AMA: TED’s Chris Anderson answers Reddit’s questions right here

Posted by: Matthew Trost


Here on the TED Blog, TED Curator Chris Anderson answers the top 10 of last week’s questions in a Reddit-powered, TED community-driven Q&A.

jasontang asks: Have you had any speakers that you later regret having to some extent?

Er, yes indeed. There was the famous TV personality whose talk was so ego-full the audience actually started hissing at her. And the unforgettable case of the speaker who took just a few too many pre-talk drinks to calm the nerves. Trouble is, I can’t really name names because then people would hate me.

I guess about 25% of the talks from each conference never go up on the website. They may be solid, but just lack, for want of a better word, the “wow” factor. We want every talk online to be terrific — and one surprise benefit of doing this is that speakers are using past TED talks as the bar to beat, and putting in amazing amounts of preparation.

hot_pastrami asks: Have you given any thought to hosting debates between intellectuals with differing views? I find that a rousing debate can be a great way to combat confirmation bias.

Funny you should ask. We’re actually doing just that for the first time at TED2010 next month. Stewart Brand vs Mark Z. Jacobson over the proposition “What the world needs now is nuclear power.” Six minutes each, followed by six minutes of all hell letting loose. Then a vote. If it works, we could try to make it a regular feature.

knav asks: Has there been anyone that has not presented at TED yet who you would really like to be on?

But of course. Sticking with the living … Steve Jobs, Aung San Suu Kyi, Warren Buffet, Desmond Tutu, Meryl Streep, Jon Stewart, David Brooks, Sara Lawrence-Lightfoot, James Cameron, Mark Cuban (he accepted one year and never showed, but I still love him … kind of), Ian McEwan, David Attenborough … the list goes on.

My bet is quite a few of the above will show in the next couple years. It’s getting easier to persuade. But the funny thing is, the knockout talks usually come from the most unexpected places. So we spend more time trying to discover the less-known gems. We just met today with an utterly endearing under-the-radar artist who in 20 days’ time is going blow people’s socks off.

thedanielrecord asks: I love TED and the ideas it presents, however, $2,000 dollars (reduced-price membership) to attend the conference is still quite expensive. I understand that we are all given free video access to each speakers seminar but some truly inspiring thoughts occur between seminars amongst conference attendees. Do you think TED would benefit by reducing the cost of admissions in hopes of increasing access to these ideas worth spreading?

It’s kind of a myth to think that if we would only cut the price, everyone could show up and join in. We have an event that is sold out a year in advance, and we can’t make it much bigger than the 1,500 who come now (plus 400 in Palm Springs) because it would get too impersonal. If we cut the price (which is normally $6k), it wouldn’t allow any more people to come, it would just increase the number on the waitlist. At the same time we’d be losing the dollars that have paid for the creation of our website and allowed free distribution of the content to the world. (TED is a nonprofit — all the conference profits get recirculated to TED.com, TED Prize, and other programs. No one’s making money.)

I agree, it’s right to reserve some places for people who can’t afford the admission, and that’s why we introduced the Fellows program. Each year about 40 people get fellowships … but they’re chosen out of more than 2,000 who apply. And as you noticed, we offer a reduced rate to some nonprofits and educators.

Happily the TEDx program has spawned literally hundreds of independent TED events that charge $100 or less for admission. We think more than 50,000 people have attended one of these in the past 12 months, so that’s a lot more TED access than there’s ever been before.

More here: “Is TED elitist?

alexbo asks: If you could have anyone in history give a talk, who would it be and what would you want them to talk about?

Frankly, alexbo, having anyone show up from a prior century, anyone at all, would be pretty spectacular.

But let’s see. Maybe Mitochondrial Eve: “My dream for the species I mothered.”

Or, more seriously, Copernicus on “The Sun, the Earth and the greatest Aha moment of all time.” Translating the talk from Latin would be a drag, though. What about Charles Darwin? “Does design need a designer?” More recently, Richard Feynman or Carl Sagan or Buckminster Fuller would have been naturals.

CreekDK asks: What was the most profound talk ever given, in your mind?

Gosh. Well … David Deutsch’s dramatic illustration of a “typical” place in the universe is a contender. So is Dan Gilbert’s synthesized happiness. And Steve Pinker’s case for the decline of violence is remarkable. But the one that has had most impact on me? I’ll go with Barry Schwartz making the case that too much choice is a bad thing. Since then, I’ve often tried to take options off the table. It works, it really does.

jasontang asks: Who is your favourite speaker or what is your favourite kind of speaker?

I love the talks that offer a new way of seeing the world. There are so many examples of this:

… and all of the scientists showing off marvels that don’t normally cross our radar.

I also wouldn’t do without the tech demos that give you a delicious peek into the future, nor the great story-tellers who through their own vulnerability and humanity just make you feel a little more alive.

spasmdaze asks: I read that you came up with the idea for the TED Prize, that is, TED will annually grant 3 people $100,000 and “one wish to change the world.” At the moment, what would your one wish to change the world be?

Hmmm. I think I’d wish for every child to spend time at an international school. It’s certainly one of the best things that ever happened to me. All our biggest problems (pandemics, climate change, poverty, nuclear weapons) are a consequence of a world that’s now impossibly interconnected being run by people beholden to tribal interests. We maybe have about one generation to fix that.

venisoned asks: Do you have any plans to move away from the current invite-only model to a open, peer-reviewed model, where anyone with an idea worth spreading (irrespective of his/her eminence) can give a talk?

We already have something of a crowd-sourced model. The website receives literally thousands of speaker suggestions, and they’re invaluable in helping to craft the final program. I don’t think we’d ever completely outsource the process. It’s not just a random sequence of talks we put out each year … they need to connect with each other, and flow. But I DO love the thought of broadening who gets onto the stage.

One unexpected benefit of the TEDx program is that it’s allowed hundreds of people around the world to organize their own events and invite their own speakers. Some of them have stunned us … and you’re going to see some amazing talks going up on the website from TEDx before long.

Also on our to-do list is to give more visibility to the “my idea worth spreading” feature, which is already part of anyone’s profile page on TED.com. I’d like to let the community upvote these in a Reddit-like way. And yes, maybe the best ones could get talk invites. Thanks for nudging this.

MyrddinE asks: Before TED was ‘open to the world’, how did it work? I’ve never understood what business model TED operates under.

Before my foundation acquired it, TED was a boutique conference run as a for-profit business by its visionary founder Richard Saul Wurman. People paid a large fee to come to a conference in California once a year and, just through word-of-mouth, enough came for it to be a commercial success. Although I placed it inside a nonprofit foundation, the core conference has continued to grow, and is highly profitable, generating the money for all the other endeavors we’ve launched: TED Prize, TED Fellows, TEDx and most of all … the release of talks on TED.com. Remarkably, the community who come to the conference, far from resenting the fact we’re giving away the content now, have been cheering us on.

My first couple years running TED, our entire team was five people. Now we’re at about 50 and continuing to grow. It’s been exhilarating seeing so many around the world respond to these talks. 200 million have been watched online since 2006, and the pace has dramatically accelerated in the last year. (Now more than 400k are watched every day.)

Reddit has been one of the best drivers of traffic. TED-like talks never worked on TV, because it’s too easy to change channels on the first “um.” But on the back of an email recommendation from a friend, or a Reddit community front page endorsement, people will patiently listen through the first few minutes, enough time to get hooked … and lo and behold, a good talk can go viral.

So thank you to each of you. You’re all part of this.