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Ben Smith BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti on Making the World a Meme

Ben Smith BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti on Making the World a Meme

Ben Smith These addons are interesting!!

Jonah Peretti on the dress, the dossier, and the next pivot to video.

Peretti with Dao Nguyen, now BuzzFeed’s publisher, in 2013.
Photo: Peter Yang/August

Ben Smith

Peretti with Dao Nguyen, now BuzzFeed’s publisher, in 2013.
Photo: Peter Yang/August

Ben Smith

Peretti with Dao Nguyen, now BuzzFeed’s publisher, in 2013.
Photo: Peter Yang/August

As the decade began, there were rea­sons to be optimistic: America had elected its first black president, and despite a global recession just two years earlier, the world hadn’t cascaded into total financial collapse. Obama­care, for all its flaws, was passed, and then came the Iran deal and the Paris climate accords. Sure, there were danger signs: the anger of the tea party, the slow hollowing out of legacy news media, a troubling sense that somehow the bankers got away with it. But then maybe the immediacy of social media gave some hope, at least if you listened to the chatter of the bright young kids in the Bay Area trying to build a new kind of unmediated citizenship. Maybe every­day celebrity, post-­gatekeeper, would change the world for the better. Some of that happened. But we also ended up with the alt­-right and Donald Trump, inequality, impeachment, and debilitating FOMO. How did we get here? Throughout this week, we will be publishing long talks with six people who helped shape the decade — and were shaped by it — to hear what they’ve learned. Read them all here.

“I heard WeGrow, the preschool, is being shut down,” Jonah Peretti says, sitting in a conference room in BuzzFeed’s New York offices. “How do you explain that to your 4-year-old?” He affects a gently parental tone: “There’s this guy Adam Neumann, and he’s very charismatic …”

Like Neumann, Peretti took money from the Japanese investment giant SoftBank — not the company’s Saudi-backed Vision Fund, he’s careful to clarify — early in his start-up’s life. Unlike WeWork, though, BuzzFeed has managed to keep its head above water for 13 years in an industry with prospects much worse than real estate’s. Since its founding in 2006 and especially since the creation of the BuzzFeed News division in 2012, BuzzFeed has led the transformation of a news-media industry threatened by tech megaplatforms, private-equity vultures, fickle readers, and declining ad sales. It has pioneered new formats and business models, all while breaking major national stories like that of the infamous Steele dossier. (Even the New YorkTimeshas taken notice: Its 2014 “Innovation Report” looked to BuzzFeed as a model of web-publishing excellence, and Dean Baquet recently remarked on its substantial journalistic impact.) But it’ll probably always be known for the memes. “The audience still isn’t bored of quizzes,” Peretti says.

When did you first see“the dress”?
I was out in a restaurant, and I was trying to be polite and not look at my phone and hanging out with my friends. And my phone was vibrating, and people were like, “Oh my God.” The restaurant I was in, literally all the waiters were looking at it. People were passing it around.

How long did that last?
The next morning, we just ran into a stranger. They were like, “Oh, that was so yesterday.” But the dress was a kind of perfect thing to catch fire at that moment. The internet was less polarized and politicized, and it had shifted to mobile fully so people were looking at mobile devices. With the dress, if you saw it on your phone and you were with people, you could hold the phone up and say, “What color is this?” Plus, in the early days of BuzzFeed, our traffic would die in the evening because people would watch television or go out with their friends. Now, with mobile, we see prime time for our content as the same as prime time for television. People are sharing content and looking at content later.

Have the conditions changed such that something like the dress couldn’t happen again?
I think it’s harder. One reason is I think it made Facebook a little uncomfortable. The algorithm was like, “This is the piece of content everyone in the world should see.” I think that scared Facebook a little bit, that there could be a publisher that promotes a piece of content that then their algorithm feels like it needs to show to everyone in the world. Today, there’s a fear of viral content — you see this in China to an even greater extent. The Chinese government is very afraid of things that go viral, because it’s something that they can’t control. And I think even in the U.S. now, there’s more of a moment of trying to control the internet. Ironically, that has led to much more microtargeting, where instead of having one thing that everyone in the world sees, we have personalized content for each individual, and keep people more in their lanes and in their bubbles, and not have as much entertainment that cuts across the entire social network or the entire web. In the long run, I think that’s led to things like more separatist movements around the world, more polarization.

How has media coverage of politics changed since 2008, when you made your mark as one of the founders of the Huffington Post?
At Huffington Post, it was less about scoops and journalism. We were more of an aggregator, and we noticed at the time that Digg was a big source of traffic. During the primaries, when Obama and Hillary Clinton were competing, one of the things that was kind of shocking to me was how the Digg community was having this huge impact. When there was a story that was pro-Obama, it would quickly get voted at the top of Digg because Digg’s community liked Obama. And when there was a story that was pro-Hillary or that talked about Hillary in a positive light, it would get down-voted and buried and never make it in front of Digg. Some media outlets started to realize that, and they were starting to write content for Digg — “Oh, Obama was amazing,” and then,boom,40,000 views to your posts. That to me felt like an early-warning sign of how media was changing, that a community and an algorithm combined to make it so that Hillary couldn’t win the primary and Obama could. I think that dynamic really was partly why Obama was able to win and then ultimately become president.

Over time, that dynamic has gotten bigger and bigger. It’s why Bloomberg’s presidential campaign probably won’t go anywhere. It’s harder if you’re a boring centrist who doesn’t have a strong, passionate community obsessed with you and a message that gets torqued by algorithms because it is exciting or crazy or interesting or extreme or novel. Obama, I think, was this really interesting case because he was very good with positive messages, but he also was novel as the first black major-party nominee. Over time, you’re seeing these trends continue, where having a fanatical fandom behind you and a message that drives engagement on platforms gives you an advantage if you’re trying to run for president.

It sounds like you’re making an argument that the dress and its subsequent success, and the reaction of platforms like Facebook pushing for further microtargeting, ultimately resulted in Trump.
I mean, I think Trump is part of it, but there’s a larger macrotrend that microtargeting is both a cause and a result of. The internet has had this first-order effect of giving everyone a voice and connecting the world. Now, it’s having this second-order effect that we are still trying to understand. Is it that globalism is going to be replaced with lots of nationalistic movements? And one inflection point was Trump being elected.Joyful, positive contentstarted to be replaced with critical, negative content. A lot of the content that started to go viral wasmore polarizing and fighting.

But you’re also saying that shift had already been in place before Trump was nominated or elected. And in fact, you could argue the more aggressive stuff, the less joyful stuff, was part of what pushed him to the nomination.
One shift after the dress was platforms like Facebook wanting to take more control of their platform. Even before Trump, Facebook started to become more like Netflix, where it wasn’t that your friend shared this content with you, it’s that you’ve engaged with Beyoncé content before; and when a page that you follow posts something about Beyoncé, it gets matched with you and put into your feed. It’s a recommendation algorithm showing you things similar to things you’ve seen before, and the same on the ad side, getting targeted.

It was frustrating for BuzzFeed editors, to be honest, because, at the time, they would make content and judge whether they’re doing a good job by how much that content reached new people and was shared to reach new audiences. That became a smaller and smaller percentage of the traffic that we would get to any post. And a larger and larger percentage was just based on matching and targeting and preferences. So every Taylor Swift post would get about the same number of views and reach the same kind of people. The internet became less about people sharing with each other and less people powered, and more powered by an algorithm that’s matching content to people based on their interests.

You guys had success with fairly microtargeted content before this shift started to happen, though, didn’t you? There was a year and a half there when lists like “How You Can Tell You’re From Princeton, New Jersey,” “Where I’m From,” or whatever were doing really well for BuzzFeed.
But when you look at a post like “Signs You’re Raised by Asian Immigrant Parents,” we could see that half of the people reading it weren’t Asian. I think what ended up happening is that, over time, people realized you could do the same thing but have it be about a negative view of other people. Like, “This is who we are, and everyone else is threatening us.” Or, “You should be fearful of us.”

Why has the right has been so particularly good at owning social media in a way the liberals and the left haven’t been able to?
I think there are a few reasons. One is that Steve Bannon was trying to use Breitbart to get Trump elected. In the bookDevil’s Bargain,there’s a passage that says that when Breitbart was getting off the ground, I spoke to Bannon — which I don’t remember because, at that time,who knew who Steve Bannon was? And he was like,I love the idea that it was about community, not about traffic.I was like,Oh my God, I inspired Steve Bannon.

If you were in charge of the vast left-wing-media cabal, what would the left do to make itself more viral?
Basically, don’t burden yourself with truth. Just make memes that participate in the cultural wars.

You worked with Andrew Breitbart at the Huffington Post, too, right?
I did, yeah.

You could make a good case that Breitbart was the publication that defined the 2016 election.
Yeah. The left-wing sites and centrist sites were all linking to each other and talking to each other, the left-wing sites were being checked by these mainstream sites, and the readership was kind of between the two. But Breitbart was kind of off in its own space, creating its own reality. When Trump gave his first speeches, immigration wasn’t the biggest thing he talked about, but he got good reactions from the crowd and, almost like a stand-up comic or musician, he learned to change based on that. Breitbart was doing the same thing online, testing messages and seeing what kinds of things got engagement.

Isn’t that what everyone in media is doing?
BuzzFeed’s not trying to get anyone elected. The mainstream media and the left-wing media keep each other in check, and Fox News and Breitbart are kind of out there on their own. And they are much more focused on political outcomes, which is not really the case with the mainstream media and even the left-wing media. There’s a feeling of,Well, it’s not fair because the right can meme Trump to the presidency with things that are inaccurate,and then the left feels like,Oh, if I do something, then the New YorkTimesis going to write an article that says this is inaccurate or this or that or the other. And then all my friends are going to read that article,you know?

Can we talk about the publication ofthe Steele dossierin that context? I’m wondering about the decision to publish an unredacted document over the objections of traditional media gatekeepers.
It’s a philosophical difference. In the era of industrial media — newspapers, broadcast television — the media thought of itself as a gatekeeper and was a gatekeeper. There were good things about that model. Now, with the internet, information can go viral unchecked by anyone, just uploaded to a platform. We live in a totally different environment, where information can be peer-to-peer, it can be spread to groups. The platforms would love it if they had to spend no money on media or content and if users just put up all media and content. And if you think of yourself as a gatekeeper, you’re deluding yourself. So the philosophical difference is that we see our role is to not keep information from people. We see our role as to help them understand the information that’s circulating, help them understand information that is circulating at the highest levels of government or that is spreading across the internet in the form of a hoax or fake news.

I’ve always been sort of tickled by the fact that Peter Kaplan was the first person you went to when you were thinking about starting BuzzFeed News. He wasn’t a new-model thinker about news on the internet; he’s an old-school lion. What was it about Peter that made you want him to run BuzzFeed News?
I had met him a couple times, and Ken Lerer knew him for a long time. I asked Pete

I like add-ons, because they are the interesting.

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