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Feb. 15 2010 - 10:57 am | 1,004 views | 1 recommendation | 1 comment

Today’s celebrity Twitter fight: Steve Case vs Sarah Silverman!

Sarah Silverman on stage at TED2010 (via ted.com)

Sarah Silverman on stage at TED2010 (via ted.com)

Yesterday it was Kevin Smith in a blistering twitter tirade about having his chubby self chased off a Southwest Airlines flight because he was ‘too fat to fly.’

Today it’s AOL co-founder Steve Case in a snit-pick with comedian Sarah Silverman.

The Issue: Sarah Silverman spoke at a fancy schmancy conference and used the word retarded over and over (and over) again.

Let’s see how this scene unfolded…

The Place: TED2010, a conference that describes itself as “a lineup of amazing speakers, performers and attendees…gathered for four days of TED in Long Beach and Palm Springs.”

The Background: It costs six thousand dollars to attend TED.    Six.THOUSAND.Dollars.    According to blogger, author and tech evangelist Robert Scoble (he’s worked at Microsoft, Fast Company and is currently at Rackspace),  TED never even gives out more than 15 press passes.  It’s been called elitist, smug, pompous and unattainable; the Conference for the Rich & Famous.  Scoble himself suffered from TED Jealousy in 2008.  Now, though, he’s a convert.  In a Scobleizer blog post he wrote yesterday:

Truth is, TED has opened up its content to the world. More than 500 talks have now been shared on TED Talks.

On the TED stage I saw that they had hundreds of events where the live feed was broadcast, including many into Silicon Valley (several VCs and entrepreneurs invited me to view TED with them at their houses, or work offices). Rackspace bought the feed too and lots of my coworkers were talking with me about the talks. So, getting access to the content might not be attainable by everyone in real time, but is certainly attainable eventually by everyone.

via The elephant in the room at TED — Scobleizer

The very first TED conference took place in 1990; over the years speakers have included Lost creator J.J. Abrams, novelist Isabel Allende, Amazon.com founder Jeff Bezos, magician David Blaine, True/Slant’er Michael Shermer, Avatar director James Cameron, Richard Branson, Bill Clinton, Bill Gates and Bono.  This year TED ran from February 9th through the 13th, and included the one and only  Sarah Silverman.

The Incident: TechCrunch has a good write-up of Sarah’s TED performance, from someone who was actually in the audience.

(I’m recalling from memory):

“I want to adopt a special needs child (to which one person applauded), because adopting a special needs child, who would do that? Only an awesome person, right?” I looked around the room and I knew exactly what was coming next. She was going to say retarded and not only was she going to say it, she was going to drop it like 10 times. I knew it wouldn’t be ok, but I was excited about it…

…She went on to say:

“The only problem with adopting a retarded child is that the retarded child, when you are 80 is well, still retarded and that she wouldn’t enjoy the freedoms of setting them free at age 18, so she was only going to adopt a retarded child with a terminal illness so it has an expiration date, because who would adopt a retarded child with a terminal illness? Well, someone who was awesome like her”.

The room went silent and she went on with her show and sang a song about how all of the penises in the world couldn’t fill your heart holes.

The Aftermath: Aside from a mixed reception from the crowd, the man responsible for pulling TED together  took to the Twitter waves with his own reaction.

Chris Anderson on Sarah Silverman and TED

Wikipedia describes Chris Anderson as “the curator of the TED (Technology, Entertainment, Design) Conference, an influential annual conference.”  I’d describe him as someone who 1. couldn’t wait to distance himself from the expectedly controversial Silverman and B. has a hypocritical sense of the free thinking that TED is supposed to embrace.

At any rate, Silverman posted her own Twitter message, which prompted AOL co-founder Steve Case to jump in, and…well…Gawker pulled together the entire She Said/He Said exchange:

Earlier today, TED Organizer Chris Anderson called Silverman’s “retard”-filled talk “god-awful,” which set off this exchange between Silverman and AOL founder Steve Case:






The Analysis: What caused all of this?  Robert Scoble has the most prescient and balanced perspective on  Sarah Silverman and TED:

Silverman succeeded because her talk was a science experiment, albeit one of trying something out on a much different audience than she usually gets to perform in front of. TED is all about trying out ideas and seeing which ones are the best and hearing from the people who do the best experiments, from dance to algorithms. Silverman is the best at her craft alive today. Or certainly in the top .001%.

It was why she was on the TED stage. She used that opportunity to try to challenge the audience. That was successful and I hope TED invites her again to perform another one of her experiments on stage.

But it failed too. I found her talk repulsive and challenging. I was in the second row. I actually was one of those who called for her to come back out on stage, although I knew that she had challenged the audience in a way that would be viewed as a failure. She challenged me quite a bit with her experiment. It wasn’t until later that I discovered that Chris Anderson, the guy who runs TED, had said she was “god-awful” on Twitter (he now has removed that tweet).

I didn’t have a chance to discuss that talk with Chris, but I would say that he was wrong and right. He was right that her talk wasn’t up to the usual TED quality but that she represented the best of what TED is: science experiments in human living.

via The elephant in the room at TED — Scobleizer

“Science experiments in human living.”   We can apply that to Twitter as well.  We’ve been granted access to intimate moments we might otherwise never see.  We all experienced first-hand the emotions around Silverman’s performance because Sarah Silverman and Steve Case allowed us to do so, as did Chris Anderson (until he deleted it).   With Twitter, Facebook and now Google Buzz, we’re all experimenting with what we share, how much we share when, where and with whom.  It happens to the rich and the poor, the known and the unknown, the savvy and the meek.   I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  Technology, social media, social publishing, digital community — it is collectively the great equalizer.

Chris Anderson should not shy away from this.  It is, as Scoble states, what TED is all about.   It’s exemplary of what we are all going through now as we fumble through new social terrain.   It is what you should have expected  from a Sarah Silverman performance, and you should have embraced it at that moment.  Why did it split the audience?  Why did it trigger such strong emotions?  That’s the hard but most interesting part.  Don’t favor political correctness at the expense of greater understanding.  We can look at @thatkevinsmith’s rabid ‘too fat to fly’ twitter rant and see the very same thing.

The Conclusion: It’s all so awesomely exciting that I’ve come up with a new word for this phenomenon:  twumble.

Twitter + Rumble = Twumble.

@johncmayer, I’m pretty sure you’re up next.

I’ll leave you with one last thought on the Sarah Silverman saga and, really, it’s all we need to know:  She’s f**king Matt Damon.


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    Spent the first half of my career in television, the second half in digital media. Worked mostly at companies with triangle logos: Fox Television and AOL. Covered the serious and the sensational at A Current Affair. Created online and mobile content, products and communities at AOL. A few startups and now, happily, Chief Product Officer for True/Slant. And let's not forget that "AOL after Dark" project...

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