Good TED, Bad TED

Over a year ago, not long after an early tweet from the event’s twitter account, locals became aware that TED was coming to Bloomington. Thirteen months and countless meetings later, TEDx Bloomington materialized at the Buskirk-Chumley as a joyous celebration of the inspiration and experiences that flow through my Indiana hometown.

TEDx Bloomington

TEDx Bloomington was in the works for a long time

The content and sense of community exceeded expectations. The interaction with the TEDx national organization, however, made for a bittersweet experience. Without question, I’ll attend any future TEDx events here, but I won’t be organizing one again until the rules better integrate with local communities.

The Good

You didn’t have to look very hard to see the immediate impact TEDx Bloomington had on our community. Although organizers were nervous about sales at the start of May, a surge in the final week got us to a break-even point and gave Buskirk-Chumley a lot of life in the process. The crowd was diverse, bringing together a number of niche groups in Bloomington that might not have been in the same room otherwise. Like the Combine before it, the lunch voucher program sent hundreds of people into downtown restaurants for a couple hours midday to make new connections and process the morning sessions. Online, our active Twitter community created a trending topic in #tedxbtown, equally alive with real-time commentary and the promise of turning these ideas into action.

From top to bottom, the lineup was brimming with interesting and engaging speakers, wonderfully curated by Luci McKean and Christian Long. One topic moved nicely into the next, bridged and augmented by the videos from other recent TED events. Sarah Smith-Robbins, aka @intellagirl, was tremendous as the day-long host for the four sessions. She was everything one would hope for from a host: poignant, funny, articulate. One of the reasons the day seemed so effortless was the quality of Sarah’s transitions.

Spontaneous dance at the Buskirk-Chumley (video: Bob Molnar)

The talks with the greatest personal impact came in the “Learning” session. Most notable: Gever Tulley, author of 50 Dangerous Things, shared a philosophy of education that made my wife cry. The holistic arc Tulley described—exploring a broad topic, proposing and iterating a project, sharing the results, and reflecting on the process—would be ideal if it could be found in the public school across the street. This kind of educational opportunity is rare in Bloomington, unfortunately, and my family doesn’t possess the means to seek out a place like Brightworks.

TEDx didn’t let the talks live long on UStream, but high quality final cuts of all the talks will be uploaded to a YouTube channel by mid-June. That’s where you can find Steve Volan’s talk about living with Aspergers, one of a handful of strong candidates to be promoted to the rest of the world by the TED channel this summer. Ultimately, this is the biggest benefit the TED brand provides: the ability to showcase local minds on an international stage.

For me, spending all of those months in regular meetings gave me a wonderful perk: Most of the members of the local team of organizers are new additions to my life. I love listening to Kalynn Brower talk, because everything she says has an underlying energy that is infectious. Maarten Bout is certain to cross my path again and again, as his interests in parenting, theatre, and now the Combine overlap with mine. I got to spend some time with Gail Hale in her wonderful studio space, too. It is a sure thing that she’ll find me volunteering to help build the whatsits and whodads that comprise her sets for events like Lotus. Deeper roots in Bloomington is a great ROI for a year’s worth of work.

The Bad

My interest in TEDx Bloomington was to celebrate local community. That celebration began by helping co-curator Christian Long understand how the local tech scene had improved over the past several years*. I was delighted by how he embraced local organizers and our role in launching such a great event.

The other part of my mission was to find ways to include a broad swath of Bloomington beyond what we could fit in a theatre. Here, confusion and hand-tying created barriers that kept these activities, “Wisdom of Play” (WoP), from becoming what was envisioned:

The Wisdom of Play is a suite of community engagement activities designed around the theme of our local TEDx event, scheduled May 14. During the month of May, we plan a variety of public activities that explore play, experimentation, insight, risk, adventure, wonder, perception, and curiosity.

From conception, these public projects were intended to supplement the topics of conversation on Saturday. We wanted WoP to spread the ideas embedded in the theme in advance of the talks, allowing more people to participate in the community-wide discussion with some hands-on play. In addition to the projects that preceded—but did not compete with—TEDx Bloomington, an unconference facilitated the day after the main event would allow people to process their experiences and turn ideas into action. In short, the purpose of WoP was to help spread the ideas worth spreading.

WoP produced a smaller impact than expected. Planning was delayed as we tried to sort out the relationship between these activities and the organizing entities around TEDx Bloomington. The late start made it difficult to fund and grow awareness. When organizing something for the first time, there is always room for improvement. However, many of the hurdles were the byproduct of an unwillingness by TEDx national to embrace other local events.

TEDx has many rules guiding what the license holder can and cannot do. A lot of attention is paid to controlling their logo and domain name, of course, but WoP relied on neither. The rules are largely motivated by one fundamental TED concept: The event is free from corporate bias. Ignoring the gray area created by the corporate origins of many ideas worth spreading, it is pretty easy to accept this as a noble goal that should be supported.

The problem: the rules also broadly exclude participation in and reciprocation of other events in the community. It is telling that “other conferences and seminars” are lumped in with weapons manufacturers, ammunition and cigarette companies, online gambling, and sex-related businesses as unacceptable content for the official website. Ultimately, what prevented that site from acknowledging WoP projects in any way was a co-events clause emphasizing that TEDx events are stand-alone and not to be combined with other things.

Admittedly, WoP was pushing the envelope (although, there was precedent for it). Any attempt to operate outside of the prescribed TEDx window brought self-inflicted pain. We anticipated a clear separation of funding and parallel tracks for organizing, but not what amounted to a gag order. The assumption was that TEDx saw itself as becoming part of the local community. From my unique perspective as coordinator of this suite of seven projects, it doesn’t appear the rules are interpreted that way.

When our first attempt at grassroots funding failed—Kickstarter is another odd thorn in the TEDx side, btw—WoP lost a couple projects and had to scale back a few others. Thanks to the generosity of a couple dozen people, who donated money and time to the effort, we still managed to play a week-long game, decorate some t-shirts, build an arcade, create a comic, and convince thirtysomething people to talk about what they can do with the wisdom they picked up this month. All of the projects were worthwhile endeavors that didn’t get the opportunity to demonstrate their full worth.

The TEDx rules demand that “[y]our event must maintain the spirit of TED itself: cross-disciplinary, focused on the power of ideas to change attitudes, lives and ultimately, the world.” WoP shared that vision, with the added motivation of cultivating an engaged, playful and reflective audience for the Bloomington talks. The question isn’t whether TEDx was right to disassociate from these community projects, but why they would want to do so.

Next Year

The response to TEDx Bloomington has been overwhelmingly positive. Those who attended will likely rave about the on-site experience when tickets are available next year, and those who cannot go may again benefit from the high production value of the streaming video. The national speakers liked being here, as I’m certain you will see in the testimonials that will surface in the coming months. With a DVD to share, it will be much easier to explain and thus recruit sponsorship dollars in 2012. I’ll be shocked if the Buskirk-Chumley doesn’t sell out. In other words, there is no good reason not to expect another successful iteration of TEDx Bloomington in the future.

My added hope is that the quality of our event lends a voice to a conversation with TEDx national about developing new interpretations of their rules, to allow for mutually beneficial events to co-exist alongside the main talks. If they truly believe in their mission—ideas worth spreading—then it would help to acknowledge that doing so is a process that extends in both directions away from the stage with that familiar big red logo.

For me, eyes opened in 2007 when we started organizing Bloomington Startup Weekend. We didn’t get a new company out of it, but many of the connections initiated during that three-day weekend are still strong today. Since then, Twitter has helped keep our local network engaged.