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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  • http://joeduck.wordpress.com JoeDuck

    Yes. Matt I think you've spoken – literally – for an enormous number of us who are conflicted about how TED is both a showcase and watering hole for some of the sharpest people and ideas on earth and also a den of elitist nonsense.

    I think your criticism here in nuanced enough that you won't be crossed off the prospective list, so if you ever get to go remember to secretly live blog “off the record” stuff and make us all proud.

    My concerns are deeper about TED. I think the sensibilities of the TED crowd are not even remotely representative of those of most of the world, and therefore many great minds wind up innovating in the wrong direction or sideways.

    I do want to applaud TED for opening up a lot over the past few years via videos and blogging. At least “the rest of us” can now see part of what's going on behind the curtain. And any conference with Marissa Mayer has GOT to be worthwhile.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Joe.

    On Sat, Mar 1, 2008 at 2:01 PM, Disqus

  • http://blog.softwareabstractions.com NitinK

    Mathew: I agree that TED seems incredibly elitist – but at least they're fairly open and transparent about it. I imagine there must be other invite-only organizations for the “elite” that I don't even know about. (Does that sound paranoid?)

    Having said that, I'm really thrilled that the TED folks are making many of the speakers' presentations public – the TED videos provide incredibly high-quality ideas from some of the leading thinkers of our time., and they're open to all.

    As an example, I've highlighted the following video of Sir Ken Robinson's presentation on my blog – it's pretty thought-provoking, and there are many other videos equally worthy:
    Sir Ken Robinson on Creativity and Education

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    You are quite right about the videos, NitinK — many of them are excellent.

    On Sat, Mar 1, 2008 at 2:18 PM, Disqus

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  • http://bizop.ca michael webster

    Didn't Groucho Marx have the same complaint?

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Indeed.

    On Sat, Mar 1, 2008 at 4:09 PM, Disqus

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  • http://spap-oop.blogspot.com Tish Grier

    I've been catching up on all the TED scuttlebutt–including your post–and what I found most odd and out of touch was the panel with Queen Noor and Sergy Brin, where “court jester” Robin Williams came out and made the joke about bad connectivity at Web 2.0 cons….

    oh how amusing! (and a really *old* joke among web2.0 peeps…)

    One of that panel's concerns was that “the masses” are “confused” by the new media landscape. But, since working with both NewsTrust and Placeblogger, where I'm seeing and hearing lots of the voices of the masses, I'm thinking more that it's the elites that are confused. Maybe that's really what's going on at TED and why lots of folks aren't getting invited.

  • reader

    Hey Matt,

    In case you want to see what you missed.

    http://www.portfolio.com/guides/Ted-Conference/

  • http://www.stephe.ca Stephe

    In reviewing the complete list I didn't see a heck of a lot of Canadians – and some left me scratching my head – an elite physiotherapist?

    In any case between the video and Austin's twitter updates I kinda feel like I'm there… without the attitude.

  • http://www.stephe.ca Stephe

    Correction… not a lot of video posted – yet.

  • http://leighhimel.blogspot.com Leigh

    Kate (of iamkate) asked me if i was going and I said no, having not realized that in fact, one had to be “invited”. Technology circles continue to remind me of grade 7. Sigh. If I could only go the super cool party of popular girl A or B.

    Oh and Mathew, I'm sure Paul could pull a few strings for you and get you a ticket. Personally, I'd rather put up with the financial elitism of IDEAS city where as long as you can pay, you can play, here in the great white north :)

  • http://www.twistimage.com/blog mitchjoel

    Hey Matthew. I attended TED. I loved it. I attend tons of conferences (as you know) – both as a speaker and attendee. This was, by far and away, the best experience I've ever had, and would not hesitate to go back next year (and the year's after). I'm sure the price is prohibitive for some, and I can understand that… I think TED does too, and that's why they release so much to the public via TED Talks and more. There are plenty of other conference (that cost only a little less) that offer nothing.

    My feelings about TED are very opposite to yours.

  • http://www.mathewingram.com/work mathewi

    Thanks, Mitch. I'm not sure I would say that our feelings on TED are
    opposites — I have no doubt that if I were to go, I would probably
    enjoy it as much as you did. My point was more about the elitism
    aspect of it — although as you noted, TED does release a lot of
    material for free as well. So I would probably describe my feelings on
    the conference as “mixed.”

  • http://www.ceciliabeltran.com/ cecilia

    Shouldn't you have an idea to share too? Maybe you'll get invited if you were actually working on an idea you believe can help make a difference. Not to state the obvious but just so you keep things in perspective.

  • http://www.ceciliabeltran.com/ cecilia

    Shouldn't you have an idea to share too? Maybe you'll get invited if you were actually working on an idea you believe can help make a difference. Not to state the obvious but just so you keep things in perspective.

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