Jonah Peretti: The nerd-genius is keeping his cool

The founder of The Huffington Post and BuzzFeed social media sites, refuses to rise to some provocative prodding from his great rival — well maybe, reports Stephen Foley

This particular afternoon, for a few moments only, Jonah Peretti is trying NOT to create a social media sensation. No, he tells The Independent, with a shake of his head, he will not be rising to the bait dangling out there in the blogosphere and waging a Twitter war with that other peddler of online spice, Gawker's Nick Denton. This particular afternoon, Mr Peretti is declining to go viral.

To understand just how unusual that is, you need to know that Mr Peretti is the co-founder of The Huffington Post and now of BuzzFeed, a website whose societal ambitions used to extend no further than providing us with galleries of cute kitten pictures with which to brighten our Facebook friends' days, but which now wants to be the next, well, Huffington Post.

Mr Peretti himself is the mad scientist of social media, a tinkerer and a thinker who had his first 15 minutes of fame in 2001 when a snarky exchange with Nike's customer service department became an online hit.

Nike had been offering customisable trainers, but cancelled then-student Mr Peretti's order for a pair emblazoned with the word "sweatshop". In a comedy of back and forth emails, he said he wanted to mark "the toil and labour of the children that made my shoes". Needling a hapless customer services rep was just him "procrastinating doing my master's thesis" at Massachusetts Institute of Technology's (MIT) media lab, he said.

He never got the shoes.

"I've always been interested in why ideas spread, in network theory and in why people share things," he said, making it sound absolutely inevitable that he should be running "the first media company built for the social age".

His thesis at MIT was on how teachers could use the internet to build and share lesson plans. He used to be a teacher himself.

In a moment of pot-kettle-blackery, Mr Denton attacked Mr Peretti's "craving for the quick viral fix" and predicted BuzzFeed's pretensions to be a serious media company would "collapse under the weight of [their] own contradictions... Jonah — whether at Huffington Post or BuzzFeed — has always cared more about the volume of discussion and social sharing than its quality".

Gawker had just unveiled a revamped system for commenting on articles on its websites, in which it promotes trusted commenters to the top of the list. Gawker, it seems, has pretensions, too. Mr Denton's claim was that this would raise the level of debate beyond the usual stink of name calling and nonsense.

Will Mr Peretti take to Twitter to respond to his rival, The Independent asked? Could he please provide his coruscating retort?

"He just said things that weren't true and that he probably doesn't believe to get me to come in and comment. It's kind of a silly bait.

"It's an old-school way to make something go viral, which is to attack someone and hope they respond."

So not today, Mr Denton, not today. When it comes to denying rivals assistance in the battle for online buzz, Mr Peretti knows what not to share.

But let's talk about those pretensions. At a time when America's traditional organisations face declining relevance and revenue and are cutting news coverage, a generation of online aggregators and titillaters has spotted their chance to become genuine players in original news.

Huffington Post now employs hundreds of journalists and won a Pulitzer prize for its original reporting this year; BuzzFeed aims to follow it up the reporting value chain.

Mr Peretti has pulled in hordes of new readers, raised money from high-profile investors and hired established journalists. To its tried-and-tested fare, his site is adding political coverage by its new editor-in-chief Ben Smith, just poached from Politico, and serious scoops, such as a revelation that military veterans were not getting benefit cheques on time. What began as a "laboratory" where Mr Peretti tested his ideas on how to get people to share content, is now a 100-person, media company.

The new serious coverage is arranged into "verticals", such as politics or tech news; the rest is still arranged according to how it makes you feel, in "vertickles" such as OMG, WTF and LOL. These are full to bursting with must-share nuggets, from "28 ways Sex and the City would be different if it were on TV now" to "15 orang-utans that look like London Mayor Boris Johnson".

"Facebook used to be a place to find out info about your friends, then people started posting pics of cute animals, internet humour and jokes, and then links to news stories about the Arab Spring and charities and substantive articles," Mr Peretti said. "BuzzFeed, which began with stories and pictures about cute animals, needed to mature along with that medium.

"I love reporting and more substantive pieces and — wow — with the rise of these social platforms we can make that part of our business."

Mr Peretti was the nerd-genius responsible for bringing traffic to Huffington Post, in at the foundation in 2005 with Andrew Lerer and Arianna Huffington, who were looking to create a left-leaning aggregator of internet news to rival the Drudge Report.

During those early days it was all about "swarming" a news story, filling its piece with the right amount of keywords so that Huffington Post's take would come up the highest in search results.

"But writing for an audience of socially connected humans is better than writing for Google's search algorithm," Mr Peretti said. "Until recently, you couldn't build a big business that way because at the time the infrastructure for social wasn't developed. You couldn't build the trains because there were no tracks for them to run on. But with the rise of Facebook and Twitter and StumbleUpon and Reddit, social has become the new starting point. We have the train tracks now."

BuzzFeed's Manhattan offices have all the trappings of a well-funded startup, with bold murals and primary colours. Unlike many young internet companies, though, it has a clear vision of how to make money. Of the first three items on Buzzfeed, one will be paid-for content from an advertiser — but it will hardly be distinguishable. "10 situations where texting makes you a total douche" was up last night, courtesy of Virgin Mobile.

The site doesn't sell traditional banner ads. Mr Peretti reckons they are about to die out.

"It's the same shift we saw in content first, a shift to social advertising. Instead of interrupting people with annoying ads, we help brands make ads that people want to actually consume and share."

At 38, after creating viral sensations for more than a decade, Mr Peretti is building a business creating them for advertisers, creating them for kittens, and maybe creating them for serious news now, too.

He doesn't claim to have a secret formula, but he does have some tips. Chief among them: "Sharing on Facebook is like giving a gift, giving your followers a gift of some awesome thing they are going to enjoy."

He went on: "Sometimes people think that negativity is a good way to stir controversy and get traffic. We've actually found a kind of curiosity, exuberance and positivity tends to work really well.

"That's not the case with the super-snarky, insider content that you find on some sites, where everything is cynical and at the expense of the subjects you're writing about.

"It might give you a guilty pleasure to read that stuff but you don't want to share it, because you feel like you're spreading hate or something."

Oh, listen to that. Maybe he did respond to Mr Denton after all.

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