Arts Desk

This TEDx Thing Is Getting Out of Control


Attention, idea-starved masses! There are, like, so many ideas coming to town this month.

Since the founding of the TED conference (slogan: "Ideas worth spreading") in the 1980s, the event has hosted speeches by dozens of intellectual luminaries from across the globe. But TED is also a franchise, and this month, there are three distinct "TEDx" conferences taking place in D.C.

On Oct. 15 there's TEDxWDC at the Innovation Box in Anacostia, which focuses on creative entrepreneurship and features speakers like the executive director of Cultural Tourism DC, hip-hop/graffiti activist Mazi Mutafa, a handful of artists and playwrights, the guy who founded Co Co. Sala and the guy who founded Busboys & Poets, D.C. Office of Planning Director Harriet Tregoning, one guy behind a reasonably innovative film festival, one guy behind a decidedly non-innovative one, and more. The cost is $100, although TEDxWDC is selling sponsorships for as much as $5,000.

Then, on Oct. 18 at Woolly Mammoth Theatre, there's TEDxPennQuarter, whose theme this year is "REINVENTINGx." Speakers include musician Christylez Bacon ("REINVENTING Hip Hop"), tell-some memoirist Carol Joynt ("REINVENTING My Life"), Dogfish Head President Sam Calagione ("REINVENTING Beer"), Washington Post digital czar Vijay Ravindran ("REINVENTING The Newspaper"), Bluebrain musician Ryan Holladay ("REINVENTING The Album"), and many more. It costs $99.

If all that doesn't totally leave you tapped, then there's TEDxMidAtlantic on Oct. 29 at Sidney Harman Hall. The theme is "A Sense of Place," and speakers include celebrity chef Jose Andres, philanthropist Jean Case, Google veep Vint Cerf, and a bunch of academics and entrepreneurs. It costs $100.

So the whole TEDx concept—in which independent organizers get to use the "TED" name as long as they stick to the short-speech format, include at least two pre-recorded talks from actual TED conferences, keep out commercial, religious, or political agendas, and record it all on video—is beginning to feel pretty diluted. As individual YouTube clips, TED speeches work fine as intellectual pep talks. With their corporate-PowerPoint-presentation approach and short running time, they're good at getting you excited about an idea. But really learning about one? There are much more efficient ways.

And cheaper ways, too. Fine, so D.C.'s bevy of TEDx events cost less than the TED mothership's conferences (those are usually more than $3,000 to attend). But last time I checked, Politics & Prose events are still free, and they've got smart people speaking every night.

Call it a product of the fetishization of the idea: TEDx conferences promise a bunch of intelligent people speaking about new ideas in one long sitting—but the lower-rent they become, the less they seem to contain actual innovative thought of great import. Instead you get a bunch of people who are up to cool things, and who probably speak around D.C. all the time, and at less ambiguous gatherings—like this week's Future of Music Policy Summit, where Ryan Holladay also appeared. I have no idea what he's doing on the same bill as Carol Joynt.

Just because you can stand up and talk about what you do and somebody is recording it doesn't make it a TED talk. I hope the TED people are getting worried about brand abuse.

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  • Nate Mook

    To be fair to your article, this whole TEDx thing can seem overwhelming at first glance. To our credit, I will say that TEDxMidAtlantic took place at the same time last year. TEDxWDC (a new event) was originally scheduled for June, then for August, and then moved to October. TEDxPennQuarter was in July last year. Why they moved it to October when MidAtlantic is? No idea and some coordination would have been nice.

    That said, I'm really not sure what the problem is. Our event will have 800 attendees and it will be completely sold out. I assume the other events will fill up as well. If people want to attend and the events are a success, then who cares how many there are? Can you really have "too many ideas" being shared?

    Is it worth $100 (we sold most of our tickets early for $70)? Look at what you get:

    - A full day event (9am to 7pm) with 20-25 incredible speakers in the beautiful Shakespeare Theater
    - An opportunity to meet and connect with those speakers (Steve Case stayed most of our event last year)
    - Breakfast, lunch, and a post-event reception. Free drinks. Free coffee. Free food.
    - An opportunity to meet and connect with 800 awesome attendees from the region
    - Access to special events, which we are organizing around the conference

    That's pretty awesome for $70 if you ask me.

    Think TEDx is diluting TED with crappy events? You'd be surprised. Some of our talks are up on and have been viewed hundreds of thousands of times, a testament to their value:

    So… why not come to TEDxMidAtlantic and check it out for yourself? If you feel it's not worth the price or ruining TED, then you have experience to back it up. I'll be happy to put you on our press list. Just let me know.

    - Nate
    (One of the TEDxMidAtlantic organizers)

  • Cap City Records Panhandler

    Talk is cheap and that's all this stuff is.

  • Glennette

    Jonathan, you should have done your research into why there are so many TEDx events in DC. First off, TEDxMidatlantic, which originated in Baltimore, held there second event inDC last year. The organizers committed to alternating between DC and Baltimore, obviously, they broke their word. Also, the 2010 TEDxMidaltantic event was to be a collaboration with TEDxWDC. Here again, the TEDxWDC organizers were squeezed out of the planning and left with little time or resources to plan.

    DC is a diverse city with a lot of talent ant ideas worth spreading. Often it turns out to be an echo chamber because those who want to share ideas and expand their minds tend to hang out with the same type of people. However, there are more than enough of them in this area to support TEDx.

    As a follow up, I would suggest the you reach out to the other organizers to redeem yourself for the statement TEDxWDC = WTF?