The annual TED conference, held last weekend, used to be a small, exclusive, intimate affair in Monterey California. But it just moved to be a much larger event in Long Beach. It is pricey to attend and, no, I didn't actually do so. But TED's history tells us much about how publishing has changed.
TED — that's short for Technology, Entertainment, and Design — was founded by Richard Saul Wurman in 1984 to gather together interesting people to give great talks about great ideas. The closed TED event attracted many influential, or soon-to-be-influential speakers. To be invited to give a talk at TED was to be exposed to the very influential. Conferences like that have existed forever, and TED's organizers turned out to be very good at it.
But real the story of TED is what happened next. A few years back, TED curator Chris Anderson started putting TED talks up on the net, free. He took a bet that TED would become more attractive as if its published works were widely exposed and shared than it would if they were locked down. That change turned the actual conference into a "premium" offering (where you could see the talks live and interact with participants) compared with TED on the web, which was free for all. This move enhanced the status of TED and served as a bonus to the TED speakers. They could now benefit from exclusivity — few were invited to give TED talks — and from massive exposure. Steve Levy writes about what that exposure now means for those who want to be influential. Making TED a shared experience only enhanced the value of the more exclusive experience.
Anderson did not stop there. He opened up not only the TED talks themselves but the TED name. TEDx are events that can be put on by pretty much anyone. You need a license and have to do a good job (there's no automatic renewal of the license), but nearly anyone can pitch in. This is literally a freeing up of the concept "ideas worth spreading" to allow anyone to select what those ideas are. So long as you follow a few simple rules — a talk format, some video, and no ads or other commercial tags — you can host a TEDx event. And there are now hundreds of these each year. What is more, TED regularly features talks from these on the site, so they act as feeder for TED publishing.
TED has become a publisher (curating content and disseminating it) and a publishing platform (a format designed to attract and disseminate more content). The platform is akin to other new forms of publishing such as blogs or tweets. A TED talk is something that can be described and that gives it informational power.
TED could have done the traditional publishing thing — put up walls and sold exclusivity. Instead, it has chosen to embrace the notion that information has the most value when it is shared widely. Perhaps traditional publishers of other forms of media should take note.
Editor's note: An earlier version of this post mistakenly referred to Chris Anderson as the founder of TED.