The History of TED Talks

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Answers by Chris Anderson, Head of TED, on Quora.

A: TED's been around since 1984! For its first 18 years it was simply an annual conference in California dedicated to Technology, Entertainment and Design. I bought it in 2001 and converted it into a non-profit. Since then the content has continued to broaden to cover all topics and we began looking for ways to share the content with the broader world.

It took a while. We tried and failed to get TED onto television. But in 2006, with the arrival of online video, we started 'TED Talks' as an experimental video podcast, and when it worked, we decided we would begin giving away all our best content as 'ideas worth spreading'. Since then, most people's experience of TED has been viewing the talks online.

So I guess the idea emerged out of the collision between a conference, a new technology, and the need for a nonprofit org to pursue its mission!


A: Measuring the impact of a TED Talk is one of the most challenging aspects of our work because talks move everybody differently, and often on an individual basis. We have no formal way of capturing these! Who's to say how a single talk might affect a teenager watching from a favela in Rio or an entrepreneur in Shanghai? Many TED speakers tell us that posting their talk has been transformative for their work.

But we suspect the best way to think of TED's impact is not in advancing certain causes or issues, but more in prompting individual viewers to get excited about their own potential to nudge the future.


A: We probably wouldn't describe TED that way ourselves... I think we feel we're on a constant learning journey, and get plenty of things wrong. BUT it's certainly been exciting to see the platform grow.

I think we were at the right place at the right time. Ten years ago, online video flickered into life as a viable medium. Back then, TED was an annual conference built on a uniquely short-form format. Talks were 18 minutes or less, and they covered a wide variety of topics. Also they were being recorded with high production values. Also those things worked to our advantage. When, as an experiment back in 2006, we tried putting 6 talks online for free distribution, we discovered to our delight that a) people who watched them really loved them and b) they were starting to go viral.

TED is owned by a nonprofit foundation whose mission is to spread knowledge. So, it suddenly became clear that online video was our route to letting the ideas shared at TED escape the coop. We should no longer just be a conference, we should be an engine for sharing talks for free globally. Since then TED has a grown from a few thousand talks viewed every day to more than 3 million. Turns out there are a lot of people out there devoted to life-long learning.

Having said that, there's no complacency here. There are tons of things we could do better, and we're constantly trying to figure out how to better serve the speakers and ideas who drive our growth. It's still early days!

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