Ideas are powerful things. So powerful, in fact, that regardless of the messenger or medium an idea can stand on its own and change the world. That’s the theory behind a new creative initiative from TED—and its significance can’t be overstated.
TED is of course most famous for its TED Talks, which usually host accomplished speakers such as Bill Gates, Billy Graham, or Nobel Prize winners from various fields; the conference’s videos have more than a billion combined views. Now, after 26 years, the organization has a new project that turns its speaker tradition on its head: TED is teaming with Audible, the podcasts and audiobook company, to produce audio content for TED. The twist: The presenter will be completely anonymous.
As TED President Chris Anderson wrote in his Medium post about this new project, “What matters is only what can be shared: an idea that matters.” Explaining further why some might choose to anonymously share their ideas, he asked: “How many people have an important message but refrain from ‘going public’ out of fear of losing their jobs or hurting loved ones? How many ideas worth spreading remain hidden because some speakers simply can’t publicly be associated with the very thing the world needs to hear?”
The history of letting ideas stand by themselves isn’t new. The tradition traces back centuries: Common Sense, the document credited by with fanning the flames of the American Revolution, was published anonymously in 1776. Common Sense was written by Thomas Paine, an Enlightenment-era thinker, and urged American colonists to declare independence from Great Britain. Despite the author’s anonymity, Common Sense sold 500,000 copies in its first year—a figure even more impressive when you consider that in 1776, America only had a population around 2.5 million.
After the battle for independence was won, The Federalist Papers, which made the case for the US Constitution, were also published anonymously. The Papers, written by Alexander Hamilton, John Jay, and James Madison, were collectively published under the name Publius.
The decision to publish anonymously was important for two reasons: It let the authors speak with a single voice and, as Madison was already an important voice in shaping the Constitution, allowed the arguments to stand on their own merits. As Federalist “No. 1” explains, “My arguments will be open to all, and may be judged of by all.”
But despite its clear importance to America’s founding and its enshrinement in the First Amendment, the ability of Americans to anonymously advocate ideas they care about is under attack at the state and federal level.
Non-profit organizations such as the NAACP or the National Rifle Association have for decades vigorously partaken in the public policy debate. To keep their doors open, non-profits have generally relied on the support of thousands of members who believe in the organization’s mission. But politicians and bureaucrats in states such Missouri, South Dakota, Washington, and Oregon are risking diminishing that support considerably. Voters in South Dakota and Washington will be asked next week to vote on ballot initiatives requiring supporters’ personal information be reported to the government. Public officials in Missouri and Oregon, meanwhile, are backing legislative measures implementing this free speech-chilling policy. Similar efforts are underway, or will be soon, in other states.
The sad fact is that forced disclosure would open people up to harassment and violent attack. If these laws pass, individuals’ names, home address, contributions, and more will end up in a searchable government website, where anyone could use the information to target their opponents. Ultimately, this could stifle people’s willingness to speak out and support causes they believe in—exactly what TED’s Chris Anderson warned.
All Americans should applaud TED and Audible for providing a platform for ideas to be spread anonymously. We must also remain vigilant lest this important freedom be destroyed. While it remains to be seen if TED’s new initiative will lead to an idea that changes the world, one thing is for sure: the freedom to speak anonymously is an important one for the future of society.