November 6th, 2017 | By: Sarah Lacy | Tags: Stories
I have long argued that BuzzFeed was the most likely to become the first lasting, stand alone large public company of the digital media era.
Yes, a company called BuzzFeed could be this era’s answer to the Washington Post or CNN. And recent news reports show that investors agree: BuzzFeed is rumored to be prepping for an IPO.
But even I didn’t see that one coming back in 2012, when I interviewed CEO Jonah Peretti about his past viral sensations, his recent past building Huffington Post, and his current and future at BuzzFeed.
Given all BuzzFeed has accomplished since this interview, some of the questions are almost quaint– like my asking whether there would ever be a White House Correspondent from BuzzFeed. More stunning was Peretti’s answer: I don’t know.
Fast forward to an election where BuzzFeed broke so much news it became a prime poaching ground and the publication’s recent Pulitzer nod.
But the company’s future is very much in video and entertainment. And while co-producing TV shows may be new, the DNA of what makes something entertaining and shareable is the thread running through Peretti’s entire career.
I started out by asking him how he discovered that skill.
Sarah Lacy: I want to go back to some of the early Jonah Peretti days. If I were in the audience, the reason I would be here is to try to figure out what does this guy know about making stuff go viral.
The one thing I’ve learned about stuff going viral from almost everyone I’ve talked to who’s had a viral hit is that it’s not repeatable. Yet, your career has been built on making this repeatable.
Maybe we could start with the Nike sweatshop email. When you were doing that, I’ve read that it was just a distraction from working on schoolwork at MIT, but were you thinking about what you were doing? Was it an accident to you that it caught on the way it did?
Jonah Peretti: It was totally an accident. Also at that time, which was January 2001, people, in their head, they didn’t think, “Oh, this might go viral” or “That might go viral.” YouTube didn’t exist. Blogging was still really new. These things happened accidentally and no one was trying to make something go viral then.
For me it was procrastinating in writing my master’s thesis. Most of the early viral things that were created on the Web came through procrastination. It was people who were supposed to be doing something else who were messing around and playing.
In my case I went to Nike’s website, because I heard they had just launched Nike ID, where you could customize your shoes and I thought, “Oh, I wonder if I could get a pair of shoes with the word ‘sweatshop’ on the side.” It would have the Nike swoosh and it would say “Sweatshop” underneath.
I could wear them around and people would think it was funny.
I was like, “Are they actually going to send ’em to me? What are they going to do?” I ordered the shoes and the order went through, I put my credit card in, and the next day I got an email saying, “The ID you chose is inappropriate slang, so you can’t use it.”
I wrote back and I said, “No, actually, it’s in the dictionary. It means a shop or factory where workers toil under unhealthy conditions. Can you send me the shoes?”
They wrote back another thing. “It’s a trademark” or “it’s a this.” We had this back and forth and in the end they said, “We reserve the right not to send you the shoes, unless you pick another ID.”
I said, “OK, I’ll pick another ID but can you at least send me a picture of the 12‑year‑old Vietnamese girl who stitches the shoes together?”
They didn’t write back.
Sarah Lacy: You were just bored and fucking with them?
Jonah Peretti: Yeah, I was just, and I thought it was kind of funny. I wasn’t an expert on sweatshops, I didn’t know anything about sweatshops except what I had read in the “New York Times.” It was more just like a goof.
Then I, like, actually, the guy in the next little grad student cubicle was Cameron Marlow, who now is the Head of the Data Science at Facebook. I kept like going over to Cameron and being like, “Hey, Cameron, look, like, they wrote back again.” He’s like, “I’m organizing my MP3s. Leave me alone.”
We were like procrastinating in totally different ways. When it was done, I looked at it and I was like, this is kind of funny. I pasted it all together and I sent it to “Harper’s,” because I had read Harper’s readings, and they put like funny things in the front of the book at Harper’s.
The editor looked at it and said, “This is really funny, I’ll get back to you soon.” Then wrote back and said, “It was close, but we’re going to pass on it, and we’re not going to publish it.” I was like, oh. He’s like, “Don’t send it to anyone.”
I was like, “OK.” Then they passed on it, so I was like, OK, and I just sent it to like 12 people. Those 12 people, including Cameron and mostly like these nerds, right, who were friends of mine. They passed it on to their friends.
Then I started to get back emails from strangers. I think that, when someone makes something that goes viral, that’s like the first moment where a stranger contacts you and says, like, “Ha, ha, that’s so funny,” and you’re like, who’s that person?
I sent this to a few friends and there’s like some person I’ve never heard of who’s asking me or yelling at me or laughing or whatever. Then it started to reach these lists of activists and they started getting passed all around.
I started meeting all these people who had dedicated their lives to fighting against sweatshop labor. Reporters started calling me and asking about it. Then even though I didn’t really know anything about sweatshop labor, I ended up on the “Today” show with Katie Couric and a Nike executive debating sweatshop labor.
I’m sitting there thinking like, why? I ran to the Kennedy School and found someone who knew something about the issue and was like, “Can you teach me some stuff before I go on the Today show?”
After that experience, I was thinking, well, how did this happen? Like, how is it that you create something, you send it to a few people, and then it reaches millions of people? I started to think of it as what I started to call the bored‑at‑work network ‑‑ that there’s these millions of bored office workers.
They sit at their computers for hours a day. Half the time they work and half the time they’re on Twitter and Facebook and IM’ing and passing stuff around. If you can make something that those people think is awesome and want to share with their friends, you can reach more people than you’d reach from any of the traditional broadcast networks.
At that time, no one was making media for the bored‑at‑work network. No one was trying to make things that went viral. Actually Cameron said to me, “I bet you can’t do it again.” Meanwhile, he started coding something called Blogdex, which some of you may remember.
Which was an early system that crawled all the blogs and blogging was new at the time, and would look for acceleration and links and would rank all the things on the blogosphere, in part because we were both obsessed with, “How do these things spread and how does information spread?”
He started working on Blogdex, which became a big hit and was a really popular project. I started trying to think up new ideas of things that I could create that might spread.
Sarah Lacy: What did you do next?
Jonah Peretti: The next thing I did with my sister, who’s now a standup comic and “Parks and Recreation” writer, at the time was a lightly employed comedian, which is how you start as a comedian.
We created this thing called the New York City Rejection Line. The idea behind that was, it was a phone number for when someone is hitting on you and you don’t want to give them your number, you can give them a local New York number and say it’s your number, but it’s actually an automated rejection service.
When someone calls it says “The person who gave you this number doesn’t actually want to see you again.
“You can press one to speak to a comfort specialist.
“You can press two to cling to the unrealistic hope a relationship’s still possible.”
“Or you can press three to hear a sad poem by a kindred spirit.”
Then we had standup comics record each of them. For me in a way it was an experiment. I didn’t want to blast this out. Thousands of people wrote me emails from the Nike email, because my email was in the forward. I could have sent the rejection line to 5,000 people and tried to chain them together or something like that.
I didn’t do that. We just sent it to our friends and just watched to see, would the rejection line spread on its own? Would people pass it along? We started to see it getting passed from person to person. People were calling it from their offices and doing conference calls and calling and laughing.
Actually it would beep at the end so we’d hear people talking about it at the end. It was actually just this $40‑a‑month voicemail line that we just got to do it. Then we got a call from the people who managed the voicemail company.
They said, “You need to come in right now.” We’re like, “Oh, this is getting shut down. We have so many calls coming in. It’s constantly busy.” We come in there and he’s like, “There’s an entire voice T1 dedicated to your rejection line, and you’re paying me $39.95 a month.”
We’re like, “Oh my god, it’s getting shut down,” and it was like a week‑and‑a‑half in. Then he gets up and runs out of the room and then he comes back in and he has emails. He’s like, “But my wife loves it and my friends love it.
It’s so cool” and like, “Could you just put a little thing that says, ‘ELFS Voice Services” as a fourth option? Then you can have the whole T1.” We’re like, “Uh, OK, cool.”
That was the only reason it stayed up and ended up being something that a lot of other people copied and a couple people unfortunately tried to turn it into a business, which…it doesn’t monetize well, rejection.
“Feeling down? Go to Pizza Hut.”
Sarah Lacy: Of those two examples, was there any commonality that you drew between them that made them take off? On the surface they seem like very different things. The sweatshop thing was almost a Michael Moore thing, where you’re tapping into an injustice and bringing it to light.
People have a lot of different motivations for wanting to spread that around, but it’s a lot of sticking it to Nike. Whereas this is just this everyone’s been hit on by someone gross and it’s funny.
Jonah Peretti: I think one similarity is that you can explain it in one sentence and get a little bit of a laugh after one sentence. Trying to order Nike shoes customized with the word “Sweatshop.” Automated rejection service for people hitting on you in a bar.
I think if you look at the Richard Dawkins definition of a meme, it’s self‑replicating ideas. In order for an idea to replicate it has to be simple enough that someone can talk with their friend about it at a party. I think also a lot of these kind of ideas hit something that is deeply personal or that ties to people’s identity.
Being an anti‑sweatshop activist or fighting for social justice or having political affiliations is one, but relationships and dating is something that people spend a lot of time talking about and is a very social thing. You talk about “Oh, this guy or person hit on me, or this…” That is another thing that I think is inherently social.
Then the next one we did was this site called blackpeopleloveus.com. That site, it looked like the personal website…back in the era when people would make these personal websites.
It looked like the personal website of Sally and Johnny, who are two super‑white people who were so proud of having black friends that they created this whole website about all their black friends. That one played into something that was also very much about people’s interactions with each other and relationships with each other, race relations, and it was really more like every black guy wants to send it to his white friend, and you want to joke about it and talk about it.
There was a reason to share it. I think when you look at the “New York Times” most emailed list, you often see this. Where it’s an article about gay relationships, or an article about the Shamu story, which was one of the big ones a few years ago, which was about a person who learned how to control her husband by using the same techniques used to train a killer whale. It was things like what kind of positive and negative feedback…like never criticize but just reinforce certain behavior.
It was the kind of story where any wife who sees that is going to send it to her husband, ha‑ha, and is going to send it to her friends who are also married. Any husband who sees it is going to send it to his wife, like, “Are you using these on me?”
Built into the media is a relationship, which makes the media inherently social. I think some of what you saw with these early Internet projects that I did and that other people did was that there was a reason to talk about it. They were about relationships, they were about identity.
It wasn’t just like you read them or consume them and rub your chin and say “Interesting.” It makes you think of another person you want to share with or another person you want to talk to about this with. That, I think, adds a lot.
Then I think the other thing was that it was easier for me to make these things at that time, because nobody was trying to make things that were viral on the Web at that time. The network hadn’t been lit up yet.
Sometimes you use this metaphor of a forest, which is if you have a forest with lots of underbrush, and it’s really dry and all the trees are close together, a small spark will burn that whole forest down.
If you have the 20th social media expert trying to optimize a five‑year‑old social network, that’s like a forest that has wet underbrush and the trees are far away and it’s already been burned a bunch of times, and so it’s hard for even a really good idea to spread.
I think people naturally like to think of ideas and say, “That idea is brilliant,” or “That person has some special insight.” But often the network is as important. Is this network ready to spread ideas? Is this something that you can do something new and novel?
Like, I did a choose‑your‑own‑adventure story on Twitter, earlier on in Twitter. No one had done one. It was fun and it was different, it was novel. It’s not like that has become a thing that people do on Twitter, but at a particular moment, the network’s ready for that.
Sarah Lacy: Is there a difference between emails and videos? Do you think viral videos are harder to do, more unpredictable? Have you done much with viral videos?
Jonah Peretti: I haven’t done much viral video. We have started to do a lot more in video now. I didn’t used to like video, because it was hard to view on phones. It had higher production value requirements and cost. It took so much work to try things.
“Black People Love Us” we made in a weekend. We just got some food and got friends together and did it in my apartment. With video sometimes, particularly in those days, when bandwidth wasn’t as good, it was harder to make things take off.
Sarah Lacy: Was “Black People Love Us” inspired by someone? Did you have a lame friend who was always talking about black people loving them?
Jonah Peretti: No, I don’t think so. I think if it was inspired by anything it would be that my sister went to Barnard and lived in Sojourner Truth House and there was so much interaction there in colleges. Also my stepmom was black so growing up there’s some backstory there of going to restaurants and having them say “Table for three?”
Sarah Lacy: Were you thinking of different ways to turn this into a job, given the popularity?
Jonah Peretti: We used to get made fun of by the press, mostly, because we weren’t trying to make money. They’d be like “We’re here with Jonah and Chelsea Peretti, who got this viral sensation.” They’d be like, “How much money are you making off of this?” We’d be like, “We’re not trying to make money.” They’d be like, “Ah‑haw.”
I was like, “I don’t know, we just think it’s kind of interesting. My sister’s a standup comic and a comedian and wants to make funny things. I am trying to understand how networks work and how the media works and it was more about learning.”
I worked at a not‑for‑profit called iBeam, which was based in New York. I left MIT for this job in New York and it was a nonprofit where I had this lab and this big warehouse and we had cool things like laser cutters and 3D printers and electronics benches and a fellowship program and artists would come in.
I would do that as my work and then also there was all these other hackers and artists doing work. I didn’t need money, because I could live modestly and do the stuff I loved. I didn’t really think about doing it as a business. I feel very fortunate that I was able to just pursue things I was intellectually interested in and still be able to support myself.
Sarah Lacy: How then did you get linked up with Ken Lehrer and Ariana Huffington in the early days of Huffington Post?
Jonah Peretti: At that nonprofit, iBeam, some of the work I was doing was making these viral things. Kenny heard about some of the stuff we were doing. He had a summit for people when he was working on this political cause for the Brady Campaign, where he brought a bunch of people doing interesting stuff on the Web to his office.
We all talked about ideas. I was talking about what kinds of projects we could do together for this political cause. We ended up working together on that. Then at the end of it, he was retired from business, and he was unhappily retired. Like “I want to get back in the game. I know business, you know the Internet ‑‑ let’s do something together.” That was basically it.
Sarah Lacy: You were kind of the Marc Andreessen to his Jim Clark.
Jonah Peretti: I wouldn’t give such grandiose comparisons, but yeah. He was experienced in business. He knew a lot of things that I knew absolutely nothing about, had lots of connections. We teamed up and we weren’t sure what we were going to do.
Then, he went out to LA and met with Arianna at this event where a bunch of people were at Arianna’s house thinking about what to do for the next election. He came back saying, “Wow, she knows everyone in the universe. What if those people were online?”
We started talking and the business that Kenny and I were going to do together and the business that Arianna and Kenny were going to do together ended up becoming one thing. We all did Huffington Post together. It was pretty accidental and happened unexpectedly.
Sarah Lacy: I think, from the outside, Huffington Post is so interesting. From the outside, you see Arianna’s such a force. You see her, such a domineering personality that you can’t imagine other strong personalities coexisting with her. There were all these geniuses in their own ways working on that to make it happen.
There was Kenny. There was you. There was Paul Berry. There was Eric Hippeau running it. How combative was it? I can’t picture you guys all working together well in a team. It’s a lot of strong personalities with a lot of big views.
Jonah Peretti: One thing that unified us is we all liked to do big things and go after things and try to push things further. That general impulse went throughout the company.
Then, we also didn’t always have to collaborate on the same thing together. We would do our own. I would work on technology and analytics and stats and optimizing the site and thinking of certain types of ideas.
Arianna would be doing all the projects and being on every television show and taking on a cause or a campaign that she would be blogging about. Kenny would be out doing partnerships or raised all the financing rounds that we ever did and doing strategy.
Sometimes we would work together on certain things. I think part of the key to it was we did have a lot of strong willed people who had fairly different world views. We weren’t three Stanford CS undergrad dropouts who all saw the world in roughly the same way. We’re different ages. We had different experiences and backgrounds.
I think that was one of the keys, but it did make it a weird company in that it felt like there was lots of things happening all at once, sometimes pushing in different directions.
Where people from the outside would look at the site and be like, “HuffPost thinks this because they did that. But wait, HuffPost did this other thing which seems…”
Sarah Lacy: In the early days, what did you guys want HuffPost to be and how different is that from what it became?
Jonah Peretti: For me, I had been doing these viral things we were talking about earlier. One of the things that I noticed was that these things would rise and then crash. Once you’ve seen “Black People Love Us,” there’s no reason to go back to it. You’d see something go viral, grow really quickly, and then crash, or Rejection Line…
The Nike email. It used to be…when the Nike email spread it took four or five months. Then, with Rejection Line it was two. Then with Black People Love Us it was a month. Now, you see things in the course of a day or 48 hours go through their peak.
The infrastructure for spreading content has gotten so much better that the time it takes for things to go viral has accelerated. In all these cases, you’d see the rise and the crash. I was starting to think, “Is there a way to build a platform or site where you’re constantly creating new things so that you have these spikes but then you have another thing to replace it?”
I started thinking about stickiness, not just virality. Can you make it so that every time you have a spike people will discover something and come back to it every day? For me, the intellectually interesting thing about Huffington Post was how do we make the blogs into something where people will say, “Oh my God, Larry David’s blogging.”
At the time, people were talking about blogging the way they talk about Facebook and Twitter now. It was all the press would talk about. The story was starting to get old. The story was all about the person in their pajamas blogging and not about the idea that it give a voice to the ordinary person.
There hadn’t been big celebrities blogging, and senators, and presidents. That was a big opportunity with doing this business with Arianna, to have a new type of person blog. I knew that that would make the blogosphere freak out. I knew that some people would hate it. A lot of people hated it.
Some people would love it, but it would make people freak out to see Larry David, and Tina Brown, and all these types of people blogging. That, I knew, would get a spike, but my big fear was then it’s going to crash.
The right hand side of the screen with all these headlines, the focus on that was we’re linking out to the best stuff on the web. Even if you come and there’s no Larry David blog you’re still going to be like, “I found this great story. I found that great story,” that we could link out to.
The idea was, “How do you make the site take off virally? Then, how do you keep having these hits that will take off periodically when we get someone really good to post a blog that starts to spread?
But then, when those people come back, how do you make sure that it’s sticky and they keep coming so that you grow like this, where you get a spike and then a dip, but you hold a lot of it?” Then, you get a spike and a dip, but then you hold a lot of it.
You can keep growing so that you don’t make some one giant hit that just dies, which is what I had done previously. For me, that was the intellectually interesting thing. I think you’d have to ask Arianna the same question.
She might think of it in different terms but since I was focused on the Web strategy and technology, that’s where my head was and thinking about.
Sarah Lacy: How did you guys do out of the gate on that?
Jonah Peretti: A friend of mine asked if he should invest. I told him, “I don’t know.” We had a round that was still open and there was a little bit of money left. We hadn’t launched yet.
I was like, “I don’t know. I know we’re going to have a big spike, but I don’t know how much traffic we’re going to hold. It might just be we go like this and then it goes down to almost nothing. Then I would feel really guilty that I told you to invest.”
We waited and we launched. It came down. Then, we held a lot of traffic. I was like, “Wow, we held a lot. People are coming back.” Then I told my friend, “You should invest.” He put the last $200,000 into it. He’s an investor in Buzzfeed, too.
He put the last $200,000 in. It turned out to be a good investment for him. It was then that I knew that we were on to something because we didn’t just spike and crash. Everything that I’d done previously had spiked and crashed.
Sarah Lacy: If we were to ask people what they think of when they think of Huffington Post, it’s almost a Rorschach test. People think of different things.
I think Arianna would like people to think of the Pulitzer. Some people think of SEO and kitten videos. Some people think of unpaid bloggers. Some people think about more recent high profile hires she’s been making from Times and stuff like that.
I’m curious how you saw all the mix of all of that stuff on that infinitely scrolling front page and how much it was a science that worked and how much of it was a stone soup where you threw everything in there.
Jonah Peretti: Part of this was that we were all working on different things. I had an area that I could work on. One of the things that’s been great about BuzzFeed is that because I am the CEO of the company, I can make all the pieces fit together in a more seamless way.
We do optimization at BuzzFeed. We have a data science team. We do some machine learning. We have click‑counts that editors can see. It’s been nice to be able to say, particularly by hiring Ben Smith and being able to say, “All right, the journalists that Ben Smith is hiring, or the reporters that Ben Smith is hiring are going after scoops and writing stories.”
They’re not looking at stats to do that. There’s no way to A/B test something that nobody knows yet, because it’s a scoop. That’s a different way of thinking. I think it’s a balance. You can over‑optimize. You don’t want everyone to see a piece of content. You want the people who are really excited about the people who will see it.
Sarah Lacy: If you’re doing breaking news, it’s inherently not SEO‑able, because people aren’t going to search for something that hasn’t happened yet.
I always see those two as such different ways of looking the world. I think that’s what puzzling to a lot of people about BuzzFeed now, because you seem to try to be embracing both.
Jonah Peretti: I never liked SEO. I ended up getting obsessed with how Google worked, but the only reason I got obsessed with how Google worked was because I downloaded these projects that were about sharing ‑‑ the Nike email, those sorts of things ‑‑ were about making certain people freak out and want to share with all their friends.
That’s about people and humans deciding this is only worth passing onto their friend, which is I think the most important signal. What I noticed, though, is that the infrastructure of the social web wasn’t built out when we started Huffington Post.
There wasn’t a way to build a big site through social because social was still in its infancy. Things like email forwards were incredibly broken. The Nike email, people tolerated these email forwards, and other days, if you were an activist who cared about sweatshops, you got the Nike email 47 times.
Because people would be like, “Oh, that friend would be into it.” Other people might not have gotten it at all, even though they’d be interested in it. It was a broken system. The broader network was broken, and it didn’t have the infrastructure yet.
Now you have things like Facebook and Newsfeed, where if 45 of your friends share the same thing, you see a summary that says…it puts it at the top of your Newsfeed and shows you a lot of people have been sharing it, and you get ranks, which is a much better system.
The social web wasn’t mature. You could get a little bit of traffic from sharing, but you couldn’t really build a big business or a big site off of that. Where publishers were getting all the traffic was Google. The problem with Google was that you were creating content for a robot. You were creating it not for a human.
Creating content for robots means that you end up with these pages that are filled with tags, and you end up with things that when a human sees them, they don’t always think they’re great. You have to put on yourself the additional thing of, “I want this to work for humans,” but your traffic is coming from robots making decisions.
That was the state of the Web. That explained a lot of content you would see across the Web. Huff Post was different in part because we had a big front page people came to. That was something that wasn’t about robots. That was people who liked to go to the front page. When you look at the number of people that went to, and I assume still go to the front page of Huffington Post, it’s a big number. That part wasn’t related to SEO, but the articles were getting a lot of traffic from search.
Search worked a particular way. There was a particular logic to it. What’s so exciting to me now is that as Facebook, and Twitter, and StumbleUpon, and Reddit, and these social platforms become more mature, you can start to create content for humans, not for robots, and still have massive traffic, and massive growth, and build a real business that can sustain reporters and journalists.
Particularly with reporting, the best reporting and original scoop, a human can tell that, and will Tweet it and ReTweet it, whereas Google can’t tell the difference between some aggregated piece and a piece of great, original reporting or something that’s a scoop.
In fact, Google sometimes can’t find scoops because there’s no cluster yet, and so Google News doesn’t even know to think it’s an important thing and tell the 20th person aggregate, and then Google shows people that.
There’s real problems with the media business and content business are human businesses, and it’s a real problem to have Google have so much power directing traffic, and Google is a robot, not a person.
With BuzzFeed, we don’t look at search traffic at all. We get some search traffic, we focus entirely on making things for people to share.
Sarah Lacy: With search, it was a robot. People were trying to game the robot, which seems fine because it’s an imperfect system. Are you trying to game human beings now?
Jonah Peretti: To the extent that making something that people think is really awesome and want to share. When someone makes a great Hollywood movie, are they gaming human beings, or are they making really great entertainment?
Sarah Lacy: You say that like it’s easy to produce something awesome. Do you know when something is going to take off?
Jonah Peretti: It’s about having a really creative team, giving them the ability to work on something they’re passionate about instead of saying follow some formula, chase something that in theory should be popular.
If you’re really into Olympic swimmers, do the best, most awesome list of Olympic swimmers you know. Or you’re really into animals, you should an amazing animal post. If you’re really into covering the Romney campaign, you should cover the Romney campaign.
We hire great reporters. We are doing three kinds of content. We’re doing entertaining content, which is social entertainment, fun things for people to share. We’re doing reporting, which is more Twitter based and scoop based, and we’re doing branded content, which is the way we do advertising. It’s social advertising instead of banners.
We try to do the best of those three things that we possibly can. We try to find people who are passionate, who love what they’re doing, love the subject matter, and make great stuff. We also give them data feedback so that they can see which things are taking off.
We have a data science team that will do things like, I get this cool email that will say, “This has 4,300 views. We predict that in six hours, it will have 48,000 views.” Like that. It’s partly a way to optimize, but it’s less about optimizing and more about letting the editors have more of a sense of what gets the readers excited and what people like.
When we try a whole bunch of ideas, like if there’s 10 ideas and a few of them are really working, we can promote them more automatically so that more people see them. We know that people love sharing something, we show that to more people.
It’s letting people have better instincts from seeing data, and also shifting the promotion of things based on data.
Sarah Lacy: Does the value of a piece equate to shares and equate to page views? I imagine that if you really do a big investigative reporting piece on the Romney campaign, it’s never going to get as many views as the 25 most inspiring moments in human history. Does that mean it has less value to you guys?
Jonah Peretti: No, nor should it. The most inspiring things in human history compared to a report on the Romney campaign?
If you could figure out a way to make the most inspiring things in human history get less traffic…
We did a post during the Olympics, which was Olympics from gay porn, and the crayons that NBC would put up would block their swimsuits when they’re in the shower so it would look like they were nude in the shower, showering together.
We could have taken that post down after it got 20,000 views, but we left it out, so it got two million.
Sarah Lacy: I think you’re missing my point, Jonah. It is not that things that are inherently funny, or viral, or entertaining should have fewer views. I’m not a big snob about this. I like looking at kitten videos as much as the next guy.
In terms of this coexisting in one brand, if you’re running the company so much by data, and reinforcing these instincts of what’s going to hit and what’s not going to hit, how does a reporter feel if he spends six months investigating something and gets a scoop, and a slideshow is outperforming him 10X? Does that mean, within the company, his contribution is valued less?
Jonah Peretti: Definitely not. It’s probably because Ben Smith is such a good editor‑in‑chief, and because he’s hired great people, and they get rewarded when…When Michael Hastings writes a story that gets picked up everywhere, and it only gets 100,000 views, and some other thing gets a million views, everyone’s hi‑fiving the scoop that Hastings got.
When Rosie Gray gets a tip that veterans aren’t getting their checks, and does an investigation, and gets a Senator to have to respond, and gets the issue corrected, and they start getting their benefits again, even though that got20,000 views or something like that, it’s a round of applause. That’s what journalism should be about.
The biggest thing for us is we don’t see them as mutually exclusive. We think humans are complex people that like to laugh sometimes, that like to gossip sometimes, that like to know what’s going on in the world.
Somebody always uses the metaphor of the Paris cafÈ. If you go to a cafÈ, and you have a copy of Satre, and you have a copy of “Le Monde,” and you’re reading your philosophy, and you’re reading the news of the day.
If you’ve ever been to Paris, you’ll see there’s always a dog under the next table, so you bend over to pet the dog. When you turn away from the philosophy and pet the dog, you don’t become stupid.
When you flirt with the person at the next table, it doesn’t mean you can’t understand the philosophy anymore. It just makes you human. In “Blade Runner,” one of the tests of whether someone’s a robot, or an android, or a human is they ask them [a question] to see whether they have empathy for animals.
That’s happening a billion times a day across Facebook. People see animals, some of us are human and click the like button.
Some of us are like, “These animals, dumbing things down.” They’re androids, and Decker should hunt them down and kill them.
People don’t want to go to a library and read the philosophy book. They want to be in the cafÈ and read it. They want to have all these things together. You can say, “My site will only publish serious stuff.” The New York Times is going to be right in that Newsfeed next to the cute kittens. That’s where people are going to see it.
They’re going to be all mashed together. Our thesis is why don’t we do that at the source, as a publisher, and make all those kinds of content? I know that most of our readers are going to be on Facebook, and on Twitter, and on other places where the content is going to be remixed in totally different ways with other stuff we publish, and with other sources.
You can be smart and like a party.
Sarah Lacy: How did you get Ben Smith on board? It seems like a hard sell for a serious journalist to go to a site called BuzzFeed.
Jonah Peretti: I met with him for lunch, and I said…
Sarah Lacy: Did you know him before?
Jonah Peretti: I knew of him. I hadn’t met him personally. I went to lunch with him, and I said, essentially, Twitter is the front page for politics. Twitter and Facebook are the front page for content now. Social is the starting point for this stuff.
It’s less about people navigating individual sites. It’s more about being in the mix, and having things that spread and ride their own ticket. He said, “I totally agree. I live that every day. I remember when I was at ‘The Daily News’ and ‘The Observer.’ I was a little faster at typing, so I would get the scoop.”
“Those days are gone. People aren’t refreshing the blog like they were in the last election cycle. They’re just on Twitter.” He said, “I don’t think it’s for me.” He turned me down. That was how it went initially. Then Ken Lear met with him, and Peter Caplin met with him, who he used to work for.
They said the message of every year, there was a news site that has a fresh approach to covering. Not every year, but every election year, there’s a new site that has a fresh approach to covering the election, and captured the spirit of that.
BuzzFeed could be that site if you took it over. He thought about it, and he said, “Yeah, I think we could be. Let’s go after it. Let’s get the best, most web‑savvy young reporters. Let’s cover both campaigns.” It’s gone amazingly well.
Sarah Lacy: Do you think you are that site?
Jonah Peretti: I think that we have broken through in a major way. If you look at Memeorandum, it’s BuzzFeed in the top five or six with CNN, Politico, and New York Times. If you are like most political junkies following people on Twitter to get your news, you’re finding BuzzFeed stories as much as, really, any other source.
We’ve been breaking stories. We did events at both conventions. It’s worked better than I could have possibly hoped.
Sarah Lacy: How much did you have to pay Ben?
Jonah Peretti: He actually was so excited that he decided to work for free. The cost wasn’t so much Ben. The cost is doing journalism, and reporting this expensive. What we found is that with social being the main way that people are distributing it, the best stuff is worth 10 times more than the third rate stuff.
Hiring really good people, their work can spread further than it ever has been able to spread before, which makes the economics work. We are journalists. Our reporters generate a lot of traffic, and they generate traffic without thinking about traffic.
Just by going after scoops, and going after big stories. That is because Twitter, and Facebook, and the social web, makes that possible.
Two days after Ben started, we go the scoop that McCain was endorsing Romney, and Twitter just blew up. Ben tweeted it to a BuzzFeed page. His twitter handle was BuzzFeedBen, which he changed when he joined. It was re‑tweeted and shared.
For the group of people that cared about politics, that was the news at that moment. A half hour later, CNN reported on air that McCain was endorsing Romney and didn’t credit us. Twitter blew up again, whereas The New York Times and the other top sources saying, “Why aren’t you crediting BuzzFeedBen? Why aren’t you crediting BuzzFeed?”
CNN was like, “We have to credit the site with the kitten videos and the inspiring moments?”
Then they were really nice about it. They were like, “Yeah. Hats off to you. Great scoop.” They credited us in their report. That was two days after we started. It was like being able to get credibility as a reporter, as a news organization that can break scoops, took two days.
That’s because the action was on Twitter, and that’s where people were going. If you think about a world where everyone is indirectly navigating to a few sites, it might take two or three years to get that credibility because people aren’t moving around, and people’s reputations…
Your reputation has a lot to do with your success, and with the credibility of something you publish. You could publish that at another source, and it would still have your brand and your association with it. I think there’s a lot of that as well, that on social web individuals and really good reporters have a lot more influence.
There’s no tricks. There’s a sense of having certain qualities, like we were talking about before when you were asking why did these projects go viral? It’s like, does it tie into some strong identity that someone has? Is there a reason to share it? Is there a person that makes them think of?
Is it something that makes you laugh, which is inherently infectious? Is it something that is new and novel, because people like to tell people something new? We do a lot of long form stuff. An amazing 6,000 word piece by Doree Shafrir about sleep. “Can a Nightmare Kill You?” It’s an amazing piece that you should all read.
That was a fascinating interesting piece, and it also is a very smart piece. When you share it…and it’s the perfect thing to talk about the next day at your dinner party or whatever.
I think it’s a great time to do reporting and it’s a great time to do content on the web, because the social web is making it about humans again and not about algorithms, which is really good for people in our industry. It’s not good, by the way, though, for people who are second‑tier in the industry.
Because why would you read a second‑tier piece or an aggregated, rewritten story when you can read the original and it can spread everywhere. It’s like some of the problems that local papers are having. It’s like, if it’s a national news story and the person at the local paper is mediocre and they write a story about it, why wouldn’t you just read it from some other source?
Now you can. It used be you’d just get the paper and you couldn’t. It’s tough for people who are second‑tier, which is a social problem and a jobs issue, but it’s great for people who are really good at what they do.
Sarah Lacy: Is there going to be a BuzzFeed correspondent at the White House?
Jonah Peretti: I don’t know. We have a DC bureau that John Stanton runs and he will work out of the White House and the Capitol and do more in DC. I think when the election cycle is over the action will shift to a different kind of reporting, which is more about policy and about what’s happening in the Capitol. We’ll do more there.
Sarah Lacy: You’re all about things being very widespread, some would say link bait. Yet you seem the anti-Nick Denton. Gawker’s so much about making fun, tearing down, being mean, going after people.
A lot of people put you in the same camp because you guys both know how to make the viral thing work. Yet it seems your stuff is very affirming. It’s about kittens, it’s about making people feel good.
Jonah Peretti: Yeah, we’re more positive. I think the social web lends itself to a more positive approach. I remember teasing Nick a while back about how negative the site is by saying, “We don’t have all this class resentment and swiping at the frauds who are running everything in the US.” That’s more a British thing.
Even the poorest people are going to be millionaires. I don’t know. There’s a more American positive view too, which I think the British snark, I think, is part of the heritage of Gawker and partly it’s because Nick is Brit.
It’s surprisingly that people like the positivity though. You can see why people spread around the hate. There’s particular celebrities or people that people want to tear down. I think for a long time people felt like the Web just released this Internet cattiness and that people didn’t enjoy being nice as much as they enjoyed being catty.
I think hate is good way to build community among a small group. It’s like, “We read Gawker, and we hate those fuckers at CondÈ Nast and we hate the person who is just a blowhard and drives around in a car and that makes more money than me. We hate the celebrity at the party, but I was at a party with a celebrity.”
That’s good for creating an in‑group of we’re the cool kids, and I see it more as like an indie rock mentality. It’s like band is good and all the other bands suck. That builds a close feeling. I think contrast indie rock to hip hop where it’s like you don’t sell out you blow up.
For me, I grew up listening to hip hop, I grew up in Oakland. It’s a little bit more like, let’s try to make something that doesn’t suck, let’s try to do great stuff, let’s try to make big things, but it’s a little bit less of the like, let’s create an in‑crowd and let’s make that in‑crowd like the final things that that in‑crowd hate so that we all feel closer to each other.
For the social web, so much of BuzzFeed, the way you’ll find BuzzFeed is through Facebook and Twitter and it’s inherently so open that having an in‑crowd would, you can’t really share something that’s full of snark, because two degrees of separation away. They don’t know who [that person] is, so they don’t know, or they’re like, “Why is this person so angry?”
I think also it’s partly just dispositions. I tend to be more positive person.
Sarah Lacy is the Founder and CEO of Chairman Mom and Pando Media. She's been covering technology for nearly 20 years, previously for BusinessWeek, TechCrunch and many other publications. She's the author of "Once You're Lucky; Twice You're Good: The Rebirth of Silicon Valley and the Rise of Web 2.0" (Gotham, 2008); "Brilliant, Crazy, Cocky: How the Top 1% of Entrepreneurs Profit from Global Chaos" (Wiley, 2011) and the forthcoming "A Uterus Is a Feature Not a Bug" (Harper Business, 2017). She lives in San Francisco.