Why do people hate TED so much?

I realize that as the author of a listicle titled "10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored," I may not be in the best position to tackle this subject, but it seems like the snark and mockery aimed at the annual TED talks — currently being held in Long Beach and Palm Beach California, and ...

By , a former associate editor at Foreign Policy.
TED via Facebook
TED via Facebook
TED via Facebook

I realize that as the author of a listicle titled "10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored," I may not be in the best position to tackle this subject, but it seems like the snark and mockery aimed at the annual TED talks -- currently being held in Long Beach and Palm Beach California, and their TEDx offshoots around the world, has reached a fever pitch, and there's something of a pro-TED backlash brewing. 

Slate's Matthew Yglesias and Grist's David Roberts took to Twitter yesterday to express bafflement at all the TED-hate out there, and Roberts offered a pretty cogent defense of the TED phenomenon.

Alternative to casual internet user picking up idea from TED talk is *not* casual internet user being fully educated on a topic.

I realize that as the author of a listicle titled "10 TED Talks They Should Have Censored," I may not be in the best position to tackle this subject, but it seems like the snark and mockery aimed at the annual TED talks — currently being held in Long Beach and Palm Beach California, and their TEDx offshoots around the world, has reached a fever pitch, and there’s something of a pro-TED backlash brewing. 

Slate‘s Matthew Yglesias and Grist‘s David Roberts took to Twitter yesterday to express bafflement at all the TED-hate out there, and Roberts offered a pretty cogent defense of the TED phenomenon.

Alternative to casual internet user picking up idea from TED talk is *not* casual internet user being fully educated on a topic.

Like, if Average Joe wasn’t burdened with that glib, simplified TED talk, he’d probably go read the original literature, right? 

This got me thinking about why it is that TED irritates so many people. The world "elitist" gets thrown around a lot to describe Chris Anderson’s institution, which charges $6,000 for membership. But that’s a hard label to pin on them given that they put all their talks online for free.

Some are also put off by the gee-whiz Silicon Valley buzzword culture surrounding TED. Take, for example, the names of of this year’s sessions, which include "progress enigma," "beautiful imperfection," and "disrupt!" But let’s be honest, anyone who’s attended an academic or media conference has seen equally vague but more boring versions of these. Best not even to discuss the World Economic Forum, whose theme was "Dynamic Resilience" this year.

Some charge that TED has devolved into a glorified self-help seminar, a kind of Tony Robbins for geeks. (Sometimes featuring the actual Tony Robbins.) Yes, there’s a certain amount of this, but you’re just as likely to hear prominent scholars like Saskia Sassen, Jared Diamond, or Peter Singer sharing their latest work.

The biggest charge critics level at TED is that it glorifies "ideas" for their own sake, and rewards snappy presentation over rigorous thought or intellectual debate. 

The New Statesman‘s Martin Robbins writes:

The genius of TED is that it takes capable-but-ordinary speakers, doing old talks they’ve performed many times elsewhere, and dresses them up in a production that makes you feel like you’re watching Kennedy announce the race to the moon.

Evgeny Morozov, who, by the way, once gave a really good TED talk, takes it further:

Today TED is an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering—a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity, to live in the form of videos, tweets, and now e-books. In the world of TED—or, to use their argot, in the TED “ecosystem”—books become talks, talks become memes, memes become projects, projects become talks, talks become books—and so it goes ad infinitum in the sizzling Stakhanovite cycle of memetics, until any shade of depth or nuance disappears into the virtual void.

Nathan Heller took a similarly skeptical tone in his New Yorker dispatch from TED last year, noting that "More than half of Long Beach talks end in standing ovations."

It’s certainly fair to say that not every idea presented at TED is "worth spreading," but quite a few are. I could just as easily put together a list of the "10 dumbest magazine articles" of last year — hell, of last week — but I wouldn’t condemn the entire form. 

Ultimately, I suspect it’s the style more than the content that annoys critics — and often annoys me. There’s a certain dorm-room "is the blue I see the same as the blue you see?" vibe to many TED talks that can be very grating. (The Onion Talks web series parodies this brilliantly with videos like "What is the biggest rock?" and "A future where all robots have penises.")

But again, the magazine comparison is useful. I wouldn’t avoid reading an interesting-looking article in Vanity Fair because I’m not really interested in the Kennedy family, Marilyn Monroe, or Hamptons garden parties. Similarly, you don’t really have to buy the TED ethos to be grateful for the fact that a slew of fascinating talks are available for free at the click of a mouse.

Joshua Keating was an associate editor at Foreign Policy. Twitter: @joshuakeating

More from Foreign Policy

An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.
An illustration shows George Kennan, the father of Cold War containment strategy.

Is Cold War Inevitable?

A new biography of George Kennan, the father of containment, raises questions about whether the old Cold War—and the emerging one with China—could have been avoided.

U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.
U.S. President Joe Biden speaks on the DISCLOSE Act.

So You Want to Buy an Ambassadorship

The United States is the only Western government that routinely rewards mega-donors with top diplomatic posts.

Chinese President Xi jinping  toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.
Chinese President Xi jinping toasts the guests during a banquet marking the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People's Republic of China on September 30, 2019 in Beijing, China.

Can China Pull Off Its Charm Offensive?

Why Beijing’s foreign-policy reset will—or won’t—work out.

Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.
Turkish Defense Minister Hulusi Akar chairs a meeting in Ankara, Turkey on Nov. 21, 2022.

Turkey’s Problem Isn’t Sweden. It’s the United States.

Erdogan has focused on Stockholm’s stance toward Kurdish exile groups, but Ankara’s real demand is the end of U.S. support for Kurds in Syria.