Is TED Really Spreading Ideas?

I know I’ve posted quite a few TED talks, and I’m an avid TED talk watcher. That’s why the headline “How TED Makes Ideas Smaller” on The Atlantic really caught my attention. How could this site that has only opened my mind and brought me inspiration be considered to make ideas smaller?

The article is an interesting read. The author says that TED claims to spread ideas (their catchphrase being “Ideas worth spreading”) but that these ideas are not just ideas, “they’re branded ideas.”

She talks of how we live in a world of networked knowledge, where our knowledge, ideas, even wisdom is breaking out of the confines of the printed book, and thinker’s brains, to be spread across the world in a hyper-connected online state. This means we are beginning to realize ideas take on a life of their own after they erupt from the inventor’s head. The idea that ideas should be contained, mass-produced and sold is a by-product of print technology. It’s a concept that has developed with the growth of print media and that before, ideas were “conversational and free-wheeling and collective”.

She even takes a stab at TED’s catchphrase, “ideas worth spreading” saying that the phrase itself implies that “spreading is itself a work of hierarchy and curation”.

The bottom line is that she is saying that the ideas in TED talks are the “cultural equivalent of a patent: a private claim to a public concept.” She says the ideas in TED talks aren’t presented as ideas; they’re presented as ideas by someone.

I think she’s being a bit harsh on my friend TED. Every troll on the Internet has his or her own ideas and concepts and beliefs on how the world should work. Everyone wants to have his or her say, whether they know what they’re talking about or not. The reason I love to watch TED talks, the reason I’m inspired by them and truly listen to them, is because they’re presented by someone. They have a real, knowledgeable face. They have a history.

A speaker lends authority to his or her speech. When a historian gets up and tells you about a historical event, you’re likely to listen to what he says closely. When an introvert stands up and talks about introverts, you listen to what they have to say about it. I don’t think of Susan Cain as someone who suddenly owns the idea of introversion being something that we should respect and allow for. I see her as the pump that pushes the water that is her idea out into the world, through the faucet that is the TED talk.

I don’t think TED talkers claim ownership of the ideas they come to the conference to present. They claim to have the passion and drive to push the idea out into the world and the desire to ask people to listen. I don’t think it’s fair to call the ideas that TED brings forth as “branded ideas”.

What do you think? Is TED a platform that constricts ideas because it merely facilitates the ownership of ideas? Or is it a channel for allowing ideas to flourish and grow across the world?