JIM LECINSKI: Well, good Friday afternoon, everyone, and welcome to another exciting edition of Authors at Google. We’re originating today from our wonderful Google Chicago office. Round of applause.
I will be your presumptive moderator for the day using the zeitgeist word of the day. I’m Jim Lecisnki, and our guest today is with us, Chris Anderson. Chris is the curator of the TED conference and has been since 2002, following a long and successful career in the publishing industry. We’ll talk a little bit about that today.
Chris has developed TED into a global platform for identifying and disseminating ideas worth spreading. Welcome, Chris. So great to have you with us. I wonder if maybe we could get started, if you’d tell us a little bit about your background. I mentioned the publishing. How does a philosophy major and publisher come to lead and transform one of the world’s great digital brands?
CHRIS ANDERSON: Definitely a long, twisting journey. I was a journalist originally, actually, when I first came out of university, and I made the mistake of buying one of the early computers. It was like a Tandy TRSAT clone. And I was awed by this thing. I kind of completely fell in love with it, and to cut a long story short, a few years later, I found myself working at one of the early home computer magazines, and I loved that.
And then I decided, this isn’t so hard. Let’s publish one. So I started a company, published a magazine Bizarrely, it worked, and then this thing took off. And so the publishing part was just building lots and lots of these nichey hobbyist magazines that were deeply boring to everyone, except the people they were targeted at, who kind of loved them.
And so we had this philosophy. Our complete logo was actually, “Media with passion.” And that’s always been my mantra as an entrepreneur is look for the passion. If you can find something that people are really passionate about, that’s your clue that there’s something there, that this is kind of the proxy for potential.
And so when I first came to TED in 1998, TED was back then, it was actually started in ’84. Nothing on the internet, of course. It was an annual conference. That was it. And I went there in ’98. It was bringing together Technology, Entertainment, Design: TED, and I fell in love with it.
I thought, I’ve come home. And what I saw was this passion. People were so passionate about it. It was like, this is my best week of the year. And I thought, why is this your best week of the year? But that was the clue.
And so when there was a chance to buy TED from its founder– he was 65– and I leapt at it. And so that happened in 2001, and the journey since then has been a wild journey of its own. But that’s how I got there.
JIM LECINSKI: Great. And we’ll talk about that journey since then. In some sense, it’s been said that it was the power of what was then new media back in 2006, online video in particular, that really gave TED its boost. Would you say that’s the case?
CHRIS ANDERSON: That’s absolutely the case. When I bought it, I bought it with a nonprofit, a foundation I had. And so the intention was always, it felt like there was all this inspiration. It was supposed to be for the public good somehow, but how could you let out the knowledge that was at this private conference to the world? And our first attempt to do that was on TV, and TV wasn’t interested.
These are lectures. They’re lectures. They’re kind of boring. Lectures are boring. Now I didn’t actually listen to them, because they weren’t boring. But they weren’t interested. And so yeah. So when this weird technology called online video with its shaky little kittens and all these other things happening came along, we thought, wait a sec. Maybe we could, as an experiment, put some TED Talks up. Probably won’t work.
They’re too long for the internet, and you’re not going to be there live. It’s on video. To our amazement, these things went viral, and so that was the moment, 2006, when we decided we had to flip TED on its head. We’re no longer just a conference. We’re a media organization devoted to sharing ideas.
JIM LECINSKI: And so let’s build on that a little bit. You described what TED stands for, T-E-D, but how would you talk about its meaning, its purpose? What does the brand stand for?
CHRIS ANDERSON: It stands for the bringing together of knowledge in ways that people can understand. The world’s really complicated, and most of the time, we go deep. You have to know something well to have a chance of succeeding. You dig deep.
You learn your speciality well. And that’s how most things operate. That’s how most conferences operate, most university courses, whatever. That’s what you have to do. But there’s a place for context to actually understand the world we’re in.
You need to go broader than that. And actually, lots of other things happen when you bring together knowledge from different areas. You get the catalyzing of new ideas. You get the possibility of collaboration, and so I think that’s what hit me suddenly was why TED had a role to play. There’s just not much of that happens.
And so if you can persuade people to come together from these different fields and explain something they’re passionate about in ways that other people can actually understand, that, I think, that definitely over a few days, for example, that had the effect of selling these spots in your brain. And you just thought of stuff that you hadn’t thought of before. And so that’s what it stands for.
JIM LECINSKI: We’ll come back and chat a little bit in a second about the power of how those talks are built on understandable ideas. But I want to pursue — you mentioned the word collaboration. Most of our audiences has not had the pleasure of actually attending the conference when they were in Long Beach or now back in Vancouver, so could you maybe paint a little picture about not just the speakers on the stage that we can see by watching the video, but it’s a full four-day collaboration event with the dinners. And can you maybe paint picture of what happens during that week?
CHRIS ANDERSON: Sure. So yeah, it’s four and 1/2-ish days. There are basically 12 main sessions of TED. Each session is an hour and 45 minutes, and it’s five to six speakers, plus other little performances and things thrown in there.