TED: These sour grapes taste terrible

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.

Andy Rutledge thinks you’re a moron

My friend Rob sent me a link to a recent blog post by Web designer Andy Rutledge because (I suspect) he knew that it would drive me up a wall, and he was right. It’s entitled “Anti-Social Media,” and it is a treatise on why social media is bad, why Web 2.0 is bad and why elitism is good — and, in fact, more than just good. Necessary. In this, Andy (whether he knows it or not) is channeling fellow elitists Nick “The Prophet of Doom” Carr and Andrew “Web 2.0 is Socialism 2.0” Keen.

The argument is relatively simple, although Andy decides for some reason to stretch it out over thousands of words, highlighted in a yellow-on-black colour scheme that is quite ugly. Luckily, Andy doesn’t care what I think of his design, because I’m just a yob who doesn’t know anything — just like you, and most of your friends. And Andy doesn’t care what I think of his ideas either, or he would have comments on his blog. But then, any idiot would be able to take issue with his views, and that just wouldn’t do.


Here are some selected quotes:

The wisdom of crowds and the related ideals cited above are largely about championing and cultivating two things: mediocrity and decadence.

Mediocrity is the only possible result of a wide sampling of opinion or input. The only idea that can survive such a mechanism is one consistent with the lowest common denominator. The mob works to ensure that all other results are weeded out.

One of the grave flaws of the growing social media and its foundational ideals is that it facilitates irresponsibility and it fuels and rewards our basest motivations.

So, in a nutshell, Andy believes that crowds are grunting masses of baboons, and that anything that surveys a group of people will inevitably result in mediocrity. The great are pulled down amongst the rabble. Pretty depressing, right? At one point, Andy says that “Western culture is on the downhill slope and gathering speed toward the brick wall at the bottom.” It made me want to crawl into bed with a copy of Wuthering Heights and a nice bottle of Dom Perignon and wait for the mob with pitchforks to attack my castle.

Andy also says: “Think about great ideas. Not good ideas or decent ideas, but great ideas. Where do they come from? Do they come from the masses? Do they come from consensus? No, they come from individuals.”

Andy doesn’t tell us where we are to find those individuals, however. I’m assuming he would probably give the usual answer — Harvard, Yale, Cambridge. Maybe even MIT or the Sorbonne in a pinch. But isn’t social media of all kinds a way of finding those voices that might have great ideas, or be excellent in some way? Apparently not. Social media is all about cheapness and irresponsibility, and that’s what always wins, Andy says. What a depressing view of humanity.

What do you think? I think Andy needs to get out a little more and quit using Digg.com or Fark.com as the benchmark for all of social media.