The site has become adept at repackaging content in creative ways. Perhaps the best way to present the contrasts between presidential candidates, for instance, is not an article but 20 captioned photos. BuzzFeed employee Andrew Kacyznski, a 22-year-old student who seems destined for The Daily Show due to his compulsive C-SPAN trawling, is making an art of telling stories through video mashups.
That said, the goal isn’t for everything on the site to go viral. “You could have that as your goal, I guess,” Mr. Peretti said, “if you like to be a delusionally positive thinker.”
It wasn’t too much to ask of his class in 2003, though, who were told to build viral websites. Whoever got the most traffic got an A. “The point of this class is not useful technology,” Mr. Peretti told his students.
Mr. Berry, who was in that class, teamed up with another student to build a website called Dog Island, a paradise for canines whose fictional creator, “Linda Reyes,” believed passionately that dogs should be removed from Manhattan for their own well being. The site had an elaborate backstory suggesting Chinese dog meat processors might be involved, and included a link to the “Dog Exportation Act” on a fake version of the New York City Council website. Hours after Mr. Berry put up a few posts for Dog Island apartments on Craigslist, it went viral. Craig Newmark, overwhelmed with inquiries and furious emails, sent a confused note two days later; next the students received an email from a justice on the New York Supreme Court who said her cell phone was ringing off the hook with complaints. “She was so pissed off at Linda,” Mr. Berry said.
Dog Island got the most hits in the class, something like six million pageviews. One other project got close: WhatIsVictoriasSecret.com, which was just pictures of girls vomiting.
The failures were as instructive as the successes. Mr. Peretti fondly recalled “gangster henna,” a fake website about hardcore prison tattoos created with henna, which flopped.
Why did Dog Island go viral, while gangster henna did not? There are no rules, but there are guidelines. “Most things aren’t viral” is one of Mr. Peretti’s catch phrases. The thing can’t be too complicated, and it almost always has to be original. “Oftentimes when people see something that was viral, they will copy it, and then that thing will be less viral,” he said (like those books that are made from Tumblrs?). Novelty is viral; humor is often viral, as are things that inspire awe or a strong emotion other than sadness. “For the most part, if something is a total bummer, people don’t share it,” he said. “You don’t want to upset all your friends. I’ve met activists before who come to me and say, ‘Help me make my campaigns viral.’ And then I’ll say, ‘OK, let me see what you’re working on,’ and then their campaign is literally pictures of starving children that are literally about to die.”
A lot of Mr. Peretti’s strategy has to do with appealing to people’s vanity: You want them to feel good about themselves for discovering a thing and proud to be the first one to show it to their friends. That means that some things aren’t “shareable”—sex tapes, nasty stories and celebrity dross, for instance, which Mr. Peretti calls “guilty pleasures.” Those tend to be spread by email and word of mouth, which are much less contagious than social media.
Nostalgia does well, though—“25 Foods You’ll Never Be Able to Eat Again” was a hit. But a wacky premise isn’t as key an ingredient as one might think; the all-time most viral post on BuzzFeed is “The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011,” which might offer a clue about the motivation behind Mr. Peretti’s shift into straight news.
BuzzFeed is more than a blog, though. It’s a testing-ground for technology that monitors the web, scanning for content that is about to blow up, using a proprietary algorithm that watches the type of traffic heading into a story, photo series or video and acts as an early-warning system when something has the potential for exponential popularity. At that moment, BuzzFeed flows the item into a rotation of prominent positions on the site, helping to catalyze its rise. It does the same thing for advertisers, making millions of dollars in revenue a year, the company says, by running sponsored content from brands like Coke, Kraft and Disney, and supplying its sponsors with a dashboard and metrics.
There’s something chilling about all this—the systematic monetization of the internet’s forest of delights in the service of corporate marketers. It all used to be so innocent: a hallucinating hippie makes an unintentionally funny video of a double rainbow and uploads it to YouTube, where it lies, a diamond in the rough, until it’s stumbled upon by an internet explorer. Serendipity is the great magic of the internet; distilling it into a formula seems wrong.
Then again, it might be just what the media business needs. BuzzFeed recently announced a $15.5 million round of outside funding, is up to about 70 employees, and Mr. Smith is hiring reporters.
We tried to get Mr. Peretti to give us a peek at the crystal ball. Why news? Why now? Are memes over—just a phase we all went through, like a collective adolescence of the internet?
“Novelty items, memes and cute kittens all have a bright future on the social web,” Mr. Peretti reassured us, “but increasingly they will have to share the stage with substantive content, original reporting and breaking news.”
In early January BuzzFeed broke the news of John McCain’s endorsement of Mitt Romney, forcing CNN to admit “news of the endorsement was first reported by BuzzFeed Politics.” (LOL.) BuzzFeed’s arrival has resulted in some grumbling from political hacks, but it’s largely been greeted with optimism. Media critic Jack Shafer, now at Reuters, hailed BuzzFeed in a column as “the daily newspaper … reborn again.”
Of course, what BuzzFeed is doing—original reporting of serious issues alongside aggregation, listicles, snark and video mashups—is not so new. The Huffington Post has a similar mix, as does Gawker and … everyone. A recent headline on The Atlantic’s website read: “Science Can Neither Explain Nor Deny the Awesomeness of This Sledding Crow.”
“They’re very aggressively carving out parts of political news that has even a faster metabolism than Politico,” Mr. Shafer marveled of the politics team. “I imagine the entire staff is heavily dosed on Adderall.”
He’s a particular fan of mashup wizard Andrew Kacyzinski, he added. “That kid is the greatest thing since garlic toast.”
[Want more? Full transcript of the interview with Mr. Peretti is here.]