The European: How would you explain the success of TED?
Stein: The underlying philosophy of TED is radical openness, radical transparency. In 2001, Chris Anderson took TED over from Richard Saul Wurman. Until then, the conference gathered top thinkers only once a year and catered to an exclusive crowd. The first step that Chris took towards more transparency was to take these talks and put them online, for free at TED.com. It was a fairly risky step at that time because we did not know how our core community – those attending the conference – would react. Next, we launched the Open Translation Project bringing TED Talks beyond the English-speaking world by offering subtitles, interactive transcripts, and the ability for any talk to be translated by volunteers worldwide. Our volunteer force has translated thousands of talks into hundreds of different languages.
The European: And then came TEDx.
Stein: That was the final step. In 2008, TED Talks had been online for several years and we saw that people were not only connected to these talks in a very passionate way but also that the TED brand was becoming more visible globally. People were coming to us asking: “Can you bring TED to my city?” We started to think about a model where we could capture some of the passion we have seen for the brand and the talks, but open source it in a way that would allow the world access to great ideas without TED hosting hundreds of conferences around the world. That is how TEDx emerged.
The European: The format itself is very traditional: one speaker gives a lecture of 18 minutes in front of an audience and you broadcast it via the internet. Why did you stick to that pattern?
Stein: We created this 18 minute mark in order to keep people concise. The format had worked for almost twenty years. It was our DNA and what initially made TED so successful. The model is a little like old-fashion story telling. You have 18 minutes to tell a great story. With a great story you can make it as emotional as you want, or, in the case of more scientific talks, more simple to understand.
The European: Can you describe the impact you have on societies with TED and TEDx?
Stein: I struggle with this all the time. We have a global network of people who are having tremendous impact on their local communities and regions across the globe. These TEDx organizers are the thought leaders who are pushing ideas forward. They help give local people with interesting ideas a voice and a platform. In addition, the audiences who are attending TEDx events is curated so to help allow for that connection between what’s happening on the stage and off. The stuff that happens on stage is easier to quantify than the ideas that are born between the audience members. Those soft stories are harder to track, but are happening every day.
The European: How will we create innovation in a hundred years’ time?
Stein: It is really hard to look one hundred years into the future with an open source community, but I think we see the seeds of it right now. We have a global collaboration of ideas. You see it in politics and science and other areas will follow. I think that it is something very powerful. The “in person” is no longer necessary. You can collaborate virtually. Plans can be put online and ideas can be shared and lessons learned.
The European: You said that TED is like story telling. But every culture has a different kind of story telling and making things interesting. How do you make sure to be understandable in each cultural context?
Stein: Some cultures adapt more easily to the idea of an 18 minute talk on stage than others. Ultimately, that is the TED format. It is really interesting to watch how people around the world watch the TED talks online and then attempt to emulate them in their own culture. In some parts of the world it is definitely much more difficult but it is evolving. We have our first TEDx talk from Korea going up on TED.com this week. We are constantly reinventing TED and the next step will be looking in a deeper way at cultures across the globe and how the best talks for these individual communities can be represented and highlighted in a way that local communities can access them. Our attempt is to reach different communities and cultures in a more authentic way and expand on both the local and global conversation. This evolution is being very much driven by the TEDx community.
The European: Are there topics you would not allow to be on stage at TED?
Stein: In the TEDx guidelines, we ask our talks not to be political, not to be inflammatory, to generally shy away from religion and from pseudo-science. There is a lot of grey area around it, but we ask people to use discretion. We have the right to take talks down from the TEDx YouTube channel if we don’t feel they are in the spirit of TED or TEDx or could have a potentially negative impact on our overall curatorial strategy.
The European: But most of the time, talks about politics or religion are the most interesting parts of a conversation. Why do you keep that out?
Stein: It’s not about being a gatekeeper to interesting conversation, it’s about limiting topics that could incite inflammatory reactions that could ultimately force us to lose the sight of the real ideas. We are trying to keep focused on ideas and actually shift the world and make it better.
The European: Nevertheless, almost any topic has a political implication.
Stein: Anything can be perceived as being political. A lot depends on the delivery, how you present an idea. In his Atheism 2.0 speech, at TED Global, Alain de Botton talked about religion but presented an idea. His presentation was not at all inflammatory.
The European: The TED family is a global family. It consists of a big selection of people who matter in their contexts and countries. Is this a supplement to classical democracy? Can you have a political impact aside from the political democratic system?
Stein: We hope so. I think that is why we all work at TED. We just held TEDxSummit in Doha, Qatar, for 650 TEDx organizers. There were people from a hundred different countries. We spent a day in the desert, sitting in tents. Those tents were organized by regions. In the Middle Eastern tent, we had Saudis, Palestinians, Jews, and Lebanese talking about ideas, staying away from politics and coming up with ways to change the world in a positive way. In that moment you see the potential impact.
The European: Democracy also needs some new ideas, especially concerning transparency and participation. Wouldn’t TED be the right place to debate this?
Stein: A platform like TED would be the right place, but for now we are focused on how we can make our platform different and not get caught up in old rhetoric and debates. We are looking for new ideas to infuse the old.