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Is It Possible to Be Elitist in a Good Way? The Organizers of TED Would Like You to Think So

With a $6,000 price tag, TED caters to an exclusive group of tastemakers and moguls ... is it enough that anyone can watch videos from the conference for free?

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There is also TEDActive, a simulcast event in Palm Springs, where attendees pay $3,750 for the honor of watching the Long Beach conference on a huge screen with a few hundred others. (Even this second-tier event -- which does include a few live speakers -- sells out.) As TED tries to evolve outward from technology and tech-industry types, it has organized other conferences. The other annual event is TEDGLOBAL, which is held in Oxford and costs $4,500. That audience is more international and diverse in terms of race, gender and age, Cohen says. TED also held a conference in Africa in 2008, and one in India in 2009; at each event 100 TED Fellows were invited to participate for free.

In order to extend the impact of TED, the conference offers a yearly TED Prize, which grants recipients a $100,000 wish deemed "big enough to change the world." Past recipients have included Bill Clinton and Bono (who are likely not itching for grants), as well as the eminent biologist E.O. Wilson, who wished to establish a networked encyclopedia of all the world's knowledge about life, and Neil Turok, a South African mathematical physicist who used the money to found the African Institute for Mathematical Sciences.

This year's recipient was TV chef Jamie Oliver, who put the money toward his wish to create a grassroots movement to end junk food culture in America and teach families and children about healthy, sustainable eating. (A recent AlterNet story revealed the shortcomings of Oliver's media-hyped project, raising questions about the lack of debate at TED. It seems as though one can communicate whatever one wants, as long as the message has style and aplomb.)

TED for the rest of us

In 2004, TED started exploring how it could more effectively fulfill its mission of spreading ideas beyond the room of attendees at each TED conference. By 2006, it started making the best of its TED talks available online for free. (And during each conference, people can pay to livestream the event at $995 per location.) In 2007, it launched an open translation project that relies on volunteer translations and has resulted in TED lectures now being available online in 70 different languages.

According to TED, its free videos are viewed 15 million times each month across all platforms. Its own site boasts 8 million visitors a month, of which 5 million are unique.

"It's turned our organization inside-out," says Cohen. "We've gone from focusing on small, elite, expensive events to really focusing on this large, expensive, democratized audience and that's where all the energy in the organization goes."

TED has certainly pioneered a new vehicle of communication that reaches many people. The videos have made TED a tremendous tastemaker, and an alluring way for people to get their ideas and information out to a relatively incomparable market. But the democratization of its broadcast hasn't really democratized debate or taken into account criticisms of TED.

Though TED could not immediately confirm what percentage of the organization's revenues or grants go into TED.com and other such democratizing efforts, the latest publicly available tax return for the Sapling Foundation (which runs TED), from 2008, shows that conference-related costs ran up to nearly $14 million, while the organization's total expenses and disbursements in 2008 came in at just under $23 million.

The move to what Cohen calls "radical openness" isn't just relegated to the online realm -- last year, TED started to allow less exclusive versions of its conferences to sprout up. Perhaps this trend was partly inspired by the success and interest in BIL, an entirely unofficial, more egalitarian version of TED. Founded in 2007, BIL is touted as an "unconference for people changing the world in big ways," and it runs alongside TED, attracting up to 800 of its own attendees, each of whom are asked to pay a suggested $20 donation or volunteer to help run the $5,000 event. BIL -- whose tagline is "Minds set free" -- even shares some of TED's speakers, and 10 percent of those who attend BIL are also TED attendees. Finally, like TED, BIL offers its content online.

Bill Erickson, 23, one of BIL's founders, says: "BIL is an experiment in a bottom-up structure; TED is talk-down. BIL is for people who are going to change the world; TED is for people who might already change the world."

Erickson's assessment may be true of the official TED conferences, but not of TEDx, which was launched in 2009 to oversee independently run, licensed events. No money is exchanged between TED and TEDx organizers, and the latter must commit to not turning a profit -- all ticket sales and sponsorships are used to cover event costs. TED approves the venue, date, name and size but does not necessarily approve the speakers. (Example: this TEDxNYED speaker spoke about how lectures are an outdated form of education and news.) Lectures must be filmed -- some videos even make it to TED.com -- and in order to ensure quality, 20 percent of each TEDx program must be recorded talks from the official TED conferences. Just as with TED, there is an application process for each TEDx, and while it is not as rigorous as the one for the official TED events, Erickson actually found himself at at party for TEDx Austin rejects.

There have been 500 TEDx events to date, with more than 500 planned. TEDx events range from 1,000-people conferences to a two-hour gathering hosted last August in Kibera, a massive shantytown in Kenya. It was open to anyone in the slum and a white sheet was strung up in order to project TED's videos. According to an organizer, the event avoided issues that are commonly discussed in Kibera, like HIV/AIDS and poverty, and instead included talks about art and other inspiring topics.

What are TED's ideas?

The mix of ideas at TED fall into six broad categories. An analysis of the content available on TED's Web site indicates that technology is the most highly represented lecture area, followed by science, global issues and design, which are all relatively equally represented. Entertainment and business follow, in that order. (About 30 percent of lecturers are culled from recommendations made by TED.com users.)

 
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