Why I'm Fed Up with TED

Maybe it's sour grapes because I wasn't invited, but I'm irked by the conference's smugness and the nearly unqualified show of support from Silicon Valley

Last December I had the privilege of attending the Le Web Conference in Paris. I watched rapt as June Cohen, on staff with the larger Technology, Entertainment & Design Conference, described a presentation by environmental activist Majora Carter, who spoke at TED earlier in the year about her efforts to "green" areas of the South Bronx. Cohen welled up as she discussed Carter's stirring presentation. I was reminded of how much I wished I could go to TED.

Later, a different image came to mind, this one of a courageous woman describing her efforts on behalf of some of the poorest neighborhoods in the country to a roomful of celebrities and Internet millionaires, with the real world locked outside.

I've been reminded of that jarring contradiction this week with the blogosphere's blanket coverage of TED, much of it fawning. Attendees trumpet TED's we-care-about-little-people, we-can-change-the-world ethos, writing in glowing terms of speeches and panels from the likes of Amazon.com (AMZN) Chief Executive Jeff Bezos, Google (GOOG) co-founder Sergey Brin, and Ugandan journalist Andrew Mwenda, while ignoring that it's one of the most exclusive events imaginable.

Not on the Guest List

Full disclosure: I have never been to TED, because I have never been invited (and probably never will be, after this). I have begged. I have pleaded. I have tried to pull strings. Nothing. So I will concede that part of my dismay may be sour grapes.

Then again, TED isn't the only conference I'm left to observe from the outside. Many of my friends and acquaintances attend the World Economic Forum in Davos and, sure, I feel a twinge of jealousy as I read their blogs about hanging out with Bono, et al., but for some reason that doesn't upset me. Likewise, I fantasize about someday seeing the inner workings of Allen & Co.'s annual conference in Sun Valley, but given the top secret dealmaking, I understand why people like me aren't invited. And no, I don't turn down opportunities to attend invitation-only conferences, including the Lobby, though I did have to needle organizer David Hornik shamelessly before he let me in. But the Lobby is about interesting people in Old and New Media getting together to meet in an informal setting. Its pretensions are hardly lofty.

There's just something about TED that's exceedingly smug, and it's particularly troubling given the conference's proximity to, and enthusiastic support from, normally egalitarian Silicon Valley. California's tech haven is a meritocracy where what matters most is smarts and hard work, not pedigree, ethnicity, where you went to school, or what club you get into—or so it is most of the year. TED seems more like a free pass for the Valley to shed these values, to be seduced by celebrity, to gawk at Hollywood types and politicians that its denizens would otherwise never encounter.

Dropped from the A List

Make no mistake. Cohen and several others I've met who work with TED are some of the coolest, most accepting people I've met in the Valley. To her credit, Cohen pioneered the effort to get TED presentations posted to the Internet—a risky venture, given the event's $6,000 price of admission. Likewise, some of my closest friends attend TED religiously every year and rave about it, which only confuses me more. Maybe it's a secret wonderful world all of us on the outside can't possibly understand. Or maybe a lot of the people in the Valley who attend soared to success so early that they never lived on the outside like the rest of us.

And yet there's a hierarchy even within TED's confines. I've heard some disturbing stories about people who have gone to TED for years and still are denied a "floor pass" because they aren't important enough. One friend told me of being de-invited to TED after quitting an ostensibly prestigious San Francisco job. "Did I somehow change as a person because my business card changed?" this person asks. You won't get people like this to let you use their names, though, lest they risk being barred from future TEDs.

You will, however, get a unique perspective on TED thanks to the preponderance of attendees who are on the microblogging site Twitter. First off, I have to give props to Twitter founder Evan Williams for making some entries entertaining: "Almost got a bottled water from the bar, but felt bad cuz Al Gore's standing over there…." And I got a kick out of the fake entries here. But most have been predictably starstruck. Just do a search for TED-related sightings of Cameron Diaz. And there's no end to notes about how stirring, or amazing, or mind-blowing each speaker was.

A TED for the Rest of Us

After a torrent of these, I finally snapped. I changed my Facebook status to "Sarah is sick of TED making her feel bad about herself" and Twittered—among other things—that TED was like the guy at a party who talks to you but is looking around to see who is more important. A wave of people direct-messaged me back with similar TED anger, and I got about a dozen new Twitter followers within seconds. Blogger Michael Arrington Twittered: "TED TED TED. I need a filter to remove all this TED crap. or maybe I'll just bail on Twitter for a few days…."

This is a sentiment that goes far beyond sour grapes. I care passionately about many of the change-the-world issues discussed at TED. And I am encouraged that next year, the conference is moving from Monterey, Calif., to a larger, more accommodating venue in Long Beach, where the attendee list will be at least a little larger.

Still, I question whether even the loftiest ideas lose some relevance when they're aired in so rarified an arena. Given how oversold and profitable the conference is, I can't help but wonder whether there's a vulnerability that someone else might exploit. Why not a TED for the rest of us? Imagine: a conference that explores the complex fabric of humanity, while actually allowing it in the door.

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.