Jonah Peretti’s office has two glass walls, two white walls and no decoration except for a giant, multicolored rectangle, with blue and violet hues fading upward and coalescing into a tight little rainbow wheel at the top. The Brooklyn artist Cory Archangel, a friend of Mr. Peretti’s, makes these “gradient paintings” with one click in Photoshop, blows them up and sells them for lots of money, Mr. Peretti said. It is, in his words, “kind of a joke.”
Mr. Peretti, 38, a navy-eyed, wavy-haired nerd-king with a machine-gun giggle, was a cofounder of the Huffington Post before he moved on to other things. He likes these gradient paintings a lot. His Twitter page is also a gradient. Mr. Peretti, a career mischief maker with a “great, sort of trollish sense of humor,” as one former employee put it, likes jokes best when they’re subversive. He’s infamous for arguing that Mormonism is superior to Judaism because of its growing numbers, a shtick he uses in presentations. As a grad student at MIT in 2001, he ordered a pair of custom Nikes embroidered with the word “sweatshop,” extracting a series of awkward emails from an unlucky customer service rep. He forwarded the emails to a few friends, who forwarded them to their friends, and so on. Literally millions of people have read them.
“I didn’t really know anything about the sweatshop issue, but I ended up on the Today show with Nike’s head of global PR, debating sweatshop labor,” Mr. Peretti told Betabeat on a recent Friday afternoon at the shiny new Flatiron headquarters of his company, BuzzFeed, which has spent the past three years cornering the market in items along the lines of “The 30 Best Taco-Related Crimes Ever” and “Sexist ’60s Coffee Ads.”
In December, BuzzFeed announced a surprise move that furrowed brows throughout the media industry. The site was bringing on a news reporting team and had poached Politico superstar Ben Smith to run it. “It was, to many, a bit as though Jane Lynch, at the height of her popularity on Glee, had announced that she was leaving the cast to participate in a season of Celebrity Apprentice,” wrote Tom McGeveran at Capital New York.
Mr. Smith was impressed by Mr. Peretti, who took the reporter out to lunch at techie canteen Lure in Soho and battered him with visions of BuzzFeed 2.0: serious news scoops vying for attention with the web gags. It would be a site that resembled the dizzying editorial mix readers find in their Twitter and Facebook feeds, a sticky alternative to all those tired “commodity news” sites, with their comprehensive self-seriousness and dryly logical architecture.
Reporters often try to feed readers their vitamins; as journalism professors are fond of saying, “Don’t give ’em what they want. Give ’em what’s good for ’em!” The new BuzzFeed wants to give ’em both. “The Facebook News Feed and your Twitter stream are filled with fun items, personal updates and news,” Mr. Peretti wrote in an email to Betabeat. “As social sites become the way people discover content, readers expect a very diverse mix. News on BuzzFeed is part of a much larger shift in the media industry toward social content. The shift has already happened, but we are just starting to understand what it means.”
Mr. Smith scoffed at the notion of editing such a beast, but he was intrigued enough to recount the conversation later to his wife, who asked him: Wait, why don’t you want to do this? After a bit more waffling, he did—largely because he was impressed with Mr. Peretti. “He actually has his arms around the media ecosystem, how information is distributed, at a level of sophistication that is hard to fake,” Mr. Smith told Betabeat.
Mr. Peretti is personable and energetic. He tends to reposition dramatically when the conversation turns to a new idea: from excited, with his hands behind his head, to thoughtful, with his tightly crossed, to relaxed, propping himself up with one arm as he absentmindedly scratches an ankle. The man David Carr described as a “viral marketing hotdog” is an exalted member of the New York viral media mafia, the group of internet noisemakers that includes people like video entertainer Ze Frank, uber blogger Jason Kottke, virtual stuntman Alex Blagg, Reddit cofounder Alexis Ohanian, Texts From Last Night cofounder Lauren Leto, and Chris “Moot” Poole, the god of the greatest meme factory of all, 4chan, many of whom mingle incestuously through hubs like the MIT Media Lab, the Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, and the Free Art and Technology Lab.
Mr. Peretti’s sudden fame with the Nike sweatshop emails was an accident. But he wondered if it would it be possible to make viral happen, again and again.
Perhaps you remember BlackPeopleLoveUs.com, the website of a white couple who protested too much? Or maybe the Rejection Line, a fake phone number that let suitors down easy with a soothing voicemail? Both were weekend projects Mr. Peretti cooked up with his sister Chelsea, a standup comedian and writer for Parks and Recreation—experiments designed to see if he could replicate the viral effect. “When we were doing our early joint projects, people kept asking us if we were making money off our ideas,” Ms. Peretti wrote in an email. “We kept having to tell people no.” She added, “It feels great to know how far we’ve come and that now we are both millionaires. And by ‘both,’ I mean just my brother.”
Mr. Peretti angled his expertise into consulting jobs and teaching gigs at NYU’s ITP lab and the Parsons School of Design, and the Huffington Post, where he invented what he called the “mullet strategy”—smooth, professional content on the front page, with messy, user-generated stuff buried in back—honed the site’s SEO, and created FundRace.org, a searchable database of campaign contributions.
In 2003—which, on the timeline of internet memes, would be four years before LOLcats, five years before Stuff White People Like, and seven years before People of Walmart—Mr. Peretti opened his “Contagious Media” class at NYU’s ITP lab by drawing two curves on the board: a spike followed by a plateau, versus a spike followed by a drop. Useful technology tends to spike, then flatten out, but it holds because it’s useful, he told the class. Viral media has an even faster growth rate, but plummets into obscurity after it peaks (although “Black People Love Us” is still in the top 10 Google results for “black people”). “You got your kicks, and you’re off to the next thing,” explained Paul Berry, a former student Mr. Peretti eventually recruited to be CTO of Huffington Post. (Mr. Berry recently left to launch a viral media incubator, in which Mr. Peretti is an investor.)
Sketching graphs and tracking email forwards isn’t as fun as, say, clicking on BarackObamaIsYourNewBicycle. But intentional virality takes work. BuzzFeed’s white-walled, bullpen-style office is quiet, with 20-somethings hunched over in office chairs, pacified by headphones, clicking and clicking. We tried to peek—what were they looking at? Photoshop. A website we didn’t recognize. Was that Facebook? These editors employ the spaghetti-to-wall strategy, posting a wide variety of items rapidly throughout the day while watching BuzzFeed’s internal metrics to see what hits.