Machines can learn what memes will go viral, but only humans can aggregate the content effectively to create a truly social Web experience, according to Jonah Peretti, the co-founder of BuzzFeed, a meme-focused aggregator site.
You might have seen BuzzFeed posts without realizing where they came from: 25 Awkward Cat Sleeping Positions. 48 Pictures that Perfectly Capture the 90s. The 40 Best Protest Signs of 2011. These and other similar eye-catching headlines make up the posts found on BuzzFeed, a popular New York-based site featuring news and pics and videos getting love across the world.
Sounds like any other not-so-serious content site, right? Wrong. BuzzFeed’s proprietary content management system is designed and constantly updated to encourage sharing on social networks. Beyond adding the routine Facebook, Twitter and Google+ buttons to encourage reader engagement, BuzzFeed figures out what makes certain content worth sharing. It's part of a strategy giving BuzzFeed more than 14 million pageviews every month.
So why share those pics of cats sleeping and not a Lohan celebrity mugshot?
"We have a team working to understand why we share things," says Jonah Peretti, BuzzFeed's co-founder, in an interview with Digital Journal. People post content that says something about themselves, and it's part of their identity, Peretti notes. Understanding those motives helps shape the content appearing on BuzzFeed, he adds.
He's got a point. Would you rather be known as someone who shares a fun post called 33 Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed In You (650,000 views) or a salacious Happy Easter From Kate Upton (55,00 views)? Both are light-hearted, but the animals post says something different about your personality than the celeb-focused vids. We all like sharing things on Facebook that will generate discussion, or perhaps just a few Likes. BuzzFeed figures you're more prone to share sassy animal pics than what a celebrity will tell you about Easter.
Peretti, 38, says, "It's clear that looking at pics of cute animals can create an emotional experience you share with other people. You can all go 'awwww' together."
It comes down to the back-end tech first, Peretti says. Analytic tools find out what content is being shared where, traffic sources, the ratio of different types of traffic, and more. This data can be predictive of what will be popular in the future, he says.
Beyond the stats, such as the usual suspects (pageviews, shares), BuzzFeed also displays newfangled terms such as "viral lift." The 1990s post, for instance, has a viral lift of 22x, meaning for every one person who was sent that content, 22 others also shared it in some form. The figure is a dizzying multiple outlining how viral a story can truly get online.
The stats for a BuzzFeed article
"Our competitive advantage is having the system continually learn and grow," Peretti notes. But BuzzFeed also integrates human curation into the mix, letting their editors sort through the top posts and place them on the coveted front page. It could be the latest Hollywood news or a Tumblr blog gone viral or President Obama reading Where the Wild Things Are. As long as BuzzFeed thinks people will care about it, the post will find a home on the site.
The BuzzFeed staffers need to showcase what they believe to be the most compelling. Peretti says his team has "high emotional intelligence" to figure out the stories they believe will be shared on Facebook, Twitter and much more.
Playing with HuffPo
Peretti cut his start-up teeth at The Huffington Post where he and his team grappled with how to find the most compelling content people were looking for on search engines. "We experimented a lot at Huffington Post," Peretti recalls, "and we'd think how search engines work to find content that would resonate with readers."
In 2006, while still at the Huffington Post, Peretti founded BuzzFeed with a batch of seed funding and a vision to shake up social news. As Business Week writes, "Peretti’s decision to start BuzzFeed grew out of a series of conversations he’d had with Duncan Watts, the principal research scientist at Yahoo, about the nature of influence and diffusion."
“Because of the complexity and randomness of networks and their importance in driving the spread of ideas, there’s a lot of unpredictability, both in terms of what succeeds and what helps it succeed,” Watts, who serves as BuzzFeed’s science adviser, told BusinessWeek. “He was interested in to what extent he could engineer things to go viral.”
It's an experiment influencing BuzzFeed's future. Peretti is keen on blending old-school journalism with new-school social media tools, and the site recently added related verticals such as Politics and Tech and bolstered them with well-known journalists. It's not just about finding funny dog pics; BuzzFeed wants to scoop the mainstream media on the day's hottest stories. No wonder BuzzFeed poached Politico's Ben Smith to become the site's editor-in-chief.
Peretti believes in three pillars of the Web: community, algorithms, and editors. He's confident BuzzFeed is combing all those ingredients to create a stew of content his team can predict will go viral before it ever does. In a media-fragmented field where more people turn to social networks for shareable content, BuzzFeed is positioned to be a major player.
"We have a tech edge, and we know how social can disrupt a lot of industries," Peretti says. "And we've proven we can build a definitive publishing site available across all platforms."