In the age of the personal brand, it’s surprising to come across a successful web proprietor who’s not concerned with byline clout and self portraits, but Neetzan Zimmerman might be both the quietest and most obsessive blogger of his kind. While working a deadening marketing job in 2008, he secretly founded The Daily What on Tumblr, and quickly turned it into a CNN of Internet happenings, chronicling viral videos, Twitter feuds, celebrity gossip, and other Reddit runoff from a distant, all-knowing perch. “I don’t really want to be a personality,” Zimmmerman insisted to me over the phone yesterday. But this week, he started a new, highly visible job at Gawker, and his blog posts are immediately different in at least one way: They have his name on them.
Zimmerman ran The Daily What as a mostly anonymous one-man shop for more than three years, first “sneaking in posts during work,” and eventually as his full-time job. Independently, Zimmerman was bringing in 500,000 unique visitors a month, and the site was acquired in 2010 by unavoidable Internet CEO Ben Huh’s I Can Has Cheezburger? network (of lolcat and FAIL Blog fame) for what Zimmerman calls “a comfortable five-figures.”
“My boss just smirked when I quit,” Zimmerman said. “He was reading all along and had become a fan.” From there, Zimmerman started spending his entire day in front of the computer, often from 7:30 a.m. until 2 a.m., putting up between 30 and 35 posts a day, even on weekends. “I wanted 50, but that was crazy,” he said. Traffic grew ten-fold by the time he left this year.
Chasing viral trends is a well-known business model by now, from The Huffington Post to Buzzfeed, but Zimmerman sees aggregating as an art form. “I want to take online culture, which is a jungle,” he said, “and make it accessible to people coming in from outside.” Zimmerman, 30, grew up in Israel and has been “eating, sleeping, and breathing the Internet since I was a teenager, because I had no friends.” But when he read Richard Dawkins’s The Selfish Gene as an adult, he “started thinking about memes on a more academic level.”
Still, cute animals and girls falling off of skateboards, as foolproof as they are online, get old. “As the site progressed, my idea of what was worthy evolved, and I started gravitating toward more serious content,” Zimmerman said. This year’s burst of online activism, from the fight against SOPA to Kony 2012, gave him the opening he needed to distance himself from a blogging network built on cat pictures. “I feel like the Internet is growing out of memes,” Zimmerman said. “It wants to be taken more seriously, so it’s moving away from 4chan, and even Reddit is getting more concerned with world issues.”
That doesn’t mean the end of baby-tiger pictorials. “People still want to laugh and enjoy themselves too,” Zimmerman said. “If you’re bringing people news and you’re being truthful about it, then you’re a journalist as far as I’m concerned,” he said. “Anything that captures the imagination of a large enough crowd clearly deserves attention, and I don’t judge.” He hopes to bring both sides to Gawker, now with his identity attached, and at all hours of the day if they’ll let him. “I’m ready to go full capacity and give them a 30-post day, even after everybody’s gone home,” Zimmerman said. “The Internet doesn’t go to sleep.”