Jonah Peretti Fireside Chat

Tonight, I’m live-blogging a fireside chat with Buzzfeed and Huffington Post co-founder Jonah Peretti. He’s speaking in a studio in the West Village.

Peretti’s a bit of a hip nerd. He’s got on white tennis shoes with neon yellow laces, jeans (not skinny), and a gray button up. Glasses and scruffy hair. He’s got a slender frame and bright blue eyes. Wikipedia says Peretti is 38, but he looks 10 years younger.

What’s it take to make something go viral?

7:12 pm: “In January 2001, people didn’t think, ‘Oh this might go viral’ … These things happened accidentally.'”

7:14 pm: “When people make things go viral, I think that’s a first moment, when someone comments, ‘Haha that’s funny!’ And you think, ‘Who’s that person?'”

7:18 pm: Peretti talks about getting his start. He and his sister—now a writer on “Parks and Rec”—at one point created a NYC rejection line for people who get hit on at bars and don’t want to give out a real number. The rejectionee calls the number and is informed he has been rejected. Good stuff.

7:21 pm: Peretti created a site called blackpeopleloveus.com. It’s about Sally and Johnny, two super white people, who are so happy to have black friends that they created this site. Spoke to broader race relations and similar ideas. “I think when you look at the NYC most emailed list, you often see this—an article about gay relationships, etc.”
Peretti has a good sense of humor. The audience laughs every other minute in response to his comments.

7:24 pm: No one else was trying to make something that was viral on the web at the time Peretti got into it.

7:25 pm: Are viral videos harder to do? Peretti didn’t used to like video because “it was hard to view on phones, it had higher production value requirements and costs, os it took so much work to try things.”
Peretti is modest. He tries to avoid “grandiose comparisons” to business greats.

7:30 pm: How combatative was the environment of the Huffington Post during the early days with so many strong personalities?
They were drawn together regardless because they shared the goal to create a dynamic company. They also worked independently on many ideas, though. “We did have a lot of strong-willed people who did have a lot of world views … But we would give each other space to work and push on things and there were these little spheres of influence … It did make it a weird company that it felt like there were lots of things happening all at once … It’s different people driving them.”

7:35 pm: What did the creators want Huffington Post to be and how did that change over time? There was always a rise and a crash in viewership. The idea was to create a constant where readers kept coming back, ultimately growing rather than rushing to the site at once and then never returning.

7:39 pm: What inspired Huffintgon Post’s origins? “We wanted to build a great brand… brands really matter on the internet and building a brand isn’t easy to do but it’s important.” They also wanted to create a site that would help Obama get elected.

7:42 pm: How much did it matter to Peretti that HuffPo be taken seriously as a form of journalism? “It’s a balance. You can over-optimize. You don’t want everyone to see every piece of content, you want the people who are really excited about it to see it.”

7:44 pm: “I never liked SEO.” The problem with Google was that companies were creating content for a robot, not a human. “You want things to work for humans but your traffic was coming from a robot.” HuffPost was different because people had a big front page to come to, and that part wasn’t related to SEO.
Google can’t tell the difference between great news and cluster scoops, Peretti says, indicating how the media business is a content business and it’s a disconnect that Google directs so much traffic but can’t differentiate a great scoop until many people and sites flock toward it.

7:50 pm: Does Peretti have an instinct when a piece is about to take off? Like anything, he says, it’s about having a creative team create something they are passionate about. They’re doing three kinds of content: entertainment, reporting, and branding. “We try to do the best of those three things that we possibly can.” Reporters are also given data feedback so they can see which things are taken off—an idea I definitely like, as a reporter.

7:55 pm: Balancing hard news pieces with silly slideshows, Peretti says that humans enjoy both serious and comedic articles. He gives the metaphor of a Paris cafe, where you can sit and read your Sartre, Le Monde, and philosophy, but will turn down to pet the dog tied to a table next to you. “When you turn away from the philosophy and pet the dog, you don’t become stupid.” A publisher can offer both serious and silly without either losing value, he says.

7:59 pm: The original Buzzfeed was pure social content. They then hired Ben Smith from Politico. “We tell reporters come work at Buzzfeed, you don’t have to create slideshows, you don’t have to aggregate other stories, you don’t have to read the NYT and write a third-rate story of the NYT, just go out and get scoops.”

8:04 pm: “With social being the main way people are distributing, the best stuff is worth ten times more than the third-rate stuff. So hiring good people, their work can spread farther than they ever have before … Our reporters generate a lot of traffic, and they generate a lot of traffic without ever thinking about traffic.”

8:06 pm: On why it’s worth paying more for better reporters: Being able to earn credibility as a site that generates scoop took only two days after Ben Smith joined the team.

8:07 pm: This is not a good time for people who are second-tier in the industry. Why would you read a second-tier piece or an aggregated one when you can click the original so easily?

8:09 pm: Will there be a Buzzfeed correspondent at the White House? When the election cycle is over, the reporting will shift to a different kind of journalism, focused more on policies.

8:11 pm: “We don’t have a plan. We talk to a lot of smart people all the time and if an idea clicks—” How ideas come about.
“We’re all teenage girls a little bit. Even the toughest guy, which I count myself among.”

8:14 pm: Buzzfeed has a bit of an indie rock mentality, Peretti says. “My band is good and all the other bands suck.” How did he know that is how I think of my favorite bands…

8:15 pm: Peretti on Jews v. Mormons. “What’s a higher quality religion, in your opinion?” Peretti won’t come right out and say. He’s telling jokes and polling the audience. This isn’t Who Wants to be a Millionaire.
There is a certain tendency to get in your own head and just think about your idea and not think about the dynamics of how it spreads and why it spreads.” That’s what the comparison is about, Peretti says. “I’ve actually talked about this and had Mormons send me, ‘Thanks for the shout out!'”

8:21 pm: Why Peretti decided to start Buzzfeed after his successful experience co-founding HuffPost? Intellectual curiosity about how these things work, Peretti says. “Business was fun. At HuffPo, I was like, ‘Oh, this is fun!’ … It was fun having the ability to do bigger things and have more data.” Buzzfeed started as a lab in Chinatown, the site started to get traction, they raised money, Peretti split his time between Buzzfeed and HuffPo, and Buzzfeed got him back to his passion of disseminating things people were able to share.
“Ben [Smith] just wants to find out things that people don’t know and let people know what those things are.” Basic tenet of journalism. “It’s simple and it works great on Twitter and works great on social web.”

8:27 pm: Advertising was better in the 1950s/Mad Men era because ad men knew which publication they were designing for, knew the readership and vibe of it, and it all worked better. “Now, you have so much fragmentation in the ad industry, one person doing media buy, one doing online, one doing mobile … You have no idea, you throw it over the wall and hope it shows up better.”
“You hold advertising to the same standard as other content.”

8:32 pm: Being a CEO has been less challenging than Peretti expected. You have to hire really good people is a big lesson he learned.

8:37 pm: West Coast companies have created amazing technology infrastructure in the vein of train tracks and Peretti wants Buzzfeed to supply the materials, the trains to move on those tracks.

8:41 pm: Which social network is most perfect for spreading content? Facebook is best for emotionally resonant, humorous content. Broad, deep, emotional human appeal that you’d want your high school friends, parents, and coworkers to see. Twitter is best for news, scoops. Things don’t go hugely viral, but it’s a great way of connecting with information that you want.

8:45 pm: Opening up questions to the audience.

8:45 pm: Is taste in memes regional? Buzzfeed is a lot more global, Peretti says. But there are also surprises, where some meme from Russia jumps over, or Gangnam-style videos become big.

8:51 pm: In answering a question on what he thinks about serious journalism, Peretti jokes that he isn’t a serious journalist.

9:14 pm: Peretti says he was excited to hear Huffington Post was bought by AOL. He was a bit run down running both companies and says the buy-out gave him a chance to focus more on Buzzfeed.

On that note, this serious journalist is out for the night. Thanks for following and reading!

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