/// Buzzfeed’s Jonah Peretti: ‘We’re not like something that came before’
When Buzzfeed founder Jonah Peretti is asked, as he regularly is, why there are so many animals on the social news website, he often illustrates his answer with a reference to Ridley Scott’s seminal sci-fi movie Blade Runner.
“When people complain to me about too many animals on Buzzfeed I always ask them whether they’re a serial killer and sociopath, or whether they’re android,” he says, only half-joking.
Peretti is referring to the Voight-Kampff test in the 31-year-old film, where investigators attempt to distinguish between androids (or “replicants”) and humans by their response to a series of animal-related questions. Would you rescue a tortoise baking in the hot desert sun? Someone gives you a calfskin wallet. How do you respond?
His point is that it is human nature to respond warmly and positively to animals – providing a possible explanation for the popularity of trademark Buzzfeed posts such as “60 Basset Hounds In Costumes” and “31 Cats Who Have Seen Things You Wouldn’t Believe”.
A combination of viral-ready hits, breaking news and spin-off memes has cemented Buzzfeed’s rise as perhaps the world’s fastest-growing news website. Since its launch in 2006, the New York-based site has grown to 40 million visitors a month and recently opened its first international office in London.
Buzzfeed has taken $46m in venture capital investment in five years, valuing it at $200m, or five times its expected sales revenue this year. It employs 215 writers, editors and algorithm wizards in New York, Los Angeles and London.
It places as much emphasis on spreading the word as on the message itself. In a similar way to YouTube and HuffPo, the site has a network of contributors supplying free user generated content, to which its in-house staff give a final polish. Contributors are awarded badges – “LOL”, “Trashy”, “Fail” – if their article inspires a certain number of responses. The most popular contributors sometimes land a paid job, following an induction process that includes receiving email elerts whenever a post begins to “go viral”. The aim is that writers and editors will know how to create viral content before readers know they want to read it.
Buzzfeed is the brainchild of Peretti, a rail-thin Californian who is a combination of programmer, journalist and marketer. His love affair with viral content began in 2001 as a graduate student in the Media Lab at the prestigious Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT).
Instead of writing his master’s thesis, Peretti decided to play the smartass and asked Nike to emblazon the word “sweatshop” on a customised pair of trainers. Unsurprisingly, it objected – but his terse email exchange with a Nike official was quickly spread among thousands of bored office workers. Eventually Peretti debated the issue of sweatshop labour with a Nike spokeswoman on NBC’s The Today Show.
That 15 minutes of fame gave him the bug. Peretti and his younger sister Chelsea, a standup comedian and writer, set up the New York Rejection Line, a service for those pestered by people who refused to leave them alone: it supplied you with “your” phone number to give them, which played an automated brush-off message when they rang it.
The pair’s next stunt also ended up on national TV: BlackPeopleLoveUs was the online home of a fictional white couple, Sally and Johnny, who were desperate to befriend African-Americans. It went viral, and its creators were interviewed on ABC’s Good Morning America.
Peretti was also part of the internet power quartet who founded the Huffington Post in early 2005, remaining at the helm of the news site and blog until its $315m sale to AOL in February 2011. After six years at HuffPo, 39-year-old Peretti said the acquisition represented a “natural breaking point” for him to leave and concentrate on Buzzfeed.
Now the two sites are in competition – but there is no indication that Peretti plans to follow Arianna Huffington’s example by selling out. “A lot of web companies will take a short-term approach and sell to an incumbent and don’t end up living up to their full potential,” he says. “If we can entertain and inform people and generate great return for advertisers we can have a much bigger, longer path. We’re not like something that came before us – we’re qualitatively different.”
Described by a former colleague as extremely pragmatic and shrewd rather than idealistic and hopeful, Peretti has an eye for the future that has drawn a number of senior media executives to beat a path to his door.
He met Rupert Murdoch and other top News Corporation executives at the CES gadget show in Las Vegas in January. The media tycoon described Peretti’s Buzzfeed pitch as “the most fun” he’d seen – and Peretti is quick to return the compliment. “He was shockingly attentive and engaged at understanding things at a really high level,” he says.
It is anyone’s guess what Murdoch makes of a site that reacted to Lady Thatcher’s death last week with an avalanche of stories, a mixture of serious and silly, such as “Margaret Thatcher’s 19 Most Badass Moments” and “16 Cats Interpret 16 Margaret Thatcher Quotes”.
Buzzfeed’s New York headquarters are only a two-minute walk from Madison Avenue, but it is a world away from the Mad Men era of advertising. The site carries no display ads, shunning the intrusive banners that online readers have learned to ignore and instead experimenting with sponsored editorial. Brands such as Coca-Cola, Nike and Virgin Mobile regularly appear as “featured partners” on wacky lists that do not look out of place on the site’s homepage.
“There was a [long] period where newspapers were the only way an advertiser could get its message to the public. They were essentially monopolies,” he says. “Now brands can go direct to the public. If you look at the heritage of the best advertising you can make stuff that is great for both readers and advertisers. I don’t think Don Draper would have loved banner ads.”
So where is the rest of the media going wrong? “The biggest misconception people have is that quality is all that matters,” Peretti says, in an admission likely to give further ammunition to those who think the site is trashy and downmarket. “The truth is that quality helps, but there’s a ton of high-quality things that don’t go anywhere.”
In his keynote talk at MediaGuardian’s Changing Media Summit in London last month, Peretti used a striking analogy with Judaism and Mormonism to demonstrate this point. There was one Mormon for every 10 Jews in 1950, according to Peretti, and now there are fewer Jews than believers in the religion whose best-known adherent is the Killers frontman Brandon Flowers. “Mormons know that it’s not enough to practise your religion – you also have to spread your religion.”
The Guardian – Josh Halliday, Media and Technology Reporter