TED: Now with More Elitism?

Let me say upfront: I have never been to TED, mostly because I have never been invited and I can’t imagine a world where I justify paying $6,000 for a conference. But I live in Silicon Valley so every year leading up to the star-studded event, I have to hear about it from nearly everyone I know: People who love it and people who hate it.

For the last few years, these conversations have gotten ugly. What I’ve seen and heard from the outside depicts the sad transition from what used to be an inventive, elite industry conference that cross-pollinated experts from the worlds of technology, entertainment and design to a $6,000, always-sold-out-unless-you-“matter” invitation to rub shoulders with celebrities and talk about how compassionate of a millionaire you really are.

I don’t really blame the attendees. Truth be told, if I had $6,000 that my mortgage or a worthy charity didn’t need and was important enough to be courted by the organizers, I’d probably be a TED-head too. But a few years ago, I’d heard so many ugly stories about treatment of the people who aren’t quite-important-enough that I finally had to call the fawned-over conference out in one of my highest-read BusinessWeek columns ever, all but guaranteeing I’ll never be let in its hallowed doors. Full rant here. Sour grapes? Probably. But then again, there are tons of conferences I’m not allowed to attend that I have no issue with at all.

Since that rant, I’d grudgingly given TED some credit for opening up a bit. A move to Long Beach gave the conference a bigger venue and more people who really wanted to go seemed to be able to get tickets. TEDTalks are now posted for free online, and some are even streamed from the conference.  TED has also expanded its events to the emerging world, even sponsoring some locals who can’t afford the ticket price.

So imagine my surprise when I started to hear rumblings from the Valley TED faithful that the relocation to Long Beach has ruined what was great about the conference, making it even more elitist. TED has always been an expensive clique, but once you were in, you were in. Like the World Economic Forum in Davos, there wasn’t much more to do in TED’s old home of Monterey so everyone mixed and mingled. It was a rare place you could hang out with Al Gore and Meg Ryan at the same dinner and, come on, that’s kind of cool, right?

No more. Now when the day’s sessions are done there’s a hierarchy of parties throughout the LA-area with strict lists and security. Cliques within cliques, if you will. One friend I spoke with yesterday told me it was so bad last year he couldn’t even hang out with his friends much of the time. Because that’s what you want when you’ve paid $6,000 to attend an event—to be told your friends are still better than you.

Now, to be fair, these aren’t necessarily official TED events. But it’s still striking to hear the TED faithful complaining about the TED clique.