Merchants of Truth
CHAPTER ONE BUZZFEED I
Jonah Peretti, who would upend the news business by injecting the data science of virality into it, was born into a world in which people still knew how to fold a newspaper, and grew up just a short distance from the garage where two guys named Steve were tinkering with what became the first Apple computer. His mother and father, a schoolteacher and lawyer in Oakland, California, were perplexed by a child who loved to talk to the life-size monsters he molded out of clay. His creations were so fantastical and compelling that a local art gallery put them on display. But he couldn’t make sense of books.
His younger sister, Chelsea, who went on to establish herself as a successful actress and stand-up comic, remembers her rail-thin brother as relentlessly chatty and precocious.
Their parents divorced when he was six. As they grew up, the siblings had their own private world.
But for Jonah each day of elementary school was what he later described as seven hours of punishment that left him feeling “invisible and insignificant.” He spent class time confounded, “alone in a room full of strange children who pass the time transfixed by incomprehensible symbols,” he once wrote. He shrank from his teachers and spent recess hiding in a bathroom stall, crying. When he entered third grade and still couldn’t read, his mother took him to a psychologist and received the verdict she had long suspected: her son was dyslexic.
Peretti’s stepmother and father took consolation in the possibility that their son’s brain was no less capable, just wired differently. In art class, while the other kids produced banal little pots, teachers marveled at the anatomical complexity of the sculptures the practically illiterate boy had concocted. “The goal of cognition was not to be right, but to make something interesting, provocative, and original,” he wrote. “When I played the game of right and wrong at school, I always lost. But when I built something evocative in the studio, adults would stare in wonder and admiration.”
Eventually he did learn to read, and at that point he gave up clay but never lost his interest in the connection between art and technology. In high school he became fascinated by philosophy and economics. Computing came to him intuitively.
His mother’s friend let him play around on an early-model Macintosh, and Peretti became transfixed. “I loved it because you could create with it,” he recalled. He struck a deal with his parents to do extra yard work for a modest stipend and used the money to buy a Mac of his own from a secondhand store.
During his high school summers, he taught at day camps and fixed computers to earn some money. He supplemented screen time with a self-guided tour of the philosophical canon, rode his bike, and established a small community garden near home.
His sister recalls these years as his “crunchy period.”
His senior thesis, published in the British quarterly Environmental Values, was on an emerging environmental doctrine called mixoecology.
He graduated Phi Beta Kappa with little clue of what he wanted to do next.
He looked at a couple of tech start-ups in the area but found cubicle culture off-putting. For the time being, he decided to follow in his mother’s footsteps and become a teacher. He filled out an application form and took it to the teacher placement service, telling them, “I’ll go anywhere.” They sent him to the Isidore Newman School, an exclusive private institution in uptown New Orleans dually distinguished by its brainy student body and storied football program, whose alumni included the writers Walter Isaacson and Michael Lewis, and the football legends Peyton and Eli Manning.
He taught four different classes, from kindergarteners to seniors, in addition to directing the computer department, where he had 15 teachers working under him, none of whom were too pleased to be answering to a man half their age, and who looked it. His rangy frame still hadn’t filled out. (It never would.) He decided to wear a tie.
As an entry-level teacher, he was earning just $24,000 a year, but the challenge of making the abstrusely technical field of computer science accessible to children proved satisfying. He taught students what probability was and how to gauge it, what constituted randomness as opposed to order. His students designed their own websites, learned to write programs that generated petitions to politicians, and supplemented their study of history with virtual role-playing. His classroom became a sort of R&D lab for him
to test how these young minds grappled with high-flying concepts and processes and how to adapt them to real life. Sometimes he tailored his lessons to the special needs of a dyslexic sixth-grader, whom the principal had written off as a problem child. After a year with Mr. Peretti, the child might have developed an original version of Myst, the famous computer game.
Louisiana culture was a far cry from the liberal enclave he had grown up in.
The funky pair of John Fluevog wingtips he wore and the indie songwriters he listened to stuck out against the backdrop of New Orleans jazz and pickup trucks. Peretti’s quirks attracted the brainier students, who signed up for the electives he taught on communist philosophers and postmodernism. He led one such class on a field trip to New York City, where three particularly admiring students went to Greenwich Village to buy Fluevogs to match his. One of them, Peggy Wang, would stay in touch with her teacher and become one of his first employees at BuzzFeed.
At night Peretti would reconvene with the philosophers he’d read in college and write erudite papers for little-known academic journals.
One from his first year in New Orleans, titled “Capitalism and Schizophrenia,” lamented the disorienting effects wrought by the torrent of commercial images on the internet and TV, a trend that in 1996 was in its mere adolescence. Much later the topic was fodder for myriad books and studies about how the web was shortening people’s attention span.
“The increasingly rapid rate at which images are distributed and consumed in late capitalism necessitates a corresponding increase in the rate that individuals assume and shed identities,” he wrote. “The viewing subject, ‘glued’ to the screen, mistakes himself or herself for an ideologically laden ‘image-repertoire’?” in which “the images must have some content to create the possibility for a mirror stage identification.” The essay read like the last gasp of an idealist in the jaws of the capitalist machine. Ironic, then, that within a decade the author would build a billion-dollar company catering to the world’s largest brands by preying on these very same vulnerabilities in consumers’ collective subconscious. Years later, when a reporter found the paper and asked Peretti whether BuzzFeed subverted or capitalized upon the phenomena he once critiqued, he replied “lol.”
On the weekends he would travel to academic symposia to discuss the digital future. At one conference on social networking, held around the turn of the millennium, he met a Cornell graduate student named Duncan Watts, who was working out the math behind the six degrees of separation and investigating how chirps spread from cricket to cricket. The result was the Watts-Strogatz theorem, which describes the traits that characterize a
“small world” network, one where, through a few short hops, you can get from one node to any other node. In college Peretti had been fascinated by the question of how things could catch on and spread from person to person, but until now he had not dared to believe there could be a scientific principle that explained it, let alone a means of replicating contagious phenomena in the lab.
In 2001, after five years in New Orleans, Peretti applied to study at the MIT Media Lab, where he could dedicate himself full time to his obsession with tech-powered creativity. The lab was founded and headed by Nicholas Negroponte, a digital optimist whose book Being Digital forecast a better, interconnected world. Peretti’s time at the Media Lab felt like the recess he had never been able to enjoy as a child. He described MIT as his playground, where “my goal is the same as everyone else’s: to build something interesting.” There he met Cameron Marlow, who became the head of data science at Facebook, then a Ph.D. candidate doing dissertation research on “media contagion.” Marlow’s conclusion contradicted Watts’s theory. He argued that viral content was impossible to engineer, replicate, or predict. But Peretti would soon prove him wrong.
• • •
In a sense, BuzzFeed was born as a prank. For an online promotion, Nike launched a website where shoppers could personalize their shoes by selecting the color patterns and appending a nickname or chosen phrase.
The 27-year-old Peretti submitted his design for a pair of shoes emblazoned with the word “sweatshop,” an obvious reference to Nike’s reputation for manufacturing its products overseas with cheap labor. An email came from Nike informing him this constituted “inappropriate slang.” The real reason for the rejection, Peretti knew, was that Nike was defensive about its sweatshops.
“After consulting Webster’s Dictionary,” Peretti emailed back, “I discovered that ‘sweatshop’ is in fact part of standard English, and not slang. . . . Your web site advertises that the NIKEiD program is ‘about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are.’ I share Nike’s love of freedom and personal expression. The site also says that ‘If you want it done right . . . build it yourself.’ I was thrilled to be able to build my own shoes, and my personal iD was offered as a small token of appreciation for the sweatshop workers poised to help me realize my vision.” The exchange continued, with the Nike representative standing staunchly behind the rejection, and Peretti increasing his sarcasm. “I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?” He got no response.
He forwarded the email chain to a group of friends, who found it amusing enough to forward to some friends of their own, and before he knew it, a large online community was buzzing about the Nike Sweatshop Emails. Peretti had started a chain reaction organically and had seen it grow to reach millions of people, on all seven continents. He was getting calls from reporters morning, noon, and night. Katie Couric invited him onto the Today show to debate labor rights with Nike’s head of PR.
Sitting in front of the cameras, Peretti wondered, “Why am I here instead of people who’ve dedicated their lives fighting for human rights?”
He described how what had started as a laugh among a circle of friends “began racing around the world like a virus.” As he watched all this play out, it struck him that the email chain behaved according to a framework he recognized from his college biology courses. “Without really trying,” he wrote, “I had released what biologist Richard Dawkins calls a meme. Dawkins describes the meme as a ‘unit of cultural transmission,’ such as ‘tunes, ideas, catch-phrases, fashions,’?” that caught on with the public. “The most important thing about memes,” Peretti added, “is that they replicate themselves, ‘spreading from brain to brain.’?” Peretti’s meme exhibited the very same phenomenon as the cricket chirps that had so captivated him about Watts’s work.
Back in the Media Lab, he pondered the circumstances of his celebrity ascent with his friend Marlow, who still thought it was impossible to do twice. He challenged Peretti to go viral again, and, with hardly a lull, he did. With his sister, Peretti dreamed up something he called “the rejection line,” a phone number for people to give out to unwanted suitors. When the number was called, an answering machine played the following message: “The person who gave you this number does not want to talk to you or see you again. We would like to take this opportunity to officially reject you.” The hotline quickly became inundated with callers taking up all eight of its lines while overflow callers waited to get on, day after day. The project earned Peretti more acclaim.
One write-up heralded him as “the poster boy of guerrilla media.”
Within a year he would strike a third time, teaming up with his sister to create a parody website called Blackpeopleloveus.com that poked fun at white people’s affected claims of racial sensitivity. He had all but officially disproved Marlow’s theories. The buzz from the Nike emails had died off after six months, Rejection Line after three, Blackpeopleloveus after one month. Although his viral triumphs now had shorter lifespans, he was figuring out virality and, to Peretti, this signaled something about the direction
online media was going. “The networks and the ability to share kept getting more and more tightly connected so that media would spread faster,” he observed. As the metabolism of internet audiences quickened, its appetite for content was growing. Peretti would adapt.
He created a new term for his experiments: “contagious media.”
In a 23-point manifesto, he described its theses. “For the contagious media designer, all that matters is how other people see the work,” he wrote. “The audience is the network and the critic.” To be successful, “a contagious media project should represent the simplest form of an idea” and “must be explainable in one sentence or less.” For example, “a phone line for rejecting unwanted suitors” or “a technique to make bonsai kittens.”
Simplifying the content and ceding control of the distribution to the audience were the touchstones of Peretti’s contagious discovery. This line of work, he realized, did not require particular brilliance or originality. Rather it demanded above all a receptiveness to the whims and weaknesses of the masses. The internet was a burgeoning lifeline for people who otherwise lacked sufficient distractions from their daily toil. It was the perfect moment, Peretti determined, to introduce the opiate they longed for.
That contagious media appeared trivial and innocuous made it all the more catchy; like the ice-cream-truck melody, it worked by worming its way into your head. But Peretti knew full well that this was more than just a passing fad. Long before others were willing to admit it, he grasped the political dimension of this new form. When asked by the host of a CNN talk show whether his viral hits made him any money, he told her, “It is just sort of an experiment in democratic media.”
He knew his projects relied on an audience he characterized as the Bored at Work Network, which had arisen as “a by-product of alienated labor” and had already become, by his estimation, “the largest alternative to the corporate media,” with enough manpower for “building world class encyclopedias . . . vanquishing political leaders . . . finding life on other planets and curing cancer.” Their influence was vast—he appreciated this as much as anyone—but their ranks were decentralized and the network as a whole lacked discernible leadership. None of the mainstream outlets appeared to serve their interests or even grasp them, as far as Peretti could tell. And that vacuum provided opportunity.
During graduate school at the Media Lab, Peretti began working for Eyebeam, a tech lab, and moved in 2001 to New York City. He was thrilled to be working with a team of forward-thinking web developers and network scientists who tinkered away at futuristic-seeming inventions. The
consortium was founded by John Johnson, whose great-grandfather had founded Johnson & Johnson and whose father, a bronze sculptor, had established an atelier where sculptors could study and produce works far bigger than most personal studios would have allowed. Eyebeam was the younger Johnson’s atelier, dedicated to the tools and technologies that would enable a new era of artistic production.
The team of creators were idealists who made their experiments open-sourced and free for other coders. “We were sort of activists, artists, hackers,” Peretti recalled. At Eyebeam, Johnson saw promise in the young techno-whiz. He invited Peretti to his gadget-filled Soho penthouse, where they had rousing brainstorm sessions while tinkering with Johnson’s high-tech gadgets and taking in the view of downtown Manhattan. The Eyebeam job came with a small stipend, which Peretti spent on treating his comrades to cheap meals.
He called his clique of like-minded digital wonks the Pizza, Beer and Innovation Consortium. One member was Ze Frank, who early on saw the potential for connecting with digital audiences and would later take charge of BuzzFeed’s video and movie arm in Hollywood.
The online networks then in existence—MySpace, Friendster, and other now-extinct domains—would, within a few years, be glorified guinea pigs for the giants yet to launch. In 2003 Johnson hosted the Social Network Soiree, a glamorous evening that began with a panel featuring Peretti and Malcolm Gladwell, followed by a party sponsored by Moët Champagne. Guests were affixed with “meme tags,” bugging devices that collected and analyzed the content of their small talk. Piggybacking on this, Johnson rolled out a series of events called Contagious Media Showdowns, where he and other experts held court on the viral potential of videos, websites, and other comedy projects that attendees submitted for appraisal. The Wild West theme of the first event was appropriate, considering the unexplored frontiers of social networking.
With his sister, Chelsea, Peretti put on a Contagious Media show at the cutting-edge New Museum of Contemporary Art in downtown New York, highlighting standout projects by others alongside their own viral creations: the Nike emails, the Rejection Line, and Blackpeopleloveus. Hired models dressed as museum attendants were instructed to give out the Rejection Line number to anyone who hit on them. Black actors roved the gallery striking up uncomfortable conversations about race with white attendees. “
Digerati Vogues, Caught Midcraze” was the headline of the New York Times’s review of the show, which blasted the work as “adolescent” and “sad and shabby.”
Peretti took the pan as evidence that the Times’s critic was out of touch with the sardonic humor that defined the digital world and its younger audience.
This came with the territory of being what his friend Watts called a “cultural hacker.” “The same way that a hacker looks to exploit vulnerabilities in software to make a point,” Watts said, “Jonah does the same to make a cultural point.” But it was a point apparently lost on the Times’s critic.
While Peretti continued to consolidate his influence over the underground world of technologists, he met the man who would become his godfather in the business world, Kenneth Lerer, a public-relations mogul who had made a fortune representing NBC, AOL, Microsoft, and other corporate clients, and who now, for some reason, wanted to pick Peretti’s brain.
At first Peretti wasn’t interested in a meeting, but after Lerer offered to have a chauffeur drive him and a friend around New York, he accepted. As it turned out, Lerer was not the tycoon he had imagined. He was animated by political issues like gun control, and in 2003 the issue on his mind was renewing President Bill Clinton’s ban on assault weapons. He was organizing a petition drive and thought Peretti’s knowledge of what made content go viral could help.
The antigun campaign the two men devised did not succeed, but it mustered an impressive 150,000 signatures in a short time.
A few weeks later Lerer was invited to dinner by a friend, Tom Freston, a Viacom executive who had helped invent MTV. They met at an Italian spot on the Upper East Side, where Freston had also invited Arianna Huffington, a tall and imposing woman with red hair and a thick Greek accent. Huffington was by then a well-known global socialite based in Los Angeles. After dating the British cultural critic Bernard Levin, she married the Texan oil heir Michael Huffington. She had played a crucial part in her husband’s election to Congress as a Republican from California in 1992 and had carved out a role for herself in Washington as a political pundit, palling around with Newt Gingrich to promote an agenda they called “compassionate conservatism.” She divorced her husband after he lost a Senate bid in 1994 and announced her rebirth as a liberal Democrat. When Lerer met her, she was fresh off the campaign trail, having run for governor of California before pulling out of the race after polling at less than 2 percent of the vote.
The conversation at dinner revolved around John Kerry’s loss to Bush in the 2004 presidential contest and the need for a more muscular liberal media. Huffington asked to meet Lerer again.
In the meantime Lerer approached Peretti about working with Huffington. “You know the web,” Peretti recalls Lerer saying, “and I know business. Let’s do something together.” Peretti’s response was tepid at first. “I
was never interested in business or making money, that wasn’t the point,” he told me years later. “Business wasn’t cool.” His experience was in the classroom and the research laboratory, where as a rule anything he created was offered, free of charge, to any technologist who had a use for it. But as he listened to what Lerer was proposing, he began to come around to the idea.
Lerer had been monitoring the conservative blogosphere, which arose alongside right-wing talk radio, and was dismayed by the havoc he saw them wreaking for liberal candidates and causes. He identified the command center of the right’s digital battlefront, Matt Drudge, who had launched the Drudge Report in 1995 and turned it into a high-traffic powerhouse. It was Drudge who had broken the story of Monica Lewinsky back in 1998, as it was Drudge again in 2004 who trumpeted the right-wing’s false allegations about John Kerry’s record in the navy. With Peretti and Huffington and a former Drudge assistant and Huffington researcher, Andrew Breitbart, Lerer wanted to strike back.
Before Peretti’s first meeting with Huffington at her home in California, he googled her to find out who she was. His search results painted an eccentric portrait: born Arianna Stasinopoúlou in Athens, she had gone to Cambridge University and become the first foreign student elected president of its prestigious debating society. She already had 10 books to her name, on topics ranging from conservative feminism to Maria Callas, Pablo Picasso, Greek mythology, and New Age spiritualism.
The Oakland-raised son of a schoolteacher could hardly have known what he was getting into when his red-eye flight touched down at LAX and a chauffeur whisked him off to the Huffington mansion in the elite Brentwood Hills neighborhood. The next morning he came downstairs at 7:00 to find his host at the kitchen table, juggling three BlackBerry smartphones and welcoming him to her second breakfast meeting of the day. (She usually had more than three.) As she was pressed for time, they had a brief exchange on a possible collaboration. Huffington envisioned some kind of blog that would curate and link to other content, like Drudge but for the left. Then Laurie David, wife of Seinfeld creator Larry, arrived at the door and Peretti learned he would be joining them on a private jet to Sacramento to campaign for Huffington’s friend, her fellow Greek American politician Phil Angelides, a Democrat who was running an ultimately unsuccessful campaign for governor.
This was Peretti’s first glimpse at the satellite system orbiting Huffington everywhere she went. She was, in her own words, a “gatherer” who
made adroit and unapologetic use of her bulging list of contacts. On that list were many key ingredients for the media company she would build: contacts culled from the upper strata of London, Los Angeles, D.C., and New York. Their value to Huffington resided less in their money and power—although there was plenty of that—than in what they represented as personalities. She had at her disposal the likes of George Clooney, Madonna, Alec Baldwin, Bill Maher, Nora Ephron, Deepak Chopra, Diane Ravitch, David Geffen, and many other A-listers, all willing to write on her blog for free.
Peretti, recalled Lerer, still looked like a little boy, and Arianna, as everyone called her, made his eyes go wide. “
I learned from Arianna,” Peretti told me, “seeing the limits and opportunities of celebrity, the importance of social networks.”
The final member of the founding quartet, Andrew Breitbart, bore certain similarities to Huffington. He too had changed his political stripes, having grown up a Brentwood liberal before turning sharply to the right. He was proud to call himself “Matt Drudge’s bitch.” But at the Huffington Post he was expected to play for the other team, and this did not come naturally. He barely survived the launch of the new site. Although he was brilliant at writing catchy headlines that drew traffic, Lerer fought with him and forced him out. Breitbart went on to start his right-wing site, Breitbart News, and was best known for breaking the Anthony Weiner scandal. Breitbart News in 2016 became Donald Trump’s Pravda. By then Breitbart himself was gone—he had died suddenly in 2012 at 43—but Breitbart News lived on under the leadership of Steve Bannon.
A clear division of labor sprang up among the team’s remaining members. Huffington served as their public face, working mostly out of her L.A. home, where she maintained a stable of six assistants upstairs. Lerer, Peretti recalled, “was a master at understanding the press” and was in charge of luring investors. Peretti was to shape the technological architecture of the site and was responsible for the broad category they labeled “innovation,” the word that would become contagious in every newsroom.
• • •
This was the golden age of blogs, the shorthand term for weblogs, when new, easy-to-use programs like Blogger enabled anyone to establish a home for their commentary and coverage. Soon there were tens of thousands of blogs, some with a readership of one. What distinguished them was their more personal, often opinionated perspectives and loose, conversational style. Respected journalists like Andrew Sullivan, a former editor of the venerable New Republic magazine, broke off on their own to reinvent
themselves as bloggers and built sizable followings. Gawker, a blog that published gossipy items about journalists and celebrities, arose during this period. The blog format was perfect for Huffington, who was already a celebrity and liked to jump from subject to subject.
Meanwhile the New York Times and the Washington Post were turning some of their own writers into bloggers on subjects in which they had expertise and a following among readers. In the mid-2000s, the Times had 47 blogs, including one devoted to tennis, another to chess, and others to pet interests observed in the readership. For the Huffington Post to beat conventional publishers, Peretti determined, it would have to be not only contagious but also “sticky,” his term for the quality that kept readers coming back for more.
When launch day arrived in May 2005, Peretti and the technologists had been working frantically for 24 hours straight to gussy up the site’s appearance and root out any catastrophes in the lines of code that composed its infrastructure. They weren’t quite finished and pleaded for more time, but Huffington had managed to get booked on NBC’s Today show and refused to squander the opportunity to promote the launch. So, with the click of a button, the site appeared out of thin air on May 9, 2005, with the musings of celebrities Larry David, John Cusack, Ellen DeGeneres, and Laurie David, then the wife of Larry.
Initial reviews in the mainstream media were mainly negative, and indigenous bloggers ridiculed Huffington’s sanctimonious invasion of their little world. Even so, Peretti knew that “they wouldn’t be able not to look. Even the haters would come every day.” Stickiness was achieved, with celebrities and left-leaning politics. It took only six months for the Huffington Post to surpass the web traffic of the Wall Street Journal, the New York Times, and the Washington Post.
After the VIPs lent their stardust to prime the pump of Huffington’s superblog, she opened the site to anyone, regardless of fame, and offered to publish their submissions alongside the big names. The only catch, of course, was that they’d have to write for free. It was a clever ploy on Huffington’s part, reminiscent of Tom Sawyer convincing the neighborhood boys how fun it was to whitewash his fence. It meant she and her partners could escape the financial burden of investing in a large number of editors and reporters. All she had to do was provide space, a commodity with infinite reserves on the internet.
The strategy hit traditional publishers where it hurt most. Ever since the earliest incarnation of internet publishing, readers had been treated to
a feast of content—more than you could read in a thousand lifetimes—for which they would never be expected to pay a dime. Deprived of any revenue from visitors, accountants for news publishers struggled to balance the paltry sums they made selling ad space on news sites with the costly enterprise of employing journalists. By paring down the cost of personnel to almost nothing, the Huffington Post could balance the budget much more quickly without having to sacrifice its output. There were so many contributors that it became known as a “content farm.”
It was an experiment in making a little go a long way.
As the official innovator, Peretti tinkered with the mechanics of the website to optimize its offerings around what most appealed to its visitors. A “click-o-meter” measured the traffic on the website’s headlines, and Peretti pored over the data it collected to see which stories were gaining momentum and which were dying off; he could adjust the homepage accordingly. An A/B testing system was installed that allowed writers to publish the same story under two different headlines and see which proved more enticing. When big news broke, Peretti, who had no training in journalism, deferred to Lerer on what belonged on the homepage. “When Kenny weighed in, the click-o-meter didn’t matter,” Peretti recalled. “He had a good sense of what powerful people would be interested in.”
To get a sense of what interested everyone else, the small paid staff had only to look to Google’s constantly updated log of the most popular searches. When February rolled around, for example, Google identified a surge of the query “What time is the Super Bowl?” The Huffington Post’s search-traffic analyst alerted the newsroom staff, who nimbly whipped up a post that answered the question on everyone’s mind. That post, in turn, appeared atop the list of results Google fetched, giving Huffington’s site a windfall of visitors, who represented advertising revenue in crude form. It was brilliant, and with time and diligent testing, it became only more so.
Peretti’s pod of analysts noticed, for example, that people tended to google nouns instead of verbs—as in “Michael Jackson death,” not “Michael Jackson dies”—and advised the site’s editors to style their headlines accordingly. When the actor Heath Ledger died of an overdose, they saw a profusion of Google searches for “Keith Ledger” and cleverly tagged their coverage of his passing with the misheard name.
The Huffington Post held itself accountable not to journalistic rules but to readers’ enthusiasm. It did not purport to dictate the terms of the national conversation but rather to reflect it. It aimed not to change hearts and minds but to resonate with them. Company leadership was notably void of
anyone with editing experience. “Digital is painting in oil,” Lerer told me. “You can always paint over it.” A story that was wrong on first publication could be corrected right away. Accuracy, in any event, was not going to bring as many readers as the sheer amount of output. The challenge was to feed the beast.
Even as the business became profitable, it would be crucial to keep overhead costs at an absolute minimum, no matter the toll it took on the workforce. From inception, the Huffington Post determined that paying its bloggers was “not in our financial model,” according to Lerer, no matter how profitable the business became. The company began staffing its newsroom with writers recruited right out of college, catching them at their most desperate, and paying them barely enough to qualify as lower middle-class. To get by, many full-time staffers moonlighted as tutors, babysitters, or waiters. The work was strenuous and tedious. Some staffers almost never left the long plastic tables where they sat at computer screens finding stories already published elsewhere on the web, lifting and quickly repackaging them as Huffington Post originals, and siphoning off advertising that might otherwise have gone to the actual creators. Employees quit in droves. One former staffer described the work environment as “so brutal and toxic it would meet with approval from committed sociopaths.”
Just four years after Peretti had been catapulted to stardom as an opponent of sweatshop labor, he was responsible for what the Los Angeles Times decried as the sweatshop of publishing, characterized by “speedup and piecework; huge profits for the owners; desperation, drudgery and exploitation for the workers.”
In the five years between the new millennium and the founding of HuffPost, the worldwide population of internet users quadrupled in size to one billion. The volume of information being trafficked online grew 28-fold.
Old newspapers tried to learn the new tricks of the digital sphere. They were reaching audiences there that dwarfed what they had known in even the golden days of hard-copy circulation, when newspapers held local monopolies in many regions. But the economics didn’t add up. Online readers weren’t paying anything for newspapers’ reporting on the web, while a weekly, year-round home-delivery subscription could cost more than $700. As readers grew accustomed to reading on the web, both print circulation and print advertising began an irreversible downturn.
Shortly after the Huffington Post’s grand opening in 2005, the Times Company announced a plan to lay off 500 employees, one of the deepest cuts in its history. Two years later it announced it was shaving the
paper’s width by an inch and a half and also shutting down one of its printing plants. Still, it was much worse elsewhere. The once highly profitable publishing conglomerate Knight Ridder sold all of its 32 newspapers and disappeared.
The Washington Post spent millions to compensate employees who agreed to retire early. Smaller local papers suffered the most and retreated in the greatest numbers, leaving town councils and some state capitals without full-time coverage.
With the advent of sites like Craigslist, classified advertising for jobs, apartments, and cars—once the lifeblood of local newspapers—began rapidly migrating to the web, where the ads were free to place.
At the Post, Weymouth recalled the horror of seeing her paper’s special section for classified job ads, which usually netted $100-plus million, go from the size of a small phone book to barely a wisp. As more and more renegade news organizations arose, journalists and readers alike sensed the paradox: they were entering a world with seemingly unlimited possibilities, yet discovering that their time-honored ways of producing and consuming the news were no longer viable. One such outlet was Yahoo! News, a billboard of news items from other sources picked and placed by machine. Because Yahoo was a popular email portal, many Yahoo users found it convenient to scan the news on its site rather than sitting down to read a newspaper. Veteran institutions watched how easily readers seemed to shift their time and loyalty to this free content. Newspapers, still digital innocents, operated in the mistaken belief that all they had to do was remake versions of their daily publications for display on computer screens.
The information explosion was staggering in speed and scale.
The amount of digital data produced worldwide in 2006 alone was three million times the material of all the books ever written.
A 2008 study commissioned by the Associated Press diagnosed “news fatigue” in young-adult readers. “That is, they appeared debilitated by information overload,” the authors observed. “The irony in news fatigue is that these consumers felt helpless to change their news consumption at a time when they have more control and choice than ever before.”
A Pew study conducted in 2007 found that the share of Americans who could name the vice president had dropped 5 percent from 1989.
The true bête noire of the news industry, however, was not Yahoo but Google, its successor in the search-engine business and a product of Stanford technologists. Founded in 1998, the most disruptive element of Google’s business model hardly seemed threatening: that Google did not want to compete with the wider web for your time or attention; it simply wanted
to organize the web and help you find what you were looking for. In providing that service, the Google machine effectively “learned” two crucial pieces of information: what you were seeking and where you found it. This formed the foundation of the most brilliant and hypertargeted advertising platform that had ever existed, one that has since attracted the lion’s share of ad revenues, along with Facebook, and continues to dominate the market year after year.
Once it had stockpiled enough intelligence to flesh out a satisfactory map of the internet, Google began to sell the rights to advertise on the page of search results it presented when queried. Beginning in 2000 an advertiser could pay Google to feature its page among the top results displayed to people who searched, for example, for “sneakers,” so that shoe-shoppers would be more likely to visit their web store.
The balance of objectivity and sponsored messaging the company served up was “not very different from what you’d see say in a newspaper,” Google explained in a memo to the Securities and Exchange Commission, “but now it’s much more targeted.”
“Google users trust our systems to help them with important decisions,” the memo continued. That much was true too: the algorithm that powered its search engine delivered answers faster and more reliably than any other tool out there. It was only a matter of time before the machine began encroaching on the work of the mortal journalists once entrusted to go out into the world, dig out answers to timely questions, and relate them to curious readers.
When airplanes crashed into the Twin Towers on the morning of September 11, 2001, the online news sphere faced the most significant trial of its young life. The newspapers delivered that Tuesday morning went stale as soon as the first plane crashed, leaving the entire population of the nation to rely on TV broadcasts and online news.
More people consulted the web than ever had before, and under the pressure of unprecedented traffic, many websites buckled. From 60 blocks north of ground zero, the New York Times marshaled its team of reporters, newly trimmed by two rounds of buyouts after the bursting of the dot-com bubble earlier that year, to cover the story of a lifetime. As the scope of the disaster unfolded, and the U.S. declared a war on terror and deployed troops to the Middle East, Times journalists proved their mettle and earned seven Pulitzer Prizes, a single-year record. And though its fortunes were diminishing, the publisher added a daily section, “A Nation Challenged,” to accommodate the crush of post-9/11 news, which contained, in a dignified tribute to the calamity, not a speck of advertising.
But the biggest winner was Google. While the Times’s journalists took testimony from firefighters and grieving families, embedded with battalions in Afghanistan and Pakistan, and conducted comprehensive assessments of the terrorist threat worldwide, Krishna Bharat, a 31-year-old research scientist at Google’s headquarters in Mountain View, California, pored over millions of queries that flooded Google’s portal that morning.
People came to us and said, ‘Give us information about what just happened now,’?” he observed, “and we didn’t have a good answer.” The challenge was to deliver the freshest material, incorporating as many sources as possible, and to display the package coherently and without the help of human oversight. Within six weeks Bharat had developed a functioning prototype of a tool called Google News. The service kept constant tabs on 150 news sources from across the web, detected new stories as they broke, and updated its front page every 15 minutes. Within a year it had harnessed the reporting power of 4,500 sources worldwide, aggregating their top stories and serving them up on the Google News page virtually as soon as they were published. By 2015 its funnel would widen to include 50,000 news sources, digested and displayed in 70 different regional editions.
That a chunk of code written by one person in six weeks could summarize the state of the world was revolutionary.
To Google, it was another step toward its stated goal of making the company “an institution that makes the world a better place.” But others in the news business begged to differ. “
There are those who think they have a right to take our news content and use it for their own purposes without contributing a penny to its production,” said then News Corp. chairman and CEO Rupert Murdoch. “Their almost wholesale misappropriation of our stories is not fair use. To be impolite, it’s theft.”
Both the Huffington Post and Google relied on aggregation to power their new operations, but they did so by different means and for different ends. Google’s virtual newspaper used an algorithm to pull from thousands of outlets worldwide and display their stories on its page in the form of headlines (plus a sentence or two) that linked to the original source. By collating a broad base of reports and arranging them all in one place, it presented the paragon of convenience for news consumers—hence the animosity from outlets whose readers it won away. But Google made no secret of the fact that these were not its stories. Huffington Post’s aggregators, by contrast, were humans who lifted as much of the original report as copyright law permitted. They then republished it on their site with only oblique reference or link to the original article.
For the Huffington Post, it was crucial to game Google’s search system. Peretti helped optimize the site’s presence so that its own knockoffs would appear in Google’s search results above the original versions and thus attract more clicks. More clicks meant more advertising revenue, although internet ads cost a fraction of what full-page newspaper ads did.
(A full-page ad in the Times fetched $100,000, compared to the tiny amount an advertiser would pay for a banner on the young Huffington Post.) The ability to target specific audiences rather than reach the undifferentiated mass of Times print subscribers or broadcast network viewers became, for many marketers, not only the cheaper but also the more effective targeted ad buy.
To editors who were brought up on journalistic ethics and knew all too well how costly it was to fund original reporting, the ascendance of bootleggers was beyond galling. I remember my own horror in 2010 after the Times published an exclusive story based on mountains of leaked, classified data from Wikileaks, which had taken us months to report. The Huffington Post’s version of the story, with the same headline, appeared almost simultaneously, with no original reporting—and ranked above the Times on Google.
As the Times and other publishers prepared cease-and-desist letters and considered suing for copyright infringement, the old guard’s leading lights came forward to denounce Huffington’s heist. Chief among them was my boss, Bill Keller, who had served as executive editor from 2003 to mid-2011. A razor-sharp writer who had won a Pulitzer Prize as a young foreign correspondent in Moscow, Keller enjoyed using his wit and pen to go to war.
He blamed Arianna Huffington, “the queen of aggregation,” for what he diagnosed as “the ‘American Idol’-ization of news,” and lamented the kleptocratic regime she threatened to impose once she vanquished the industry’s incumbents. “In Somalia this would be called piracy,” Keller wrote. “In the mediasphere, it is a respected business model.” He called attention to the moment of reckoning this model would inevitably produce. “If everybody is an aggregator, nobody will be left to make real stuff to aggregate,” he wrote, adding that Huffington’s half-hearted foray into employing actual reporters was “like hiring a top chef to fancy up the menu at Hooters.” Soon similar analogies would be applied to Peretti’s next venture.
Huffington struck back with a retort that borrowed a page from Donald Trump. She dismissed Keller’s charges as “lame” and “laughable,” accused him of stealing her work, and attributed his frustration to the fact that her site, including traffic that went to its owner, AOL, had nearly double the page views as his. “Winning” was all that mattered.
The traffic scoreboard was, undeniably, a source of ire for the institutions that were committed to the brutally expensive high road of original reporting. More infuriating was what it signified: that readers didn’t seem to distinguish between the original and the imitator. At a moment when conventional journalism appeared in freefall, public opinion seemed to be coalescing in support of the very people whose disruptive new strategies further undermined it.
Twelve months after the Huffington Post was born, Time ranked Arianna one of the 100 most influential people in America, right up there with her nemesis, Matt Drudge. From opposite ends of the ideological spectrum, the king and queen of aggregation had elbowed their way into the top tier of the media world, without regard for the consequences of their success. Now they were being toasted as revolutionaries, their triumphs exalted as underdog stories. “
It took just two fingers, a modem and guts,” Drudge was quoted as saying in his Time profile. “And not giving a shit.”
A year into the life of his new site, Peretti grew restless. Gaming Google had been fun for a little while, but winning the game was no longer a challenge. It hadn’t been hard to master the dynamics of search engine optimization, SEO. The Huffington Post’s entrepreneurial spirit rewarded him for each incremental breakthrough by funneling more resources toward his next project. “
I was just always interested in how you get from A to A plus one,” he explained. His contributions to HuffPo endowed the site with machine intelligence it would continue to profit from a decade hence. It was time to crack a new code.
By now Peretti knew what people searched for online and how Google’s algorithm decided to deliver it. He also knew what kind of content people clicked on: a funny blog post by Larry David, for example, or a newsy story with an eye-popping headline. The Huffington Post had become contagious and sticky, but the main system it relied upon to reach readers was Google, and that limited its potential. It meant readers had to wonder, first, then search before they would land on his site. They had to seek out HuffPo content rather than searching out readers. Taking a step back, he glimpsed a window of opportunity for a new type of publisher: one that would serve content that readers neither sought out nor found particularly vital to know. Rather than taking cues from the psychology of individuals in isolation, it would be grounded in insights about social dynamics.
Once again Peretti’s timing was preternatural. This was the very moment that the now-internet-fluent audience was becoming socialized. On
the web, people were constituting new communities. Their online interactions were more than mere approximations of their in-person interactions—they were the majority of their personal communications. Life on the web and “real life” were merging. People were spending more time on what they chose to read, although anything longer than 10 seconds per click was considered on the long side. Readers were spending several hours a week on the web. The Times reported that its online readership spent 25 minutes per month reading its online offerings. (For the print newspaper, the average was 25 minutes per day.)
Peretti had a theory: content would become a form of conversation on the internet. He approached Huffington about setting up a skunkworks team that would run experiments on how and what people shared with each other online. She gave him the go-ahead, provided that he would export his best findings to the Huffington Post. With her blessing, he set out to fill the new power vacuum he had identified.
Years later Lerer would recall this pivotal moment. “Arianna caught the SEO wave,” he told me. “Then the world started to change and Jonah caught the social wave.” Peretti extended the metaphor: “It’s like we happened to start surfing a few minutes before a great wave rolled in.”
That wave had been rippling for a couple of years, but now, just a few hours up the northeast corridor in Cambridge, Massachusetts, a sophomore named Mark Zuckerberg was amplifying it into a full-blown tempest. When he launched TheFacebook.com in February 2004, membership was restricted to his fellow students at Harvard. By submitting their university email addresses, users could enter the virtual world Zuckerberg had created and build a personal profile for their peers to find—and perhaps judge them by.
Within 24 hours some 1,200 students had joined, and the cascade of interest would only ratchet up from there. Facebook expanded to other elite schools, and Zuckerberg dropped out of Harvard and moved to Palo Alto.
To join Facebook, internet users had to be willing to drop their anonymity, something taken for granted in blogging and chat rooms, to join a genuinely useful service. Facebook opened the network to all U.S. college students, launched internationally, and welcomed high school students. In September 2006 it took a leap of faith, allowing anyone with an email address—regardless of institutional affiliation—to join the party. It exploded.
That same month Facebook introduced the core feature of its platform,
the News Feed, described as a “living newspaper” by Zuckerberg. “Living” referred to the fact that when users logged on and looked at this feed, they saw content shared by friends rather than stories selected by some monolithic publisher or algorithmic robot. “
You had the underpinnings of a circulatory system that could be a publishing platform,” said Chris Cox, the engineer behind News Feed. “Each person was receiving updates from the set of people that interested them.” Cox would become a key person in Peretti’s life.
Six months before Facebook reorganized its site around the News Feed framework, Twitter had launched with a similar premise. If Facebook was the living newspaper, Twitter’s 140-character limit made its platform more like a hyperspeed news wire. From the start, the network attracted journalists and political junkies—not only to plug their own work but also to find and follow sources and track newsworthy events and cultural conversations in real time.
The device that forever changed how those events and conversations unfolded was introduced soon after Peretti broke off on his own. On January 9, 2007, a scruffy, owl-eyed man in a turtleneck whose lab had produced the Mac, the mouse, the laptop, iTunes, and the iPod strode onto a stage in San Francisco to announce his most innovative and disruptive invention yet. “
iPhone is a revolutionary and magical product that is literally five years ahead of any other mobile phone,” Apple CEO Steve Jobs announced.
The release date was set for June—expectant techies marked their calendars for “iDay”—and as the day approached, thousands took their spot in lines outside Apple stores across the country for the privilege of spending $499, or $599 for the deluxe model, on what early testers had already dubbed the “Jesus Phone.”
For journalism, the iPhone meant that readers would never again be more than a few swipes away from the latest story. Their new pocket computers quickly begot insatiable appetites for information and diversion at even the slightest lull in activity—the panacea for Peretti’s Bored at Work Network. It encouraged the public’s expectation that news be relayed in real time, upending the traditional newspaper schedule that for over a century had served as the de facto circadian rhythm of the profession. As important, it meant journalists would be armed with the power tools of the newsroom—word processors, internet hookups, cameras and video equipment—no matter where they were when news broke. The old, diurnal news cycle gave way to the 24/7 news cycle in a world in which people got
updates constantly (and, to a degree, passively) from their smartphones, as if staying informed via an IV drip.
• • •
Now that a growing share of the population was connected through online social networks and their connections could travel with them wherever they went, Peretti decided to break away from Huffington entirely and devote himself full time to his skunkworks.
With seed funding from Lerer and John Johnson, he was able to hire a few engineers and lease an office in Chinatown, on the third floor of a shabby walkup on Canal Street above a Mahjong bar once home to Chiang Kai-shek’s Kuomintang Party. For now, he was calling his new company Contagious Media LLC.
As a cofounder of Huffington Post, Peretti could one day expect a behemoth payday, though he’d have to wait another five years until AOL bought the company for $315 million. For now, he had already done enough to earn the confidence of deep-pocketed tech investors, who saw in him their best shot at capturing the burgeoning mediasphere. If the funding ran dry, it would be replenished. This meant he had the luxury of what he called his company’s “lab phase,” when it was insulated from the pressure to make money that often ruined promising start-ups.
It was time to start his own site. In the early going, his compass was the massive stockpile of data he had accrued and analyzed at the Huffington Post. This would bolster his intuition; without having to guess, he could grasp what types of content would succeed and could therefore avoid the duds.
He purchased a few servers to get the new site up and running and tucked them into the office’s kitchen pantry. On the other side of the office he set up a long table where his first young hires could play video games when business was slow. The facilities were a far cry from the glassy palace where HuffPo lived, but there was a certain charm to the dilapidation. When the upstairs tenants moved out, their cockroaches descended en masse upon the Contagious Media office and built colonies in the backs of the colorful iMac G3s Peretti had bought.
Peretti by now understood that media, by any other name, was simply another mode of communication. It had been a one-way line during the print and broadcast eras, but as millions logged on to the internet, they entered a connective framework where media content, whether interoffice memoranda, vacation photos, or wartime reports, could move not just in one or two directions but ubiquitously and faster than the speed of light.
His idea, at first, was to create a computer system that would send
out content along the same channels used for communication. Its function would be twofold: to monitor the public conversations of blogs and forums to glean what people cared about, then to cull the best material on those topics and serve it up in the form of an online “chat” message.
Function No. 1 would be handled by a software program he devised called the Trend-Detector, and Function No. 2 would, for now, assume the form of BuzzBot. Anyone who signed up for the service would receive regular dispatches from BuzzBot, informing them of the Trend-Detector’s latest catch. It was an imaginative model for the future of publishing, one that was easily a decade ahead of its time. But the public wasn’t ready for the brave new world of BuzzBot, and automating the process by which a trend was spotted and converted into an intelligible piece of content proved unwieldy.
Peretti disbanded the bot but would keep the Trend-Detector and simplify the process by publishing the buzz it collected on a plain old website. It was time to name this protean beast he was raising, so he scoured the listings of for-sale domain names, looking for “something that sounded cool but was broad enough that we could experiment and do lots of different things.” By 2006 most of the good names were taken. He scrolled and scrolled until he came across one that fit the bill: BuzzFeed. He liked the futuristic ring of the portmanteau. The guy who owned the domain seemed to have no use for it and was happy to sell it to Peretti for a few hundred dollars.
Now Peretti knew what to call it, but he had only a vague notion of what the it would be. He relished the ambiguity, knowing as he did that open-endedness meant versatility, and versatility was crucial to success in a changing landscape. As late as 2008 BuzzFeed described itself mysteriously as a “platform” that “offers publishing tools and trend detection for a select group of trendspotters and buzz-makers.” Though it had been up and running publicly for two years, it played up the mystique by suggesting, “We are currently in private beta.”
The mumbo-jumbo notwithstanding, BuzzFeed’s site offered visitors something fairly straightforward: a daily crop of five or six posts covering cultural trends or rising gossip, each consisting of a sentence or two, followed by a roundup of links to other outlets’ articles, blog posts, or pictures on the topic. The posts were selected not for their newsworthiness or any higher purpose but for their entertainment value and shareability. Behind the simple edifice, however, was a complex and finely tuned algorithmic contraption that did most of the legwork to select which topics were catching fire. It was a marvel of “machine learning,” Peretti boasted, the process
by which computers analyze patterns in order to develop, over time, uncanny intelligence, perception, and judgment. If it seemed like something out of a science fiction novel, BuzzFeed hoped it sounded more utopian than dystopian. In an overview of how the process worked, the company emphasized the role of its “network of human taste-makers” (i.e., a couple of staffers) who manned a “special terminal interface” to look out for “subtle trends our robots might miss.”
Humans would analyze the data, supervise the detector robots, and review and repackage the trending stories dredged up, but they would not be performing journalism. “
The original editors were content test-pilots,” Peretti told me. “We created content almost as R&D.” As publishing models went, this one was especially supple in bringing man and machine together in cooperation. It was a bionic marvel that purported to cater to readers’ tastes better than their closest human friends could do.
Its slogan: “Find Your New Favorite Thing.”
The earliest BuzzFeed blog posts included a compilation of the seven best links about gay penguins, four clips on Snoop Dogg’s new clothing line for pets, 20 celebrity nipple slips, and 15 links to animal pornography. As long as readers liked the stuff enough to pass it along to friends, Peretti was happy.
Most of these posts were about entertainment and fun, and he was agnostic about their content. The few items in those days that touched on hard news and serious subjects were presented no differently than the penguins and nipple slips, and weren’t intended to be. The web was a great leveler—foreign wars shared a room with the funny pages.
They were effective means to the end Peretti had in mind: the “social reproduction” of content. To get himself oriented, he roped in his old friend Duncan Watts and signed him to a contract that obliged him, every so often, to talk shop with Peretti over a beer. He dubbed it “the beer clause.” Together they devised a sort of litmus test that would be used to determine how well BuzzFeed’s content reproduced across the social web, expressed in the form of a quotient called Viral Rank—essentially the distillation of how likely a reader was to share the post with friends. If the post on “Interspecies Friends” mustered a higher Viral Rank than the post on a novelty line of lingerie made out of bacon, that was a hint to pivot toward animals and away from edible XXX nightclothes.
Shareability was the beginning and end of BuzzFeed’s model, as well as its organizing logic. “
Buzzfeed wasn’t a content site,” Lerer told me, recalling the company’s early days. “It was to see how to make content travel
virally.” Content wasn’t sorted by categories like business, the arts, or politics. “We organized the site around the emotions that lead to sharing,” Peretti said. For example, “if a football player does a funny touchdown dance, you share the video because it is funny, not because it is sports.” Touchdown dances and the like would be filed under the heading “LOL,” while posts that evoked awe, disgust, indignation, and Schadenfreude were filed, respectively, under “OMG,” “Trashy,” “WTF,” and “Fail.”
This methodology reflected BuzzFeed’s core innovation: its foremost concern was with readers’ subliminal predilections, not with the topics they consciously followed. This marked a departure from the search-based publishing model that Peretti devised for the Huffington Post, where editors looked to Google’s most-queried topics for their cues on what stories to pursue. Instead of tracking down information readers sought out, BuzzFeed’s algorithms and editors plumbed the innate inclinations of its audience—items most people shared some fondness for but would never cite as an interest.
Things like “basset hounds running,” to use an example from BuzzFeed’s former chief revenue officer Andy Wiedlin. “No one searches it. But everyone clicks when they see it.” And, of course, anything to do with cats.
BuzzFeed didn’t need any high-tech trend-detectors to seize on the fact that the web loved cats. That much was too obvious to ignore. “We started with cute kittens and internet memes and humor, because that’s where the social web was when the company started,” Peretti said. “Cats on the web aren’t about the cats,” he added. “It’s about being human.” For BuzzFeed’s purposes, cats went viral because they so profoundly resonated with the emotional disposition of the online community.
As BuzzFeed grew, its understanding of what people liked—and, more to the point, what they liked to share with friends—became increasingly fine-tuned. “We start[ed] to get a sense,” Peretti would later explain, “of where’s the beating heart of the internet.” For most of its existence, the web was hailed as the ultimate information repository, a reservoir that contained and catalogued the sum total of human knowledge. Peretti, by contrast, saw it as the aggregate of human emotion, a living and breathing thing more sentimental than rational.
He considered his new venture a technology company, not a news site. This distinction was fundamental to other new digital media sites too. Technological tools for discovering existing content, rather than gathering new information or news, were powering BuzzFeed’s pioneering foray.
The young people Peretti hired were a motley crew, but in each he saw
a prowess that served his purposes, even if they wouldn’t fly in a more conventional workplace. They straddled two identities—geek and tastemaker—and like little Perettis, they had their fingers on the pulse of the Bored at Work Network. These were decidedly not the people applying to journalism school.
One was Peggy Wang, Peretti’s admiring former student who had bought shoes like his on the field trip to New York.
She had gotten her college degree and moved to Brooklyn and was bouncing around from job to job—developing software for a real estate company until they fired her after two weeks for never showing up on time, managing the website of a hipster nightclub after seeing the opening on Craigslist, and playing gigs with her indie-rock band, The Pains of Being Pure at Heart. She was working as a programmer at MTV and subsisting in a $200-a-month apartment in her friend’s basement when Peretti found her profile on Friendster, the social network. He got in touch to lure her to his lofty but ill-defined new venture. It would mean taking a substantial pay cut (she was earning $75,000 at MTV with health benefits, while Peretti offered her only $40,000). She discussed the options with her parents, Chinese immigrants who ran a combination video-rental and flower shop in New Orleans. Because Peretti had been her teacher, they said, she could go with him if that was what she wanted. Taking a leap of faith, she told Peretti she was in. “What’s the game plan after six months?” she asked him. “If we hate it,” he said, “we just won’t do it anymore.”
Wang became the site’s trend editor, the human counterpart to BuzzFeed’s algorithmic culture-combers, responsible for selecting which trends would make for shareable posts, then dressing them up with simple but intriguing headlines and one-line subtitles that Peretti told her should sound like “something you’d say if you were at a cocktail party.” While Peretti and his engineers tinkered with the algorithm, Wang drafted five posts for BuzzFeed to publish each day—the sum of its original content. One day, when all she could muster was three, Peretti marched up to her desk and requested she pick up the pace. She’d gotten food poisoning, she explained politely.
To help Wang handle the growing workload, Peretti hired a shaggy-haired, jean-shorts-wearing NYU student, Matt Stopera, as BuzzFeed’s first summer intern. If there was ever an archetypal Bored at Work member, Stopera was it.
He came to BuzzFeed from a “nightmare” internship at a relative’s insurance company, where he was supposed to be digitizing files, but, he said, “I just kind of gave up because the people there had
no idea what I was doing anyway.” He spent most of his daily eight-hour shifts scouring YouTube for hidden gems with fewer than a thousand views, which he would post to his website, Underonethousand.com. Stopera was an avid Britney Spears fan, so devout that MTV aired a segment on him. His childhood bedroom was festooned with Britney paraphernalia, and he zealously defended her reputation in online chatrooms under the screen name BIGHUGEspearsfan. The year he finally got to meet her, his family’s Christmas card showed the young Stopera posing with his idol.
As a high schooler he had taken pride in finding ways to turn his essays—whether they were supposed to be about ancient myths or The Odyssey—into ruminations on Britney’s greatness.
In college he decided to major in communications after learning it would allow him to earn credits for classes on pop culture. “I originally wanted to go to school for journalism because I thought it was cool or something,” he later said. “I took the intro class and hated it.” Besides the insurance internship, his only professional credential was as a dishwasher at an Italian restaurant that somehow failed to notice the tonnage of cheese he embezzled every day when his shift ended. For Stopera, working at BuzzFeed was the best job imaginable. He was getting paid for doing what he loved. His marching orders from Peretti were “Just keep scouring the Internet,” looking for offbeat material he found funny or cool.
Rounding out the original team was Jack Shepherd, who came from PETA, the animal rights group, where he worked in the marketing department. His expertise was in composing promotional materials chock-full of images of tenderhearted animals to tug at donors’ hearts and purse strings. Shepherd approached his job with the rigor of a scholar. He appreciated that critter pictures possessed a tremendous degree of nuance, and he understood that, when done right, they could be enormously evocative. Shepherd realized that by serving up the right visuals, he had the power to recast the grim issue of species extinction in a new and infectiously uplifting light.
He created a website that rebranded fish as “sea kittens.” The idea was funny enough to spark a few conversations, and before he knew it, a few became a few million, and from newspapers to radio to TV to the web the media world buzzed about sea kittens. At BuzzFeed he’d perform a similar function, though without the activist bent. He was given the title “Beastmaster.”
Stopera, the baby of the group, relied on BuzzFeed’s Trend-Detector as well as publicly available tools like Google Trends, which displayed the most popular queries of its search engine. With these tools, he would know whenever some new controversy or personality seized hold of the pop
culture conversation. The inspiration for his very first BuzzFeed post, for example, was an uptick of popular interest in Jill Biden, specifically her appearance, during the lead-up to the 2008 presidential election. His write-up was simple: seven links to pictures and fawning comments about the surprising beauty of Joe Biden’s wife, a grandmother. Stopera’s come-on: “Dare I say GILF?”
“It was like going through a lot of crap and making a punchline,” Stopera recalled of the early days. “It was just a traffic game.” The spirit of gamesmanship infused the Canal Street office with a footloose energy and was further stoked by the shared understanding that nothing they published would be taken too seriously.
Every so often, Peretti would announce an office-wide “sprint,” for which the staff would divide into two teams and race to publish as many posts as possible on a single topic—funny babies, say, or conspiracy theories.
Each time a new post went up, the author banged a gong. It was one of the many madcap methods Peretti came up with to spur his staff to be maximally productive. On Fridays he would organize “game battles,” another competitive post-writing contrivance, all the wilder for the fact that it involved a steady intake of alcohol throughout the day.
When the buzz du jour was especially vulgar—like celebrities with “cameltoe”—some younger staffers were reluctant to author the post for fear that their mothers would see. Peretti adapted by giving them permission to publish under pseudonyms. (Stopera’s was Crumpetz.) Writing under aliases, Peretti recognized, had the added benefit of making BuzzFeed’s staff seem larger than it actually was. Falsifying a byline is grounds for firing at most news organizations, but BuzzFeed wasn’t yet trying to be a news company.
Still, most of the early team members seemed utterly unbothered by the off-color aspects of their job. When a nude photo of Kate Moss hit the internet, Wang didn’t think twice before posting it on BuzzFeed, entirely uncensored. To lure the especially depraved web surfers, she tagged the post “Kate Moss orgy video,” though no such video existed. Peretti too joined in the vulgar fun, publishing posts like “Penis Size Chart” and “YouTube Porn Hacks.” Looking back, he told me with a note of nostalgia in his voice, “Everything was disposable.”
Publishing serious news ran completely counter to BuzzFeed’s founding model. But Peretti was becoming a more sober person.
His wife had given birth to twins. He was the head of a company with employees who depended on him. He was about to meet with executives and potential investors from Silicon Valley, like Marc Andreessen, to begin a new round of
fundraising. He’d become a businessman who now cared about money. Peretti and BuzzFeed were beginning to grow up.
As more people discovered BuzzFeed’s mysterious mechanical acuity and infectiously wacky sense of humor, word of its success started generating interest in venture-capital circles, and before long, potential big-ticket investors started visiting the cramped and roach-ridden digs. One early believer was Andreessen, whose venture capital firm, Andreessen Horowitz, was probably the most important funder in Silicon Valley. “
BuzzFeed was set up as a virtuous feedback loop,” he told me, where tech, content, and advertising all blended. This struck him as a new model, and his firm eventually made a first investment of $50 million. Andreessen loved newspapers. He had started reading them when he was four, he said, beginning with comics, then the sports pages, then the stock tables. He had no trouble with the notion that newspapers were a blend of the entertaining and the serious.
Peretti’s PowerPoint pitch to venture capital scouts emphasized that the BuzzFeed machine required little human input. It would increase traffic without hiring editors. “Raw buzz is automatically published the moment it is detected by our algorithm,” the document pronounced. This would streamline the process of making content for BuzzFeed’s audience, but as Peretti’s presentation made clear, the audience was merely a means to attract marketers. Brands and their spokespeople were the intended beneficiaries of Peretti’s trend-gauging and hit-making machine. The presentation invited them to “use BuzzFeed’s tools to promote the buzz you want to.”
“The future of the industry is advertising as content,” he proclaimed. BuzzFeed would be not the website or outlet but rather “the agency of the future.” It was first and foremost a tech company, the pitch stressed, which distinguished it from media companies that mostly made content, and from ad agencies that produced persuasion. BuzzFeed occupied the middle ground, which made the venture capitalists salivate, even as other publishers denounced it as a paramount conflict of interest that made a mockery of the fundamental separation of news from commercial storytelling.
Peretti’s biggest breakthrough was seeing that technology and creativity could be offered directly to advertisers in the form of what would be called “native advertising.” BuzzFeed would pursue business with advertising clients, but it wouldn’t accept their spots because Peretti didn’t want that clutter to distract visitors to his site. Instead it would sell them a more tailored service: BuzzFeed would have its staff create ads for the clients, in the form of signature BuzzFeed content, doing it all in-house. Native ads would be BuzzFeed’s only ads until 2017, when new economic winds
forced Peretti to change models again. Creating viral content and viral ads was BuzzFeed’s core.
Could a site driven by the values of advertising and technology for the purpose of spreading buzzy tidbits like social viruses ever be a source of serious news? Peretti was, as always, restless for a new frontier, a new ground to test more of his hypotheses.