This article appeared originally in the October 2012 issue of the “Nowe Media” quarterly (in Polish.) I had been asked to write about the history of our conference, our reasons and methods for bringing it to life and the general context of TEDx events as a thriving social phenomenon. With the kind permission of Eryk Mistewicz, the editor of Nowe Media, I’m able to publish the piece concurrently here.
A community is not something that needs to be built since it already exists in granular form of its potential constituent members – individual people bound together by ideas. Rather, it simply needs to be defined and given a chance to congeal. In all of history it has never been easier to do this at scale, nor has there been a time when communities were more ready and eager to form. Let me provide supporting evidence, based on my experience with building Poland’s first, and still largest, TEDx event. TEDx events are “independently organised TED events”, multi-disciplinary conferences designed to bring together leaders, doers, and passionates from literally every field of human endeavour, to share their stories and take part in whatever conversations emerge. Based around the concept of TED conferences (which have been around for over a quarter century), over 5000 of these events have been created in every country in the World since 2009.
The TEDx phenomenon would not have been as much of a, well, phenomenon as it has were it not for the fact that a huge community of “the intelligent masses” had already existed in pockets spread around the globe, hungry for contact with brothers-(and sisters!)-in-mind. TEDx has merely provided an opportunity for those little pockets to run together like beads of quicksilver. Opening up the TEDx license three years ago has given this community a definition and a hub around which to congeal. As a result, what had been a series of elite conferences has morphed into a global juggernaut, with quality of TEDx events uniformly high.
At TEDxWarsaw we began as a small team, gathered at one of the capital’s new coffee houses, excited at the possibility of creating a local version of something which we all held in high esteem. The coming together of the team is itself an interesting aside, combining forces as we did, since three separate people had applied for the TEDx license at the same time.
By the end of 2009 we had put together a core team of six, found a venue, set a theme and started to select speakers. The Word had also got out very quickly, without so much as a single column inch in what is now termed “traditional media.” Here, of course, we come to the point of this story, that is the ability of a few determined individuals to leverage appropriate technologies in the process of defining and congealing their communities. Twitter was by then only three years old, and just starting to gain popularity in Poland, but Facebook had already become one of the default modes of communication for a large percentage of the population. We anticipated that the level of recognition of TED within a narrow circle of aficionados would help us fill the Old Library auditorium on Warsaw University’s campus. We underestimated the scale of the response, however, and ever since that first event we have been consistently over-subscribed by a factor of 2x or 3x. And all, primarily, due to reliance on electronic community-building tools. The first event catered to 386 people. I remember that number since it was the capacity of the auditorium after we had subtracted some seats for the audio and video technicians. Our most recent event, this last March, filled the largest cinema hall in the country with nearly eight hundred intelligent, curious, participating individuals from Warsaw, the surrounds, and the general neighbourhood as far as Berlin and Vilnius. To put this in perspective, this is about the same size as TEDGlobal, the international TED conference which takes place in Edinburgh. By then we had had newspaper, radio and some television coverage but our main means of keeping in front of the members of our community have been digital.
TEDxWarsaw is closing in on 5000 “likes” on Facebook and we have over 20,000 followers on Twitter. This has grown in proportion to the international spread of the TEDx idea, and a large percentage of those people are members of their local TEDx communities. WWe do also have a substantial international audience. Our first event generated three quarters of a million server hits on the live stream, from over fifty countries including Kazakhstan and Bangladesh. Only a third were from Poland. Granted, live streaming a TEDx event was fairly new at the time and the event was run 100% in English, but according to the stats provided by StreamOnLine, our technology partners, only the Prime Minister had got more hits not long prior to our event.
We have since changed the formula somewhat, with half the event run in Polish, and the international audience has declined substantially, but we believe that while we are members of an international community, our first responsibility is to this country – and the reasons for this are many. The main thrust of the conference is to put interesting people in front of an interested audience for the purpose of sharing. It would be perhaps glib to say that we are in the business of “connecting the mavens” (with apologies to Malcolm Gladwell) were it not for the fact that it is actually true. We are fairly unusual among TEDx events in that we screen and select the audience, rather than simply opening the doors, “first come, first served.” The selection is done on the basis of what the applicants provide as “good reasons” they want to attend, and mirrors precisely, though not as stringently, the original process employed by TED itself. The result is a hall full of really varied people who actually really want to be there, for whatever personal reason.
In addition to being a forum for presentation of ideas and achievements, we are, just as importantly, a forum for conversation – fulfilling a basic human need in an age of increasing atomisation as well as tackling head-on one of the most fundamental issues facing Polish society today – it seems to me that many Poles display a deep lack of trust towards people outside of their immediate circle. While there may be good historical reasons for this, the need to change it is pressing and urgent. Much has been written about the deal-breaking, progress-inhibiting power which lack of trust holds over business and society. In some small way, we – at TEDxWarsaw – hope that gathering a wide cross-section of society, representing people from all walks of life, may help close, or at least bridge some of the chasms which exist in our society. Speakers and audience at our events have included (among others, of course) explorers and scientists, actors and musicians, politicians, monks, historians, students, designers, business leaders, storytellers, artists, venture capitalists, hippies, inventors, lefties, conservatives, a Rabbi, Catholics, Atheists, Buddhists and, I think, an Animist or two. We are interested in demonstrating that a diverse society is a healthy society.
We are also very interested in breaking some of the public speaking habits which have persisted in Poland for too long. Who has not heard politicians droning on for hours, only to say nothing of substance? Or other smart people, often leaders in their fields, managing to bore their audiences senseless and forever turn them off their topic? Poland has no tradition of public speaking. Again the need to change this is urgent if we are to communicate effectively to the World who we are and what we are doing. In march 2013 we will be staging our eighth event (four large ones, four little ones) and I am glad to say that of the eighty-some speakers and artists who have presented at TEDxWarsaw events, all but one or two have shown the audience the right way to share their passions and inspire people into action. The very lively concurrent debate on Twitter, Facebook and other social media has reflected this, and mercilessly pointed out any straying from a path of quality.
In a larger context, Poland is probably never going to become a global industrial power and we will likely never regain the military status we held five hundred years ago. What we can do is find our own place and build on the depth of culture, richness of wisdom and wealth of professional know-how to make the country count on the World stage in terms of what the American political scientist Joseph Nye calls “soft power.” Not important? Not true. Take a look at what countries of a similar size and wealth are achieving with soft power and you will see how important it really is. To get on that road we need a new “national myth”, to lean on one of my heroes, Joseph Campbell. We need to move from continual recounting of pain, sacrifice and loss as the central narrative, to celebrating what can be built on those lessons from history with intelligent, creative work in the present. Our little conference attempts to champion achievement and celebrate striving for quality, in whatever field.
Success of a country, in the near future, will be counted not just in terms of wealth, capital and power but also wise governance, freedom of expression, levels of satisfaction and health (mental and physical) of its people – that elusive “quality of life” about which we often talk but have only a sketchy idea of how to reach. A successful country will be one which provides conditions in which its citizens can thrive. Not only that, a successful country – in an open, connected World – will be seen as a place worth living in, and will thus increase its drawing power for capital and talent. Conversations are key to achieving this. And communities, defined and congealed around ideas worth spreading (the governing motto of TED and TEDx) are the right place to start those conversations.
More about the TEDx project here.
Illustration for Nowe Media by Fabien Clairefond / Le Figaro