Betabeat met Jonah Peretti, Huffington Post co-founder and now founder and CEO of BuzzFeed, in mid-January 2012, just after the hiring of Ben Smith to head up the brand new original news reporting team. It was also just after the announcement of a $15.5 million round of funding and just as the 70-some employees were just starting to feel comfortable in their month-old office in the Flatiron District. Here is the full transcript of the interview, with minor edits for length and clarity.
I wanted to ask you about contagious media.
One of the things that I’m really excited about is, the thing that got me interested in all this stuff, the web, publishing, content, was making things that people thought were funny or interesting enough to pass on to their friends. And there was this magic thing, so I mean my first thing was this Nike sweatshop email, where I ordered a pair of shoes customized with the word “sweatshop” as a joke, and they wouldn’t send it to me, and we had this back and forth and it was funny, and I looked at it and said oh, I’ll send this to a few friends, and I sent it to a few friends and then they sent it to their friends and it started reaching millions of people, and 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, even though I don’t really know anything about it, and it was all because this weird phenomenon that happened with the rise of the internet where if ordinary people think that something is worth sharing with other ordinary people, you can reach millions of people.
And so that led to a whole series of projects and teaching ca class at ITP and Parsons and doing my own projects and collaborating with my sister who is a standup comic and a writer for Parks and Rec. We were kind of messing around. On a weekend we’d make like, Black People Love Us, or a project, and see how it like do things on very modest scale with very little budget or no budget and kind of still be able to see these things reach this large audience.
So that’s why I got kind of interested in it so then sort of along the way I ended up doing companies and Huffington Post, and I did some other things to see how can you apply all these ideas. One of the ideas that I sometimes get credited with is being good at SEO or search engine optimization. It’s true that I started thinking about that when I was at Huffington Post because at the time that was sort of a paradigm for a lot of the web. Finding information was about Google and if something was happening in the world that was breaking news people would go to Google and they’d type it in and if you couldn’t figure out how to get to the top of results you were kind of invisible.
But what I never liked about it was that you’re essentially trying to understand how a machine works or a robot works. What I love is understanding how the human mind works and what gets people excited and what gets people inspired, and what makes people want to share something. So what is so interesting to me now is that as things shift back to Facebook and Twitter and social media platforms being the thing that moves traffic around the web, and that is becoming as important and could become more imp than Google, there’s an opportunity to kind of go back to that original stuff that I was doing years ago, which was how do you make some awesome thing that makes people go oh my god, I have to send this to everyone I know.
And maybe send this to everyone I know used to mean a mass email or something or post it on your blog, and now it means posting it on Twitter or Facebook and those things, but this underlying dynamic is still very similar.
You see the way that the stuff that reporters do is starting to become part of that world as well. So it’s not just funny stuff or silly stuff or light stuff or political stuff. A person seeing something and being a social creature that wants to share things with friends is becoming something that is just so broadly applicable to news and entertainment and information and all sorts of different things. So that’s sort of in a nutshell why I’m really ex about what we’re doing at BuzzFeed and how it kind of connects to what I was doing 10 years ago.
So what’s the answer? What makes something viral? How do I make my stories viral?
You want to make your stories viral? That’s something another piece you could write or something. Or I think that piece has been written. I think I read some journalist was like, ‘I want to make my story viral,’ so they talked to people and… “put kittens in it!” You know.
Are there rules like that? I read in one of your interviews that you felt sad, bummery content doesn’t really spread virally. Are there rules, general rules like that?
So there are rules in a kind of loose sense, or guidelines I would say. There’s not a formular and you follow the formula and something goes viral. The other thing is that most things aren’t viral and that often times when people see something that was viral, they will copy it, and then that thing will be less viral. Right? So like there’s something about a spark of inspiration and the newness and the novelty that causes things to be more viral. And if you do that same thing again, but slightly differently, it will be less viral even though you’re following all the exact same rules. Which, you could say is a rule that novelty is important.
I think that for the most part, if something is a total bummer, people don’t share it. You don’t want to upset all your friends. So an article that is about – like I’ve met activists before who come to me and say, help me make my campaigns viral. And then I’ll say okay let me see what your working on and then their camp is lit pictures of starving children that are literally about to die. And they’re like, “how do we make this viral, this is going on right now, kids are dying, this is so important this is the most imp thing ever, you should help us make this viral, obviously, because you’d have the biggest impact on the world. The problem is, after looking at that you feel depressed, and you also it’s almost like you’re sending a bad feeling to your friends so why would you want to send a bad feeling to your friends?
Now if you had that same thing presented in a dif way, it could be viral. The same cause presented in a totally different way, like you’re going to make a difference, or you’re going to help, like the Nike sweatshop email, it was a serious thing but it was humorous, so you could forward it to all your friends, without feeling like you’re depressing them about sweatshop labor but also you could forward it to your friends without feeling like you’re even being that political. Like you’re not going to offend , like you might have a friend who might disagree with your politics, but they’ll think it’s funny, so you have humor as a kind of cloud or a cover.
And so I do think that on the web there is a renaissance of humorous content on the web because the social web is becoming more important, and people like to share things because it’s a good thing to make your friends laugh.
Is that something that’s universal? Or is that different. Like could you find in China maybe people prefer to spread stuff that has a different kind of message?
There are cultural differences and I’m not an expert on those. I do focus more on the U.S. We may internationalize at some point in the future. There’s some interesting work that’s been done on studying this, and what things spread in different places, and there are some examples of people who will find something big like in Russia and translate it and have success making a version of it spread in the U.S.
So is the goal to have everything on BuzzFeed be viral?
No. That would be like the goal of a baseball player to hit a home run every time they come up to bat or something. You could have that as your goal I guess, if you like to be a delusionally positive thinker, but really there’s a bunch of reasons why we might have stuff on the site.
A lot of it is also a learning process, so our editors are constantly publishing things they’re constantly looking to see what’s resonating, what people are engaged with, what people are sharing, and then they get better and better instincts. We learn a lot from the failures. So you might have something great that ends on a really depressing note and people don’t share it, and you could have something great that is a little depressing but ends on an upbeat note, and that does really well and then you’re like oh, I realize that I have to present this in a different way.
Do you remember any of the informative failures?
I remember some, and some of them I don’t talk about. I had a group of students that did a project which was I kind of liked the concept but it totally flopped, which was gangster henna tattoos.
So it was like, there was all these tattoos going around on the web of gangster style tattoos and prison tattoos and these like, hardcore prison tattoos, and then there was also this like henna craze at the time. This was a few years ago. So it was like what if you got like, gangster tattoos but they were temporary? I don’t know if it was the execution or if it was the concept or what but that didn’t really do that well. Sometimes people will make something more complicated than it needs to be.
We also post a lot of things that we know won’t be super viral but we know that a cert group of people will like it. So if our politics team gets a scoop about something that matters to political junkies, we’ll publish it even if we know the Facebook masses won’t care.
We recently had something on the site that was, “Did Jesus Intervene?” And it was pictures of Tim Tebow next to pictures of various catastrophes that have happened like the tornadoes and the tsunami or the Rwanda genocide. And then it’ll be like, did Jesus intervene in the cowboys game? Yes! And it’s Tim Tebow. And then, did he intervene in this genocide? No, he decided not to. So it was posted by a user, not one of our editors. But it’s gotten 100,000 views which is pretty good, and it’s traveled around a lot.
But it’s also kind of dark humor, it also appeals more to atheists or who are able to get the joke, you know, like it doesn’t spell out the joke. Like on the surface it looks like this post is saying that Jesus supports football games and ignores genocide which is like, if you’re religious it’s offensive, if you’re not religious then you don’t think Jesus does anything, you know. It’s a little bit more complex but it’s still a post that is pretty viral, and is really, really funny and interesting and provocative, and has a double level of meaning to certain people, but it’s not like the perfect cute kittens post that everyone needs to see.
Do you know off the top of your head what has been most looked at piece of content on BuzzFeed?
“The 45 Most Powerful Images of 2011” was our biggest hit.
That doesn’t sound funny.
It wasn’t funny. Humor is only one thing. So there’s humor, there’s timeliness and breaking news and things like that, there’s broadly defined things that have that make you exp a sense of awe or emotion and you see often nostalgic posts like do v well. So we’ll do posts about you know, food you ate as a kid that you can’t get anymore and have like, Jello pudding pops that aren’t on the market.
When you share something on Facebook, you’re showing all your friends who you are and what you believe in and you’re having a shared experience with them. And at the end of the year, seeing all the most powerful moments o f2011 is a nice thing to share with your friends. It’s like, wow we lived through another year, look at all the things we experience together. There’s an emotional poignancy to it, combined with some sadness but also some epicness, but also some inspirational things.
What do you think about–so like some old media is critical of Huffington Post and BuzzFeed for being linkbait-y, and click whore-y. For me, I feel bad about myself because I get on the Huffington Post and like, click on stories about Bristol Palin. Why is popular bad?
I think there are certain classes of content that are guilty pleasures, and they’re guilty because they conflict with the image of ourselves that we have. So Huffington Post will never splash that Bristol Palin story as the top story because then you feel like, I’m reading TMZ, and you wouldn’t feel good about yourself.
And so there’s a game that all media publishers play. I don’t actually think it’s really a new thing even though people will criticize Huffpost for it. BuzzFeed gets less of that criticism because we’ve never, until recently, we’ve never really presented ourselves as a news site. So we’ll see how it goes. We’ve always been a little more, “this is a site for fun entertaining stuff.”
But look at The New York Times. How well read is the section 1A compared to the Sunday Styles? But like, I think that the amount of time people spend reading some of these human interest and fluff pieces and fashion pieces is probably as great as like, the long piece on Afghanistan on page 7 or whatever. But they still put those important stories in the first section of the paper.
I talked to someone years ago who worked at the BBC. I was asking him what’s the most clicked thing on the front of the BBC’s website, and he said oh, it’s the football scores. And then I was like oh, I don’t even see them, and he was like oh that’s because they’re there. And he like, scrolls, scrolls, scrolls, and they’re all the way at the bottom of the page. And I’m like, well why do you put them there if it’s the most clicked thing? And he’s like, well people don’t want to feel like they’re coming to BBC News to get the football scores, they want to feel like they’re coming in for the big news.
So when you think about the front page of a site you’re also thinking about identity or person who’s looking at it. I think what people click and what people search for tends to be less reflective of their identity because it’s private and no one sees it. You can click on that Bristol Palin story because you’re interested, and no one can see that you clicked on it. And when you look at things like Rihanna’s sex tape or something like that, that will have huge clickthrough rate and huge amounts of Google searches, because that’s private and nobody sees that. But you won’t see people tweeting like, hey I heard of Rihanna’s sex tape, I have some time this weekend, does anyone know where I can look at it? Because then everyone is like, dude who is that creepy guy talking about sex tapes on Twitter?
So I think that there is a fringe benefit to the rise of social media, which is that it makes us our better selves and makes us share stuff that we are proud to share. There is still some risk that some good content that is either a guilty pleasure or just doesn’t have the right social properties to it will get lost.
I always thought that if something was good, someone on the internet would eventually find it and blow it up. Do you think that happens? Good content gets lost?
Yeah, I think that happens for sure.
Was news always the goal for BuzzFeed?
No, I think we really started as a social content company thinking about what goes viral, why does it go viral, what do people think is worth sharing, how do you separate the really good content that people are passing around every day from the mediocre stuff or the bad stuff.
As social media has matured it’s becoming clear that oh, this isn’t just for kittens. This is already the way that people get their news, this is already the way that people are discovering information and substantive content and original content.
We have a smart audience that comes to the site and they’re coming to us for lighter stuff and reading news on other sites. Now we can give them news in a packaging that they love from BuzzFeed.
What’s the difference between BuzzFeed and Huffington Post?
We’re like our own creature. We’re not doing things at all in reaction to any other sites. The biggest thing that we’re doing is, really the biggest difference between us and I think other sites in publishing, is that we think of ourselves and we act in a way that values social traffic and social interaction higher than anything else.
So we don’t do any SEO, we don’t like try to fig out how to win a search term. We really look at, can we put content out there that people think is worth sharing and then can we do that for informational content, can we do that for emotional content, can we do that for entertaining content, and now for news and original reporting.
You said editors will post some stuff to see what happens. What do you have on the backend, like metrics and tools?
With the recent financing we’re able to invest in technology and editorial at the same time, and in a big way for both of them. We’ve always been very much a tech comp and now we’re balancing out by having a bigger editorial team and more original content, but the technology is really giving people real-time feedback about how people are interacting with their stories.
Some of it is making the best permalink page, the landing page, so it’s easy to consume the content, everything looks good, it’s easy to share, it’s easy for you to contribute. Some of it is showing editors where traffic is coming from and giving them a better sense for them to do their own experiments and say I did this and it didn’t perform, why is it that.
Is that like Chartbeat?
It’s something we built ourselves.
Do you have anything that shows how a story spreads, like those articles about the origins of a hashtag meme on Twitter?
We look at stuff like that editorially, as something to write about, more than we look at that for our own performance. But I think if you look at the history of media you can see the way new technology has a transformative effect on the types of content that can be created.
What is BuzzFeed’s demographic?
Our audience right now our front page audience is people in their 20s and 30s who are culturally savvy or more coastal, like more big cities. They’re people who a lot of them come to BuzzFeed to find things to share. Sometimes we call them “super sharers.” They come to the site and say, I want something for my Facebook wall today that will make my friends either laugh or cry or get in a debate with me. So that’s really the core audience. And then when we have stories take off, sometimes they go viral with a totally different audience. It depends on the story.
On the front page, there is a “will this go viral” button. What does that do?
It’s not a majorly promoted feature, but it basically is a little game that some of our users like to play where when they see something on the front page, they can guess whether it will go viral. We have a little leaderboard that shows whether you’re right or not.
One of the things that is interesting is that whenever something goes viral and tons of people see it and then it gets press or links or whatever, famous people tweet it, then people see it and they’re like oh, of course that was going to be big. I would have known that was going to be big. But in advance people aren’t nearly as good at it. So the idea is to test. Like people will be like, oh that’s a picture of a cute kitten and a baby like wrestling, of course that went viral. But then, how many cute kittens are there and babies are there on YouTube? There’s probably an infinite number. I’m only slightly exaggerating. So like, why did that one take off? And after the fact you can add rules. But there’s no guarantee.
Do you think you’re pretty good at predicting? Do you ever play?
I play it sometimes. I haven’t played it in a little while. I think I’m probably a little bit better than the average person but the problem is that if the average person is able to predict things one percent of the time and I’m able to predict things two percent of the time, you still mostly don’t know, which is partly why you have to believe in something, you have to have some personal standards of the kind of content you create.
You have to put stuff out there that you think is good even if you’re not sure whether it will take off or whether it will resonate. And then you have to learn from all the feedback you see. Where is that perfect intersection of the Venn diagram of the content that you think is important and that matters, and that you think is worth publishing, and that you think is delightful or engaging, and the stuff that actually people think they want to share and pass along. You hit a lot of things that aren’t in the intersection.