Our lives are crammed full of content. In an age with such a deluge, what makes certain types of content spread? BuzzFeed, a media company founded by Jonah Peretti, has truly mastered the art of shareable content. In On! The Future of Now, Jonah Peretti shares his story leading up to BuzzFeed, including his time as an Eyebeam fellow where he spent time experimenting with digital content and learning what made something go viral. In his chapter, Jonah is interviewed by current Eyebeam fellow Elisa Kreisinger, where they discuss art, pop culture and what drives people to share.
“We were all working on various projects and kind of collaborating on things where there was mutual interest. It didn’t look like art that you’d be trying to show in galleries and it didn’t look like a company or a Web startup or a product. It just felt like people messing around but now if you do these kinds of things, people try to hire you or fund your startup.”
During his time with Eyebeam, Peretti was motivated to learn what entertains people, inspires people, as well as understand human behavior, and how media and ideas spread. While that might have not been the goal of most Eyebeam Fellows, who typically focused on art as work, his curiosity ultimately led to BuzzFeed’s inception.
Art has a strange relationship with “virality” and “popularity” today. On one hand, the more popular a work of art becomes, the less “artsy” it is. The fact that so many individuals are aware of one piece of art causes a lack of interest. The passion behind art is also key, Peretti notes. During the Eyebeam days, he spent time building, tinkering, and collaborating with ideas that were truly fascinating. The experimentation opportunities far outweighed the profitability ones.
With the eventual success of Buzzfeed, Peretti points towards shock-factor and just enough controversy that you would still send that photo or article to your entire contact list. Something too controversial or shocking would never be shared with your contacts, and something so ordinary is overlooked or ignored. Finding that happy medium between the two, however, is the secret sauce to the rapid spreading of content and media.
Jonah discusses how having time to explore and try different ideas without knowing how it would fit into his career trajectory was critical to the way he approaches BuzzFeed. He explains that BuzzFeed is a large scale experiment testing what makes the internet tick and what causes content to gain traction. To conclude the interview, Elissa and Jonah dissect pop culture and how identity-based sharing is turning the media into a tool for understanding and empathy. Jonah explains, “You see people’s identities being an anchor for sharing, but they’re sharing with other people that can learn from their experiences.”
*This post is part of a series highlighting personal stories and key themes from our new book, On! The Future of Now. Order your copy of On! The Future of now here. Proceeds to support Charity: Water.