Late next month, I’ll head to Monterey, CA for the TED conference. The conference organizers were kind enough to invite me three years ago, and I evidently made them happy with my conference blogging, as they’ve invited me to three subsequent conferences, including the amazing TED Global in Arusha, Tanzania last summer. TED is quite an experience – it’s a mix of the best speakers on the circuit with a set of celebrities that you’ll rarely see at other top tier conferences, like Pop!Tech, possibly my favorite conference. According to Business Week, it’s entered a celebrity tier of conferences that includes the World Economic Forum in Davos. I’ve been to both, and TED’s quite a bit more fun than Davos.
I’m glad that TED treats me as a member of the press, because tickets ain’t cheap. They go for $6000, and they’ve been sold out since shortly after they went on sale. If you’ve got a spare $35,000 or so, there’s an interesting opportunity for you. Cameron Sinclair, the head of Architecture for Humanity, has a seat at the conference as a past recipient of the TED prize. With TED’s permission, he’s auctioning it on eBay, and bids are currently up to $33,535.
(Of course, bidders may be more excited about the bonuses included with the ticket – coffee with Pierre Omidyar of eBay, lunch with Meg Ryan, and cocktails with my friend Sunny Bates, one of the world’s leading networkers, who will help the lucky (wealthy?) winner connect with interesting people at the conference.)
A lot more people have heard about TED this past year in the wake of their decision to make videos of many past TED talks available online. Historically, these top tier conferences have treated videos of their talks as a revenue stream, selling video of talks to people who couldn’t be at the event… or sometimes to people who’d been there. (The last couple of years, TED has sent DVDs of all talks to anyone who was at the conference, dispensing with this latter revenue stream.) No, you can’t see the talks in real-time online, and you can’t see every talk given at TED at this point… but you can get a hell of a lot of the content of a TED conference with a good internet connection and some free time.
Clearly, the availability of this online content isn’t cutting down people’s interest in paying big bucks to attend the conference. That wouldn’t be a surprise to anyone who’s sat through any of the dismal panels at Davos – people aren’t paying huge sums of money to Forum members talk about geopolitics, but for the opportunity to talk to them in the hallways…
So if the audience is what people are paying for, it makes me wonder whether the organizers of the BIL conference are doing something truly brilliant. The BIL conference is “an open, self-organizing, and emergent science and technology conference,” held just after TED in Monterey. It looks like the conferences will overlap on the last day of TED which should make it quite easy for people attending TED to cross the street to BIL, either at the end of the conference, or if they’re looking for a break from TED.
The conference site says that BIL wants to be “to TED, what BarCamp is to FooCamp.” For those who don’t get the reference – FooCamp is an annual event convened by tech publisher Tim O’Reilly. FOO stands for “Friends of O’Reilly”, and the invite-only conference is a gathering of some very bright tech industry people. who are invited to camp out at O’Reilly’s corporate headquarters and design their own “unconference”. Past FooCamp attendees, including Tantek Celik, decided they’d had a great deal of fun at Foo and wanted to participate, invitation or not… hence, BarCamp, which is a joke based on the programming term “foobar”…
BIL is also operating on the unconference model. If you want to speak, go to the conference wiki, post a talk description and, presto, you’re a speaker. There’s a couple of interesting talks listed already, including a talk from longevity researcher Aubrey de Grey, who gave a fantastic talk at TED in 2006. It’s not hard to imagine several of the TED speakers deciding to give a second talk at BIL – personally, I’m trying to figure out if I should use BIL to warm up the talk I’ll be giving at eTech a few days later, or whether there’s another talk that would be good for a BIL audience… whatever that turns out to be.
So, if the appeal of conferences isn’t solely the content of the speeches, but is related to the calibre of the audience… what does it mean if lots of TEDsters come and join the BIL folks? If there are amazing people at BIL – both folks who came to TED, and amazing people who simply decided to come into town for BIL – does it become as exciting and important a conference as TED? More exciting because it’s got a different and broader audience? Less interesting because it doesn’t have a $6k pricetag and the chance that you’re standing next to someone famous is much lower than at TED?
My guess is that TED will turn out to be a fan and supporter of BIL. TED organizers are well aware that running a conference with a huge pricetag and a limited number of seats is bound to piss some people off. The organizers are already planning to move it to Long Beach next year so they can expand the audience. Opening up TED via blogs and video has made it better. Encouraging TED speakers and guests to come down the street to BIL would make it better still.