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March 01, 2012

TED’s Chris Anderson

James Duncan Davidson / TED

The curator behind the annual TED conference.

From February 27 through March 2, the city of Long Beach, California, plays host to media moguls, tech barons, philanthropic rock stars, ex-presidents and other assorted high flyers who pay thousands of dollars to attend the annual—and always-sold-out—TED Conference. Founded in 1984, TED, which originally stood for technology, entertainment and design, is a four-day festival of 18-minute speeches (never longer) on world-changing ideas. In 2001, TED was bought by the Sapling Foundation, a nonprofit founded by former magazine publisher Chris Anderson. As “curator,” Anderson has overseen many changes to the TED model, including the development of independently organized TEDx conferences around the world and the online database of more than a thousand TEDTalks. He shares his thoughts on its widening influence and appeal.

Q: In recent years, TED seems to have transformed from a conference into a global online community.

A: Yes, it used to be 800 people getting together once a year; now it’s about a million people a day watching TEDTalks online. When we first put up a few of the talks as an experiment, we got such impassioned responses that we decided to flip the organization on its head and think of ourselves not so much as a conference but as “ideas worth spreading,” building a big website around it. The conference is still the engine, but the website is the amplifier that takes the ideas to the world.

Q: When the first TEDx was held three years ago, there was a concern about diluting the brand. Has this happened?

A: Traditional knowledge would say you couldn’t possibly give your brand away to thousands of strangers around the world. But people have far exceeded our expectations in terms of the amount of time, effort, money and brilliance they’ve put in to these events. It’s been astounding to see. There’s now this global laboratory of people out there figuring out how to share ideas, and we learn from them every day.

Q: You even turn to the online community and TEDx to find speakers for the TED Conference.

A: Yes, there’s a nomination form on the website, and we get thousands of suggestions. We also track the 2,000 or so TEDx events around the globe and find amazing speakers that way. At a TEDx conference in Texas, for example, Brené Brown, who’s a research professor in social work at the University of Houston, gave a talk on vulnerability that’s had a deep impact. The video has become a global hit. So we’re bringing her to this year’s conference. We’ve also done something new this year: We held public auditions in New York, and 600 people applied. We’ve picked three who were truly extraordinary to come speak in Long Beach

Q: What TED projects do you think have had the most impact in the larger world?

A: We don’t have any way to measure in terms of dollars moved or dreams launched. I’d say that the biggest overall impact of TED may be the sense of empowerment it gives people. Those who watch a lot of TEDTalks start thinking of the future as something they can shape. I was on the radio the other day and a Ghanaian man called in. He said that listening to TEDTalks had persuaded him to go back to Ghana from America and get involved in projects there. And he was excited by it. There are countless stories like that.

The World of TED

Since Anderson took the reigns, TED has expanded exponentially, not just through the online community and the global TEDx conferences but also through efforts such as the TED Fellows, cohorts of 20 “paradigm-shifters” from all over the world, who attend either TED or TED Global in Edinburgh, Scotland. The TED Prize, started in 2005, is awarded $100,000 to help realize the winner’s “One Wish to Change the World.” This year, the beneficiary wasn’t a person but an idea: The City 2.0. “It seemed the idea itself, what sustainable cities of the future would look like, could really inspire people,” says Anderson. There’s also a new digital publishing imprint, TED Books, and, launching this March, a project called TED Ed, which Anderson describes as “an archive of short videos aimed at catalyzing curiosity among kids.”

Fact: At presstime, the most popular TEDTalk, with 8.3 million views, discusses the ways that schooling squelches creativity.