The annual conference tries to reach out to a new generation, awkwardly
TED was born in 1984 as an underground dinner party for information designer Richard Saul Wurman and friends from the worlds of technology, entertainment, and design. This year, 1,500 people paid $6,000 each to attend the modern version of TED, held in the Long Beach (Calif.) Performing Arts Center from Feb. 9-13. Five hundred more paid $3,750 to watch a simulcast of the event—known mostly for its TEDTalks, free-form lectures delivered over the years by the likes of Al Gore, J.J. Abrams, and Dr. Jill Bolte Taylor—at the Riviera Resort & Spa in Palm Springs. In its ability to gather A-list guests, create intellectual buzz, and get celebrities (Will Smith, Cameron Diaz) and billionaires (Sergey Brin, Jeff Bezos) to pay for the privilege of being in a room where ideas might be hatched, TED is quite possibly the most successful dinner party ever thrown.
Success, however, is not a sinecure. Twenty-six years in, TED is showing signs of age. One of the most conspicuous is the makeup of attendees, diverse only in that TED appears to attract a white man from every street in Silicon Valley. (Not that there's anything wrong with that, says TED's community director, Tom Rielly: "These are great people.") Other big-time conferences—the annual World Economic Forum in Davos among them—have struggled with similar issues, like: how to get more inclusive without sacrificing intimacy. How to keep loyalists happy while attracting a younger crowd closer to the headwaters of innovation. And how to get that younger crowd to pay six grand.
Solving these problems before they endanger the franchise is clearly on the minds of TED's 50 or so full-time employees. Which explains the gamut-running 2010 presence of both philanthropist Bill Gates and adorably foul-mouthed comedian Sarah Silverman. In a clear sign of how hard it is to change TED's culture, Gates killed. Silverman got killed.
Her routine, which involved adopting a terminally ill special-needs child and 10 or so uses of the "r" word, left much of the TED audience mortified (though there was scattered applause). It also earned the 39-year-old comic a disparaging tweet from Chris Anderson, the former magazine executive who bought TED in 2001. "I know I shouldn't say this about one of my own speakers," tweeted Anderson, "but I thought Sarah Silverman was god-awful." Anderson tried to recall the tweet, but it was too late, and before long Steve Case was trashing Silverman, Silverman was baiting Case ("You should be nicer to the last person on earth with an AOL (AOL) account") and the whole experiment in hipness had turned into an embarrassment.
"TED OPENS DOORS"
Anderson may have better luck reaching the next generation with the TED fellows program, launched in 2009. Fellows—to cite TED—are "young world-changers and trailblazers" from such places as Karachi, Nairobi, and São Paulo, "who have shown unusual accomplishment and exceptional courage." Each gets an all-expenses-paid trip to TED.
It wasn't hard to spot the 45 fellows in attendance. Bola Olabisi, a founder of a Nigerian nonprofit that aims to improve conditions and opportunities for women, was sitting on a cushion wearing a brightly hued African dress and head wrap. "TED opens doors," she says. Erik Hersman, the founder of Ushahidi, a Kenyan Web site that uses crowdsourcing to help activists organize, was happy to be at TED, if unawed by the established stars. "Yes, you walk out of the restaurant and there's Sergey Brin," says Hersman, 34. "Then you turn around and there's Ev [Evan Williams] from Twitter. But you don't treat anybody special. At the end of the day we all put our pants on the same way." Perhaps. But from his dedicated tweeting and occasional gapes, you could tell Hersman was amped to be there.
And why not? TED's pioneers remain an undeniable draw. Bill Gates clambered onto the stage with a jar full of fireflies and made the case for TerraPower, a venture that's developing nuclear power using natural or depleted uranium. David Cameron, the leader of Britain's Conservative Party, beamed in from London to outline his ideas for open government. Brin made a brief appearance to explain Google's (GOOG) policies in China, saying: "I want to find a way to work within the system and provide more and better information."
As it happens, TED may have stumbled into a strategy for bridging its generation gap. Those who can't attend in person can now pay $995 to stream the event live on the Web. As two-time speaker Seth Godin puts it, "TED is a TV show that happens to have a conference." Or a dinner party that just won't end.