How TED (Really) Works

How one hairdresser behind the scenes, and Émile Durkheim, says more about TED than all the viral videos


Stop me if you heard this one: A sociologist gives a TED talk and decides to find out whether the conference’s success is best explained by the viral reach of its videos and thus McLuhan (theorist of globalization and communication)—or the famed intimacy of its gatherings and therefore Goffman (theorist of social interaction). Then there’s a fire (almost) right next to Glenn Greenwald (mental note, avoid, trouble follows him), a mad dash, a close encounter with some hot objects, an unbuckled shoe and a face plant (almost) right before she steps onstage.

Eighteen minutes later, she finds the answer to her question: Durkheim! (Note to non-sociologists: This is funny because Durkheim, a revered founder of sociology, is a theorist of industrialization and badly out-of-fashion these days because his concerns seem so quaintly 20th century.)

It’s Durkheim that best explains what and who makes TED work so well. (And her name is Jessica.)

But let me back up.

Marshall McLuhan famously said that “the medium is the message,” meaning that how you communicate is as substantive as what you communicate. That seems like an apt theoretical approach to understanding TED, which thrives on a distinct format. McLuhan also coined the phrase “global village” which seems to be an apt description of the networked 21st century, where things can easily go viral at the global level, like TED does, and where we can also keep track of our middle school classmates — in contrast to the 20th century concerns of anonymity, alienation, and mass society.

We are less and less anonymous, more and more surveilled, and more and more connected.

If anyone, he appears to be the best theorist of TED and its conferences. As I arrived at the conference, I had already half composed a “McLuhan and TED” article in my head.

Then my plans met reality.

I know there are lots of pixels lit on the content of TED talks — their length, their reach, their tendency to be upbeat (though mine was anything but). That’s all well and good — but that you have already heard it all.

What I want to talk about is how TED works, an organizational sociology take if you will.

If not McLuhan, who? Sociologist Erving Goffman studied what makes social interaction really tick: he checked into asylums and spent time on isolated islands. He wrote in depth about how our social performances, as well as physical and social architectures, structure and allow sociality. And that is something, I found out, TED conferences also excel at. Most conferences do not do a great job structuring social interaction among the attendees. In contrast, I found TED is a master at this using multiple tricks that work. A single track ensures that attendees have common themes to talk about, with sufficient breaks in structured social spaces. WiFi and a special connectivity app encouraged networking and conversation online, but devices were verboten in the room where the talks were given, to preserve attention and intimacy. Paradoxically, it is the device-less, structured intimacy that allows the talks to communicate to mass, global audiences.

Some of what TED does so well was made easier with money—TED talks are free online, but attending the TED conference is very pricey. Money is not an absolutely necessary ingredient, however. The only other conference I know personally that excels at structuring online and offline sociality this well is “Theorizing the Web,” which was co-founded by two scrappy graduate students on no budget, and is going into its fifth year as a pay-what-you-want-to-attend event. Some participants pay nothing, others pay more, and last year it was held in a warehouse in Brooklyn, and it was the coolest event. While money impacts whether you get canapés or chips and salsa at the break, the heart of making conferences tick is understanding how social interaction works. So Goffman, I thought, was a contender to be the theorist of TED.

So rule number one: the worst way to manage devices and connectivity is not to manage them. TED banishes them in some places, lets them flourish in others—it’s done with thought. Theorizing the Web conference works similarly. After-conference events are held in locations hostile to devices, while the conference itself is a mish-mash of online and offline conversation. It all works.

But both Goffman and McLuhan were about the conference on the ground and around the world, a mix between 21th century virality and small group interaction that has always dominated the human experience, at least pre-industrialization.

Where was the 20th-century scale at TED? What made it tick?

Hair on fire

But, of course, I couldn’t just ponder these questions and stare into the ocean in beautiful Rio, where the conference was held. I ended up having to do what I came to do in the first place—give a talk.

At the appointed time, I sauntered to the “green room,” the preparation space for the huge stage that was set up on the beach. If you do any TV or filmed or professionally lighted appearances, you soon learn not to resist a small amount of stage makeup. Otherwise you risk looking like a green Martian with convex cheeks, a red nose—a mess of proportions. Well, I do anyway, something about screen and color transformations between 3D and 2D and how cameras work. At best, the slight glob they swirl on pulls you back to the human color spectrum. At worst, you look like a mannequin that some child has gleefully spray painted. I was determined the avoid the latter.

I showed up to the prep for my talk straight from the shower with wet hair and a clean face. I said my usual line: “I don’t really wear makeup so please just minimal stuff, enough so I don’t look like a green creature on stage but no more.” Next to me sat Glenn Greenwald, getting ready for his talk. We chatted a bit, while the “make-up lady” as she called herself, plugged in her hair drier—and promptly blew some fuses.

TED’s auditorium theater, set up at the beach.

Smoke started coming from the outlets, and sparks flew. Things were not going well. I made a mental note to avoid Greenwald in the future. It must have been his fault — maybe the NSA sent gremlins after him? Meanwhile, the “make-up lady” plugged another hair drier into another plug, and blew that fuse too. More smoke. People rushed in. Someone asked for a fire extinguisher. Other devices came out. Nothing was working. It was not far from stage time. Amidst the dissipating smoke I sat, in wet hair and street clothes. Street clothes that matched to a tone the background colors onstage. Colors the photographers had asked us to please, please, please avoid if we did not want to appear in the video as a giant floating head.

“Great,” I thought. “I’m going to make my viral TED debut as a detached head bobbing about with wet hair and a green face. Why not?”

The rest was a blur. The two women responsible for preparing the speakers grabbed me and marshaled me to a trailer somewhere outside. I found myself in a small windowless box, the women drying my hair using hot irons, or something. I didn’t see. I had I closed my eyes and was concentrating on my talk.

Later I went back and found the trailers. They were backstage, of course, exactly where Erving Goffman would have predicted: To understand sociality, don’t just look at the front stage, his work says, but look behind the scenes to understand how things really work.

The trailers behind the TED theater I was “ushered to” that I later went back to find

Just then, someone came in screaming that I needed to be on the stage, now, because things were going to run on time, come hell or high water. In the next 90 seconds, I found myself dressed and mic’d up, right behind the stage, as I was about to be announced. I took one step and noticed my shoe was unbuckled. Now that would be a surefire way to go viral, by falling flat on my face climbing the two short stairs to the TED stage. I buckled the shoe, and stared into the auditorium.

I did the talk. The clocked ticked down and I walked offstage. Waiting for me, in tears, were the two “make-up ladies.” The first words I heard about my talk were “silky” and “beautiful” and “shiny” which puzzled me, before I realized they were referring to my hair.

I had talked about social movements and technology, and had started my talk with a sordid tale of 34 Kurdish smugglers bombed and killed at the border, so “silky” would not have been the first adjective that would come to my mind.

I was trying to come to terms with their reaction, and couldn’t go anywhere as they were both holding my hand, trying not to cry, when it hit me.

These two women just had a huge scare and had come through. They had a bigger scare than I had. I had shrugged off the wet hair, but of course, it would have been oddly distracting if I showed up with dripping tresses. And at that point, I also realized that I wouldn’t have known if they had drawn a clown’s nose or whiskers on my face (hey, why not?). There were no mirrors in the trailer I was ushered to. They were both still holding my hand, trembling, and smiling. This was their corner of this huge enterprise, and they were going to make it work.

They had done their job, and very well.

And that’s when I realized that the correct theorist of TED remains, of course, Émile Durkheim, a founder of sociology who has fallen out of fashion as his work seem to pertain to more mundane aspects of life, especially about organizations and division-of-labor. Durkheim was among the first to point out that what made industrialization and scaling up of society work was division of labor, which seems obvious to us as we are so steeped in it, but it is actually a major shift from previous eras. In earlier societies, we more or less all did the same things, and felt similar to one another: mechanical solidarity, as Durkheim called it. In industrial societies, we live by division of labor: everyone does their little corner of the world, and depends on each other for everything.

And that, in a nutshell, is the true theory of globalization: interdependency, and how we depend on each other, and strangers, for almost everything. Except that no longer happens in the scale of one conference, or one village, it happens at a global scale.

Unsung heroes

So, TED, which excels at manufacturing virality at the global scale, and intimacy at the local scale, actually relied on the most 20th century of scales to function well: the dedicated specialists who were going to take care of their little corner of the organization. In fact, there were more than one hundred people who took care of all the details at the different levels, from the person who made sure the slides rendered correctly to the editor who managed the massive website, from the crew that took care of the sound for musical performances to the simultaneous translators who allowed the conference to be beamed locally. Behind the curtain was no single wizard, but a large team. (And thanks to all of them who patiently chatted with the curious sociologists that kept lingering backstage).

I know, you might have been expecting an article about the content of TED talks. Much has been written, and that’s deserving of attention as well. But all the focus on content and staging and virality misses this key point that underlies any large successful endeavor that survives over time.

There’s always a strong team.

In the 21st century, our rhetoric has moved away from valuing specialization. The freelancer who is (forced) to move from job to job, starting from scratch every time, appears to be the prototype. Check this Slate ad for journalist who will write about education policy on the high-traffic site: no need to be an expert in the topic, just an interest in the beat, and the ability to write really fast (part-time, of course while you juggle other, likely unrelated, jobs). This approach is a pity especially since education is such an important topic, and there is no shortage of thoughtful people who have dedicated their lives to the topic who can write thoughtful, well-researched and open-minded pieces. (Indeed, Slate has some great writers but they tend to have a solid beat where they’ve developed true depth over many years—hard to do when stitching together a living from three barely related “gigs”.)

This celebration of jack-of-all-trades which mostly arises out of necessity is everywhere. Twitter bios seem to be a race to cram as many seemingly unrelated aspects of ourselves as possible. I do this, and I do it really well seems to have little space to be cherished—or to be properly compensated.

There are, of course, advantages to acquiring breadth as well as depth, as one should, but it still remains true: to do something well, you need to specialize, over time, and most organizations run on the fuel that is people dedicated to taking care of their corner. These people are rarely the ones on stage, or highlighted as interesting people, or celebrated as glamorous. It’s the nurse who really understands preemie babies, the electrician who takes care of the aging air-conditioning in the building that nobody else knows how to fix, and the programmer that makes the creaky legacy scheduling database work year after year.

What most people think makes TED run
What actually makes TED run—a whole crew.

Division of labor is the magic that lets us get on an airplane, confident that the pilots are well-slept, the engine inspected, and the tower on top of the scheduling landings. I don’t want my pilot to be one-of-a-kind, or have her own theory of airplane flying. Standardization makes the Internet run, and allow generativity to flourish on top of it. Standardization, proper regulation and competency make the world possible, and make it a magical place. Otherwise, everything would be a struggle, and creativity could not thrive. From our food to our health, we trust everything to strangers, and everything works to the degree that they can take care of their end, and do it well. It’s on that base we innovate, and create the unexpected. It’s also what underlies the creativity unleashed by successful technologies: base aspects are standardized so people can run with the rest.

How to structure things so that people are properly trained, credentialed and have the right incentives is a whole complex field, and it sounds mundane and less sexy than studying 21st century virality, but it is essential. It’s why you can walk onto a big stage without having looked at a mirror, because you know you can trust the person whose job it is to take care of this. And the opposite is the anxiety we feel in situations where institutions don’t function as well, and where one keeps having to acquire competencies just to take care of basic functions: most places on the planet. The inability to trust this division of labor is among the most tiring aspects of living in less developed countries. The trauma is micro—but it adds up.

I nearly fell off my chair, in awe, when I realized that in the United States, the post office worked almost all the time.

The unassuming USPS mail truck still makes my heart flutter in admiration of a well functioning institution. You don’t know what you are missing unless you have lived in a country without functioning mail. If someone tells me the water is safe to drink, I don’t want to have to think once, twice or thrice, and find myself googling for information, and yet that is the situation in most poor countries where day-to-day life is marred by never being able to trust institutions to function properly so you can stop thinking about everything, from the simplest to the most consequential. Day in and day out, it grinds down energy, trust and hope—it makes it very hard to move forward, as one is too busy keeping one’s head above water.

So, thank you, Jessica.

I found her afterwards. Here she is taking a break after the talks were over, and I went back to thank her. “Ah, you!” she exclaimed. I’m still not certain how to interpret that, but I’ll posit that it was in relief that there were no more problems of mine to solve.

And my talk? Oh, it was about whether digital technology is helping social movements scale up without building deep organizations, and hence hitting the big time without the capacity to weather the challenges. So, yeah. Sometimes, the real magic is in the details, the specialization, and a division of labor you can rely on.