed the AP Lit exam, I graduated from high school, and I began my freshman year right here at (you guessed it) the University of Georgia.
It was finals weeks of my spring semester and I had picked up a surprisingly good habit of watching TED Talks as a way of productively procrastinating. And in the midst of one of these study breaks, I got an email with the subject line “New NMIX Class for Fall.”
The email advertised a class called “New Media Event Curation and Management: Through the Eyes of TED.” Believe it or not, I had no idea what “NMIX” stood for and I had no idea that there were even classes offered at 5:00PM. Even so, the description promised that its student would experience a “new and powerful type of storytelling” and gain “practical event curation and management skills.” So, I was intrigued.
At that time in my life, you see, I was coming to the end of my freshman year and while I had certainly learned a lot about life in two semesters—I felt like I hadn’t learned all that much of it from school. I was feeling lost in the back of massive auditoriums taking notes on PowerPoint presentations that would be posted online anyways. It wasn’t at all what I imagined college would be like and quite frankly I was bored.
So I replied to this email and registered for “New Media Event Curation & Management: Through the Eyes of TED.” That fall semester was everything that was promised to me and a whole lot more. I learned quite a lot of practical skills (as you all know) like how to write an email, how to build a slide deck, and how to run a meeting. But most importantly, I felt—for the first time since I’d arrived at UGA—I had found a place where I could be myself and I had found a classroom that felt more like a home.
I enjoyed myself so much that I decided to retake the class again the next spring semester and the rest is, well, history. Today, almost five years later, I have lived through 10 semesters of this class and I’ve watched more than a hundred students just like you come and go.
And on the very first day of class, I warned all of them and all of you the very same thing: this class isn’t like anything you’ve ever experienced before. I also warn them that it’s also unlike anything that I’ve experienced before. It’s something that we have to reinvent a little bit each semester. That’s how it is planning events and working with presenters: we prepare as much as possible and then we prepare to be surprised.
But in the midst of that chaos and uncertainty, there’s a moment that happens and I can promise you that it happens every single semester…
It’s the moment when I can tell that a student has (for lack of a better phrase and because it’s the phrase we’ve all actually come to use) drank the Kool-Aid. And I know what it looks like to drink the Kool-Aid, because I most definitely drank it myself. And I can actually prove it, because I actually found my application to retake the TED class in Spring 2014 and this is what it said (in all caps):
“I LOVE TEDxUGA AND I LOVE THIS CLASS. PLEASE LET ME SPEND ANOTHER SEMESTER WITH YOU.”
So I understand what it means to drink the Kool-Aid.
I also understand the metaphor isn’t exactly a stretch. It takes a stiff drink to galvanize an entire global movement, and TED’s pretty much figured out. The cult-like appeal of TED is so great that a lot of people have compared it to a religion over the past ten years. I mean, there’s a rumor that selected TED speakers are mailed an actual set of stone tablets inscribed with TED commandments.
But I think there’s something to be said for taking a hard look at the Kool Aid before you toss it back. And I think to really understand TED (and by extension TEDxUGA) we have to look not just at one talk or one hundred talks—but at TED itself, its history, its controversy, its critics.
So I’m taking you on a journey into the good, the bad, and the TED.
What was Once an Annual Conference…
As Curator for TEDxUGA, I tend to spend a lot of my working hours talking TED. And I have learned to explain TED to outsiders as “What was once an annual conference has transformed into a global platform for sharing ideas blah blah blah…”
But, that statement kind of oversimplifies things and TED’s origin story is way too interesting for us to gloss over so easily. So we’re going to go all the way back to the beginnings of TED.
The TED conference was founded in 1984 by Richard Saul Wurman. Richard (who is still alive) is a pretty smart (albeit pretty weird) dude. He’s an architect and graphic designer by trade, but he’s also written over 83 books on totally random topics like retirement, raising children, urban planning, heart disease, and hats.
Today, he’s most well-known for coining the term “information architecture.” But back in 1984, Richard was noticing something happening in the world: the fields of technology and entertainment and design were all beginning to overlap. Now I know that for most of us in this room—this doesn’t seem that revolutionary of a concept.
But let’s remember this is 1984. 1984 is the year that the MTV Video Music Awards first premiere. It’s the year that Apple first sells a Macintosh. It’s the year that Mark Zuckerberg is born. This is the period of time when Silicon Valley is actually becoming Silicon Valley. In 1984, technology, entertainment, and design are starting to really change the world.
(As a side note: a lot of times we tend to mistake the E in TED for Education—but this makes sense now, right?)
Richard recognized that there should be a place for people to meet and discuss their ideas and hear short lectures about the intersection of these things. So he decided to host the first TED conference in Monterey, California in 1984.
For a first conference, the lineup was incredible—it featured a demo of the CD-ROM, the e-book, and 3D graphics. But even so, Richard considered it a bust. Only 300 people showed up and half of them hadn’t actually paid the ticket price—which was $4,000. So, the event lost a lot of money and Richard was understandably disappointed.
What he really wanted was for TED to be the greatest conference in the world and when it returned six years later in 1990, it kind of was. The TED conference was invite-only, and it gained a reputation for being expensive and exclusive and outrageous. It was basically a summer camp for adults—if summer camp had a lot more money, a lot more drugs and a little more sexual harassment. But that’s a talk for another day.
In the 1990s, TED was the room where it happened. It was where Larry Page and Sergey Brin first publicized Google. It was where they showed off the first Segway. Hallway conversations among attendees led to the creation of WIRED magazine and the MIT Media Lab. They actually screened Shrek for the first time! This was a place where interesting people were and other people wanted to be.
After about a decade of TEDs, Richard got bored. So in 2000, he negotiated a deal with a then-attendee named Chris Anderson. Now, Chris Anderson wasn’t a nobody—he had been invited to TED, after all. Born in Pakistan to medical missionaries, Chris was a very successful Oxford-educated serial entrepreneur.
And in 1984, Chris was across the pond having the very same epiphany as Richard. Fascinated by the home computer revolution, he had created a series of tech magazines under a publishing company called Future Publishing. By 1994, he’d become successful enough to move to the United States and create another publishing company called Imagine Media. And if you’re still unconvinced of his success, this is the company that created IGN, the world’s top source for gaming media. And if you’re not into gaming and don’t know what that is, then you might also know it as the company that owns Rotten Tomatoes.
Chris Anderson was a rich man and a smart negotiator. But in 2000, he was losing money in the dot-com bust and he was losing it fast—about a million dollars a day.
But still he believed in TED and he saw an opportunity. So, he negotiated a deal for his non profit organization (the Sapling Foundation) to buy TED for $6 million.
So in 2002, Chris Anderson became, as he called it, the Custodian of TED. He gave a talk at TED2002 that explained this new nonprofit transition. While I won’t make you watch the entire talk, I will give you a sneak peek it here — please note that he is delivering this talk while wearing a weird vest and seated in a rolly chair. My favorite line is this:
Jeff Bezos kindly remarked to me, ‘Chris, TED is a really good conference. You’re going to have to fuck up really badly to make it bad.”
Because we’re here in the future, we know that Chris Anderson didn’t fuck up the TED conference; in fact, he made it into a media empire. One of the things Chris discussed in this 2002 talk is how he wanted to extend the TED experience throughout the year, he wanted to make TED more than just the greatest conference in the world.
TEDGlobal, a second annual TED conference held in a different location around the world each year.
The TEDPrize, which grants winners one wish and one million dollars to change the world with their idea.
TEDTalks, which we all know and love. Today, this is most people’s entry point to the brand, but before TED Talks, TED’s content was limited to its attendees — you could only see talks if you could afford what it cost to get in the room. In the spirit of “radical openness,” TED decided to release its talks online and for free. And as we know now, this idea totally changed the game.
TEDActive, a simulacast version of the annual TED conference that’s much cheaper to attend
TEDFellows, a program that brings together innovators from across the world to attend the conference for free
TEDx, the program that we’re all very intimately familiar with. This move represented another radical opening up of the TED format that allowed local communities to organize their own events and spread the TED spirit.
TEDTranslator, a program that created the internal infrastructure for TEDTalks to be translated into 100+ languages every single day
TED-Ed, an education initiative that uses TED content to create animated video lessons and classroom resources
TEDRadio Hour, a show that brings ideas and stories from TED Talks to public radio listeners
So, today all of that creates an entire interconnected ecosystem of TED that looks kind of like this.
And those are just the major programs. There have been a handful of one-off events and short term special projects that have been developed over the years: TED Talks Live, TED2017 in Cinema, TED Book Club, TED’s Idea Search, TED University, TED Women, TED Residents, TED Ed Clubs.
I don’t think that most of us even realize how truly massive the TED machine is—all of these programs and initiatives add up to a lot of influence. As of this year, TED videos have been viewed 3.8 BIILLION TIMES. More than 2 billion of those views occurred in the year 2016 alone.
Over the years, TED has seeped into public consciousness in ways we can’t always fully recognize. And while that’s kind of overwhelming to think about, I think there’s something comforting we can count on: When something becomes so big and so powerful, there will always be somebody less big and less powerful ready and waiting to make a joke out of it.
Anything popular is fair game for parody. The work of TED parody is VAST and IMPRESSIVE and worthy of its own lecture, honestly. There’s this spoof from the Late Show of Jesus giving a TED Talk, there’s an entire series from College Humor’s High TED Talks, and then there’s just this meme of a gorilla who looks like he’s giving a TED talk.
But my personal favorite is this one: Drunk TED Talks is exactly what it sounds like—a live show that invites writers and comedians to get belligerently drunk, take the Drunk TED stage, and talk about something so oddly specific it has to be funny.
And it all started in 2012 with a University of Chicago student named Eric Thurm. He was getting drunk with some friends, making fun of TEDxUChicago and thought:
“Like, this is an incredibly stupid and pretentious and obscenely overblown way to educate people about these topics. At one point somebody said, ‘We would do a better job of teaching people about these topics if we were extremely drunk.’ And it just kind of stuck for awhile.”
It’s been hosted almost every month since in major cities like NYC, Chicago, and San Francisco. Except that last year TED sent Eric a cease-and-desist letter and now it’s just called Drunk Education.
Maybe I just think this is funny because it hits so close to home for us at TEDxUGA. Back in 2017, we opened up registration to community members for the first time and we had student council members poster around town to boost community attendance. Well, a local comedy show called Krakin Jokes also decided to poster around town. And I’d say the result is pretty funny.
The joke is even funnier if we can all be in on it. And while jokes can be funny, criticism is not kind. When it comes to critics, TED definitely has more than a few. But I’ve learned through my research that if there’s one thing that TED is definitively good at -- it’s managing its own reputation.
Debunking TED Myths
As we look deeper into TED’s history (and its website), we find this page called “Debunking TED Myths” which points out that over the past thirty years, the brand has collected its fair share of “misconceptions.”
But there’s something funny about their choice in wording here. Myths aren’t exactly lies; they’re stories—and they all have a little bit of truth in them. And because I first went to journalism school and then graduate school... that’s what we’re going to look for today — the truth and the true stories behind each of these TED myths.
Is TED elitist?
No… but also, yeah.
This one is at the top of the page, because it’s probably the most common criticism of TED. There is no shortage of articles online that dissect this, and I could provide you a very detailed reading list of them all, but here’s a quote from New York Magazine that I think effectively sums it up:
“These are “thought-leader gatherings” where “rock stars” emerge from their “silos” to learn about “disruptive” ideas that have been carefully “curated.”
So elitism is in the Kool-Aid and that’s an unavoidable reality of TED. So TED owns up to being a little bit elitist, but tends to hide the rest of it behind the term “curation.” They “curate” their speaker lists, of course, but they also “curate” their audience—attendees have to apply to attend, then they’re personally screened, and then they still have to pay upwards of $8K to get in the room. TED is still a very exclusive and very expensive club to join.
Some of the criticism lobbed at TED might be explained by this peculiar fact: TED only hands out about 10-15 press passes each year for its annual conference. As many have previously pointed out, the hate usually comes from people who haven’t been able to secure a spot in the room. They haven’t witnessed the magic because they haven’t been offered the Kool-Aid at all.
But to TED’s credit and as they rightfully note in their answer to this question, TED works hard to be not elitist in the ways that matter. They actively seek out ideas from all over the world in multiple languages. They work to diversify both their lineup and their attendee roster, they devote significant time and money to bringing TED Talks to people who lack access to broadband or have other accessibility issues, and of course, the most valuable thing they have to offer—their content—is free.
Is TED biased?
No… but also, yeah.
TED tries really hard to not be biased—their official policy is that no talk should be partisan or polarizing. An audience member should be able to consider the speaker’s point of view without feeling offended or incensed. But is TED biased? Well, of course. It’s biased the same way TEDxUGA is biased.
In a way that’s vaguely similar to our own Advisory Council, TED is run by a board of trustees—a group of very important and influential people that make and guide important decisions about the integrity of the brand. Naturally, this board is referred to as a Brain Trust.
So they are a group of humans curating content created by humans and then presented to other humans. There’s a limit to fairness, a very human limit.
Now, there’s another kind of connotation to the word “bias,” a political one. Like a liberal media bias? In the past, some people have insinuated that their live talks were never released publicly because of a bias against their political stance. In response, TED claims that it is not a place for “partisan slams” or “one-sided arguments” but a starting point for productive conversations.
There is a very careful distinction that TED wisely holds onto, though: Not every talk given at a TED conference or a TEDx event makes it to the front page of TED.com.
Is TED full of pseudoscience?
No… but also, yeah.
Now, this one has a pretty interesting backstory. The TEDx program has grown almost exponentially - there are about 11 TEDx events that happen every single day. And on this kind of global scale, some things inevitably fall through the cracks. It’s not exactly physically possible for TED to “curate” this many talks.
A few years ago, Reddit got wind of some TEDx events hosting kind of shady speakers: we’re talking healing crystals, hallucinogenic drugs, something called vortex-based mathematics. Reddit had a field day and TED had to come back from a pretty significant internet takedown.
From a reputation management standpoint, TED actually handled it incredibly well—and in a way that seemingly strengthened their TEDx community. They amended their policy to create specific guidelines for selecting science speakers (all science and health-related information must be supported by peer-reviewed research) and they provided strategies to help TEDx organizers select “appropriate” speakers.
It’s impossible to know how effective these policies have really been, but it is worth taking a look at one specific talk—one of the most-viewed TED talks of all-time—Amy Cuddy’s “Your body language may shape who you are”.
This talk, which explained how enacting powerful posture can increase self-confidence and performance, changed the course of Amy Cuddy’s career and entire life. Power posing became phenomenon practically overnight.
But perhaps Amy Cuddy should have emphasized something—your body language may shape who you are.
Last year, the coauthor on the power-posing study, a woman named Dana Carney, published a follow-up that cited major flaws in Amy Cuddy’s initial method and findings. In it, she definitively states: I do not believe that “power pose” effects are real.
The controversy surrounding this study and this talk have caused a debate in the scientific community the likes of which I’m unqualified to discuss. We have no way of knowing exactly who’s in the right, but TED published a very lengthy Q&A with Amy Cuddy that discusses some of this criticism. Notably, it does not acknowledge the statement from her coauthor.
Even more notably, Amy Cuddy is on the TED Brain Trust.
Does TED ban discussion of GMOs?
No… just no.
Okay, this is a strange one, but it’s a myth that arose from the pseudoscience fallout of 2013 previously discussed.
During this time, the director of the TEDx program sent an email to all known organizers that provided some guidance on how to steer clear of pseudoscience. That email included a list of topics to avoid such as alternative healing, cures for autism, the fusion of science and spirituality, time travel, and— GMO foods.
Apparently back in 2013, some Natural News website used the content of this email to start a rumor that TED was being paid off by Monsanto. It is not. That is all.
Does TED ban anything?
No… but also, yeah.
In reality, it’s not a ban. This is again, the curious case with “curation.” TED just doesn’t post “all” of its live talks to the website. This is a great strategic move on their part—remember that there are less than 10 journalists in the room. If something goes tragically wrong on stage, it’s a mistake that could theoretically be forgotten forever.
Even so, there’s a whole category of “banned TED talks” that you can watch on YouTube, the most famous of which is Sarah Silverman’s “A new perspective on the number 3000.”
It is an obviously bizarre 18-minute long comedic song & dance in which Sarah Silverman suggests that she’s considering adopting a terminally ill and “retarded” child.
In form and function, it poked quite a bit of fun at TED and it worked. The performance apparently received a standing ovation, but no applause from Chris Anderson. The tweet storm that followed made headlines.
Needless to say, Sarah Silverman is not a part of the Brain Trust.
Is TED rich?
No… but also, yeah.
Technically, the answer is no — TED is a nonprofit, nonpartisan organization. They make money through conference attendance fees, sponsorships, foundation support, licensing fees and book sales. And then they immediately spend it on video editing, web development and hosting, support for TEDx and TED fellow, and of course salaries for staffers. Chris Anderson allegedly doesn’t even accept a salary.
And while this sounds great—let’s remember that TED is a non-profit in the traditional sense. Meaning, it’s a not-for-profit, not that it’s a public charity. TED is owned by a private foundation called the Sapling Foundation, which was established by Chris Anderson and officially purchased TED in 2002.
The goal of the Sapling Foundation is to foster the spread of great ideas:
It aims to provide a platform for thinkers, visionaries and teachers, so that people around the globe can gain a better understanding of the biggest issues faced by the world, and feed a desire to help create a better future. Core to this goal is a belief that there is no greater force for changing the world than a powerful idea.
Clearly, the Sapling Foundation is TED and TED is the Sapling Foundation. So to gauge how “rich” TED might be, we can look right at the Sapling Foundation—which in 2014, net 60 million.
So, yeah TED is rich—like $60 million rich, and all of that money goes right back into TED. To put that in perspective, that puts them in the top 12 percent of all private foundations.
Now consider where a lot of this money comes from: big money companies like BMW, Delta, Rolex, IBM, Goldman Sachs and big money people who can pay up to $250K a year and write it off as charity.
And then consider all of the thousands of volunteers around the world that act as ambassadors of the TED brand and get paid nothing, as a rule. This is a massive money-making media machine that all of us are contributing to—whether we realize it or not.
TED’s Optimism Bias
Okay, so why am I telling all of you this? What is someone like you supposed to do with this knowledge? What is someone like me who’s dedicated the past five years of their life to spreading the gospel of TED supposed to do ? Do we have to un-drink the Kool-Aid?
I don’t think so. We just have to remember that it’s okay and important to think critically about the things that we love—and that doesn’t mean we have to love them any less.
I think it’s kind of like optimism bias. Tali Sharot says that even becoming conscious of the bias can’t shatter the illusion for us. Understanding the magic trick doesn’t make the magic go away. And that’s because we need this optimism:
“To make any kind of progress, we need to be able to imagine a different reality, and then we need to believe that that reality is possible.”
What I think we, especially as ambassadors of TED, have to consider is that TED doesn’t necessarily have to be a force for good nor bad. It can be a vehicle for something else entirely.
You see, a few years, ago I met a TEDx organizer who very fervently believed that TED would change the world; he literally said that TED could actually save our planet. And I was kind of taken aback by this statement—not necessarily by the idea that TED could change the world, but by the fact that he believed this so deeply and had the audacity to say this out loud.
As I look back on my TED experience and prepare to leave it behind, I have to consider that the real magic of what we’ve created has never really been about TED at all: it’s not about the lights or the camera or the red round rug or a clock counting down from 18 minutes; it’s not even about the massive brandpower or the promise of a potentially viral video.
It’s a collective spirit of radical optimism. It’s our own unwavering belief that good things might just happen. It’s the feeling that if we can imagine it just for a moment—or 18 minutes—we can begin to believe that changing the world is possible. And it’s not believing that a great TED talk can change the world, it’s just believing that the world is a place that each of us can change.
That is a pretty powerful Kool-Aid. And I think it’s one worth drinking.