IRL

Techies Gather For a Real-Life Branch with Ev Williams and Jonah Peretti

Mr. Peretti has the scoop on "conceptual scoops."
img 20120924 191219 Techies Gather For a Real Life Branch with Ev Williams and Jonah Peretti

Mr. Williams, Mr. Peretti and Mr. Miller.

The elevators to the BuzzFeed office are magnificently slow. Each fits about six people comfortably, and they trundle and groan up to the 11th floor, where the company’s ops, tech and marketing people sit. “Considering how fast the company moves, it’s amazing how slow its elevators are,” quipped one dapperly dressed man as we all awkwardly waited for the doors to open.

Betabeat was visiting the BuzzFeed office for the first time to attend a real-life roundtable. Hosted by Branch cofounder Josh Miller, the event included beers and mingling among some of New York’s prolific tech reporters and entrepreneurs, as well as a discussion with Twitter cofounder Ev Williams and BuzzFeed’s own cofounder Jonah Peretti.

Before the group settled into white plastic chairs in an event-type space outside the kitchen, Betabeat spotted several tech scene staples, like Paul Ford, Anil Dash and Rick Webb. Scrollkit’s Cody Brown and Kate Ray, along with Digg CTO Michael Young, made an appearance. Reporters and writers were also out in full force: Pando Daily’s Erin Griffith, The Awl’s Choire Sicha and Business Insider’s Alyson Shontell all nabbed seats towards the front to listen to the talk. TechCrunch coeditor Alexia Tsotsis sauntered in towards the end in a silver sparkly top.

The event was formatted like a real-life Branch, a conversation platform popular among the tech elite that seeks to “empower people to talk about the world around them.” Mr. Miller, who has established himself as a prominent NYC tech entrepreneur in the year since he dropped out of Princeton, proved a confident interviewer, though it probably helped that he is close with Mr. Williams and Mr. Peretti, who both advise him on Branch. The trio sat in tall chairs, not unlike the ones you’d see scattered around a Hollywood set, with the Branch banner hanging behind them.

Soon into the talk, it became clear that Mr. Peretti and Mr. Williams–though clearly comfortable with each other–hold a handful of opposing views. Mr. Peretti is disarming and affable, while Mr. Williams is decidedly more staid, his humor held closer to the vest. It was an interesting juxtaposition to see two successful serial entrepreneurs with visibly different interviewing styles forced to come together and interact for a crowd.

Mr. Williams’ new project is Medium, which is currently open to a few select users in private beta. Medium allows them to create valuable content that is categorized not by how new it is, but by how good it is.

“We want to get away from the obsession with newness,” Mr. Williams said. “I think an obsession with the new overvalues its importance. Whatever you’re looking at in Medium, you see the best stuff first, not the new.”

Mr. Williams also argued that a person’s social circle doesn’t validate content or automatically make it interesting. “Valuable content can come from anyone,” he emphasized.

Mr. Peretti, whose own website relies heavily on quickly spotting and posting or reframing the new, pointed out that Mr. Williams’ distaste for newness is amusing given his history as the cofounder of Twitter.

“Isn’t the prioritization of newness all your fault?” he joked. “You’re solving a problem you created.”

Mr. Williams, for his part, didn’t let Mr. Peretti off the hook either.

“I’m not a big fan of aggregating content,” he said a little later. The irony of him saying that while sitting in the BuzzFeed office next to Mr. Peretti was not lost on Betabeat.

To be fair, Mr. Peretti does have some rather controversial ideas. For one, he calls the reframing of someone else’s scoop a “conceptual scoop,” which is sure to make journalism students bristle. “On social, nobody wants to pass around the rewrite,” he argued. Instead, a lot of what BuzzFeed writers do is come up with a new way to frame an existing scoop. He gave the example of a collection of cat pictures, which doesn’t mean anything given the Internet’s scope of cat pictures. But when framed as “Bet You Can’t Get Through This Post Without Awwing,” old material becomes new.

Whether you think that counts as an actual scoop probably depends on how much you value breaking news.

Towards the end of the discussion, the topic turned to Twitter and how it serves as a vehicle–“like a railroad,” Mr. Peretti emphasized–to deliver news and information. Mr. Williams agreed, but with a caveat; “Most tweets don’t have links,” he said, and so it’s come to serve another niche. “I think it’s the best standalone platform for witticisms,” he added, making the audience chuckle. “That’s a funny word,” Mr. Peretti said, sounding ever-more like the pleasantly silly “accidental” entrepreneur he is.

As BuzzFeed first reported (shocker!), Mr. Williams also suggested that a new way to measure a Twitter user’s influence could be in the works. Because many Twitter followers are actually fake, perhaps your follower count isn’t an accurate way to gauge your influence. Instead, he stated, “The dream metric is how many people saw your tweet.”

As Twitter continues to revoke API access and court Hollywood bigwigs, we won’t hold our breath: seems like the company has some more serious issues on its hands these days.

Even though both Mr. Peretti and Mr. Williams have impressive track records as serial entrepreneurs, towards the end of the discussion both expressed that running a company is still a lot of work.

“It’s still hard,” said Mr. Williams. “There’s always new stuff to screw up.”

Follow Jessica Roy on Twitter or via RSS. jroy@observer.com