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Online brain food. No force feeding required

It's becoming an online rite of spring. Each year, the famous, the well-connected and the articulate gather at TED, an endearingly named conference in Long Beach, Calif., some inscrutable act of pollination occurs, and, in the months that follow, little videos from the event start blowing around the Web like fluffy dandelion seeds.

At around this time of year, in fact, it seems the Internet is 35-per-cent TED talk - forwarded on e-mail, cluttering up Facebook, floating across Twitter. TED is a funny phenomenon, though. On the one hand, getting the YouTube generation to sit down and watch lectures seems a counter-intuitive proposition. But there's something about these videos that seems to have captured the Web's shiny, aspirational spirit.

TED stands for Technology, Entertainment, Design, and while the conference started in 1984 as an event for practitioners of those trades in particular, the handle has happily proven broad. Billed as a networking event for the world's best and brightest, the conference attracts luminaries who wear the "forward thinking" mantle, a canny mixture of Al Gores and Bill Gateses, and darlings of the new-media set such as John Hodgman (correspondent to The Daily Show and PC from the Macintosh commercials) and Adam Savage (the excitable co-host of the Discovery Channel's Mythbusters ).

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Over the course of four conference days, 50 speakers make 18-minute speeches onstage. And while the personal-networking part of the event stays in California, TED makes videos of its speeches available online - all part, it says, of its mission of "spreading ideas." Which it's expanding: It's soliciting fellows for its new global edition, to be held in Oxford in the fall.

If you haven't been bombarded with TED videos already, it's worth taking a look at the archive they've compiled. Some particularly worthy entries were filmed at this year's event in February.

Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love , talks, for example, about how creative people can avoid being driven insane by the fickleness of inspiration. (Her solution: they should disavow any agency in the creative process and blame some higher power for what success they have.) Aimee Mullins, the amputee sprinter, talks about the reactions of children to her prosthetics. And Tim Berners-Lee discusses the future of the Web (and frequently mentions the fact that he invented the Web).

The TED website has also built up a growing clearing house of videos from past conferences; Hodgman's meandering explanation of how he met his wife is a perennial favourite.

Still, the TED conference wraps itself in the rhetoric of Big Ideas, which is a neat trick. The topics it covers are undeniably big - life, death, the propagation of AIDS, the extinction of all life on Earth - but that's not to say they're always deep. In fact, the entire series is geared to a kind of up-market accessibility.

But that's not to complain. TED is one of the most likeable examples of a trend that's as curious as it is successful: the boom in online-lecture viewing. Punch "lecture" into any video site and watch what comes up. The first result is usually the famous Last Lecture by the late Randy Pausch, a dying but upbeat computer scientist with an inspirational message - which millions watched, despite it's 76-minute run time.

After that, though, you'll find that the Web is brimming with lectures from figures famous and obscure. Universities around the world are putting videos and audio recordings of their lectures online, and Apple's iTunes University - worth perusing - has collected tens of thousands of them in one spot.

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Among the Web's success stories, one of the most unexpected is the fact that millions of people will sit in front of their screens and watch someone speak for an hour or more - that sticks it hardest to conventional wisdom about what people do online.

After all, online lectures are the antithesis of what supposedly makes YouTube great. For one thing, they're long. For another, they have absolutely nothing to do with a cat doing something adorable.

They are in no way, shape or form interactive. There's no talking back to them, or asking questions. It's not very Web 2.0 at all. You click. You sit there. You listen.

So, too, with the TED talks, in their shiny way. You might think of them as gateway drugs to watching other online lectures: They're short, they're interesting and they're easy to digest - and they remind you that, in this age of two-way conversations, there's something satisfying about staying still and listening to somebody else for a change.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More

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