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Happy 8th anniversary, TED.com! A throwback look at the early days

Posted by: Kate Torgovnick May
Early-launch-page

Behold, what TED.com looked like on day one.

Step with me for a minute into an internet time machine. The date: June 27, 2006. The event: the first six TED Talks being posted online.

“Today, for the first time ever, we’re thrilled to present some of the most remarkable talks from TEDs past,” reads a blog post from Chris Anderson written on that day. (The image above shows exactly what the site looked like then, and you can watch a playlist of those first six talks below.) “It’s a big moment for us: Until now, the TED experience has been limited to 1,000 people each year. But we passionately believe that these talks deserve a much wider audience.”

The idea was to post a new talk every week. By September 2006, TED Talks had been viewed over a million times. In April 2007, TED.com was relaunched around the concept of Ideas Worth Spreading and became much closer to what you see today.

Our anniversary feels like a good time to reminisce. So I spoke to a few TED staffers who worked on TED.com in those early days. When did they realize TED.com could be on to something?

 

Michael Glass, Director of Film + Video. Hired January 2007 as video production specialist.

What would surprise people about the early days of TED.com?
It was all very informal for something that felt like it was turning into something. The entire TED archives were in a drawer. We used a cable modem and, when the internet would go down, someone would have to get up and unplug it.

What were your expectations when you started?
I got here around when we posted the 60th TED Talk. I thought it would be a neat little corner of the internet that people would hopefully discover, like Boingboing — something that would never really go mainstream, but that would be cherished.

Was there a moment when you realized, “We might be onto something big here?”
I remember trying to explain it to someone, and they were just truly mystified. And then a year later, they wrote me and said, “You gotta see this. I just found the best thing on the web.” I was like, “Yeah, yeah. That’s where I go every day.” The moment that really shifted everything for me was when they set up a stream of TED2007 for us in the office. I remember Caroline Porco was up and was having some of the biggest technical frustrations you could have — the entire thing wasn’t working and I was dying. But by the end of the talk, I literally got chills. That’s for me when I locked in. If I could go to work and get chills because of something someone was saying, I knew I should probably stick around.

 

Emily McManus, Editor of TED.com. Hired in January 2007 as writer/editor.

What would surprise people about the early days of TED.com?
It started up while United Airlines was still running their low-cost airline called “Ted.” Up until 2008, people would call the office looking for United Airlines. Also, when I started, TED headquarters was in Chris’ old apartment. My interview took place in a room that contained an actual bunk bed piled with boxes. By the time I started the following week, it had been replaced by a conference table.

What did you think would happen with TED.com?
I figured we would have a small, devoted audience. And I despaired of getting my parents to watch a talk. Seven years ago, you couldn’t ask a grownup to sit down and watch a video on their PC — they’d get up and start straightening the house.

What was the moment when you realized, “Wow, we might be onto something big here?”
It was when Isabel Allende’s talk starting putting up these huge numbers in Latin America. The talk had been newly translated into Spanish, but we weren’t especially promoting it beyond that. And we realized these view numbers were coming from emails — from one woman to another to another, hundreds of thousands of them. That knocked me out.

 

Jason Wishnow, filmmaker. Hired in 2006 as Director of Film + Video.

What’s the first memory that pops to mind of the early TED.com days?
The first time Hans Rosling visited the office, not long after we launched, he sat down with me to discuss, shot by shot, how I edited his TED Talk (“The Best Stats You’ve Ever Seen“). He asked about my decision to add an “instant replay” after his presentation, so I told him his presentation had been too kinetic to absorb all in one viewing, so the replay, which lasted exactly as long as the natural applause in the room, seemed fitting. He explained the nuances behind his lecturing technique—that as a global health statistician, if he’s too serious then people might grow bored and ignore the data, but if he’s too funny, then people might mistake him for a clown, so he walks a razor’s edge between pedagogy and joking around. That stuck in my mind.

What did you expect once the first six talks were published?
Outsiders warned us it would be career suicide to put lectures online, and insiders worried it might kill TED. But we knew we were on to something brilliant because we had been in the room at TED2006 and experienced Hans Rosling, Sir Ken RobinsonAl GoreMajora Carter, and Tony Robbins speak (or sing, in the case of David Pogue). We poured so much attention into every little element of those videos to make the presentations as memorable as possible.

What was the moment when you realized it might be even bigger than you expected?
I walked into the office one morning and Chris said, “Good, everyone is here. We need to have a meeting. I rewrote our business plan over the weekend. Based on the success of TED Talks, we can no longer be a conference with a web presence on the side. From now on we are a major media outlet dedicated to knowledge and ideas and inspiration for the world. ‘Ideas worth … something.’” Just like that. Only, it’s Chris, so he was more eloquent and had a great accent.

 

Bruce Bell, Design Director at Square. Designed TED’s 2007 website.

What would surprise people about the early days of TED.com?
Web video wasn’t a “thing” yet. June [Cohen, Executive Producer of TED Media] had the vision to internalize the early success of sites like YouTube instead of producing television content. TED definitely did its part to make video consumption on the web the viewing experience it is today.

What was your expectation of what would happen once the first talks were posted?
I knew it would take off. It was a fresh idea, a new formula for cinematography in a space that needed reinvention. Our big miss was that we thought Themes would reign, like TV channels, but it didn’t quite turn out like that.

When was the moment when you realized, “We’re onto something big here?”
I always thought, “How could it not be big?” It had built-in demand and an enormous market. And amazing content creators who needed an outlet.

 

Matthew Trost, Software Engineer. TED’s first intern.

What would surprise people about the early days of TED.com?
How small the website team was. I remember a group of around five in charge of running TED.com from day to day: editing videos, producing images, writing copy, wrangling code. Before my interview, I had imagined TED.com must be backed by a massive outfit like Hudsucker Industries, with its own switchboard and mailroom. Nope: just a small group of passionate, dedicated, awesome people.

What was your expectation for TED when you joined the site?
I knew TED was onto something big even before I started, and it’s why I wanted to join. The first talk I watched was Dan Gilbert’s on happiness, in 2006. Back then, the “Evolution of Dance” was the pinnacle of quality for online video. Dan Gilbert’s talk wasn’t just mind-blowing for the ideas he put forward; it showed the huge potential of a new kind of experience you could get online.

When was the moment when you realized, “This is even bigger than I imagined?”
When TED2008 speaker Jill Bolte Taylor was going to appear on Oprah. I still think of hers as the quintessential TED talk: fascinating science, personal emotion, gripping delivery. TED.com’s audience about doubled afterward, I think, and it never went back down. At some point around that time, I started to receive excitement — instead of blank stares — when I told someone I worked at TED.

What it looked like when we posted the first six talks.

What it looked like when we posted the first six talks.

And what the site looks like now.

And what the site looks like now.

This post originally ran on hello.TED.com, all about our recent redesign. Read more: