Peretti’s underlying aim was to study the flow of information. He developed a program called ForwardTrack, which he used to map the progression of mass e-mails. Peretti designed the technology for liberal political groups and charities, but when Procter & Gamble wanted to adopt it for use in connection with a detergent promotion, he confessed no hesitation. “I enjoy working in morally ambiguous spaces,” he told an interviewer from the culture-jamming magazine Stay Free! “I find that is where the most interesting stuff happens.”
Peretti’s contagious media experiments brought him into the orbit of Kenneth Lerer, a wealthy former AOL executive. Originally, they collaborated to advance a political cause—gun control—but Lerer recognized that Peretti’s expertise could have media-business applications. In the miasmic aftermath of George W. Bush’s reelection, Lerer and a business partner, Arianna Huffington, decided to start a news-and-blogging website: the Huffington Post. Lerer brought Peretti on to handle its technological back end, and he devised many elements key to its success.
Much of the Huffington Post’s content was aggregated from other sources or written by unpaid bloggers, but Peretti had a genius for propagation. The site fostered a vociferous community of commenters, whose chatter constantly refreshed the site’s content. Its technicians mastered search-engine optimization, gaming Google’s algorithm to land their stories at the top of the results for questions like “What time is the Super Bowl?” The Huffington Post produced an enormous amount of junky but well-trafficked content, most of which never appeared on the site’s front page. Peretti called it the “mullet strategy”—business in front, party in the back—a metaphor that grated on some of his colleagues.
As the Huffington Post grew, surpassing mainstream outlets in terms of web traffic, Arianna Huffington set a course to build what was, in many respects, an old-fashioned journalism organization. This meant reining in Peretti’s party. “It was a business that had its own politics and limitations,” says Paul Berry, a Peretti protégé who became the Huffington Post’s chief technology officer. “We would have a story that was going insanely viral, on a slow traffic day, and we have to restrain ourselves from promoting it because it was too sexy of a photo.” Peretti was eager to try out new advertising models, but Huffington resisted, fearing that blurring the church-state line would alienate readers.
Despite his frustrations, Peretti profited from the experience. In late 2010, he bought an apartment on Prospect Park West, where he now lives with his wife, Andrea, and their twin boys. A couple of months later, the Huffington Post was acquired by AOL for $315 million. But it’s clear that windfall hasn’t blown away all the old tensions. “Huffington Post was very focused on being a successful media company,” is how Peretti carefully puts it. “And so there wasn’t that much freedom to play.” Huffington declined to comment.
Peretti started BuzzFeed as a side project, in 2006, in partnership with his old boss John Johnson. But long before the Huffington Post was sold, he had shifted his attention to the newer project. Originally, BuzzFeed employed no writers or editors, just an algorithm to cull stories from around the web that were showing stirrings of virality. In return for functioning as a sort of early-warning system, BuzzFeed persuaded partner sites to install programming code that allowed the company to monitor their traffic. (The network now encompasses some 200 sites that serve 355 million users.) This analytical capacity, which the company doesn’t talk about much, has given BuzzFeed an enormous trove of data about what information people are reading and how they are sharing it. This is why one prominent New York digital-media executive described BuzzFeed to me as “a super-big ad tech company with a journalism veneer.”
Peretti rejects the notion that the news operation he has built is, as he has put it, “a hood ornament to lend the site prestige.” It was a business calculation that, somewhat to his surprise, pushed BuzzFeed in the same old-media editorial direction he once chafed at during his time at the Huffington Post. Journalism has clickable appeal on Twitter and brings the kind of readers preferred by premium advertisers. He likes to say that journalism works best on social networks with “scoops and quality reporting,” not aggregation. But the head of BuzzFeed’s data-science department frankly told me that the company has found it to be extremely difficult to make a news item go viral.
It turns out Peretti’s vaunted algorithm revealed an obvious truth: People like upbeat, even childlike content. That’s why BuzzFeed practices its own version of the Huffington Post’s mullet strategy—though now the party is all up front. The authors who draw the most traffic on the site are people like Matt and Dave Stopera, twentysomething brothers who drive millions of hits a week to posts like “The 30 Happiest Facts of All Time,” featuring ideas culled—some say plagiarized—from the viral swamps of 4Chan and Reddit. For BuzzFeed, the happiest fact is that such concepts are easily repurposed as advertisements. Matt Stopera’s “100 Incredible Views Out of Airplane Windows” has been viewed more than 2 million times since it was published in 2011. It was followed by last year’s JetBlue ad “The 50 Most Beautiful Shots Taken Out of Airplane Windows.” Some tropes are serially repackaged: Last April’s “10 Unbelievably Beautiful Places You’ve Probably Never Heard Of,” for BBC America, begat “10 Beautiful Places in the World That Actually Exist,” for Pepsi Next, which begat “10 Places That Are Almost Too Beautiful to Be Real,” for Campbell’s Soup. In late March, the dog caught its tail, as Dave Stopera published a new post: “28 Incredibly Beautiful Places You Won’t Believe Actually Exist.”