TED Talks curator on how ideas go viral and the power of online video

Can you explain your idea of crowd accelerated innovation?

I was watching the League of Extraordinary Dancers in action and hearing that they’d been recruited off YouTube and that basically YouTube has been this dance revolution where kids across the world come and challenge each other to be better. It’s a cycle of innovation and improvement that’s fuelled by visibility and to be the person with the most views and it’s driven innovation. I’ve noticed something similar happening with speakers — they were looking at other talks online and saying ‘OK, I see what you did there and I think I can do better.’ This is happening in thousands and thousands of niche communities on YouTube. They’re all getting better, fast. It’s enabling us to learn collectively faster than we ever had before.

Could TED flourish without the technology, without the internet?

It actually did for a while, as an annual conference. It was about technology, but it was just a conference. The surprise is that you can scale that — that inspiration to a talk on video to inspire a lot of people. So now we’re very much a technology-empowered distributor of ideas.

What do you think is most powerful about online video?

When two humans speak there’s a whole layer of information and it allows people to sense each other’s emotion, sense how much they trust someone. It can go to how someone understands something because you can emphasize the key parts. Eye contact is actually a really powerful technology that people don’t fully understand. There’s a lot going on there and most of that can be captured on video — you can see the speaker, you can hear their tone of voice. You feel like you’re connecting.

You have an 18-minute limit for speakers. Why?

By being precise it’s a signal to speakers that we take the time limit seriously. But it is the natural human attention span and it’s worked out really well online — a talk of 18 minutes can still go viral on the internet. There aren’t many that are 30 minutes or longer that go viral; it’s just too long.

What does a viral video reflect about how valuable an idea is?

It’s a clue. It’s a measure of how many people want to share a talk and there are lots of reasons why someone might find it funny or inspiring or moving or actually really annoying. If you like harder ideas, tougher ideas, that don’t necessarily explode in views but are actually very important … they’re a slow burn. But when a talk does go viral it’s certainly a clue that you’ve touched a nerve and that it’s worth paying attention to.

Is there a danger in relying too heavily on the views or viral nature of an idea?

Yes, certainly, just look at the current internet. You’ve got thousands and thousands of click-bait stories that are computer engineered to tap into the darkest recesses of the human lizard brain. But interestingly what people choose to share is not the same as what click bait is. So the things that people choose to share are actually about their identity. They’re proud to share it. So you do get a different type of story being shared on social media than being populated in those stories that everyone hates but still clicks on in the privacy of their own lizard brain.

Do you really think online video is as important as the printing press, the next big revolution?

The printing press allowed writers to scale their ideas to the world; online video now allows that for a different form of communication. It’s a more powerful form of communication because there’s a whole lot more going on as opposed to just a stream of words: it’s a richer form of communication. You can get inside of someone’s head more deeply with the right talk, and the distribution is instant — you don’t have to wait to ship the books. Of course, like early print when a lot of early novels were hardly worth reading, online video is largely used for nonsense but that doesn’t mean it’s not really powerful.

Is there a next iteration that will be even more powerful than online video that will allow us to share even better?

There’s excitement around virtual reality. There’s a lot that could be achieved there, but there’s also a slightly isolating aspect that needs to be worked out. I think what speaking has for it is it goes right back — we evolved with it, it’s a deep part of who we are. Even though you can tweak it and improve it with all kinds of digital techniques, the basic notion of human storytelling and sharing of ideas and emotions — that’s pretty permanent. You can tweak it at the edges but the breakthrough is already there.

*This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity

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