Who Is Watching My TED Talk?

I'm absolutely thrilled at the success of my talk online in its first two-plus weeks online. With a lot of organic sharing and a little help from Reddit, more than 40,000 views were logged in 17 days. These are Sally Field "You really like me" numbers.

As a marketer, I've learned to be very curious about both sides of communication--not only how to say what you want to say, but how it lands on what audiences. This post is a short geek-out with Google Analytics and a plunge into a world new to me (Tumblr, i.e. "kids today").

Who's Watching?

The makeup of the audience as it began to grow is considerably more female than the overall demographic of TEDx videos in 2012. This talk's viewers are 55% female, while the TEDx audience overall is 60% male.

Viewers of this talk are also younger than the overall TEDx audience, with the curve peaking with 30-somethings versus 40- and 50-year-olds. But the age bell curve for women viewers is not a bell--it's a kind of sock, with a bulging toe on the left representing women between the ages of 13 to 24. 

Meanwhile, women between 35 and 44 are missing--taking up a disproportionately low percentage of the audience. As this represents the demographic of the speaker's wife, I have to wonder what's going on. I hoped that mentioning "kids' movies" in the title would make it relevant to professional moms like her, but maybe the "hidden meanings" bit reads as jokey? Or conspiratorial?

How Are You Finding Out About It? 

I see clues to this phenomenon in the source analytics. The talk appeared on Reddit early but sputtered out. The post-New-Years growth has been on YouTube, Facebook and Tumblr. It's hard to know much about the Facebook spread, but on Tumblr, which is public, it looks to me like the talk is moving largely among middle-school and high-school aged women who are responding to its sympathetic feminist message and its references to the movies they still actively watch. I imagine them discovering an adult who seems to understand something about their experience, and collecting it alongside other images and ideas from culture that help them sort out their place in it.

What Do You Think About It?

Many of the ways people react to other people's creativity are performative--we represent or distort our genuine reactions in order to position ourselves in a favorable light for them or our peers. But YouTube will tell you something unfaked: how long viewers watch before they click away. The retention graph on YouTube is a brutally honest assessment of how engaging your video is. It's like an airport bathroom mirror--making your flaws stand out in all-too-vivid detail.

I've got a very promising curve at the moment, especially for a video this long. It slopes down, of course, but pretty gently, with no big dip that would mark a digression into something uninteresting. The retention number is comparable to several of the top 10 TEDx videos, including the extraordinary talk by Anita Sarkeesian, which is also about women's representation in popular culture.

Sarkeesian's talk at TEDxWomen this year focused attention on commenters and trolls, and I can smell whiffs of these marauders below my talk. (Though it's nothing at all like the systematic harassment she encounters as a female public figure.) 

There are essentially four types of things being said about my talk so far: 
  1. "Thanks"
  2. "Feminism is anti-men so shut up"
  3. "Actually, you are misinformed about feminism"
  4. "No, you are"
The last three then repeat. 

On YouTube and Reddit, which are public and performative spaces, the commenters on the second and fourth position enact the troll's M.O: Their comments don't engage with very much in the talk, but rather recite several unsupported generalizations, expecting them to enflame other commenters. 

Comment #3 comes from people duly enflamed, falling for the troll methodology by asking for evidence, or respectfully disagreeing. (Adorable!) The troll then gets to escalate the rhetoric and pretend to be offended by the whole conversation in comment #4. Repeat. (You'll have to rinse after.)

YouTube's space is heterogeneous--anyone can see and comment, whether they share your values or not. Theoretically, this means the comment threads represent the meeting of the most diverse group possible. Chauvinists and feminists, sit down and hash out your differences! But of course in practice these conversations are rarely productive and almost always enraging. Small numbers of reactionaries can change the tone to bullying or worse, driving away thoughtful participants and drawing in more bullies. 

I encourage you to ignore the trolls. If you'd like a dialogue about the talk based on civil discourse and genuine mutual curiosity, feel free to post on your own blog or here. I will moderate!

Safer Spaces

My best audience--those who listen carefully, think about the content and react with their own knowledge and experience--are taking their dialogue from the lecture hall to the dorm room by embedding the talk on their Tumblrs. Now, I have not spent much time on Tumblr before, and following the reblogs of this talk among dozens of these profiles leaves me feeling a little like a parent snooping around a teenager's bedroom. Oh, the GIFs. 

I must say, though, that the commenters on these microblogs, most of which will only be seen by the user's circle of friends, are funnier and more thoughtful than any of those I've read on YouTube and Reddit. 
Frankly Alexandra: Of course, Leia reclaims a strong female voice by rescuing her beau and fighting and strategizing a war, yet is that the course we must always take to win recognition of strength?
Mrs. Which and Meg: I asked my 4 year old son if girls can save the world too and he said no, only boys can. SIIIIGGGHHHHH. So already he has picked that up from the (harmless, so I thought) media that I’ve let him watch. It’s frustrating that he picked that up so quickly.
Fandom and Fun: I have to say that I liked “The Princess and the Frog” more than “Tangled” because I thought the women were better (Technically, most of the inter-women discussions were about men, but Tiana talked with her mom about her dad a lot and I think that could be considered more a discussion of what he represented than his manliness; Rapunzel talked with her mom more about how she is absolutely not allowed to meet anyone, especially men, which, in my opinion, is closer to not passing the Bechdel test)
Corazon del Leon: Good, but not even close to the depth women and women of color have already laid out this talk. And colorism nor racism is mentioned even once so, yes, good for cracking some shells but overall just getting credit for 1/4 of the work?

I would guess that comments on Facebook would tend to be similarly civil and substantive. After all, the commenter knows that they're being read by people with shared core values, and that if they violate the norms set by that circle they will be held accountable (by being blocked). 

Do you have anything you'd like to say about the talk? Have you seen a reaction you thought was interesting? Comment here--you are the reason I wanted to stand up on the stage.


  1. I felt deeply touch by your talk especially because you're a father. Not many men that I've known are thoughtful enough to think about these things... (Both media for kids and the true meaning of "manhood".)

    As "girl power" grows stronger and stronger, boys and men need to find their new identity in the society. Feeling threatened or fighting against each other will only lead to more wars. Instead, what we need is to respect one another and work together as a team - and we need more parents who teach their children how to do that. Thanks for bringing me the hope!

  2. Thanks, Amber! Let's make it happen, with our own families at least.

  3. Your "missing" demographic is starting to ping it around Facebook. I'm at the upper end but three of the most interesting, early-adopter moms I know (all in the 35-44 range) just posted it in their feeds tonight, so off I toddled to see it. You are spot on. Thanks for helping me identify some of my free-floating anxiety around the media my kids consume.

  4. When you said that you would defend Disney princesses to any of the audience, I fist-pumped. I've tried on occasion to write out a defence of the princesses, but I have yet to do so succinctly. I was wondering if you've written/posted anything about them?

    Regardless, my husband and I really enjoyed your talk. Our daughter is not yet two, but these are things we're thinking about even now. Thanks for sharing your thoughts.


    1. Found your talk incredibly inspiring. Watching it I remembered why I started doing what I do (I work in film and games).

  5. Tara, I'm working on one now. Let me know what you think. Steven, fight the good fight. MemeGRL, thanks for sharing! Being posted on TED.com doubled my exposure in 24 hours, but I don't have access to the analytics anymore.

  6. I saw your TED Talk and thought you were excellent! You are making some great points. Below is a link I thought you would appreciate.


    1. Thanks for the link. For many kids in America, popular culture is playing the role that faith communities play--modeling what is a "good life" and giving community reinforcement to desirable actions.

      Today, our whole country as a giant community, with the ever-changing vehicles of mass communication our church service. Just as religious communities establish norms (sometimes around decency and compassion, sometimes around hierarchy and exclusion), our mass cultural liturgy is teaching us How We Should Be.

      And just as today many of us choose our congregations, so we must choose our entertainment.

  7. My community college writing students are watching your talk and composing an assignment about it. I would very much like to send you their work, both to encourage their sense of a real audience, and to have their writing engage in an actual dialogue. Would you contact me if you wouldn't mind my sending you their writing? melodygeeATgmailDOTcom.

    Thanks so much--they enjoyed your talk and had much to say about gender roles, movies, and role models.

  8. howdy colin ! nice talk on ted.
    congrats on re-launch values from Oz lost.
    corazon del leon has a point for you to consider. a good startint point
    might be 'dances with wolves' kevin costner interview with oscar in hand.
    I'd like to point another point: unfortunately there is a slight variation on destination of the meaning you suggest movies might suggest, because the readers are starting to fight man heroe versus woman heroe... it is becoming a competition.
    a) in anthropology there is 'quantitity index versus quality index';
    b) quality is a word invented in italian administration:
    it means 'to produce according to specs': high quality = produced exactly as the specs; low quality = produced differently from specs.

  9. Colin - thanks for the TED talk. It was interesting to watch and hear how the room responded - and see some of the comments.
    It's an important lesson- we need to teach our sons how to be the men as well as our daughters how to be the women we want them to be..


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