Quan-Haase: Why we have embraced a revolution in spreading ideas

So, what are TED talks?

The guiding principle for TED talks is ‘Ideas Worth Spreading.’ The goal is to connect individuals with great ideas to an infinitely large, diverse and global audience. The focus of the talks is on three key areas of central interest to society: Technology, Entertainment and Design.

The first series of TED talks started in 1984 as a one-time event and interestingly showcased one of the first Mac computers. Since 1990, an annual conference is held in Monterey, Calif. Most of these early events had tended to focus only on technology and design, which reflected its Silicon Valley roots. The appeal of TED talks has led to a rapid expansion of events and venues.

The annual TED conferences take place in Long Beach and the TEDActive conferences in Palm Springs. But since 2009, one-day TED events are organized all over the world, known as TEDx, and usually attract large local audiences.

Central to content created as part of the TED brand is the right to distribute the recorded videos under a Creative Commons License. This makes TED content open, free of cost and easily accessible to anyone with a connection to the Internet.

While many people believe TED talks are primarily meant for a ‘techy’ kind of audience, this is far from the truth. TED covers topics ranging from the latest technological gadget to how great leaders inspire action to simple things in life, such as what does happiness mean and what are the things in everyday life that make us happy.

But the reality is that no TED talk is like any other.

And the reason for this, is that TED talks provide a unique space that allows speakers to present their ideas in a concise and engaging manner, while still being able to express the uniqueness of their personalities.

There is nothing like the pressure of being brilliant in front of a global audience in the allocated timeframe of 12-20 minutes. Usually, TED talks draw on amazing visuals to emphasize points and exemplify key issues with narratives, recent events and prototypes. It is not your usual 60-120 minute slide after slide presentation.

The influence of TED talks continues to grow. The TED website, ted.com, is a window to a large digital archive, where presentations are organized by topic, speaker, title and other meta-data. It is ironic that what sparked the creation of this great online resource was the lack of support from the BBC for a television show; BBC thought the talks were “too intellectual.”

While the statistics vary greatly across sources, some suggest the number of views across all TED talks surpasses 1 billion. Sir Ken Robinson’s TED on Schools Kill Creativity given in 2006 has reached more than 15 million views; Jill Bolte Taylor’s talk on Stroke of Insight given in 2008 has reached nearly 11 million views .

Don’t be deceived, TEDs are not just talks. TEDs represent a cultural revolution of their own. A search on YouTube will reveal that thousands of talks have been archived on the Internet on any topic one can think of. But the majority only gets a few views.

Meanwhile, TEDs are highly popular. Not only that, a virtual community of followers has formed around TEDs. Three things make TEDs such a cultural icon in our networked society because they are:

  1. highly engaging, informative and comprehensive coverage of a very specialized topic;
  2. short enough that they can be fitted into small bits of free time in a busy schedule — while commuting, when waiting in line, while at the gym, in the shower, etc.;  and
  3. able to give the audience a sense of mastery and understanding of a topic that one may have known little about before.

At the heart of a good TED talk lies the ability to tell a compelling and personal story, which will not only convince the audience of the relevance of the topic, but will also provide sufficient detail and background for others to be able to link it to their own lives, key trends in society and future challenges facing humanity. Being able to engage and amuse a life audience has its own challenges.

Yet, TED talks have a life well beyond the mortar walls of the auditorium. TED talks need to speak to a virtual, unknown, diverse, and demanding digital audience, one that has little time, attention and patience, in addition to many competing venues for information, gaming and entertainment.

TED talks are so popular because they are able to create a meaningful bridge between experts and lay individuals — a connection that may otherwise not exist.

Anabel Quan-Haase is a Faculty of Information and Media Studies and Sociology professor at Western.