Is TED in a content crisis?

For me, for a dyslexic, interested in online education, and not being a native English speaker, it is a nice challenge to live blog each event in English. In fact, after so many events, it is not even a challenge anymore…

My name is Regina Saphier, I am a senior TED blogger and TED talk translator living in Hungary (my native country). A few things about me: I lived in several countries, I graduated from Teachers College of Columbia University and I am dyslexic (as I like to say and shock people: I am unable to read, write and calculate properly, but still graduated from Columbia… imagine what I could do if I could read, write and calculate… if in doubt after my self deprecating line: I write my own blogs and I have no editor… I also write my own translations… and no, I do not have an IT manager, nor do I have a social media editor… I do all this alone as an online one woman show). When there is a major TED event, I am there for every minute online, because I prefer 2×4 TED days per year filled with 2×70 live talks instead of one post production talk every second day (besides not all TED conference talks get published).

I was surprised by my new feeling after the days of TED Long Beach 2012 passed. I mean I really enjoy 4 days of interesting ideas, but I noticed that there was no aha moment for me… no feeling of: this is the only place where I could hear, see, feel this. There was even the feeling that some sessions were awkward, like the dinner party… interesting and less interesting people sitting around a dinner ready table on stage, with nothing to eat. The first presentation was painful to watch in this session, and by a really smart person, Steven Pinker and his partner. It was rigid, rehearsed, unnatural, and very disappointing. If it ever makes it onto the TED site (only the best TED talks make it there), it is because it will be edited beyond recognition, with animations to hide the weakness of the talk (I love RSA animation, but in this case, animation can only be used to save the ideas in the talk). Also, I did not feel the necessity of the real bull on stage in a happy go lucky “interactive” presentation and was hoping for a real antique tapestry on the TED stage when the MET and exhibitions were narrated… no demo there. There were other problems, but in general the event was still enjoyable and interesting. However, after having seen 7 major TED events online (so, several hundred live TED talks, beyond the several hundred recorded TED videos), this was the first time that I had the feeling, the event was not outstanding.

I have the feeling that Chris and his TED team are getting a bit nervous about the competition on a market where they make millions of dollars with the TED conferences, and they are trying to reinvent the content, yet unsuccessfully. By the way, neither the free online videos, nor the live stream was Chris’s idea, in fact he was initially opposed to giving their content away for free (the stream is only free for diligent TED translators). I would like to thank the unknown person who suggested the free stream, and I think it was smart of Chris to support the idea in the end.

(Did you know that after Chris persuaded a group of investors to purchase the TED brand from Wurman for 14 million dollars, later, after the dot com collapse, he negotiated an exit deal with the group and his Sapling Foundation paid only 6 million dollars for the TED brand, in a second hand kind of deal. I am sure, he is not so worried about money… or is he? Ten years ago he has seen his first empire collapsing… that must have been traumatizing.)

I am actually so glad not having to mingle with the tech snobs in those conferences (no matter what you hear from others, I am an introvert and mingling is hard work for me, even if public speaking is something I enjoyed in the past), and it is really comfortable to view the live talks from my living room (I know, there is stream buffering, and I know that people in the theater see it a bit sooner, but that is ok). Now, I should not say all this online, not even as a senior TED talk translator and senior TED conference blogger, because even million dollar donors and even the inventor of the TED idea and brand, Mr. Wurman got uninvited from the TED conference (what a shame, but not unusual for Chris’s TED era), so you can easily get punished at TED when you speak your mind. I know, believe me, I got the silent treatment after I expressed my valid opinion regarding the management of volunteers… I got invited to and uninvited from TED Global in 2010 within a week and it was really not my fault… I am sure non of you would ask your conference guest’s sponsor to send a check to a complete stranger, another TED conference guest (another TED volunteer) living in the US, so that she could wire the money (my sponsor’s money and her own) together to TED in New York… dilettantism of a TED employee to ask something like that and think that she is being helpful. In turn the TED employee acted all hurt when I responded with a clear no and poinTED out that her conduct is unprofessional (I should know, because I have my NGO founder and director experience)… This mistake was never fixed by the TED team… First I was really angry, but later got over it thinking, I really don’t need snobs and ignorance in one package, even if it were offered at a volunteer discount and covered with TED’s world famous intellectual lobster sauce… an idea worth spreading… By the way, that particular telecommuting and flextime dilettante was paid 76 680 USD in 2010, and she is the fifth highest paid independent contractor of the Sapling Foundation. Picture that! Chris and his employees find it hard to deal with valid opinion… and he really only pretends to be egalitarian, extremely nice, or flexible. He is really elitist, selective, and (passive) aggressive… but if you did not spend a lot of time watching him, you would not immediately notice that the humble, kind facade hides a really insecure, driven, and snobbish human, who drinks a lot at TED parties. He is really intelligent in his own way, but he will never in his life be as original, as laid back, and as playful as Wurman is. Chris is the type who is primarily and largely using other people’s ideas to become successful (this is an important talent, indeed, you know, because humans use each others ideas, some more, some less, but we all do), but unfortunately uninvites them from their own invention. This is a sad thing, because Wurman might have been able to help reinvent TED again.

Wurman is the kind of man who says, f’ck you Chris, if you can not deal with my opinion and even publicly reject me as a person, I will create new conferences for my own entertainment and share it with anyone who pays for global simulcast events or for the related smart phone app. And he will! However, most people won’t receive Wurman’s conference content, he will create something super elitist again. Who will pay? The elite, the middle class, and the rest of the world won’t get anything. Chris is about structure within structure, available to anyone (the TED brand contains the restricted format talks that are shared), Wurman is about structure filled with elite improvisation (here is the brand, lets see what happens within, and you can also find out if you have the money).

Meanwhile, the world is getting more and more interested in new ideas, inspiration, role models, but even interactive conferences won’t solve the problems out there. People need to be more involved and global platforms for real life solutions are needed to utilize inspiration and interconnectedness. Chris thinks he wants to change the world (and earn a lot of money). Wurman wants to have intellectual fun (and earn a lot of money).

English: Chris Anderson and Richard Wurman get...

Image via Wikipedia

While the brilliant boys are out fighting, I am thinking about the talks, the top speakers, the ideas, the connection of ideas, the technology that made this possible, and the people who made this technology possible, the diligent and enthusiastic volunteers, the sponsors, the donors, and it is clear, what Richard and Chris are doing for people is wonderful. Let’s hope their egos don’t get in the way. It would be useful if the speakers would also make available their key research articles via TED, for those who wish to go further (like me) but are typically not at US universities right now (many are, but most aren’t) where they are able to read any article for free. Let’s reinvent the TED slogan: inspiring and applicable ideas in depth worth spreading.

Also, we need global action community initiatives where people would be able to act upon their inspiration in cooperation with others. Basic written TED conversations on the TED site are limited and pointless in the long run. Talk talk talk… write, write, write… that alone is not going to take us much further. Actions will. I think supporting The City 2.0 is a good start, but why is it impossible to register on it for a week? How is it possible that a pro NGO with so many technology professionals in its network is unable to introduce a social media integrated partner website that actually works by the time it is exposed to the world? Having written dozens of suggestions to the TED team over the years… and not getting any results… well, for an enthusiastic and communicative volunteer there comes a point when she starts looking for more open minded organizations to support… I feel like I have done enough volunteering (especially for rigid and unresponsive multi million dollar foundations), no matter how useful my translations are for my own nation… and lets face it, my nation is not doing much for me (nothing really). The speakers are rewarded with extra PR, so I should not worry about them. I am looking forward to Wurman’s new conferences… But wait… at TED I am given free live conference stream for my several dozen TED translations… but who will translate the 50 minute Wurman conference discussions? TED has over 8000 enthusiastic open translation project volunteers… And that has to do with the fact that Wurman invented TED and Anderson made TED accessible. This is how most people will remember them 100 years from now.

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