The Viral Visionary
By Alex Pasternack
As the founder of BuzzFeed, the social publishing site that highlights the most shared content on the Web, it's blogs like these that let Peretti stare directly into the psyche of what he calls the "bored at work network," an audience who've turned his website into a bubbly composite of the Web's obsessions (sports, life tips, baby animal photos) -- and an increasingly serious business. "I've always been more interested in trying to understand things," he says, describing an unlikely trajectory that's taken him from sixth-grade teacher to MIT Media Lab hacker to co-founder of the Huffington Post, to being, according to David Carr, a "viral marketing hot dog."
Even his mischievous sense of humor (he and his comedian sister Chelsea Peretti dreamed up the early viral hits the Rejection Line and blackpeopleloveus.com) seems tied up with a curiosity to understand how ideas spread. "Why would someone want to share this with a friend," he asks, jogging through a non-scientific test that seems to be constantly on his mind. "A lot of it comes down to understanding human behavior" he says, "which is why it's so quirky and interesting, and why it won't be reduced to a science."
He is, however, turning troves of data about how people share content on Facebook into a playbook for viral success. "It's more and more normal for consumers to see a feed with cute cats next to the Arab Spring." That explains why the list of viral fluff on BuzzFeed's homepage is getting more worldly and brainier, too. In January, Peretti launched new verticals devoted to politics and tech, in a bet that people on the Internet want to share things that make them look kinda smart too.
Now he has the traffic -- over 20 million uniques a month -- to prove it. It doesn't hurt that BuzzFeed beat CNN at reporting John McCain's endorsement of Mitt Romney, in the kind of underdog moment that the Twitter-sphere adores.
"I've been loving the approach to reporting I've been learning, which is to try to uncover things that people weren't expecting." It's an old meme (journalism!) but the approach is helping Peretti uncover new lessons about how the Internet thinks. "As soon as you believe you have figured something out, you stop being open to things."