Jonah Peretti

This Felix Salmon interview with Jonah Peretti is terrific. Tracing Peretti's broad and meandering background gives many hints as to how he has come to be the reigning king of viral content, and his interdisciplinary explorations play no small part in his pattern recognition.

[I had no idea until I read this interview that Peretti's sister is Chelsea Peretti (most recently of Brooklyn Nine Nine fame). I saw her open for Sarah Silverman at the Largo in Los Angeles a few times.]

On the origin of the Huffington Post:

I knew that Arianna’s friends, who were on television but not on the Internet, were going to create a sensation if they blogged. You remember when celebrities first started tweeting? Everyone freaked out: “Oh, I can’t believe a celebrity’s tweeting.” Blogging at that time was all about people in their pajamas, the person who couldn’t be on TV, the little guy who finally has a voice. I knew that people would freak out if Larry David or Tina Brown or a senator or a congressman started to blog. We knew we could make that happen. We already had all these people committed, from Alec Baldwin to Larry David and Tina Brown—all going to blog for the first time for us on Huffington Post in the first week that we launched.

I knew that that would create a sensation, that some people would hate it, and that some people would love it, but that it would be an incredibly exciting development that every blogger would have to watch, and be excited to watch, and want to form an opinion on. That was what would generate the viral spike. The question was, all my previous projects did a spike and then crashed.

So I was like, “What keeps people there?” One of the stickiest sites on the Internet was the Drudge Report. With always-fresh headlines and splashes and things like that, people would come back every single day. That site was built over a really, really, long period of time, and had the Lewinsky scoop and other things that drove its usage. Tons of people have created clones that never took off, because they’re sticky but not contagious.

There were these two models that we just kind of bolted together. One was to make the site itself viral, which was celebrities blogging. I was very focused on making sure that they used the default blogging tools of the Internet. I think that everyone expected us to have some Flash site that wasn’t a real blog. I went to Ben and Mena Trott, who had started Six Apart. We used Movable Type, which at the time was the premiere blogging platform. We modified it a lot in order for it to work, but it had permalinks it was reverse chronological. It had all the things that blogs were supposed to have so that people who knew about blogging would see it and say, “Oh, Larry David is blogging.” Not, “Larry David’s doing some weird new thing that Arianna Huffington invented.”

We knew that was the piece that was going to make it take off and be contagious. Then Andrew posting links and headlines that were constantly updated would be the thing that made it sticky. You’d come to see the celebrities blogging, you’d say, “Wow, what does this mean? That blogging has evolved in this different way.” And then you would say, “Oh, there’s a good link here. There’s a good link here.” And you would just keep coming back every day. Even if Larry David didn’t blog again for three months, you’d be checking the site because you’d have great links to content around the web. That was sort of the idea.

On reality TV:

JP: One of the reasons reality TV became so dominant was because people looked at time as being the metric. And the reason that reality TV works well for time is that the classic reality TV formula, in the beginning, was the tribal council and somebody getting eliminated. So you could have 50 percent of the show being boring filler and you’re kind of wanting to change the channel but you’re like, “Oh, but I wonder if my favorite person’s going to get eliminated.” So you have to watch to the end to see the elimination. In a way, that was a way of gaming time. You could look at that and say, “Oh, they spent an hour watching this show, including the commercials. That means it must be a really high quality show.” But it also might just mean that they figured out a hook that incentivizes you to watch to the end and then did a lot of mediocre content in the middle.

On headlines:

FS: John Herrman [then of BuzzFeed, now of The Awl] wrote that piece about headlines.

JP: John wrote a piece saying the Internet provides many headlines for every article, sometimes better than what the author wrote, and that there just shouldn’t be headlines on articles. Headlines are generated on Twitter and all these different places and it is something that we think a lot about. What do people add to a story when they share it? In some cases it’s better than the headline that our team wrote and in some cases shows why content matters to them. Because you say, “I’m sharing this” and explain why you’re sharing it.