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The Humble Origins of Buzzfeed

It's a viral-media darling today--a hub not just for gifs of dogs eating ice cream but also for video and investigative journalism. A co-founder explains the site's surprising roots.
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The media darling of the moment, Buzzfeed, which boasts topping 130 million monthly unique viewers to its site, didn't start out as an attempt to dominate Facebook feeds and overturn perceptions of how online advertising best functions. No, instead it began as a humble experiment out of a little-known multimedia center called Eyebeam, tucked in between art galleries in Manhattan's Chelsea neighborhood.

A co-founder of Eyebeam, John Johnson, explained the humble origins of Buzzfeed on March 1, at a talk at New York University. Johnson, with two partners, founded the center in 1997, with the goal of funding independent films, awarding fellowships, and providing a space for young artists, educators, and technologists to create their projects.

A Startup Story

As creative work in arts and technology began to flourish online, Johnson started looking for someone "who really knew the Web."

Around that time, a technology instructor in New Orleans named Jonah Peretti was fielding media calls, after watching an email he had initially sent to a dozen friends spread around the globe. It was an email chain of messages exchanged with a representative of Nike after the company denied Peretti's request to customize a pair of sneakers with the word, "sweatshop." And that was one of the most impressive pieces of viral content Johnson had ever seen.

"He sent it to 12 friends," Johnson says. "Within three months, a million people saw the emails, and he was on The Today Show debating labor practices."

Johnson hired Peretti to do research and development at Eyebeam, particularly focusing on what the pair dubbed the Contagious Media Lab. Some of the lab's accomplishments include the early(ish) viral sites Crying While Eating, Black People Love Us, and Forget-me-not Panties. The latter was a site advertising a nonexistent product, which purported to GPS track--and temperature-monitor--the wearer of the allegedly tech-enhanced undergarments.

Johnson says the site blew up by garnering clicks from two groups of people. First, feminists, who were enraged and confused; second, "Japanese fetishists, who were like, 'Where can I get one?'"

The site offered a counterintuitive lesson in manufacturing virality, Johnson says: "If there's a way for your product to be polarizing, that's one sure way to get a lot of exposure--if you can get two groups of people to argue about it."

It wasn't long, though, before Peretti came to Johnson with a pitch: With help from investors, perhaps the pair had learned enough about manufacturing virality in online media to turn their experiments into a business. Johnson today laughs at the absurdity of the idea for creating a news site out of the experience they'd had up to that point: "Here were two nonprofits arts guys, like, 'Hey, let's do a business,' and 'Yeah sounds good,'" Johnson says.

Fast forward six years, and more than $46 million in funding later, Buzzfeed is still growing, and is pioneering new models of native advertising. And it's definitely still all over your Facebook feed. What's more, Peretti says the endeavor is now profitable.

The growth doesn't seem to have surprised Johnson, but what does is the rise of the young man who once sent an email to a dozen friends.

"This skinny kid not from New York, from out of town, who is like a wonderful, super geeky guy, and he's turned into a brilliant CEO," Johnson says of Peretti.

IMAGE: seng1011/Flickr
Last updated: Mar 3, 2014

CHRISTINE LAGORIO-CHAFKIN | Staff Writer | Senior Writer

Christine Lagorio-Chafkin is a writer, editor, and reporter whose work has appeared in The New York Times, The Washington Post, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Village Voice, and The Believer, among other publications. She is a senior writer at Inc.




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