Arthur Zards

Founder, Experiential Fuse


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Is it time to change TEDs official response to the question, "Is TED elitist?"

TED’s official stance on the common question is yes (in a good way), but also no. (

The problem I have, is that every time the topic comes up I seem to be on the defensive where I shouldn’t have to be; spending a lot of energy on why TED is the good part of elitist rather than discussing the positive things that TED does and the changes it’s already helped bring to our global society. When I see public discussions on this, I see the same thing happening.

There two definitions of Elitist, in short, are “Perceived superiority”, and “Control/Rule”

I think it’s safe to say that many people not familiar with TED believe that the term elitist is defined by the definition “Perceived superiority…”, while most TED fans define it by the definition of “control/rule”. So person to person discussions and Internet comments and articles go back and forth debating who’s right, and countless posts go out with TED people defending all the good that comes out of TED. All this without anyone really making sure they are arguing over the correct definition!

What do people think when they hear the term “elitist”? I plugged the term into a thesaurus to get a better idea and this is what came up.

Snob, pompous ass, stuffed shirt, snoot, braggart, parvenu, stiff, uppish, high and mighty, snotting and on and on and on. Just to name a few, and the list goes on, and it doesn’t get better!

Is this what most people think of when they hear the term elitist? I really think so. When is the last time you heard the term elitist in a positive light?

So here is my idea worth spreading, is it time to officialy say no, we are NOT elitists?

Maybe we need a new dialogue. “No, TED is NOT elitist, we are ___________"

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    Feb 17 2011: There have been some rumblings about elitism for our TEDx event in Grand Rapids. This is our inaugural event and we are expecting to seat roughly 600 people. Unlike TED, the financial component isn't an issue as ticket prices are under $100 as per TEDx rules. What seems to be triggering the concern of elitism is the fact that we curating attendees and restricting media.

    What TED has done is brilliant! Chris and his team have created a beautifully balanced system where speakers attend because of the audience, the audience attends because of the speakers, and ultimately, everyone attends because of everyone else. Chris mentions this attribute of TED in his piece, and I have found that language about nurturing a balanced ecosystem of ideas and inspiration, speakers and attendees, is often a well-received response to claims of elitism.

    In the long run, sour grapes will always be an issue I suppose.
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    Feb 16 2011: I'll be intrigued to get other peoples' feedback on this. I wrote that piece, and didn't want to hide the fact that yes, we charge a lot of money for people to come to the main annual conferences. To achieve elite status in any profession or field of endeavor is actually something to aspire to, and we're proud of the fact that many who come to TED are indeed exactly that. What you've hit on is that there's a difference in perception between 'elite' and 'elitist'. So maybe we need to address that. We've been on a mission to democratize and open TED for the past 10 years. The free talks and the free licenses for TEDx events should have knocked out the elitist criticism by now....
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        Feb 24 2011: Interesting viewpoint. I don't think technology is the answer to the problem of readers who see a badge as adding separatism to the organization who offering the service. I really don't think there is even a problem at all. It's my opinion (and I wish we could do conversational polling) that most people on the TED conversation boards see the true value of the conversation based on the words written by the poster, not by a badge. It’s unfortunate that some people don’t see it that way. As they say in the web, content is king!
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    Feb 16 2011: I like this definition for "elitism":

    "elitism - The position that society depends on a particular class in order to flourish. Classes might include intellectual, social, or cultural categories."
    Later edit: sorry this link is broken, shame on you Google.

    Maybe it is time that TED should be elitist?

    And "Elite" was my favorite ZX Spectrum game. This is the only definition for this word.

    Please help, how can we put "aware" in that empty place?
    “No, TED is NOT elitist, we are ___________"

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      Feb 17 2011: Interesting idea you have, what about just putting in "aware"?

      I can an see a conversation where someone is asking me, "Isn't TED elitist?". And the simple answer of "No, TED is aware.", would change the whole focus of the conversation away from a defensive position of explaining TED, to a positive shift on why TED is aware, and what the term "aware" means to TED.

      Yes, ultimately explaining what TED is all about in both cases would be the same content, but framed in a completely new, positive light. Just my quick 2 cents.
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        Feb 21 2011: Kathy:
        I understand and respect your opinion, thank you.

        On any other public forum, your posts may be considered a "flame" and you probably got a warning.
        This kind of points and badges are built-in features of most forum type software.
        This may have a psychological explanation, I guess.

        I translate TED talks since may 2009 and received these "features" just recently, so they had no contribution to my work.
        I don't care if these points and badges are displayed on each post or just in the profile.
        It's not the point and in my view it has nothing to do with the original question.
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        Feb 21 2011: OK. Understood your arguments.
        Like your slogan proposal: "TED - where the elite meet."
        Sounds good.
        Thanks for sharing it.
        Gave you "thumbs up" :-)

        I guess our opinion difference may have also historical roots.
        Where I live, it was a habit for decades to send the intellectual "elit" to dig dirt in so called 'work camps". Many never came back.
        So "elitism" may have now a very different meaning in this area of the world.
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    Feb 25 2011: On the one side: Take the questions you have to answer in order to be admitted to the TED conference. You have to prove you stand ABOVE of other people's profiles: it is all about acomplishments, achievements, uniqueness, about having a web page... it looks like a "showing-off" thing. TED selects who attends and who does not, based on such criteria. So, if you live in the bottom of the global society and you just want to start some networking by attending to TED, perhaps there is nothing you can share with TED that interests them. You are not worth coming to TED.

    On the other side: TED had made a difference anyway... Here in Colombia, No university or organization could afford bringing guys such as Al Gore, V.S. Ramachandran, Jaqueline Novogratz, Esther Duflo, etc... and even if it is affordable to a University, then attending to the conference IS NOT affordable to interested people. By posting talks in the web, TED is making knowledge more accesible.

    It is a sort of Lamarkian and Darwinian combination: the former because ideas are being spread accross a generation who are the TED fans, and the latter because not everyone is worth attending to TED as not everyone survives its natural selection (so to speak).
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    Mar 10 2011: TED is NOT elitist, we are ____. Awesome? Just awesome? inclusive?

    Unlike academia, I don't see TED as elitist, because as a whole TED seems to understand that the goal isn't to get an education. The goal is Universal Education. The goal isn't just to Get Money. The goal is to eliminate poverty. And by opening the minds of young and old people across the world, I think the exclusion does more good to society than harm.

    Still, the problem is that there are some relatively poor, unaccomplished people with great ideas, but it's tough to tell who those people are.

    It's a balance - on the one hand, elites have more opportunities than poor people, so they get more opportunities. On the other hand, they seem to be effective in bringing people together to help fight poverty. I think on net, the elitism that is there just isn't worth complaining about.
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    Feb 24 2011: If you're not somewhat elitist (curating) how do you maintain a specific idea and environment. if I develop a product, it has certain features that distinguish it form others. If I have a service it has certain features that distinguishes from others. If I have an idea it has certain features that distinguish it from others. lets say I own a retail shop. i don't want to be Walmart or any other unsustainable imperialistic box-store where all the uninformed and apathetic shop. I want a shop that is fair trade, sustainable, organic, unique, and convenient with well-informed, educated employees or partners. i wish that was normal, but its not. is it elitist? Its just an idea that may work or may not, but consumers who share my values will shop there. Is that elitist? I don't share the values of religious people. Does that make me elitist, or does that make them elitist for declaring there is something wrong with me because I don't believe--only the saved enter the kingdom. That is elitist.

    I don't like features that block or hide users--to me that is elitist. And it is contrary to TEDS values, I would think. Its censorship. You can't understand your own ideas and beliefs and values without challenging them against opposing viewpoints. To censure opinions is to deny ones own growth.

    I always thought that the audience at TED was made up of speakers. If they allow others to attend i can't see how that is elitist. Venues cost money. Equipment cost money. Beverages cost money. The experience costs money. I just hope some of the money goes into the causes supported in TED talks. If it doesn't, it should.
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      Feb 24 2011: Almost every site on the web flags comments. They are just looking for a little decorum. I say some things that might offend the powerful but I have never been removed or flagged as far as I know.
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    Feb 17 2011: i don't understand the need for the debate. I don't get what is elitist about it. if somebody wants to use You-tube they can. This is not You tube. I feel that people calling it elitist are right wing ideologues corrupted and uninformed, dumbed-down by propaganda TV. There are many forums and outlets for that kind of thing but few for thinking people and community efforts often ignored and shunned by politics. if they don't like Ted they can use Youtube or Glen Beck and Palin. I pity them though. TEd can open eyes. And like Alternet says, the mix is the message. I don't have to agree or support everything said on TED, but at least I know its well thought out, and researched. I wouldn't want to see that content dumbed down. I have lots of things to say and would love my time on a TED stage but who am I--what have I accomplished to show people and say 'see'--nothing. TED is a stage for progress in motion. If someday I have done something special and new and innovative, then I could see why I should have a spotlight even if I'm not a public-pandering Clinton.

    TED is not elitist. I still don't get the debate. I would like to see the government work like TED--a forum like this, where we can be active in our democracy. Elected officials on video in public forums engaged and talking about real issues rather than commercial tripe and lies.
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    Feb 17 2011: Note: I heavily edited my original post after further reflection

    I have never known elitist to have a positive connotation, so I was a little surprised by the response on the TED website. I understand the logic behind it but feel the "yes (but in a good way)" may be counter that message. I think the TEDx program is a good example of how TED is not elitist, it is now open to everyone given a little effort. In being a TEDx organizer I have actually felt a strong sense of equality within the TED community and not elitism. I am only a lowly undergraduate student but I have been able to talk to Nobel Laureates, Inventors, and past NASA scientists simply because I wanted to invite them to a conference. The thing that ties them all together is that they have done something interesting, which I guess you could call being elite in their field, but it feels like a poor choice of words. I think elitism connotates greatness in comparison to something else and not greatness in general. Accomplished may be a better word, or maybe exemplary. It sounds like a trivial semantic argument but I guess a lot of people feel offended by the idea of elitism because they perceive it as you saying "we are better than you," when you really want something more along the lines of "we are great." Does this make sense, or am I just talking in circles?
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        Feb 22 2011: I have read your other posts and I think I understand what you're trying to say, and to a degree am inclined to agree. However, I feel you misrepresented my statement and I'd like to clarify. What I meant by a sense of equality is that the elite really are not that elite, or elitist may be the better word. the primary method I used to contact all of the potential speakers for the TEDx event I am a part of organizing was googling their name and sending a message to the first e-mail address I found. My sense of equality comes from assuming that it wouldn't be that easy. I now have the deputy director of the Apollo program on my buddy list because he happens to use gmail and I think that is awesome. One thing I also tried to do as part of speaker selection was find people that no one had ever heard of before. I don't really consider them to be elite in their field, I consider them to have done something interesting that I want to hear them talk about. I don't really care who is on stage as long as they are talking about something I find interesting.

        As for the badge, I honestly don't know how I got 50 points, most other organizers have 30. But hey, its pixels on a screen representing an integer on a hard drive somewhere; not really something I care too much about.
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    Feb 17 2011: I tend to be confounded by the idea that our entire life we extoll the virtues of obtaining the best education we can receive; and now to get one of the better jobs it is looking like you need not just a BA/BS, but perhaps an MBA as well. Yet, once one strives to receive said MBA or law degree from a prestigious university, political posturing typically brands that person as an elitist.

    Where is that line exactly anyway... where one receives enough of an education to be 'smart enough' to obtain a solid career and a become a thought leader, yet not too smart to have veiled insults hurled at them suggesting one is an elitist.

    Rather, was the term championed by those hoping to ratchet down others intelligence, as a result of their own inability to rise to a challenge... or even their self imposed perception that they already know everything they need to know.