TED: These sour grapes taste terrible

by Mathew on March 1, 2008 · 18 comments

I’ve been debating whether to write this post or not for awhile, and eventually I figured what the hell — like Sarah Lacy of BusinessWeek, whose piece on TED helped to spark this post, I’m not likely to get invited to TED anyway, and even if I was I couldn’t afford to go, so I’m really not likely to burn any bridges. And in any case, that whole “don’t criticize TED, or you won’t be asked to come back” thing is part of the problem I have with the conference in the first place. Sarah dances around the issue a fair bit, but it boils down to good old-fashioned elitism (or worse, says Umair).

Like Sarah, I know that my comments will be seen as sour grapes, since I can’t be part of the cool crowd hanging in Aspen or Monterey with the various stars and geniuses that TED pulls together — and if I’m being honest, there’s definitely an aspect of that to it. I read the Twitter posts from friends like Austin Hill and Paul Kedrosky about all the people they are running into, or having coffee with, or partying with, or listening to onstage, and part of me would cut off my right arm to be there.

That’s the secret to elitism, of course: It’s not really a problem provided you’re one of the elite. Sarah talks about how one of Silicon Valley’s strengths is that any nerd with a great idea and some moxie can make it, and that’s why TED seems so jarring. But she doesn’t follow that up to its natural conclusion — which is that the whole point of “making it” is that you get invited to places like TED and the Allen & Co. retreat, or Davos (the grand-daddy of them all). And let’s face it: the thing a lot of nerds desire more than anything is to hang out with the kind of cool people who ignored them before they became successful.

I get the appeal of bringing dozens of smart people from different walks of life together to inspire people, and get their minds thinking in different directions. I’m all for that. But TED has other elements that are a lot less appealing — including the subtle (or not so subtle) pressure not to say critical things about the conference, and the fuss over Valleywag simply printing the names of who was attending, both of which have a kind of cult-ish feel to me. I guess the first rule of the TED Club is that you don’t say anything bad about the TED Club.

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