Myself and a colleague recently got in a largely uninteresting Twitter spat over TED events and the upcoming TEDxGlasgow event specifically. We made assumptions about TED that have since been retracted, and then apologised for potentially misleading people. That said, our core argument remains unaddressed. As fun as it is to explain things when limited to 140 characters per point, it seems more appropriate a discussion to have in long form.
.@TEDxGlasgow So if 1,800 can attend and you’re charging £70 a ticket, that’s a potential take of £126,000. Pay your volunteers.
— Steven Clark (@stevenalanclark) February 4, 2017
I attended the TEDxGlasgow event in 2014 and enjoyed it. At the time, I watched TED and TEDx videos on occasion and thought highly of them – some of those invited to talk made interesting observations and had accomplished more than I could ever hope to. Even then, TED struck me as something that predominantly appealed to people who considered themselves forward-thinking management types even when others didn’t. References to TED talks were occasionally thrown into meetings and my more “entrepreneurial” friends and family swore by it.
Pictured: my entrepreneurial friends
When I began to work for myself TED talks became less enticing. The entrepreneurial and business community of Glasgow isn’t something I’ve actively tried to participate in and after a brief run of regular meetups and attending conferences, I now know the type of events I enjoy and why I enjoy them. This community is smaller than we think – there are a handful of names you always hear when events are promoted and their association alone is usually enough to gauge what will be discussed and who you’re likely to see. As we’ve covered before, for the volume of events there are in this city, we really don’t have that much to talk about.
In early 2016, TEDxGlasgow went with the theme “A Disruptive World” which for reasons I’ve previously addressed left me unimpressed. Later in the year, a story on TED was picked up by a number of news outlets. It concerned the second most popular talk of all time on TED, a presentation by Amy Cuddy on “power poses”. “Power poses” are an alleged psychological phenomenon where standing with shoulders back and arms out (see alpha male, gorilla mindset) could create some kind of brief testosterone-fueled confidence high which would allow you to ace those business meetings and interviews. A new study conducted in 2015 proved this was complete horse shit but that hasn’t stopped TED continuing to promote the talk on their website or Amy Cuddy writing a self-help book on the subject, published 8 months after the study debunking her subject matter.
There are less prominent examples of talks misleading viewers with pseudoscience and false statistics but if I’m honest, it’s not what bothers me most about them. TED talks heavily contribute to the fetishisation of technology as a solution for all problems – pushing innovation at all costs – an attitude which has kickstarted the process of converting Glasgow into a smaller much shittier Silicon Valley with hackathons, smart city solutions and (publicly funded) startup incubators. This, despite the evidence that all these kind of initiatives tend to create in the long run is community displacement, homelessness and increased income inequality. We can’t all be product designers, coders or billionaires.
Think that’s an unfair comment? Then you need to watch this TEDx talk on why TED talks change nothing:
“In the US, the right wing has certain media channels that allow it to bracket reality, other constituencies have TED.”
Hoping to end the discussion, I posted an article from 2012 that now more or less reflects my views on TED as a whole:
“At this point TED is a massive, money-soaked orgy of self-congratulatory futurism, with multiple events worldwide, awards and grants to TED-certified high achievers, and a list of speakers that would cost a fortune if they didn’t agree to do it for free out of public-spiritedness.”
While you don’t need to pay a license fee to put on a TEDx event, it is worth noting that the main licensee has to have attended a TED event at some point. As of 2012, this costs between $2,495 and $125,000 and requires submitting an application so they can figure out if you’re “TED material”. Why an application is required to determine whether you’re qualified enough to sit in a chair and listen to people talk is unclear.
The self-evident, money-soaked nature of TED and TEDx events is what wrongly led me to assume TED was a for-profit enterprise. This was initially presented as the crux of our argument for why they should compensate their volunteers with more than a free ticket. After all, £70/£35 per ticket with a max attendance of 1800 means a potential take of over £100,000 for a day long event, why shouldn’t some of that money be used to pay some of the people they’re asking to volunteer? The main argument against this seems to be that these positions aren’t paid because nobody involved is paid. This is true, speakers and organisers aren’t compensated – it’s against the TEDx rules – but you would think the price of the ticket covers both the cost of the venue and the personnel required to run a day long event with the possibility of over 1,000 attendees.
To clarify, for those who volunteer to help with logistics on the day a free ticket seems like fair compensation. But TEDxGlasgow is also looking for skilled people to volunteer their time, including a speaker coach, stage designer, technical lead and more. This edges close to “work for exposure” territory, something creative people encounter now and then, where an organisation expects free work because they think your mere association with them will increase your standing and more or less guarantee you future paid work opportunities from others or the organisation itself.
Working this way may appeal to some but there certainly seems to be scales of exposure. The speakers are front and centre, as you’d expect, and their recorded talks get posted to a Youtube channel after the event that has supposedly accumulated 8 million views. The Leadership Team add TEDx to their LinkedIn pages as jobs – not just volunteer roles – and they each get a write up on the TEDxGlasgow website to talk openly about their careers and businesses. As the skilled volunteer roles they advertise for are mostly behind the scenes, I doubt they’d get as much publicity. Some are defining and shaping their careers with their involvement in TEDxGlasgow and – while they aren’t compensated for their time – they stand to profit in ways that other skilled TEDx volunteers don’t. It’s hard to take seriously the idea that some volunteers are only in it for the cause when their personal contributions are so well promoted.
How to volunteer
I suppose the fundamental disagreement comes down to whether or not you consider TED or TEDx events to be philanthropic to the community as a whole and not just the aforementioned insular business community of Glasgow. These events are mostly inoffensive but some seem to have difficulty divorcing the events themselves from the often worthwhile causes and work that they showcase. They’re not the same thing and TED shouldn’t share credit.
TED is not changing the world – at best, it’s entertainment and at worst, it’s propaganda. Some of these talks help to assuage the middle-class guilt of a generation of business leaders and perpetuate the false idea that technology and empathy are all we need to create a utopia. They appeal to the kind of people who refuse to let a little thing like criticism or negativity disrupt their collective fantasy vision of a future where people like them have all the money and influence because all the serious real world social and economic problems have been solved by their apps.
Giving up your time to volunteer for a cause you believe in is admirable – even when that cause is something like TEDx – but it’s not unfair or hostile to suggest that an organisation that can afford to pay people for their skills, should be paying people for their skills. Especially when some volunteers get more out of it than others.