TED is a business, first and foremost. This review, written by Nilofer Merchant takes the reader on a step-by-step journey through how the non-profit TED organization “lost control of its crowd”.
“Wow. Such f—ing bullsh-t.”
No, this is not a snippet from the latest Quentin Tarantino film. It’s Stanford professor Jay Wackerresponding, on the Q&A site Quora, to the now-infamous TEDx talk “Vortex-Based Mathematics.”
A member had posed the question “Is Randy Powell saying anything in his 2010 TEDxCharlotte talk, or is it just total nonsense?” Wacker, a particle physicist, was unambiguous: “I am a theoretical physicist who uses (and teaches) the technical meaning of many of the jargon terms that he’s throwing out. And he is simply doing a random word association with the terms. Basically, he’s either (1) insane, (2) a huckster going for fame or money, or (3) doing a Sokal’s hoax on TED. I’d bet equal parts 1 & 2.”
Powell’s talk had been given in September 2010, at what was one of numerous local TEDx gatherings spun off by TED, a nonprofit that puts on highly respected global conferences about ideas. But the talk went relatively unnoticed until the spring of 2012, when a few influential science bloggers discovered it—and excoriated it. One dared his readers to see how much of the talk they could get through before they had to be “loaded into an ambulance with an aneurysm.” Anothersimply described it as “sweet merciful crap.” By August the uproar had gone mainstream, as other questionable TEDx content was uncovered. The New Republic wrote, “TED is no longer a responsible curator of ideas ‘worth spreading.’ Instead it has become something ludicrous.” As others piled on, TED staffers called Powell and asked him to send the research backing up his claims. He never did.
The TEDxCharlotte talk, which had received tremendous applause when delivered, was one of thousands produced annually by an extended community of people who neither get paid by nor officially work for TED but who are nonetheless capable of damaging its brand.
When it was founded, in 1984, TED (which stands for “Technology, Entertainment, and Design”) brought together a few hundred people in a single annual conference in California. Today, TED is not just an organizer of private conferences; it’s a global phenomenon with $45 million in revenues. In 2006 the nonprofit decided to make all its talks available free on the internet. (They are now alsotranslated—by volunteers—into more than 90 languages.) Three years later it decided to further democratize the idea-spreading process by letting licensees use its technology and brand platform. This would allow anyone, anywhere, to manage and stage local, independent TEDx events. Licenses are free, but event organizers must apply for them and submit to light vetting. Since 2009 some 5,000 events have been held around the world. (Disclosure: I spoke at the main TED event in February this year.)
Merchant explains that although “25,000 TEDx talks” have been produced so far, only 228, “Had made it to TED.com for broad-based distribution and endorsement.”
The TED business is “highly managed” and is highly “selective” when posting videos from its TEDx, open submission, volunteer leg of operation.
Merchant concludes this 4-page report for Harvard Business Review beginning with, “Everyone’s a crowd manager.”
Today talent is increasingly untethered. Well over 30% of U.S. workers are now self-employed. This isn’t just a U.S. trend; on the popular websites Freelancer.com and oDesk, most freelancers hail from India and the Philippines, respectively. These are not workers who couldn’t find other jobs; they are talented people. Another popular freelancing site, Elance,reports that 71% of its users have either a bachelor’s or a master’s degree. Value is being created by all categories of people—workers and volunteers, paid and unpaid, contributors and consumers. Organizations that still believe they can and should keep the crowd out may find themselves in an undesirable position—alone and apart.
Anyone leading an organization today is already managing a crowd—whether it’s composed of consumers, the media, or citizens of the towns in which the enterprise operates. What TED faced is the new reality for all of us. “Nothing is predictable,” Stein concludes. “This flies in the face of leaders’ being asked to plan and predict and know more than others. Today we have to create scale for our mission by being open. The TEDx construct is an example of how being in a community lets us learn, adapt, and grow together.”
Even though management experts have long argued for looser organizational models and against command-and-control leadership, most executives are still ill equipped to manage crowds. As humans, we want to be perfect and in control. We like knowing more than we enjoy learning. We want to get it right the first time rather than iterate. But crowds—and the community constructs we’re talking about—are not about flawless execution; they are about allowing anyone (quite possibly everyone) to contribute and gathering a large volume of potentially powerful ideas from which to pick the best.