Is It Possible to Be Elitist in a Good Way? The Organizers of TED Would Like You to Think So
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TED for the elite few
TED's tagline is "Ideas worth spreading." And while TED has made significant strides in widening the reach of the ideas it gives a platform to at its exclusive events, any analysis of the impact made by ideas presented at TED must necessarily include discussion of the conferences that continue to define the TED brand.
According to June Cohen, the executive producer of TED media and co-producer of the conference, attendees are "still skewed toward technology. With that comes that they skew white, male, and little bit older. Our community has been evolving, but we continue to welcome that core community."
It's not easy to find someone who has been to a TED conference who won't say anything but glowing things about it. Robert Scoble, a tech journalist in Silicon Valley, was among the few members of the media who was invited to TED2010 in Long Beach. He got a free ticket and doubts he'll ever get one again. "It's like driving a Maserati. I can't afford one but do I want to drive one for a few minutes? Yes!" Scoble exclaimed.
Despite his own success as an influential tech blogger, Scoble was floored by the power in the room with him. "Bill Gates is there. Larry Page is there. Arianna Huffington, Meg Ryan, the guy who started Crate & Barrel," he said. "It's a pretty exclusive place and that's what makes it so cool. You can talk to these people, and everyone there has done something interesting. It's maybe the one place where I don't mind elitism."
The elite nature of the conferences also doesn't bother Aubrey de Grey, who heads the SENS Foundation, which focuses on defeating human aging. He has spoken at TED events multiple times and believes the exclusivity has had a huge impact on his life's work. De Grey wrote in an e-mail that his 2005 talk at TEDGLOBAL, in particular, "probably attracted more people to the anti-aging cause than via all my other talks combined, of which there are probably about 300 now! So it's pretty hard to beat that." And this was before TED talks were available online.
Although attendees and speakers may feel that exclusivity helps TED -- making it "an intellectual Mardi Gras," according to a CBS employee who received a media pass; and leading Bill Gates to assert that the "combined IQ of the attendees is incredible" -- it hasn't stopped outsiders from claiming otherwise. Tech writer Sarah Lacy wrote for Newsweek in 2008 (after failing to get a ticket to TED), "I question whether even the loftiest ideas lose some relevance when they're aired in so rarefied an arena." This year, she wrote that TED still felt like an "invitation to rub shoulders with celebrities and talk about how compassionate of a millionaire you really are."
"The curation of the audience is important," Cohen says. "But there is an application process, it's not an invitation-only event." She estimates that the acceptance rate through the public application process is about 25 percent, though it varies from year to year. A "handful" of people don't need to apply, she says, adding that most people come through the application process.
Cohen assures TED doesn't want "all billionaires, venture capitalists, CEOs, celebrities," adding: "I don't think landed gentry describes TED attendees well." Scoble, however, feels that accurately describes the majority of the people he met at TED. "The rank-and-file attendees are people who have money," he says.
The mainstay of TED is still the original TED conference, which has expanded to host 1,500 people and is now hosted annually in Long Beach, Calif. The vast majority pays the full $6,000 cost. About 20 people each year from the public, education and nonprofit sectors apply and are granted a discounted $2,000 rate -- a price that is still rather exclusionary. A dozen or so people who have volunteered for TED -- say, as translators or as organizers of TED events -- are invited to attend at a lower cost as well. And another 30 to 40 who have been nominated and accepted as TED Fellows attend for free, all expenses covered. This means that of the 1,500 attendees, only about 3 percent of the audience attends at a discount or for free -- and only if they pass the application screening process. Put another way, TED is arguably 97 percent wildly elitist and 3 percent less so.