June Cohen describes herself as "a tremendous science geek, a voracious reader, a passionate traveler, an on-again, off-again photographer and a devoted life-long learner." She is also author of The Unusually Useful Web Book, one of the early pioneers of the odd confluence of media and technology that came to be called the World Wide Web. In the 90s, while a student at Stanford, she led the team that developed the world's first networked multimedia magazine (built in HyperCard, using the just-released QuickTime); she was part of the team that launched Wired magazine's web site HotWired, one of the earliest web companies, and founded the much-loved developers' site Webmonkey.com, which is still used by millions. Perhaps most famously, June is also creator of the enormously popular online video phenomenon called TEDTalks.
TED started in 1984 as a conference bringing together people from three worlds: Technology, Entertainment, and Design. TED's reach is as broad as its mission is concise (mission statement: "spreading ideas"); today, along with two annual conferences in California and Edinburgh, its offerings include the award-winning TEDTalks video site, the Open Translation Project and TED Conversations, the inspiring TED Fellows and TEDx programs, and the annual TED Prize.
As of mid-2011, TEDTalks have been watched more than 500 million times worldwide. As executive producer of TED Media, when she is not coproducing and cohosting the annual conference in Long Beach, June now focuses on extending TED in new directions. — JDM & JMG
THE FUTURE OF ONLINE VIDEO
— Chris Anderson, TED
How did the idea take shape to move from live conferences to online video?
My boss, Chris Anderson, acquired TED in 2002, turning it into a nonprofit in the process. After a few years at the helm, he became convinced that the talks at TED deserved a wider audience, and that their impact could be amplified if they were shared more widely.
I came on board in 2005 with a dual mission: to support Chris on the conference program, inviting speakers and hosting sessions at TED, and to help him bring TED out to the world through new media. Initially, we were hoping to bring TEDTalks to television, but then online video started to emerge as a viable option, even a preferable one.
At the time, online video was still very new. YouTube had just launched, and the video iPod was released soon after that. We weren't quite sure what to expect.
But at its core, TED has always been experimental. We're always willing to try new technologies to see which are most effective at stoking the viral spread of ideas. This one took off.
Were there any challenges in the transition? How did you overcome them?
When we first launched, some people thought we were foolish to give our greatest asset away for free. They suggested that conference attendance would suffer, and the brand might be diminished.
Yet quite the opposite happened. The same year that we began putting our content online for free, we raised the price of the conference by 50 percent, to $6,000—and we sold out in two weeks, with a 1,000-person waiting list! That had never happened to us before.
Since then, the growth has been astonishing to us. We've blossomed from our initial six talks to a collection of more than a thousand. We've seen more than half a billion views in just over five years, and the global recognition TED has received has fueled a multiplier effect of awareness, with ideas spreading, speakers improving, and TED programs growing worldwide.
We're thrilled with the result and continue to make it better every day.
At TED, we've become a little obsessed with this idea of openness. In fact, my colleague, June Cohen, has taken to calling it "radical openness," because it works for us each time. We opened up our talks to the world, and suddenly there are millions of people out there helping spread our speakers' ideas, and thereby making it easier for us to recruit and motivate the next generation of speakers. By opening up our translation program, thousands of heroic volunteers have translated our talks into more than 70 languages, thereby tripling our viewership in non-English-speaking countries. By giving away our TEDx brand, we suddenly have a thousand-plus live experiments in the art of spreading ideas. And these organizers, they're seeing each other, they're learning from each other. We are learning from them. We're getting great talks back from them. The wheel is turning.
— Chris Anderson, TED
How has online video evolved since TED first starting producing it in 2006? And what made you decide it was the right timing?
Ah, well, hindsight is always 20/20, isn't it? The truth is, we didn't know it was the right timing. We only knew that we had reached an inflection point in online video: after a decade of its being little more than a dream, it was finally viable. And that made it possible for us to experiment.
Since then, TEDTalks have really grown up along with online video, and the industry is constantly evolving. Media habits are changing, and they're changing fast, so we're always adapting to keep pace.
How has video evolved? First of all, the quality has improved tremendously. The full-screen viewing experience, which was still primitive in 2006, is now quite gorgeous and immersive.
Second, we've seen constant evolution in the platforms on which people watch video. We launched TEDTalks on five platforms: 1) we streamed the video on TED.com, and also made it available both 2) as an audio and 3) as a video podcast on iTunes, and 4) provided an embeddable player for blogs, and finally 5) we also published on YouTube.
Keeping pace with people's evolving viewing habits, we've added many more platforms since then, ranging from our iPad, iPhone, and Android apps to Delta airline's in-flight video to channels on connected devices like Roku and Boxee.
Finally, there have been sea changes in the way people share video online. And of course, online video is all about sharing. That's what drives success.
When we launched, most people shared our videos through email and blogs. Over the years, we've added opportunities for people to share the talks through Twitter and Facebook. And now we're looking at new emerging platforms, like Pinterest.
Just recently we launched TEDQuotes, which marked our first fundamental shift in how we think about sharing. TEDQuotes allows you to share an idea not just on the level of the video, but at the more micro level of a quote within the video.
Did the content of the presentations change, as compared to the live events? Did you have to come up with different guidelines for presenters?
The core content at TED will always be the same: riveting talks by remarkable people. We haven't touched that. But two things have shifted.
First, and most importantly, we evolved the way we record the talk.
When we began to capture talks on video meant for the very small screen, like those on mobile phones, we quickly recognized the need for a powerful team of film experts to make sure we were getting the right shots, with the right cameras, edited in a way that would keep the viewer at home engaged.
In other words, we knew that filming with a single camera on a tripod in the back of the auditorium wasn't going to cut it. And we made major adjustments to our production guidelines as a result.
The second thing that happened was that speakers began to pay attention to the talks that were already online—and they began to raise their game. They improved their slides, rehearsed their presentations, became sharper, clearer, better. Our presenters definitely take their TEDTalks very seriously now.
How do you see online video changing the way we learn and share information? How do you see it changing our educational systems and culture?
We've learned that people are willing to sit for as long as eighteen minutes and watch educational, thoughtful video lectures when the content is engaging.
Recognizing that curiosity is very much alive and well is what drives us to continue identifying and sharing ideas. And the more and better video we all create, both at TED and beyond, the more it will serve to spark more thinking, inspire new ideas, and spread more knowledge farther. We're extremely excited about the potential for video when it comes to education and culture.
At TED, we're particularly excited about the capacity of online video to amplify human storytelling. There's something uniquely powerful that happens when you're in the presence of a great speaker, passionately explaining their ideas or telling a story.
This magic used to happen only on a very small scale, such as in lecture halls or theaters, but now a single great lecture can be watched millions of times around the world, on-demand, and translated into any language. That creates an extraordinary opportunity for ideas to spread and inspiration to strike.
CHANGING THE GAME
Reading and writing are relatively recent inventions. Face-to-face communication has been fine-tuned by millions of years of evolution. That's what's made it into this mysterious powerful thing it is. Someone speaks, and there is resonance in all these receiving brains. Then the whole group acts together. This is the connective tissue of the human super organism in action. It has driven our culture for millennia. Now, print came along 500 years ago and was a challenge to the face-to-face communication largely because it scaled. Ideas could now spread far and wide. And the art of the spoken word withered on the vine. But now, in the blink of an eye, the game has changed again. What Gutenberg did for writing, online video can now do for face-to-face communication.
— Chris Anderson, TED
What's the greatest benefit you see from the popularization of online video—for example, with more than 3 billion videos viewed each day on YouTube?
There are so many benefits. A video's visuals, soundtrack, and potential for human connection make it a tremendous tool for delivering information, as well as a super-simple format for turning around and sharing that information with someone else.
People are inherently curious, and video gives them another way to seek out, identify, and spread information and ideas.
What's the greatest caveat?
Well, sometimes ideas get spread that aren't worth spreading! But that's a double-edged sword that comes with every breakthrough in media and technology.
For people who want to use online video to build their personal brand or their small business, what are your recommendations, do's and don'ts?
Always offer something interesting, valuable, and new to the viewer. Teach them something, make them laugh, tell a story.
We forbid our speakers to be self-promotional, hawk products or solicit requests from the TED stage for a reason: it feels like advertising and people feel imposed upon. A sure way to lose their interest.
Also, respect the viewer's time. People online are terribly vulnerable to distraction. If you waste even a few seconds of their time, they'll lose interest and move on.
Above all, be authentic. In today's social media world, people expect to interact with people.