LONG BEACH, Calif. -- The email that could change Meg Jay's life came in December without warning, containing little more than a link.
Clicking on it opened a Web page that offered Jay the most significant invitation of her career: "We're honored to have this opportunity to invite you to give a talk at TED."
Without hesitation, she accepted. And just like that, the Virginia clinical psychologist, who specializes in "twentysomethings," or the study of people in their 20s, was swept into the slipstream of a cultural juggernaut that has expanded well beyond its original focus on technology, entertainment and design.
If her talk at the five-day TED conference goes as planned, Jay could be catapulted into an international celebrity achieved by few academics or scientists.
"I think everyone knows having a TED talk is great for your message," Jay said. "Of course, it's also a little bit of pressure."
Such is the sway of TED, which on Monday began its fifth and final annual Long Beach conference. During that stretch, this once-obscure gathering of engineers, theorists and artists has exploded in reach and influence.
"TED is like the Oscars of speaking," said Nilofer Merchant, a Silicon Valley corporate strategist speaking this year on the topic "Sitting is the Smoking of Our Generation." Merchant explains how she improved her health by holding business meetings while taking walks rather than over coffee or lunch.
She is just one of more than 80 speakers, who also include celebrities such as Bono and Peter Gabriel, sharing a stage with people with titles such as "robotocist," "beatboxer and inventor," "passionate reader," "public art instigator" and "sanitation champion."
With success, however, has also come criticism that TED dumbs down complex subjects to pre-packaged knowledge nuggets for the masses. One former speaker, blistering organizers for promoting dangerous and ill-conceived ideas in an essay last year, called TED "an insatiable kingpin of international meme laundering."
TED's leader, Chris Anderson, argues that the popularity of the talks is evidence that a world seemingly obsessed with cat videos is in fact hungry for meaningful knowledge and inspiration. More than that, Anderson fervently believes that the right idea, explained the right way to the right person, has the power to change the world.