WorldCon Panel: “We Have to Talk About TED” #loncon3 #worldcon

Sorry for the belated report, I’ve been catching up and a little unwell. I was lucky enough to participate in a panel entitled “We Need To Talk About TED”, which was chaired by Chad Orzel and featured (in programme order) Dr Sarah Dillon, Andrea Phillips, Vanessa Harden, and me! The panel was split into two groups based on who had and who had not given a TED talk (and for the record, I haven’t) so we focussed on the experiences of people who had undertaken TED talks and, from the academic perspective, the impact, reach and curation issues of TED talks. TED stands for Technology, Entertainment and Design and the basic idea is that TED is used to disseminate “Ideas worth sharing” and has been for about 30 years. In recent years, electronic delivery has increased the reach of TED and TED talks have a very high impact across the video streams of the world.

From those who have attended, a big TED event is an absolute blast. You do a full rehearsal the day before, it’s high production, you get a big haul of high-quality swag, and it’s a reputation booster. Vanessa, an artist who works in interventions (altering spaces to get people thinking and interacting with the space in new or other ways), made the really good point that there was such a big divide between those who had been part of TED and those who were looking in from it, as an academic perspective. This is a great point, because it helps us to remember that TED talks (the big ones) are something that you strive to get to present. The main conference is limited to a smallish number of people and is very expensive, so you have to be showing something pretty good to get there. Chad commented that, from his experience, TED talks were pretty well-balanced in terms of demography and inclusion and this was reiterated by other panellists as well.

My issue stems from my outsider’s view on TED, looking at what we are seeing, the impact of these highly professional and appealing videos and what has come from them. I’m a bit of a numbers guy so let’s look at the numbers. (The other panellists should feel positively inspired to jump and down in the comments to get their points further exposed too. Please!)

Overall, if we look at the top 20 TED talks, they are roughly 15:50 minutes long (on average), which is longer than the usual TED average of about 14:10, and they have, in total, over 88 million views. If people are watching them to the end, then that means we have spent:

416,000 years

watching the top 20 TED talks alone. That’s quite a lot of time, so are all of these videos worth watching? Well, a few of them deal with technology that has … for what of a better word … never quite worked outside of the TED talk or delivered on the scale promised. If we look at SixthSense technology, people have spent about 400 years watching videos on something that has never quite delivered. Why are these videos still in the top 20?

There’s something called the Matthew Effect, which basically means that success breeds success (you might know it as ‘accumulated advantage’). Because these talks made it on to the top 20 a few years back, they get watched more because they have made it on to the top 20. Now, within the top 20, we do some movement up and down the rankings, and, yes, the SixthSense stuff is dropping (about 5 places over the last 2 years) but it’s still there because you look for a list of top 20 videos (this one is from 2012) and that’s what comes out. New videos do make it on and make it higher up – the video on things you didn’t know about orgasm is (quell surprise) 5 places higher after 2 years – but, in terms of a video, success breeds success because of the way that our recommender and listicle based web culture works.

So, even thought TED can distribute ‘ideas worth sharing’, there is inertia in getting rid of “ideas that would have been worth sharing had they actually worked properly”. Don’t get me wrong, the tech world is full of “tried it, didn’t work, try something else” but the problem here is that the well-produced and lingering TED videos can make something look current and attractive when, in reality, it’s over and done. As far as I know (corrections below please), there is no TED expiry mechanism.

TED really shines at Entertainment and Design because TED is a platform for 15 minutes of inspirational wonder – there is no doubt that some of the best talks on the Internet can be found at TED. (My favourite is Dan Pink, to no-one’s surprise.) But as those who had given TED talks on the panel noted, if your rehearsal was too technical in nature, it was time to remove slides and keep the message moving along a little more simply. And this is where we started to head into murkier waters with technological issues.

There’s nothing special about technology and giving inspirational talks about technology, as long as we’re clear on what we’re talking about. There is a big difference between talking about something that works and talking about something that might work. An idea in entertainment and design can be realised by many people and shared widely. An idea based on technology and the development of a key platform will need that platform, which is where SixthSense appears to have fallen down.

So the next thing about TED that we really have to talk about is that it’s always going to be light on the detail of technology and it’s easy to confuse wishes with reality, presentations with progress. Not a problem if we’re clear but a real problem if we’re not.

The final thing that I wanted to address was the curation of TED because not every TED talk goes up on the web. It’s a big deal to make it up onto the TED site, or associated YouTube channel, especially if you’re coming from one of the TEDx local talks or something other than the big talks. And one thing that happens in that curation is a demographic shift. Suddenly, the balanced environment of the conference turns into a video presence that is only 27% women, and a vast over-representation of Californians. There also appears to be a (questionably subtle) bias against certain issues, including women’s reproductive health and some less conventional approaches. If we were getting all of the TED talks then we would see what was going on. Instead, what we see is a snapshot that appears to refine the TED message seen by people at the talk into something that we get to see from the outside. And that’s not ideal.

So, if TED inspires you, that’s great but you need to keep in mind the list of things I outlined above, which comes from the whole group of people on the panel:

  1. TED talks are popular, at least in some part, because they are popular and there’s no clear way of telling if a TED talk is a good presentation for an idea that is proven, yet to be proven or has in fact been found to need a lot more work.
  2. TED is great for the E and the D but the technology can be light on. That’s fine if you’re looking for inspiration but not always so great if you’re looking for platforms that work and work now.
  3. The curation of TED appears to have some bias issues and, whether that’s a deliberate or an accident, it’s skewing TED to being a bit of a “things Californian guys like” and, while that isn’t necessarily a problem, it doesn’t appear to reflect what TED is when you get inside.
  4. TED may not set out to be elitist but its exclusivity and curatorial approach appears to cultivate an elite aspect that could fall into that trap.

It was a fascinating panel to be on and I learned a great deal from talking to the other panellists! I’m sure that they will pull me up on things that I missed.

 


2 Comments on “WorldCon Panel: “We Have to Talk About TED” #loncon3 #worldcon”

  1. I’m a bit confused about “TED may not set out to be elitist but its exclusivity and curatorial approach appears to cultivate an elite aspect that could fall into that trap.” TED was originally set up as a very expensive lecture series for very rich guys, to get them to invest in stuff. They may be trying to shed that history, but they started out very deliberately elitist.

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    • nickfalkner says:

      From what I’ve gleaned from TED participants, TED has been trying to shed that image and, as an organisation that spans 30 years, you’d expect some change. I think that they’ve created an environment where opportunity can knock but it will still favour the elite, even if it’s not strictly elitist any more.

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