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Does BuzzFeed Know the Secret?

Jonah Peretti’s viral-content machine purports to have solved the problems of both journalism and advertising at once, all with the help of a simple algorithm.

Peretti in the BuzzFeed offices.  

Perhaps you are unfamiliar with the website BuzzFeed—though this is increasingly unlikely, as it’s currently enjoying a viral moment. The site is a hyper­active amalgam: simultaneously a journalism website, a purveyor of funny lists, and a perpetual pop-culture plebiscite where you can vote on articles with bright-yellow buttons reading lol, wtf, and omg. You can find news there, really serious news by first-rate journalists, about subjects like lobbying scandals and killer drones. You can also find an enormous amount of stuff like “The 40 Greatest Dog GIFs of All Time.” If you’re into that, in fact, there’s an entire section devoted to animals. But you’ll probably never visit that section, because, like odd-couple roommates, BuzzFeed’s articles only nominally live on the website, spending most of their time out of the house as links on social networks like Facebook and Twitter. If this sounds like an awkward living situation, it is; Gawker Media’s Nick Denton, a cantankerous competitor, has predicted that BuzzFeed will “collapse under the weight of its own contradictions.” But venture capitalists have put $46 million into it, and it’s not because they adore kittens.

Perhaps the best way to understand BuzzFeed, though, is as the culmination of a wager its puckish founder, Jonah Peretti, made twelve years ago as a graduate student at MIT. Like a lot of tales of discovery on the Internet, this one begins in a moment of procrastination. In 2001, Peretti, then 27, was supposed to be writing his master’s thesis but instead diverted himself by goofing off online. Nike was promoting a new customizable sneaker; Peretti ordered a pair imprinted with the word sweatshop, prompting an amusing exchange of e-mails with a customer-­service representative. Peretti forwarded the chain to ten friends. It went forth and multiplied, taking on irresistible momentum as it was forwarded from in-box to in-box. Six weeks later, Peretti found himself on the Today show, debating a Nike spokesman about its labor practices.

The rush of creating something viral was vertiginous, intoxicating. Throughout the experience, Peretti related his amazement to a friend, a fellow student named Cameron Marlow. “I challenged him to do it again,” Marlow recalls. Marlow was preparing to write his Ph.D. on viral phenomena; he believed they were impossible to engineer, that the universe of human relations is just too complex to predict what people would share. Peretti set out to prove him wrong. He lost interest in his thesis subject (an earnest study of new teaching software) and immersed himself in network theory.

This was a time when “weblogs” were still a novelty, and celebrity sex tapes came on VHS. Facebook did not yet exist; nor did cell-phone cameras nor most of the other components necessary to create the “Harlem Shake.” But Peretti’s debate with Marlow hinted at a central question of the future. Why, Peretti wondered, was it so difficult to spread some worthy ideas when spurious things like urban myths and dancing-baby gifs took on inexplicable life? “They’re memes,” Peretti told an interviewer, using a then-obscure academic term coined by the evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins. Successful memes self-replicate, like genes in the cultural ecosystem.

Peretti wanted to fabricate memes, and after years of experimentation, he built BuzzFeed as a shop to do so. He didn’t do it for the news, or the movie gossip, or the cute pictures of pandas. Beneath BuzzFeed’s cheery gloss lies a data-driven apparatus designed to figure out what makes you click. Peretti is aware that if he really has divined that secret—if he can reliably manufacture, at mass scale, content you will want to share—he will have developed an asset of immense value.

Word of mouth is the most elusive force in the $500 billion advertising industry: “like manna from heaven,” the Madison Avenue legend David Ogilvy wrote in a memoir, “but nobody knows how to do it on purpose.” Social networks now allow individuals to spread the word with enormous efficiency. But while Facebook and Twitter, and their competitors, have billions of users, those companies have not yet learned how to get their users to share marketing messages in any predictable fashion. (When was the last time you noticed a sponsored tweet or an ad for “everyday joint relief” on Facebook and felt compelled to pass it on to friends?)

Peretti’s assembly line produces hundreds of posts a day, applying his theories of virality to both original articles and—more important to BuzzFeed’s mission—on behalf of paid advertisers. BuzzFeed’s ads are meant to be just as clickable as the site’s most popular and uplifting posts. Prominent clients include GE, Pepsi, VW—and Nike.

BuzzFeed’s model, known in the industry as “native advertising,” has caused some trepidation among traditional ad agencies, which see its potential to cut out their intermediary role. It’s also the sort of intermingling of editorial content and business—“church and state”—that used to be considered heretical at any respectable journalism institution. But times change, revenue streams dry up, and now other publishers are watching with desperate interest. Prestigious publications like The Atlantic and the Washington Post are playing with strategies similar to BuzzFeed’s. Like a joyful scourge, Peretti is simultaneously fanning the flames that are disrupting the old media business model and promising that he has constructed a new, lucrative one.