You know what I learned from SXSW? That I could totally make TED better.
From my POV, TED and SXSW are almost completely opposite from each other -- but each needs what the other has.
TED's motto is "Ideas Worth Spreading." SXSW's is "Tomorrow Happens Here." And that says a lot. TED speeches are amazing. My mind has been blown many times from the videos I've seen coming out of there. But the next day, I'm onto my business and it hardly ever comes up again, except in dinner conversations. The ideas are worth spreading, but the emphasis is on the worthiness of the ideas, not the spreadability of them. Enter SXSW...
SXSW is about the spreading, often at the expense of the idea. People gather, make plans, share code, talk shop and scheme about new systems and collaborations. And usually the subject is the social web; new tools for connecting. And they're do-ers. Makers. Tinkerers. Sure, a major portion of the ideas you hear about will end up being nothing more than lonely code, but there's an energy of making things happen at SXSW. It has a laboratory feel. I was sitting at a table last night, talking through an idea and the people at that table, literally, could have made that idea. There were coders sitting next to artists, writers, producers and publicists. All we needed was computers and phones. And the likeliness of that idea getting made is actually pretty high. Because I know who to call and we all broke bread together.
SXSW is kind of strangely devoid of tangible results -- that is, there are so many ideas, proposals, speeches and programs that you tend to get cynical because you just know they're not all going to get traction. Just check out Paul Carr's rant on Tech Crunch. It's not that Carr is completely wrong, it's that he belongs at TED. He's looking for a finished idea for proof of worthiness. He should be at the conference that celebrates that. But that conference could learn something from SXSW, too.
I know I could turn TED into a place where ideas actually do spread. But it would be a chiropractic shift in how they organize it. I doubt that they'd ever embrace or try it, for two major reasons:
1. It's apostle-based. TED does celebrate the inventor, the genius and the bringer of good, there is no doubt. It is an event for the "best and brightest" and those that are allowed to attend are of the same ilk. I think the strategy is to invite influencers and those with the kind of capital and following to make these ideas come true, It's an old process for the spreading of ideas, invented in Ancient Greece and Rome. And it's outdated.
I know people who go to TED. They're leaders. And leaders are delegators. They tackle large issues and hand off the small ones -- whatever system they work in needs that kind of top down approach. But that's not how spreading happens anymore, not on a grand scale. Even the most dynamically enthused TED conference-goer, is too limited, in terms of reach. Impassioned speeches are simply not the tipping point for great ideas.
TED would have to break down the structure of who's invited and who participates in order for this to work and I worry they're not interested in that. They have created a club that I think appeals to the egos of those who get to go (it certainly would if I went), and that ego-stroking is tough to let go of. It's too seductive.
2. Open source is complex. The other major hurdle to TED becoming more contemporary in how it spreads ideas is that the organization of their program is a relatively simple closed loop system. There are a number of complexities that surround the event -- certainly the work being done by the participants is enormously complex -- but the conference itself could be organized by any event planner. The invitations process, the event production and the website all employ very standard approaches.
TED needs to look at how SXSW organizes their event, perhaps even hijack it. It is a study in de-centralization. It is, itself, an open API. For TED to do that, they'd need to make available a lot more data, besides just the videos. In fact, the videos are perhaps the least important part of it. The videos should be the invitation to the event, not the result of the event. What happens next needs to be a collaborative and iterative process and collaboration of geniuses, organizers, builders and social media experts.
Is TED ready to organize an open source event of that complexity? I doubt it. They have too gorgeous a package right now. It would mean a Charlize Theron-in-Monster-like ability to let go of what it's famous for and expand itself through a destruction of its current image. Tough stuff.
TED needs what SXSW has. And SXSW needs what TED has. In some combined way, though, they could Make Ideas Happen. I wish they would. Because that's what the people want. And need.
Hell, I would organize it myself. I could do it, too. Just let me in the club. Oh, what would I wear?!