Voted one of the top 50 websites of 2010 by Time magazine, TED (www.ted.com) is an acronym for a non-profit organization whose name stands for Technology, Entertainment, and Design. The name is apt because TED’s mission is to promote and encourage ground-breaking ideas in multiple fields.
Readers gravitate to TED online for videos and articles by innovative global thinkers who suggest solutions to society’s thorniest issues. TED’s slogan is “ideas worth spreading.” Tom Rielly, TED’s community director, said, “TED believes passionately in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately the world.” It has created an “ecosystem that offers knowledge from the world’s most inspired thinkers and (established) a community of curious souls to engage with ideas and each other,” he added.
Similar to the Davos’ global forum for political and industry leaders organized by the World Economic Forum, TED holds annual conferences in Long Beach, CA. and Edinburgh, Scotland that bring together thought leaders from around the world in the arts, business, economics, philosophy, and entrepreneurship. TED launched in 1984 as a conference and morphed into a non-profit funded by conference ticket revenue and partnerships.
Since the site is interactive, viewers converse, discuss and debate ideas stimulated by experts at the TED conferences. One section, TED Conversations, invites experts to introduce a topic and then solicit reaction from readers. Recent topics included how creativity and depression coexist, the effects of misunderstanding ethics, and empowering students to change the education system. Indeed there are over 900 onsite to select.
Presenting cutting-edge ideas is TED’s mission. For example, at the 2006 TED conference Jeff Han from Perceptive Pixel discussed a new technological tool that offered a multi-touch screen. His speech anticipated the introduction of the iPhone, which appeared several years later. In 2009, economist Paul Romer gave a visionary talk about “charter cities,” which Rielly describes as “new cities built from the ground up with rules that encourage fair business and a better life for citizens.” Subsequent to this speech, Romer received grants to launch a charter city in Honduras.
Its videos run the gamut from the intellectual to the zany. For example, Bill Gates of Microsoft explores how diminishing state budgets are stultifying education, New York Times columnist David Brooks opines on why humans are social animals, noted environmentalist Van Jones discusses the economic cost of plastics, and Naomi Klein explains why some people are addicted to risk.
Recent videos of Hanna Rosin’s discussing how women’s college graduation rates surpassed men’s and Ann Cooper promoting nutritious public school lunches generated buzz and plenty of responses.
Not all of TED’s videos are earnest and intellectual. It also includes offbeat videos such as stand-up comic Lisa Donnelly riffing on how humor can change the world.
Also on the site are a series of TED blogs. The blog posts include in-depth Q&A’s with TED speakers and TED fellows. Included among these blogs are Jamie Oliver’s Food Revolution, the Mission Blue oceans initiative, and the Open Architecture network.
The website reinforces what the conferences set out to do. Rielly said, “Radical openness is what helps TED spread ideas. By designing a site that’s free and open, we’re passionately reinforcing our mission to get more people, talking, thinking, debating and innovating around the ideas shared at our conferences and events.”
TED also operates a fellows program like the Guggenheim Foundation, providing grants for leading artists and academics. Recent TED Fellow included a forensic wildlife biologist from Brazil, a slam poet and a tissue engineering researcher.
Rielly said TED’s 2011 conference was one of its most inspirational gatherings. Google, not Toyota, Ford or GM, introduced a self-driving car, proving that it has all the answers to everything in modern life. Also film critic Roger Ebert, who was unable to speak due to the effects of cancer, used speech recognition software to explain how the Internet restored his ability to communicate. That video has gone viral.
Rielly, a former actor, has garnered a reputation for ending the TED conference with a scathing monologue, making fun of what has transpired during the week. Or as someone on TED said, he “skewers the egos, mocks the flights of fancy and parrots the doomsday predictions.”
Ultimately, TED and its website revolve around the power of ideas. Its goals include, “An idea can be created out of nothing except an inspired imagination” and “Ideas can be transferred across the world at the speed of light for virtually zero cost.”
Gary M. Stern is a freelance writer based in New York City.