TED Curator Chris Anderson On The Conference's Past, Present & Future

TED, the international conference known for tackling "ideas worth spreading" just topped a billion views for its videos. That's a billion with a "b."

That milestone didn't just happen on its own - TED has been gathering momentum online for a decade.

The first step came in 2001, when TED's current curator Chris Anderson's Sapling Foundation took over and turned the company into a nonprofit organization. Five years later, in 2006, an experiment to post six TED-talk videos online led to the birth of a viral phenomenon. Today, these videos are watched globally, and the speakers behind them are some of the most influential people in their fields, working to share insight on issues not often seen by the general public. But with TED's enormous success has also come criticsim and charges of elitism. Among other things, TED has taken heat for claiming to be for the masses, yet charging exorbitant ticket prices for attendance. And these days, even TED has competition

I had the chance to speak with Anderson about TED, from answering the critics to what it  took to get here, where TED is going, and the role of technology in the developing world. Anderson, an idea man born in a small village in Pakistan to missionary parents, stressed his desire to serve social change, the future of media companies and how technology is unifying us and creating a level playing field:

READWRITE: TED just went over a billion views on its videos. Tell me what it meant to get here and what that means for you as the curator and the founder of the brand.

CHRIS ANDERSON: Everyone here is thrilled about that milestone. We never dreamed it would get this big, this fast. What's surprising is that the reason it's happened. It's not like there's any big giant marketing budget or anything like that driving it. It's more been through word-of-mouth. Through online word-of-mouth. Largely email referrals, sharing and more recently social media, Facebook as well. So that's the thrilling part. There are enough curious people in the world that are getting excited about learning to the point where they'll watch something and then pass it on to their friends and family. I just find that exciting. 

RW: Tell me when the first TED talk was and how you got the word out there and that first push.

ANDERSON: We put six talks out in June of 2006. It was a small media team that tried to find a way to get TED out there. Early on our thoughts were let's put these out in a way that they're well-shot, they're well-edited and they capture the drama of what the audience feels live. It's a modern campfire experience. So, eyes locked onto a speaker. Not the boring, traditional association people certainly brought with them, of a guy stuck behind a podium in the distance. Communication is much more dramatic than that, so video has to reflect that. We certainly felt that. And then we only put up six talks as an experiment and just shared the links with a few blogs. And it took off from there to our pride and crossing our fingers. We were really excited by the response to these initial talks. Not just in the numbers but people reacting to them in email back to us, instead of being ripped by them, you know laughed, shared and wept, and that was a surprise. It was amazing they worked. 

RW: Who gave the first talk and how many talks have their been total?

ANDERSON: The six we launched on the first day, that included what is still today the number one talk. Ken Robinson's talk on education and a talk by Hans Rossling on showing why our conception of the developing world is wrong. There are now 1,400 or so talks posted. 

RW: And those are just official TED events. That's not counting TEDx, correct?

ANDERSON: Those are talks posted on our site. So some of them include TEDx or best of the other conferences on our site. But the majority of them are from our own events, yes. And it doesn't include the 25,000 other TEDx talks that are up on YouTube.

RW: Tell me who's one of your favorite guests, a best guest, and who was a worst guest? Or a worst speaker?

ANDERSON: I don't know if you can quote me on the worst but there's been some flops. And there's so many favorites. I love best talks that give you a mental shift. They just make you see the world differenrly. Everything from David Deutsch who's given a couple of talks. The way he thinks really appeals to me. Ken Robinson himself, changed a lot of peoples minds on how to think about education and how we have to figure out a better path before it all falls. I'm a fan of so many talks. Barry Schwartz who had the talk of the paradox of choice. He says that too much choice is actually not necessarily good for us. 

RW: Can you tell me, without insulting past speakers, maybe some flops, or at least the subject matter you didn't like?

CA: Well, I think there were people who way overshot their time slot and were gently nudged, pushed off the stage. There have been people who have been given, had their say, talks that were full of ego rather than insight. And there's a favorite instance, of a celebrity who was hissed off the stage because of the ego. The ego-to-insight ratio was just way out of whack. As they say, not all the talks are good, but at least the bad ones are short.  

Looking Ahead

RW: Now that you've gotten such a big name and created such a big, relatively mainstream brand, what are the goals going forward?

ANDERSON: The number one focus is just keep up research ongreat ideas. The world is often described in terms of events and political upheaval and so forth. We view the world through the development of knowledge. The truth is human knowledge is growing at a spectacular rate. There's amazing discoveries every year and the vast majority of them are completely invisible to most of us. That I think is something of a tragedy. Because the ideas are out there. They could fix our problems, it's just that they're not easily accessed. So, literally the number one goal is keep on finding those people and figure out how to make their work accessible.

RW: Do you have a roadmap?

ANDERSON: I often say that we do not have a roadmap. I think a five-year roadmap for TED, or a five-year roadmap for anything, in the fast changing world that we're in, sounds to be a flawed document. What we do have is a compass. Our compass is our mission statement and then first a strategy, a sense of openeness. When we want to get something done instead of seeking ourselves, we seek to empower the people to do it. We give away our best stuff so people can do it for us. So that whole TEDx thing that has happened in the last three years. We've given away our brand and allowed pre-licenses to people around the world to hold their own event. To the point that there are now six or seven every day held somewhere. It's vastly increased the number of people who can go to a conference. Instead of in California, 1,000 people spending $7,500, around the world there are 800,000 plus people who have spent less than $100 to go to one of these events. It's really democratized TED and that's thrilling. My whole genuine philosophy is how to open this thing up and make it available to anyone.

Is TED Elitist?

RW: Some would say that the price point for a ticket makes TED elitist. What's your take on that?

ANDERSON: The business model is that the profits made from the main conference are used to fund the rest of what we do. So the whole free distribution of ideas online (the TED Foundation) and the opening up of TEDx, none of that would have been possible without a successful concept where people were willing to pay lots of money. So, it's true that not everyone can come and afford to go that. But even if we cut the price to zero, it's not like everyone else could go. It would just make the waiting list that much longer. So we're doing what we can do. One, give away the content, and two, give away the brand. Which makes it kind of hard to make the charge of elitism stick, I think. It's absolutely the opposite of what TED is doing. TED is taking knowledge and making it as widely available as possible. 

On Publishing And Media

RW: I know you have a background in the news business and publishing. Where do you see that business going?

ANDERSON: Speaking broadly, attention is always going to be one of the world's most valuable commodities. From attention everything else flows. Every decision that anyone makes come from a point of attention. So it's always going to be an incredibly important business. How it is won, how it is monetized is in total flux right now. And I think that a lot of the traditional models of paying a large number of people a lot of money to write, when there are millions of people who are willing to write for free, many of them very insightfully, that is a problem. I think media owners need to grasp how to move their talent up a notch to a level of inspring, identifying, coaching, empowering other writers. Because the overall model is broken. 

Technology And The Developing World

RW: You were born in Pakistan. Do you think technology creates a level playing field for the developing world?

ANDERSON: I absolutely do. I grew up in a village in Pakistan in my early years. Kids I grew up with, most of them are probably grinding out a life of poverty somewhere. The main reason I'm not is because of education. My parents could afford to get me fully educated.

RW: What's different there now? 

ANDERSON: The kid in that village right now is going to have access to a cellphone within the next few years, if they don't already. Through which they can be eyeball to eyeball with the worlds great futures, and basically have a shot at realizing their full human potential. It's a game changer, it's really exciting, and I think we have already seen many instances where they're leapfrogging what we're doing in the West because of the pace of learning. 

RW: Who would you like to see present at TED in the future, and when can I give a talk?

ANDERSON: Well, you can pitch me anytime. We have found that the best people, often, are the people completely under the radar. It's not big names, it's people you'd least suspect. This year we've been out around the world having open salons and invited people to talk. We've discovered about 30 truly amazing people that we're bringing to California this year. I would say right now, they are the people I'm most excited to bring to the TED space. They're going to blow people away.

RW: And these are under the radar folk? Can you give any background to them?

ANDERSON: It's everything from an obscure academic in Australia to a 14-year-old boy in Nairobi, Kenya. It's a really wide variety of people inspiring brilliance - intriguing people we can all learn from.


Photo courtesy of TED Conference.