Sharing can be a clever idea

SPREADING THE WORD: TED presenters' talks can go viral, with life-changing implications.

SPREADING THE WORD: TED presenters' talks can go viral, with life-changing implications.

"HOLY cow." For a moment, that's pretty much all Susan Colantuono can say when she thinks about how her life has changed since a presentation she gave last November was posted on the TED website. In the three months since the video went up, the talk has been translated into 15 languages and viewed more than 1.7 million times.

Colantuono has been bombarded with LinkedIn requests and invitations to speak at conferences. An agent reached out asking for her book proposal (it hadn't been written yet).

"Holy cow," she says again.

Colantuono, founder and chief executive of the consulting firm Leading Women, was accustomed to speaking before crowds.

She's spent the past decade talking with groups of female professionals and at conferences of business executives about ways to get more women into positions of power. Still, it was rare for her talks to get posted online, especially by a channel that has more than 2 billion views.

But TED, the 30-year-old international lecture series that focuses on technology, education and design, has made a mission of giving intellectuals their 15 - er, 18 minutes of online fame. And it's very, very good at it. The TED network of YouTube channels has in excess of 5.9 million subscribers - more than any other education channel.

The notion, as TED's motto goes, is that ideas are "worth spreading". Why should the results of someone's research be confined to academic journals and 100-person lecture halls when there's a whole world of internet users eager to hear about them?

The TED team thinks it's revolutionising education: "One person speaking can be seen by millions, shedding bright light on potent ideas, creating intense desire for learning and to respond," TED curator Chris Anderson said in a 2010 talk.

The series' detractors say that these videos are a watered-down version of true learning - "middlebrow megachurch infotainment," in the words of University of California at San Diego professor Benjamin Bratton, who gave a talk on the subject at a TEDx conference last year. (TEDx events are independently run offshoots of the main conference. TEDxNewy was held in Newcastle in November 2011.)

So whether TED talks are in fact changing the world is a matter of debate. But for the kinds of people whose work tends to get featured at TED conferences - university professors, social scientists, computer programmers - having a talk go viral can change everything.

Take Susan Cain, a soft-spoken writer from New York who left a career as a corporate lawyer because of the profession's emphasis on extroversion. She gave her TED talk on "the power of introverts" one month into a tour for her first book, Quiet. Though the book had done well on its own - it debuted at No. 4 on the New York Times non-fiction bestseller list, it was the TED video that turned Cain into something of a celebrity.

"It just blew it out by many orders of magnitude," Cain says.

Less than two years later, the video has been viewed more than 10 million times, and Cain is the inadvertent leader of a "Quiet Revolution" aimed at promoting the contributions of introverts.

But perhaps she shouldn't be surprised by it. Like the other most-viewed videos on the TED website (Cain's ranks 12th), her speech exhibits that particular mixture of personal narrative, theatrics, intellectualism and self-help-style inspiration that the lecture series has perfected.

Really, messages such as Cain's are made for online video, Kevin Allocca says. The trends manager for YouTube and author of his own fairly successful TED talk ("Why videos go viral" has been viewed more than 1.6 million times), Allocca is an expert in what makes people click.

Although TED talks are somewhat more cerebral than the other viral videos he's seen streaming through YouTube's servers, they share some important qualities with, say, singing cat memes.

They offer something unexpected and they are usable or participatory in some fashion. That unexpectedness factor makes you likely to click, and the participatory factor compels you to share.

The Washington Post

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