Five Lessons on Virality from Felix Salmon’s Epic Jonah Peretti Interview

It took me awhile but I finally got through Felix Salmon’s epic(ally long) interview with Jonah Peretti. Peretti made millions working on The Huffington Post and now manages Buzzfeed.

Salmon’s interview is long and meandering, but it’s a an insightful discussion on the nature of virality. There’s lots to learn, but here are five points that I found to be particularly salient:

Nowadays, it’s harder and harder to break through, and when you do, you’re popular for a shorter period of time – Back in the day, Peretti created Black People Love Us, which skewered liberal PC sensibilities. But in the early oughts, making something viral had a higher potential to change the course of your life. According to Peretti:

Now you see people do a really cool project or a cool Tumblr and they don’t end up on the Today Show. We were on Good Morning America for Black People Love Us. We had the front page of Sunday Styles for Black People Love Us. The Rejection Line, we were on CNN and in People and in Elle. I think that some project like that today, would not have had the novelty to get the mainstream attention and would have a lot more competition on the web of cool things, and the rate at which they spread has been compressed a lot so things pop for a day or two.

As people/companies try to shoot for the next great viral hit, it’s important to keep in mind the ROI on projects. Building something that will have long-term equity is important, vs. a flash in the pan video that is seen today and forgotten in 48 hours.

The platform is just as important as the content – Peretti realized really early on that building a robust platform at Huffington Post was just as important as getting popular people to write on it:

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…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.

Master search engines and you master the world – One of the things that Buzzfeed and HuffPo nailed perfectly was optimizing for Google. But it went beyond just standard SEO practices. As Google shifted to enable the surfacing of links in real-time, Buzzfeed shifted its strategy to do the same. Peretti explains:

[A]t BuzzFeed we had figured out that you could rapidly swarm a breaking news topic, particularly about a person, place, or thing that was new, like a beauty queen who loses her crown and no one’s heard of this beauty queen. If you make a great page about that thing, you often could get to the top of Google results just as searches were surging. It was partly because Google got faster indexing at that point. Google was slow indexing and then all of a sudden became quick, and BuzzFeed figured that out in the lab, but then HuffPost editors got really good at it and we’d swarm stories very quickly and often be the first news source to create a comprehensive page for what was happening, linking out to other multiple other sources. Those pages became huge growth generators for the site.

As search engines continue to shift into the real-time/social world, optimizing your site based on new functionality can help you gain traction in ways that were previously impossible.

Optimizing for any single metric can negatively impact other valuable metrics – This one was pretty interesting to me. People normally think that clickthroughs are the sacrosanct metric that drives much of the online publishing business. But Peretti realized that the clickthrough, in and of itself, was not a metric to be valued.

You could show a picture of like an older guy at the beach and be like, “Guess whose body this is?” Then you click and it’s like, “Oh it’s Giorgio Armani” or whatever, and you could get a tremendous clickthrough rate on headlines that didn’t tell you what the story is about. The problem with that is that if you’re just getting clicks that would have gone to another headline on your front page, it’s sending people the content that might not be as good, because they’re clicking because they want to know what’s there. They’re not clicking because they’re interested in what’s there. If they knew that it was Giorgio Armani — if you just did a post saying, “Here’s a picture of Giorgio Armani on the beach” — people who care about that sort of thing would click and people who didn’t wouldn’t. You end up with lots of people who don’t actually want to see Giorgio Armani in a Speedo on the beach clicking that and then feeling like, “Oh god, why did I do that?” Like, “That was a waste of time.”

In other words, you can optimize for JUST clickthrough but you’d potentially be alienating readers and not investing in the long term health of your site.

Furthermore, the rise of the social web, in the form of Twitter and Facebook, have made it more important for headlines to accurately represent the content they are labeling. People often share headlines and then describe what they think of them, thus personalizing articles in ways that aren’t possible with headlines that are devoid of info.

Instead, the focus should be on the quality of the content. Says Peretti, “If you’re making entertainment content, which is a big part of what we do, you look at that hit and you say, ‘Why was that successful? Can I do it again? Can I make something else that people really love and want to share?’ And you try to vary it, even though you know doing something derivative would work. Long term, you want to have a deeper understanding of how to make great things. That’s really the focus.”

“Life is tricky because it happens once and there’s no opportunity for A/B testing” – For someone who works rigorously on optimizing his content, Peretti admits that there’s no way you can really optimize for your life. I just loved the way the piece ends:

[It’s possible] that this life you’re living is the best or among the top 5 percent of lives that you would have lived, and in lots of other ones you’d end up in an alley or in an unhappy relationship or with a job where you’re not intellectually fulfilled, and that you have found this amazing path. It’s also possible that you’re not even in the top 50 percent of lives and that your life is really tragic and that despite all the wonderful and impressive and amazing things you’ve done, that you had the potential to do all these incredible other things that would have been either bigger in scale or more fulfilling or more modest and simple, but more pleasurable or whatever. That there were all these other paths that would be better. It’s, I think, hard to say whether there is something I missed that would have made things much better. In general, I’m pretty happy, and all these imagined alternate lives, I wouldn’t know how to even begin to speculate on how they’d compare.

The Travails of a Wannabe Screenwriter

Man, I adored this piece by Stephen Harrigan about his struggles trying to (or not trying to?) make it big in Hollywood as a screenwriter (via Matt Singer):

I had wanted to be a screenwriter since 1962, when I walked out of the Tower Theater in Corpus Christi, Texas as a very different 14-year-old boy than when I had walked in. The movie was Lawrence of Arabia, and watching it was like being sucked into a wormhole and delivered to an alternate universe. The unworldly disorientation I experienced was due in large part to David Lean’s direction, to his unprecedented sense of scale and pace and purpose, and to the Maurice Jarre score, which half a century later was still so haunting to me that I sometimes use it as the ringtone on my cellphone. But Lawrence of Arabia had another dimension, one that I had never really noticed before. For the first time, I was aware that movies were written, not just somehow fortuitously assembled. It was obvious that the dialogue—“The trick, William Potter, is not minding that it hurts” or “What attracts you personally to the desert?” “It’s clean.”—had to have been set down somewhere in cold print, not just thought up on the fly. And it was more than the dialogue itself that made me take notice of the name Robert Bolt; it was the wordless action as well, the way the scenes steadily built and drew upon each other to produce such a satisfying impression of momentum and coherence.

How To Make a Hit Basic Cable Network

John Landgraf is the president of FX, a TV network that rose from the rubble to become one of the most exciting ones in existence. I found his recent interview with Kim Masters on KCRW’s The Business to be hugely insightful and fascinating. In particular, Landgraf reflects on his decision to pass on Breaking Bad, a decision that he doesn’t necessarily regret, but one that he certainly would have done differently today. Check out the whole thing below (the interview begins 6 minutes in):

 

One of my favorite bits occurs when Landgraf discusses the uselessness of focus groups:

People don’t always know what they want. That’s the problem with research and the problem with focus groups. I mean, what group of people could tell you “What we really want is Avatar,” or “what we really want is South Park” or “What we really want is The Simpsons“? Those things didn’t exist in anything like that form before they existed, and people love them. So, creative people’s jobs is to imagine the existence of things that don’t exist, and people can’t always tell you what they want and they’re often confused by really innovative work. Until they’re not. 

The Hard Knock Life of a Filmmaker

I’ve written about Bobby Miller’s film Tub before, but the short film randomly went viral on Reddit the other day. With his newfound fame, Miller took to Reddit’s “Ask Me Anything” section to answer some questions. Miller’s always a fun guy, but I particularly liked his answer to one Redditor asking, “Would you recommend going into film?”:

This is a legit question and a hard one… I think if you choose any kind of art as a career, it’s going to be tough. I’ve struggled with money before TUB and after TUB. The last few years I’ve done a lot of digital content for companies like MTV, Next New Networks, and the Collective. And that’s what’s put a roof over my head. When it comes to jobs, you really just have to work your ass off on your first one and make an impression. Because every single job I’ve had past that first one has come from the first one! No one looks at resumes, they look at your work. And if it’s strong (or you bribe them money), they’ll hire you. Would I recommend going into film? I’d only go into it if there’s literally nothing else you can do with your life. If you go to bed dreaming of making movies and waking up with those same dreams, then unfortunately you’re screwed and you should join the filmmaking community!

The First 30 Days

What is one year like in the life of David Chen? We’re all about to find out.

Earlier this year, a woman named Madeline released an interesting video on Vimeo. She had shot one second of video for every day of her life during the year 2011. I found the result to be unexpectedly inspiring and moving.

Several months later, /Filmcast listener and all-around awesome dude Cesar Kuriyama took to the stage at TED to unveil his own “one second every day project“, which he’d been filming every day for the 30th year of his life.

Kuriyama is passionate about the project and believes everyone should engage in it. I think the final result is fascinating, a seemingly endless series of context-less images. Context-less, that is, to everyone but the filmmaker. It’s a compelling snapshot of one’s life, a video that is evocative for the creator and intriguing and enigmatic for the viewer.

So, I’m pleased to announce that I am also undertaking this project. My birthday this year was May 20th, right around the same time I uprooted my life from Boston and moved to Seattle. Starting on that day, I have filmed one second of video every single day. Around this time next year, I’ll plan to publish the result, a chronicle of my first year here.

In doing this project, I’ve made a few observations about how best to approach it. First of all, I think this project works best when the second that you record is somehow representative of the day that you had, or at least, how you want to remember that day. In practice, this can get a bit tricky; often times the most interesting that happens to me is an interaction I have with someone else. While I can frequently “anticipate” when a good “second” will arrive, it’s often inopportune to whip out a camera and start recording. Secondly, it’s useful to record multiple seconds for each day, giving you the option to choose from a number of them. As a result, it’s also important to have a robust cataloging system for all of your “potential seconds.” Finally, I don’t have experience with this yet, but it sounds like it’s useful to create a master file for the final video, then stitch the videos together intermittently and continuously add them to that file, as opposed to doing them all at the end. Alternatively, one could also create videos for each month, then bind them all together in the end. I may end up going this path because it will allow me to release regular video content, but it also robs the final video of some of its uniqueness. We’ll see. 

As a proof-of-concept, I’ve stitched together my first 30 seconds, representing my first month here. You can find this video below:

When I began working on the project, I asked Cesar Kuriyama, “What if you do this every day for a year and the resulting video ends up being incredibly boring?”

Kuriyama responded, “That’s good! Because then you’ll look back on how boring your life was and you’ll resolve to change things.”

Not a bad point, that. I don’t know what the end result will motivate me to do. I can only hope it will show a life lived full, with love, laughter, and friends, a humble aspiration for the beginning of my new life.

[I am indebted to Cesar Kuriyama for his counsel and for helping me to establish a workflow for pulling these clips together. Be sure to check out his other work.]

Vulture’s Great Aaron Sorkin Interview

Great Sorkin interview by Mark Harris, with tons of memorable excerpts including this one, on the advantages of making a show for premium cable:

[T]here are no commercial breaks, so you’re not, every eight minutes, building to a sort of phony climax. Fewer episodes per season, so you’re able to do a better job on each episode. There’s another advantage that nobody ever talks about. It doesn’t sound like a big deal, but it is. And it’s end credits. Why are end credits a big deal? Because no matter what you write, the last moment is meant to resonate. And with HBO or any of the premium cable channels, it does. You have music playing, you have end credits rolling, the audience has a moment to sit there and just kind of feel the way the storytellers are hoping you’ll feel. On network TV, the last line of the episode can be, “Mrs. Landingham’s dead.” And then we cut immediately to a Nokia commercial. And so I always felt like the episode was getting punched in the face right at the end.

Unfortunately the first reviews for The Newsroom are already out and they’re not pretty. Here’s Emily Nussbaum’s take:

The pilot of “The Newsroom” is full of yelling and self-righteousness, but it’s got energy, just like “The West Wing,” Sorkin’s “Sports Night,” and his hit movie “The Social Network.” The second episode is more obviously stuffed with piety and syrup, although there’s one amusing segment, when McAvoy mocks some right-wing idiots. After that, “The Newsroom” gets so bad so quickly that I found my jaw dropping. The third episode is lousy (and devolves into lectures that are chopped into montages). The fourth episode is the worst. There are six to go.

A Case Against File Sharing

The Trichordist (via Matthew) responds to a blog post by Emily White at NPR, in which White grapples with the ethics of file sharing:

“[S]mall” personal decisions have very real consequences, particularly when millions of people make the decision not to compensate artists they supposedly “love”. And it is up to us individually to examine the consequences of our actions. It is not up to governments or corporations to make us choose to behave ethically. We have to do that ourselves.

Aaron Sorkin’s Self-Delusional NYTimes Interview

David Itzkoff recently conducted an interview with Aaron Sorkin about his upcoming new HBO series The Newsroom. I’m super-psyched about the show and hope it’s a return to form for Sorkin, who’s been on a roll after winning a Best Screenwriting Oscar for The Social Network.

Itzkoff does a good job at getting at some of the issues that Sorkin faces in creating a television show, but it struck me from reading the interview that Sorkin is either a skilled deceiver or he’s deluding himself when he makes some of his statements. Here he is discussing The West Wing:

I have no political background, and I have no political agenda. All of my experience has been in theater and writing. But I just thought it would be fun to write about a hypercompetent group of people.

Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that Sorkin’s band of flawed but ridiculously noble political figures was Democratic? To be fair, Sorkin also had solid Republican figures on the show too (e.g. Ainsley Hayes, Glen Walken), but I could never shake the feeling that they were perfunctory characters, put in there to demonstrate how “balanced” Sorkin was. “Alright, so Democrats are the unquestioned heroes in this show, but we also have this super attractive and intelligent blond woman, see?!” I’m not saying that there aren’t any super attractive and intelligent blond female Republicans out there (in fact, I think their existence is well-proven by now), but taken in this context, these characters almost feel condescending through their very existence.

These issues are easily encapsulated in the promo for The Newsroom:

Linda Holmes has already brilliantly deconstructed this trailer:

Gender dynamics are a serious problem in nearly all of Sorkin’s writing, and here, we open with a condescending lecture from a wise man to a stupid woman who says something (“Can you say why America is the greatest country in the world?”) that represents a real phenomenon he’s trying to get at, but which is an utter straw man in that it’s not typically expressed in that sort of “hit me, I’m a pinata” kind of way.

Sorkin seems to have trouble finding a balance between “extremely smart” and “extremely dumb” on his shows, and to use one or the other is to inevitably condescend to one side or the other.

Here’s Sorkin again:

It’s funny that you brought up “Studio 60” because Matthew Perry once said, “I think that if you wrote this under a pseudonym it would still be on the air.” With “Studio 60,” there was a thought that I was writing autobiographically when I wasn’t.

Riiiight, so it’s just a total coincidence that that show’s protagonist, Matt Albie is a flawed but ridiculously noble writer dead set on changing the world through his writing? Nathan Rabin has a great piece on Studio 60 where he delves into this very issue:

In premise and execution, Studio 60 was a work of unbearable, overweening arrogance. It began with making the lead character of Matt Albie both a clear Sorkin surrogate and a writer so ridiculously romanticized even M. Night Shyamalan might say, “Get over yourself, dude. You’re a fucking writer, not Jesus’ younger brother, the one God really likes.” 

I could go on but I think you get the point. Aaron, you are one of my heroes and one of the most gifted writers on the planet. OWN IT. Own your own opinions. And maybe understand that sometimes your point of view might leak out into the world through your work. We’ll forgive you for it.