Why TED fails the duck test for elitism, and how it could reform itself

I had a brief but interesting conversation with Nilofer Merchant regarding the economics of TED yesterday.

Nilofer requested that we take the discussion into a longer format, and will kindly be taking the time to order her thoughts in a new post which I am looking forward to reading.

The point Nilofer makes in an earlier blog post on a similar theme about TED‘s capacity to offer focused curation, to provoke our sense of curiosity, and to expedite change are all worthy ones [EDIT: I mistook this post for Nilofer’s most recent comments, having misread the date. Nilofer has been gracious enough to point out my mistake in the comment published below. Here are her most recent thoughts on the topic].

Personally, I query the last assertion as to me TED seems heavily invested in preserving the interests of the status quo by means of its co-optation of new thinking.

However: how much more important could TED be if we were all simultaneously exposed to and encouraged to ponder the ideas that it promulgates?

Wouldn’t it be great if they were made available to everyone at the same time rather than doled out on a piecemeal basis, video by video?

Wouldn’t we all get more out of TED collectively, globally, as a series of shared experiences?

Wouldn’t TED be more likely to precipitate change through stimulating a wave of global engagement at the the same time, letting off thought bombs the echoes of which could be heard around the world synchronously?

I’d answer ‘yes’ to all of these questions.

TED‘s failure to consider how best to achieve such aspirations leave it open to criticism that it fails the duck test for elitism: if it looks elitist, sounds elitist, and conducts itself in a manner best described as elitist, then it is elitist.

It is within TED‘s power to change this by making a commitment to align its revenue generation needs with the social good by disseminating all its content live rather than charging for it, as well as offering an archive.


By raising ticket prices for in-real-life attendees in order to generate whatever level of revenue TED wishes to achieve, and then streaming the event for free as it happens.

Nilofer mentioned in one of her tweets that the TED audience is there to help the speakers tell the story. In order both to manifest the egalitarian outlook on the generation and propagation of ideas that is being claimed in their name and to refute criticism of elitism, they should also be afforded the opportunity to pay for its telling.

‘But aren’t events with even higher ticket prices even more elitist?’, I hear you ask?

Not necessarily, no.

I’m not going to claim that any organization, regardless of what it charges people to actually attend is elitist if it also elects to make all the content the event creates available online at no cost to the end user as it is generated, and maintains an archive of the same.

So, that’s my two cents as to how TED could amplify its significance and realize a broader potential value by reforming one of its business models.

What do you think?

10 thoughts on “Why TED fails the duck test for elitism, and how it could reform itself

  1. How dare you question such a sacred institution as TED? 😉

    Thank you for writing this. I think you make several excellent points and I’m glad you are asking these questions.

    Even an incredibly smart — albeit elitist — group attempting to disrupt groupthink and instigate change is subject to groupthink, right? Like you suggest, if the talks were livestreamed allowing diverse thinkers beyond the room to immediately participate in the event, that would seem to align more strongly with TED’s stated goals.

    But, so many of the talks really do raise important new ideas and encourage critical thinking.

    And let’s face it. Do you think the TED folks are open to suggestions on how to change this thing that everyone thinks is awesome and, by standards of your average business model, totally working. I suppose anything is possible, but I’m skeptical given the ego sizes we’re dealing with here.

    Maybe what we need is this? Maybe we need to form groups of people passionate about certain issues who are willing to a) discuss & question important issues that arise from TED talks b) start doing something about them. So take TED for what it is and instead examine those “ideas worth [or not] spreading” with groups of people who want to take action.

    I dunno? I suppose that would be difficult if you can’t even participate in the event. I do appreciate the provocation to think on a Sunday.

    • Hi Erica

      Thanks for taking the time to offer such a long position piece on a Sunday 🙂

      No shortage of talking from TED for sure, and yes, in my opinion they should be called out for not walking the walk.

      If they don’t want to be seen as a vector for their blue chip CEO delegates to muscle in on new ideas in the hope of preserving their corporate interest and would prefer to be perceived as a force for change rather than a cult, then they need to take themselves in hand.

      In all honesty, I don’t see it happening of course. TED events are coming to resemble Old Time Religion revivals more than anything else.

      Have mercy!

  2. Andrew –

    We started an exchange yesterday where I committed to do a more considered thought. Then, you read a post (clearly dated Monday, earlier this week, and did a rebuttal…

    Maybe how we take in information … How we listen… How we are open…. All matters.

    More soon,

  3. Thanks for tackling this, Andrew. There is a model that already does this dual in-person and live streaming programming: The Chopra Foundation. Recently, the Chopra Foundation hosted a conference (Sages and Scientists) at its Carlsbad, CA location. To attend in person, the price of admission was $2000, but you could virtually attend for $99. Guess which one I chose? I got to watch all the sessions live, participate in the discussion by providing questions via Twitter (all of mine got asked!) and in chatting with fellow online viewers via Tweetchat. The model exists. TED must decide if making money is more important than disseminating ideas.

  4. Whether or not TED chooses to stream live or not is way off the mark in my opinion. Whether or not TED is elitist or not is irrelevant to me. Most people who enjoy video talks from sites like TED (and that group is very, very, very small), don’t really care that the content is live or two months old. It is simply the content — as it stands — that is important to the larger majority of people who even know such sites exist. Content, not live streaming is what these types of sites are really about. Jim Melfi, Founder, VideoTalks.org.

  5. Curious if you were / are TED Associate member (past or present). I was and will be renewing next month. TED needs resources to sustain its efforts. With trying times. high ticket price is not reasonable. Members pick videos that resonate the most with them. Even with live webcast, time zone issues will still unable global engagement. At times, interacting with TED commenters is not my primary goal either.

    • Hi Janette. Thanks for the comment. No, I am not and never have been a TED affiliate. Whilst I have never been a ‘fan’, I feel that TED’s bred-in-the-bone elitism is beginning to look increasingly irrelevant.

  6. Pingback: Poor America « Collapse of Industrial Civilization

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