The Haves and Have-Nots: The True Story of a Reader Suddenly De-Invited from TED

I was determined never to write another negative post about TED. Really. I feel like my views on the conference’s smug-tendencies have been well-stated. And, as I said in this article in Fast Company, I think the TED Fellows program and the TEDx program have gone a long way towards fulfilling the stated mission of TED, doing actual outreach into places the conference long professed to care about. Beyond that, I’m just hearing of a lot of Valley people who aren’t going anymore after the move to Long Beach, making the conference less of an annual to-do for the tech community.

But then I got this email below, and all the reasons I wrote the original BusinessWeek column came flooding back. If TED would just own up to being about making the wealthy, famous and powerful feel comfortable–like other high level affairs like Sun Valley or the World Economic Forum– I wouldn’t have an issue with it. Business conferences have good reasons to be elitist; deals are getting done and high-level conversations need to be private sometimes.

But when credentials are revoked at the last minute based purely on the whim of a more important member of the TED community, the inner workings are just too much like a country club for an organization whose stellar content is all about pluralism and uplift. It’s the Sarah Silverman incident all over again. Oh you made one of the more important people feel uncomfortable? Then you’re out of here.

Private events should absolutely have the right to de-invite people, and there are right ways to handle it. I get de-invited from things all the time and don’t get upset. For instance, Polaris Ventures holds an annual, clubby retreat in Jackson Hole that I went to last year. Partner Mike Hirshland told me I wasn’t going to be invited back, after I questioned the wisdom of a portfolio company, whose avatars for 13-year-old girls were beyond anorexic, dressed like hookers and sashaying back-and-forth on a virtual world’s street corner. I’ll admit, I went a little rabid when the middle-aged, male CEO told me the problem was I just didn’t understand what it was like to be a teenage girl, like, presumably, he did. But at least something I did caused the de-invite, Hirshland told me about it upfront and we even laughed at the time. No hard feelings.

The story below is another matter. I plan on sending this link to Roger Ebert, so he knows why one of his biggest fans won’t be there for his TED talk.

(Details are redacted.)

Dear Sarah –
I hope this note finds you having a wonderful day.  I’m writing to you primarily because I so very much enjoyed your (now several years old but still entirely relevant) piece on TED, ‘Why I’m fed up with TED.’  I, too, am fed up with TED, but for different reasons than you mention.  I have to share my TED story with you, and because I know how busy you must be, I’ll be as brief as I can be.

Unlike many people who are rightfully fed up with TED, I will confess to having attended a TED conference.  A few years ago, I worked with one of TED’s major donors.   You know how TED has a ‘patron’ level, where people can pay $100K for five years’ worth of conference registrations in advance (with lots of nice perks?)  Well, this person is paid up with TED until sometime late in the decade, has contributed to many of TED’s special programs – I could go on and on, but you get the picture.  TED is very important to this person, and this person is even more important to TED.

One of the privileges of supporting TED at the level described above is that you are allowed to ‘designate’ an attendee, and this, incidentally, is how I think most ‘normal’ people get into TED the first time around.  Unless you’re a celebrity, a tycoon, a speaker, or a TED-fellow, someone of this ilk has to ‘recommend’ that you be ‘allowed’ to attend TED.  Well, in 2008, the major donor I’ve mentioned above ‘recommended’ that I be invited to TED 2009, and I promptly received my invitation.  I paid my (gulp!) $6,000.00 registration fee, and I went to TED’s first conference in Long Beach, dubbed ‘The Great Unveiling.’.

Now, I’m no Steve Jobs – not by a longshot.  But I’ve done pretty well in my career by most standards, so you’d think that at some level, I’d have found a niche at TED.  Nothing could’ve been further from the truth, and I just can’t tell you what an uncomfortable experience TED was for me..

Long story short, from the opening night gala, TED rapidly segregates itself into two distinct groups:  Group A, (the people everyone would love to meet), and Group B (the people who want to meet those people.)  The people in Group B spend the entire TED conference running around with business cards, hoping for, you know, five seconds of face time with Sergey Brin, Bill Gates, Steve Wozniack, Cameron Diaz, or the like.  The people in Group A, on the other hand, spend most of TED trying to avoid the people in Group B.  Put the people in Group A and Group B together in a room (the ‘opening night’ gala is the only time this really happens), and the tension is sometimes palpable..

I wish I could tell you more about my own initial TED experience (which isn’t even the subject of this letter, believe it or not), but I became violently ill after the TED 2009 opening gala (maybe something I ate?) and spent the first two days of TED in my bed, literally so sick I was barely able to move.  I did ultimately attend as many of the TED talks as I could, and they were great, but there was that same sense of segregation even at the talks that I’ve described above.  Seating is run like the Oscars; the ‘celebrities’ are all down front, and people like me -we’re in the final rows, in the balconies, literally at the ‘back of the bus.’.

I didn’t particularly love my TED experience because I was ill for most of the time, but I did want to see what TED was like when, you know, I wasn’t spending most of my free time throwing up.  So, I saved up for a year – a year – and, in 2010, applied to attend TED 2011.  I was accepted.  I paid my registration fee (gulp!) again.  And for the better part of a year, I’ve been looking forward to the conference, which begins next week.  I was looking forward to going, incidentally, not because I relished feeling uncomfortable yet again, but because Roger Ebert will be speaking at TED this year, and he’s one of my personal heros..

And then, the unthinkable happened: On February 17th – about ten days before TED 2011 was scheduled to begin -I received a terse email from TED’s leadership telling me that I was being ‘uninvited’ from this year’s TED conference.  My registration had been revoked, my pass had been destroyed, and I could expect a refund of my conference registration free shortly..

I was stunned, shocked, confused, and wrote to ask why, since nothing about me had changed over the past year, TED would suddenly make the decision to un-invite me.  The initial response I received to this query was equally terse and went something along these lines:  “According to our terms of use, we don’t have to tell you why we’re uninviting you.”.

I wasn’t content with this response, so I went straight to the top.  I sent a personal email to Chris Anderson, TED’s ‘curator,’ asking for an explanation.  I got it. Here it is: I was uninvited to this year’s TED conference because the major TED donor I’ve referenced above and with whom, for reasons unknown, I have now not spoken to for more than two years (TED’s leadership tells me that this is because this person and I have had a ‘falling out’ of some kind) had seen my picture in the TED 2011 ‘Facebook.’   This person had called the conference organizers to express that my presence at the conference might result in this person feeling some ‘stress’ and – perhaps – not enjoying the conference as much as this person otherwise might..

Now, we all know it’s very unlikely that, in a conference of 1,800 people, every attendee is going to get along perfectly with every other attendee. Indeed, I rather suspect that some of the best ‘ideas’ that come out of TED start out as disagreements.  And it’s equally unlikely that I’d even have run into this person (in 2009, I *tried* to run into this person and couldn’t do it.)  But none of that really seemed to matter..

The point is that TED’s leadership was unwilling to run the risk of one of their biggest donors feeling ‘stressed’ at TED, so they determined that, suddenly, nothing about me rendered me ‘worthy’ to attend this year’s TED, and I was no longer welcome to attend.  Not just this year.  Ever. For as long as this person is around or until we ‘complete our unfinished business’ (whatever that means.)  No debate.  No discussion.  End of story.  And I was reminded of virtually every gangster film I’ve ever seen by something Anderson said to me in his reply.  He actually told me – and I’m not kidding – that I shouldn’t take this decision to uninvite me ‘personally.’  This decision, it would seem, was just ‘business.’.

Upon reflection, I’ve decided that I’m not upset that I apparently won’t ever be attending TED again (though I’m sorry I won’t get to tell Roger Ebert how much his work has meant to me over the years).  I’m more of a ‘power to the people’ kind of guy, and even though I was happy to have been able to attend a TED conference and was eager to do so again, I’ve never been particularly comfortable with TED’s underlying ethos.  Speaking personally, I’m a stickler for ‘authenticity,’ and I’m not sure I like the idea of a conference whose mantra is ‘Ideas Worth Spreading’ but that, in practice, operates so as to suggest that the only persons with ‘ideas worth spreading’ are those with the ability to make very substantial contributions, not necessarily to the world-at-large, but to the Sapling Foundation, the non-profit organization that own and operates TED..

But I have to say, I was really shocked to learn just how much power TED’s major donors apparently exercise over every aspect of the conference, including the attendees.  I think it’s perfectly reasonable to allow major donors to designate an attendee (that seems like a positive), but I absolutely cannot believe that TED allows its major donors to do just the opposite when it suits them – to bar people from attending TED altogether..

Can you imagine a similar scenario occurring at, say, the Red Cross?  Imagine I were to make a $100,000.00 contribution to disaster relief in a stricken area, but with the condition that, as a result of my gift, the Red Cross absolutely refuse to use any of its funding to help Jane Smith, a particular person I know who lives within the disaster area and who otherwise qualifies for help, but who I just don’t happen to like very much for reasons that have nothing to do with the disaster itself?.

Despite its many missteps, the Red Cross would not EVER accept a contribution under those conditions.  TED, on the other hand, not only appears to accept such conditions attached to the contributions made to the Sapling Foundation; it encourages them.  But that’s another story.  In the end, what I really found myself wondering was how many other otherwise qualified TED attendees have been ‘uninvited’ to TED at the eleventh hour (or declined an invitation in the first place), simply because a major donor to TED said, ‘I don’t particularly want to share the (million square foot) TED conference space with this person?”.

We’ll never know the answer to this question, but there is one thing I now know for certain:  if this is how TED ‘thinks,’ then as far as I’m concerned, in not going to TED, I’m not missing out on anything at all. I hope reading what I’ve written here serves to reaffirm for you everything you said about TED three years ago.  Again, I really enjoyed your piece and look forward to hearing from you soon..

Best Regards,