One of the most exciting benefits of the Web – and the dominant mantras of innovation and information-sharing – is discovering new sites or tools that reinvent and improve prevailing models. Take TED as an example. I first came upon this cutting-edge conference of global experts – sort of a more laid-back, eclectic version of the Davos Economic Forum – through persistent recommendations via Facebook and Twitter. Then this month I read this article in Fast Company – which argues TED may be a new model for higher-learning. And most of the online chatter I’ve seen on TED has been positive – such as this conference update and this post.

So what’s the big deal? TED is a non-profit group that puts on two annual conferences focusing on a wide range of topics ranging across technology, environment and design (hence the acronym) and posts all the content for anybody to review, download, comment and share at their leisure. No risk of long-winded puffery here – presentations are limited to 18 minutes. And the topics are esoteric and provocative enough to have something to interest most interested observers. The quality and originality of the presentations is consistently good.

Of course, there’s nothing new about sharing speeches or cool presentations online – something sites like Slideshare and even the ultra-serious folks at Davos have done for a while. But TED pushed the transparency and inclusiveness to another level, and some of their videos have racked millions of views. As per their tag line: riveting talks by remarkable people, free to the world. And what makes TED special goes beyond their transparency:

  • TED makes a huge effort to be truly global and translate all presentations – often relying on thousands of volunteers to transcribe the text into other languages
  • TED celebrates curiosity and learning – and diversity of opinion – without getting dragged into tiresome polemics or academic debates
  • The 700+ video posts on TED are totally in sync with the growing focus on video content as entertainment and information (or both at once)
  • Observers are encouraged to sustain conversation and even collaborate on issues raised by the TED presentations – think of it as networking turning into action
  • TED is allowing local fans and speakers to license the TED brand to organize their own conferences – though there are checks to ensure the quality remains high

Through this process, the TED folks have shown that giving away the store does not preclude having a sustainable business model.  There are some who question how organizers can retain their unique brand equity – and cool factor – while being open and decentralized (witness the recent snafu about Sarah Silverman’s risqué and not-so-funny presentation) but whatever happens TED is another example of the intellectual vitality and economic potential of online networks.