Summits

BuzzFeed Cofounder Jonah Peretti Preaches the Science of Memes

Mr. Peretti took to the stage of the 2012 Guardian Activate Summit to discuss the implications of our new social landscape.
 BuzzFeed Cofounder Jonah Peretti Preaches the Science of Memes

Mr. Peretti (flickr.com/wonific)

If Arianna Huffington is the Madonna of the media industry, what does that make Jonah Peretti, cofounder of burgeoning meme factory BuzzFeed? Prince, perhaps? (In keeping with the ’80s references, of course.)

Ms. Huffington, who founded The Huffington Post with the help of Mr. Peretti, was so excited to hear the nerd king’s presentation, which directly followed her own, that she announced offhandedly that she was changing her schedule so that she could stay. And Mr. Peretti, whose slideshow was chock full of cute animal photos and other humorous BuzzFeed absurdities, did not disappoint. (Though it was apparently quite similar to the one he did at Ad Age Digital a few weeks ago.)

Mr. Peretti’s presentation revolved around the concept of the current shift from “search” to “social.” Before, people relied on search engines like Google to find information, but now they are increasingly relying on their social networks to share and receive articles. Google, he said, is concerned with connecting people with the information they want, while Facebook is about helping you express yourself and connect with your friends. But BuzzFeed is all about creating content for this new social ecosystem.

“What we’re building at BuzzFeed is treating social as the new starting point,” he declared. “We’re starting with the premise that people get their news from social sources and saying, ‘What does it take to create content in a social world?'”

With that, Mr. Peretti cued up a photo of two basset hounds running, their faces mangled into hilarious and oddly adorable expressions. The audience laughed heartily, with some high-pitched “awws” mixed in for good measure.

“Turns out in the social world, two basset hounds running are actually pretty good. Basset hounds have a property of having messed up faces when they run, so you laugh, so you get the ‘LOL,’ plus the ‘Cute,’ so there’s an overlap of two things,” Mr. Peretti explained, with the gusto of a professor hashing out a complicated scientific theory.

“In the social world, people want to be a participant in the stories that they’re reading about,” he added. On the presentation screen, Mr. Peretti showed examples of BuzzFeed stories that have performed well because of this participatory element: the campaign to make People magazine name Ryan Gosling the sexiest man in the world, and a post with a list of the most powerful images of 2011.

“The biggest post we had on BuzzFeed in 2011 was the 45 most powerful images of 2011,” he said. “All these epic monumental things that we all lived through in 2011–we put that into a list that people could share on Facebook, so you felt like you lived through things with your friends, but there was also the social value of reliving these experiences with your friends.”

Mr. Peretti elaborated on this by explaining that the new currency in the social world is emotional intelligence, or “being able to think, ‘When I share this, how does it make me look? Can I make my friends happy or inspired or more informed by sharing things with them? What’s the social dynamics of content?’ I think that is sometimes more important than traditional I.Q.”

“People will say, ‘Oh, why don’t you just post a bunch of nude celebrities? People search for that and click on that at a tremendous rate, because no one really sees you do it,” he added. “Social raises the bar to what people are proud of and what makes people more human.”

Read our earlier coverage of the Guardian 2012 Activate Summit here and here.

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