(Updated 27 April, see below)
One is a novelty. Two are a coincidence. But three (and possibly in a few hours, four) make for a trend. So there is a new trend: exclusive, often expensive, high-level conferences that give away world-class speeches for free as online videos. Not just live videostreams and archives -- that has been the case for a while now at many conferences -- but edited and curated versions that can be watched online or downloaded into a laptop or an iPod or a cell phone and subscribed to via RSS.
TED started the movement last June by offering its first TEDtalks (Al Gore on climate change, Majora Carter on community development, Hans Rosling on understanding data, Tony Robbins on why we do what we do, Ken Robinson on education, etc). The TEDtalks were made available from the onset in multiple formats: videostreams on the conference's own website or via YouTube and GoogleVideo; MP4 (video) or MP3 (audio only) downloads from the TED site or via iTunes; possibility to embed them in one's blog or website; the whole for free, under a Creative Commons license, paid for by a sponsor (carmaker BMW). As I wrote when the TEDtalks program was launched, TED set a pretty high standard, taking conference podcasting to a whole new level.
LIFT (Geneva, screenshot at left) followed suit, with significantly fewer resources, putting online talks by physicist Brian Cox (read my lips: he's a future superstar on the conference circuit), Wikimedia chairwoman Florence Devouard (the speech that created so much controversy), industrial ecology specialist Suren Erkman, Nokia's Jan Chipchase , "Everyware" author Adam Greenfield, and many others. Here too, the talks are free, can be watched online or downloaded, and LIFT provides an exclusive innovation: a version formatted specifically for downloading into cell phones.
Five days ago, Pop!Tech (Camden, Maine) launched its own Pop!Casts channel (screenshot at right), featuring speakers such as the NYT's Thomas Friedman, Partners in Health's Serena Koenig, the Barefoot College's Bunker Roy, the MIT's Neil Gershenfelt, the amazing bionic patient-doctor couple Kuiken-Sullivan , and about twenty others, with more to come (sorry, no direct links available, you've to go to the main page and select the speaker). Pop!Tech curator Andrew Zolli said in an e-mail announcing the launch that the conference's goal is to "inspire people everywhere to build a better world by harnessing the power of visionary ideas", and that the Pop!Casts will further enhance that mission. The sponsor in this case is carmaker Lexus.
Going a step further, TED is launching today its fully new website, which is actually organized around TEDtalks (rather than video being just a section of a conference's site) and around the tagline "Ideas worth spreading". The redesign of the site was prompted by the success of TEDtalks: since launch in June of last year, with a dozen or so speeches originally online and two being added every week, they have been downloaded or streamed 8.5 million times. The new site (left) launches with some 100 talks by British explorer Ben Saunders, designer Stefan Sagmeister, microbiologist Eva Vertes (read my lips again: another future conference superstar), former US president Bill Clinton, Nobel laureate and DNA discoverer James Watson, media activist Sasa Vucinic, One-laptop-per-child's Nicholas Negroponte, architect Joshua Prince-Ramus, development entrepreneurs Jacqueline Novogratz and Iqbal Quadir, computer interface designer Jeff Han, "In praise of slow" author Carl Honoré, "Tipping point" author Malcom Gladwell etc (plus several musical and art performances, such as those from dance group Pilobolus and comedian Ze Frank) (Disclaimer: about 15 of the talks on the site were recorded at TEDGLOBAL in Oxford, which I produced).
The TEDtalks can be accessed in multiple ways: by themes ("Inspired by nature", "Tales of invention"), by title or speaker name, by tags, by events at which they were recorded, etc. The site -- developed by a team under the leadership of TED media director June Cohen -- yet again pushes the standard for conference video. It's sophisticated, beautifully designed, includes a special video player allowing large-screen playbacks and automatic adjustment for bandwidth capacity, and the talks are marked in "chapters" (picture right) helping users to immediately find key moments, and are accompanied by a summary. There is also a rating system (but no "stars": this one is about describing the content with adjectives - which over time will become another entry point to find a talk) and of course there are biographies and additional information on every speaker.
The new TED site (complete with minisites for conferences and the TEDprize and a blog) also introduces another novelty: a social networking tool that allows anyone to set up a "TED member" profile for free, post comments on talks, choose favorites, etc. Sign up, create a profile, visit mine -- you need to be logged into TED.com to see members profiles -- and drop me an e-mail. (Don't expect to be able to send mail to Bill Clinton, Sergey Brin or Meg Ryan however: TED conference attendees will be able to control their level of visibility).
I said at the beginning that there might be a fourth such sites going online: I'm told that the new D:AllThingsDigital -- the Wall Street Journal conference -- website should be unveiled at AllThingsD.com today Monday, just a few weeks from their next conference (end of May in California, featuring a rare Bill Gates-Steve Jobs joint appearance) and that it will offer conference videos as a key feature.
This burgeoning of conference podcasting worldwide suggests a few thoughts:
- One: great ideas and knowledge are now shared freely as never before, available for people to use and share: I've heard of teachers using talks as part of their syllabus; corporate managers burning them on CDs and giving them to their staff or using them during team retreats; etc.
- Two: all of those conferences seem to be doing it for the same reason: TED believes "in the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world"; Pop!Tech's Zolli (quote above) talks about "harnessing the power of visionary ideas" to "build a better world"; LIFT's goal is to "connect people (...) and propel their conversations into the broader world to improve life and work".
- Three: the multiplication of conference videos may open a niche for a meta-curator role, picking the best of the best.
Which in part is what this post was about: all the talks linked or mentioned here are great and definitely worth watching.
The new site will generate more advertising revenue for TED, but more important, conference leaders said, it will expose TED’s content to millions of people who would otherwise never attend the event. In so doing, TED is at the vanguard of a trend in the conference industry, where organizers have begun to exploit assets that in years past evaporated as soon as speakers left the stage.
From a business standpoint, Ms. Cohen said that giving away the conference’s content in such a highly polished manner has “completely transformed” the organization. “Conventional business logic would tell you that in a community like TED you have to keep your commodity scarce and expensive to retain brand value,” she said. “But the same year we started releasing most of our content for free we raised our conference price by nearly 50 percent and still sold out in 12 days.”
“This has actually created a huge challenge for us, in how to manage our growth,” Ms. Cohen added. “We have a waiting list of a couple thousand people for the event and we can’t grow it more. So the question is how to expand it in other ways and do more online.”
UPDATE 27 April: I was 10 days too early, the D site launched today, and it's nowhere as compelling as I expected: columns and videopodcasts from Walt Mossberg and Kara Swisher, head-to-head video posts from Walt and Kara together, "guest columns" called "Voices" from IT executives that are more than happy to write what they want under the WSJ banner, and that's pretty much it. Basically, a section of the Wall Street Journal. Within an interface far less user-friendly than the wsj.com's.