How I Cracked the Code of BuzzFeed’s Monster Viral Success

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June 26 2012 6:39 PM

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A photo from BuzzFeed's "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity."
A photo from BuzzFeed's "21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith In Humanity."

Photograph by Michelle Gantner/www.maladjustedmedia.com

Last Wednesday, BuzzFeed’s Jack Shepherd published an irresistible piece called, “21 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” The post is exactly as advertised, a rundown of photos of people being more wonderful than you’d expect—rescuing animals from danger, helping strangers in need, expressing tolerance for others, and all manner of additional good stuff. It became an instant hit on Reddit, Twitter, and especially Facebook, where it has earned more than 2 million Likes. So far, the post has attracted more than 7 million views, and as of Tuesday morning, its traffic shows no sign of abating.

When I saw Shepherd’s piece, my first thought was, Why didn’t I think of that? It’s a question that often pulls at me when I point my browser to BuzzFeed, which I do many times a day. Like a modern-day, unstuffy Reader’s Digest, BuzzFeed has a knack for distilling the good and the bad of life on the Internet into short, fun, highly clickable vignettes.

How does this one site come up with so many simple ideas that people want to spread far and wide? What’s their secret?

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The answer, in short, is that BuzzFeed’s staff finds stuff elsewhere on the Web, most often at Reddit. They polish and repackage what they find. And often—and, from what I can tell, deliberately—their posts are hard to trace back to the original source material.

Take that “Faith in Humanity” write-up. Last September, NedHardy.com—“the self-anointed curator of the Internet,” a kind of poor man’s BuzzFeed—posted an item called, “7 Pictures That Will Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” Then, last month, NedHardy posted another piece, “13 Pictures To Help You Restore Your Faith in Humanity.” Half of the photos in BuzzFeed’s post appear in NedHardy’s two compilations. NedHardy isn’t mentioned anywhere in BuzzFeed’s “21 Pictures” post.

Once BuzzFeed had the germ of the idea, finding more pictures to populate its list was a matter of simple searching. A Reddit query for “faith in humanity” turns up most of the rest of the images in its list. Still, I was left guessing at the source for the two most iconic pictures in BuzzFeed’s gallery. The first photo shows a group of Christians at a Chicago gay pride parade holding signs apologizing for their church’s homophobia. The second shows a man wearing nothing but underwear hugging the men holding those signs. Those pictures weren’t in NedHardy’s posts. A story about the hug at the gay pride parade had been posted on Reddit, but the post’s title does not include the phrase “faith in humanity.” So how did BuzzFeed find these gems?

After a bit of Googling for phrases like “faith in humanity,” I came upon Andre Bastary’s Pinterest page. Bastary has tagged lots of pictures from around the Web with the phrase “faith in humanity.” Ten weeks ago, he tagged the gay pride photo, rendering it searchable. I’m guessing that’s how it got on BuzzFeed’s radar. It’s hard to say, though, because Shepherd’s post, which links to the sources of some of the photos on its list, doesn’t mention Pinterest or Andre Bastary.

Over the last couple weeks, I have spent many hours and opened hundreds of browser tabs in an effort to reverse-engineer posts I found on BuzzFeed. Recently, the site has expanded beyond its roots as a mere chronicler of memes, hiring a staff of excellent reporters and editors and creating top-notch sections covering politics, technology, and style. I ignored those reported sections. Instead, I spent most of my effort on what the site’s founder Jonah Peretti calls “old-school BuzzFeed”—those meme-saturated listicles that are designed to go viral online. Those posts generate the bulk of BuzzFeed’s traffic, and they are also the way most people get introduced to the site. When I saw a particularly inspired BuzzFeed list—and when the post did not prominently mention its sources—I tried to dig through the Web to find how BuzzFeed produced it.

This wasn’t always easy. BuzzFeed is so popular that its posts often obscure everything else online—for example, if you Google “faith in humanity,” you’ll mostly come up with references to Shepherd’s post, including many sites that pilfered BuzzFeed’s list. NedHardy’s original compilations, meanwhile, have been flushed from the top search results. But I’m a persistent Googler, and I get paid for this sort of thing. With lots of work, I was able to find how the work of others inspired BuzzFeed.

A good example is “14 Mistakes That Really Should Never Have Happened.” This post from last Wednesday shows mindless workplace failures, e.g., cafeteria spoons in a container labeled “forks” and pineapples in a big box labeled “watermelons.” At first glance, the post looks totally original, suggesting BuzzFeed spent a lot of time scouring the Web for images of occupational disasters.

But that’s not what happened. Under each picture in the post, BuzzFeed includes a tiny link to IMGur, a picture-hosting site favored by people on Reddit. There’s something opaque about the way BuzzFeed links to IMGur. BuzzFeed chooses to link directly to the file name of IMGur images. That means when you click on the link, you see only the photo, not the text that the Redditor appended to it. It’s only when you remove the “.jpg” from the URL that you see the full IMGur page for the image. If you do that for all the images in the “14 Mistakes” post, you’ll find that 13 of the images include the phrase “one job” in their titles (as in, “You had only one job to do, and you failed.”)

At that point it becomes obvious how this post came about. Step 1: A BuzzFeed editor noticed a “one job” post on Reddit. Step 2: He searched for the phrase there. Step 3: He found a lot more images. Step 4: He scooped them all up for his own post.

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