The Global TEDx Phenomenon

You’ve probably seen a TED Talk. It’s an online video of 5 to 15 minutes in length, with an unusual, inspirational, or informative topic, recorded at one of two annual conferences with the overarching theme of “Technology, Entertainment, and Design.”

Some time in the past year or so I began to notice something new: talks branded “TEDx” with the name of a city or place. These are local events licensed by the same organization that holds the annual TED conferences. The first TEDx event was held at Mumbai, India in February, 2009. By October 2012, the month I attended TEDx MidAtlantic, my first, there had been over 5,000th events held around the world.

At TEDx MidAtlantic, organizers shared stories and videos from the first TEDxSummit, a gathering of organizers of other events around the world, held at Doha, Qatar in April. This week, the community has been buzzing with the publication of an article about TEDx in the December issue of WIRED magazine.

I was curious about where and when these 5,000 events had taken place, so I obtained a list of every TEDx event and created an interactive data visualization. It looks like the map that accompanies the WIRED article, but what makes this one special is that you can filter by region, event size, or even by individual country. Special thanks to Boian at TED Conferences, LLC, for providing the data.

In nearly four years of TEDx, there have been events in over 1,000 cities in 141 countries. Even more remarkable, the growth is the same wherever you look. Rather than a gradual geographical migration, the TEDx phenomenon seems to be blooming everywhere at once.

TED has built a cult-like following, in large part, by giving content away for free. Few of us will be paying $7,500 to attend TED2013 in Long Beach. But many of us will watch videos of the talks. TED has gone out of their way to make them available: on the TED site, the YouTube channel, the Roku channel, the video podcast, the iOS app, etc. TED just logged its billionth video view this week.

Precisely because TED Talks are ubiquitous online, and the themes are human and universal, they have spawned a borderless global community, and TEDx is the physical extension. This creates a challenge and an opportunity. The challenge is whether the content of these mini-TED events can retain the same level of quality that online viewers have come to expect. While TED defines the format and the branding, TEDx content itself is generated and curated locally.

The opportunity is something that the WIRED article touches on very well, the idea of “predictable unpredictability” that has been the subject of recent academic research on how physical gatherings work in the information age. When we are online, we have full control of what we see and hear; and tend to select just the information we want. However, when we are sharing a physical space with others and following a program of speakers, we relinquish control of our content filters and open ourselves up to unexpected realizations and interactions.

No one knows whether TEDx will continue to grow, or change, or be replaced by something else. The Salon and coffeehouse both gained and eventually lost their place as a setting for intellectual and artistic exploration and discussion. For the time being, I will follow this new movement with interest and appreciation for the rare opportunity it provides to give voice and rapt attention to new and thought provoking ideas.

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