Chris Anderson was sitting in a very low-power pose. Off to the side at an all-staff meeting at TED's New York headquarters in January, he was folded forward with his hand on his neck, a posture that communicates self-protection according to the 2012 TED Talk on body language by social psychologist Amy Cuddy (15.7 million views).
By letting his employees give mini TED Talks on what they were working on, Anderson was allowing for what Alain de Botton, in his 2009 TED Talk (2.9 million views), called "a kinder, gentler philosophy of success."
When Anderson finally took the floor himself with tousled hair in an untucked black button-down and jeans, he appealed to virtue by raising the question, "What are we building today that honestly is going to impress historians in 2,000 years' time?" It could have come straight from the playbook on "practical wisdom" outlined in a 2009 TED Talk by psychologist Barry Schwartz (1.9 million views).
At 57, Anderson is in many ways the embodiment of his famous ideas organization. Like the TED Talks millions love, and some love to rip apart, Anderson is high-minded but sometimes inaccessible, forward thinking to the point of "whoa," and so earnest it can be easy to smirk.
But as the 30th anniversary TED Conference this month in Vancouver, British Columbia, approaches, Anderson, forever mild-mannered, is quietly celebrating all he's accomplished with those three red letters, even as some sniff that the organization has become the Starbucks of intellectual conglomerates.
THE LAUNCH OF TED
What began somewhat modestly in 1984 when architect and designer Richard Saul Wurman summoned 300 friends and colleagues to Monterey, Calif., to discuss Technology, Entertainment and Design, now has more angles to it than a Mandelbrot set.
Part of Anderson's nonprofit Sapling Foundation, the organization has two annual conferences (this month's includes 1,200 attendees from 42 countries), the free online collection of more than 1,600 TED Talks viewed nearly 2 billion times, a $100,000 TED Prize, a TED Fellows program and global education initiative, TED digital books, the TED Radio Hour and thousands of TEDx events in more than 150 countries (talks are translated into more than 104 languages).
This month's 65 main-stage speakers include Bill and Melinda Gates, tech visionary Nicholas Negroponte, astronaut Chris Hadfield and Sting, as well as illusionists, jugglers and at least one firefly expert. All will speak on a range of topics for 18 minutes or less, as per the guidelines Anderson established.
Al Gore, who first spoke at TED in 1996, said: "Every time I have a feeling that TED has come so far that it is about to jump the shark, it doesn't. Instead, it renews itself."
Not everyone thinks that way. Lately, Anderson has spent nearly as much time defending his operation as he has running it. A simmering backlash that began hilariously a couple of years ago with the "Onion Talks" Web parodies featuring videos such as "What is the biggest rock?" and "A future where all robots have penises" turned plain nasty with a New Republic piece two summers ago by critic Evgeny Morozov that called TED an "insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering - a place where ideas, regardless of their quality, go to seek celebrity."
Thomas Frank wrote an essay in Salon last October with the headline, "TED Talks Are Lying to You," in which he discussed the perils of turning "innovation" into an industry. Then in December at an independently organized TEDx event in San Diego, Benjamin H. Bratton, an associate professor of visual arts at the University of California, San Diego, used his moment on TED's round red rug to talk smack about TED itself.
In a presentation as coolheaded as it was incendiary, Bratton called TED "a recipe for civilizational disaster," pointing to the tent-revival nature of the talks, the unquestioning faith in technology and what Bratton called a "dumbing-down" of complex science and scholarship.
"It was a nerve waiting to be struck," Bratton said by telephone.
BUILDING, AND DEFENDING, A BRAND
In recent weeks, Anderson has been blasting back at TED's naysayers. He comments on threads critical of TED on Reddit and Gizmodo and he wrote an essay in The Guardian in January, explaining why most complaints about TED are based on misconceptions. TED is not leftist propaganda nor corporate-sponsored misinformation, he said. And because TED is a nonprofit, nobody is getting rich off the $6,000 conference fees that many like to bring up. As for the dumbing down of Internet content, Anderson smiled wryly and said: "Compared to what? Hilarious cat videos?"
The son of British medical missionaries who grew up in Afghanistan, India and Pakistan, Anderson said he spent much of his childhood "reading, observing and lying out, looking at the stars and thinking about ideas." After studying philosophy at Oxford, he turned to journalism, writing about the convergence of video games and computing, before moving to the publishing side, where he tried pushing print into the future. His magazines like Business 2.0 came poly-packed with CDs to give readers an interactive experience before the Internet took hold.
"Back when tech magazine issues were thick, Chris' were the thickest," said a longtime colleague, Tom Rielly, the director of the TED Fellows program.
With fortunes made and lost and made again in publishing, Anderson purchased TED with the idea that it would "change minds and maybe the world," he said. That required an act of what Anderson likes to call "radical openness" by allowing the public access to the once-cloistered confab.
"Giving the talks away vastly multiplied the impact of TED," Anderson said. "Suddenly, everyone was your marketing friend, and Facebook and Twitter became extensions of what we were doing."
The educator Robinson said he "would have worn a different shirt" had he known his would become the most popular TED video of all time. On a Saturday morning at TED in 2006, he switched speaking times with the Rev. Rick Warren to give a 19-minute talk ("OK, I went a little long," Robinson said) on how schools are killing creativity. The presentation went OK. "My wife said afterward, 'Good, but not your best,' " he said.
A few months later, Anderson put a video of the talk on TED's website; more than 25 million people have viewed it since it went online in June 2006.
Today, the vast library of talks is viewed an average of 1.9 million times daily.
"So much of the attention wars that we all are immersed in are dominated by idiocy, triviality and shouting," Anderson said. "So, finding someone who can make a case and make it clearly in a way that's exciting and has a chance of being heard and being spread and acted upon, I mean that's a huge win."