How To Make a Viral Hit in Four Easy Steps
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But what about the 14th image, the one that doesn’t use the phrase “one job” in its title? It turns out that was included in a compilation of “one job” images created by Reddit user BarelyMexican. That post, which went up a month ago, received 453,000 views and includes seven of the 14 images BuzzFeed uses. Every one of BuzzFeed’s “one job” images appeared on Reddit first, but neither Reddit nor its users (like BarelyMexican) are credited in the piece.
Once you understand how central Reddit is to BuzzFeed, it’s like spotting the wizard behind the curtain. Whenever you see a popular BuzzFeed post, search Reddit, and all will be revealed. A post called “30 Very Sound Pieces of Advice,” full of photos showing amusing life lessons? You’ll find many of its pictures by searching Reddit for “advice,” “sound advice,” “best advice,” and other such phrases. (You can complete your search by looking at Google Images and IMGur, too.) How about “19 Things That Will Drive Your OCD Self Insane”? Search for phrases involving “OCD.” “Fourteen of the Most Fabulous Animals in the Kingdom”—amazing pictures of animals striking glam poses? Just search the Web for “Bitch, I’m Fabulous,” a well-known Web meme, with particular animals (i.e., here’s a fabulous pigeon, a fabulous gorilla, and a fabulous llama). “Thirty-three Animals Who Are Extremely Disappointed in You”? That mines an old meme, one that’s easy to find all over the Web—including in a BuzzFeed post from last year, “12 Extremely Disappointed Animals.”
Photograph by Paul Zimmerman/GettyImages.
On Monday, I talked to Peretti about how BuzzFeed uses Reddit and other online meme havens. He compared the site’s editors to writers on a television show—they’re constantly scouring the Web for ideas, collaboratively discussing those ideas, and then figuring out which of them are worth pursuing. “A lot of what the BuzzFeed editors do is have conversations about the catchphrases or other things people are talking about on 4Chan and message boards and Reddit,” Peretti says. He concedes that some of its ideas have appeared elsewhere online, but he argued that there’s nothing wrong with that because few things on the Web are really original.
“The ‘faith in humanity’ meme has been part of Internet culture for a while,” Peretti says. “Jack had been collecting images for it for a while. He encountered Ned’s site while he was doing this because if you Google ‘faith in humanity,’ it’s one of the ones that comes up. But it wasn’t like that blogger defined this genre—he was doing something similar to Jack.”
Peretti added that even though Shepherd’s post wasn’t the first to document “faith in humanity” pictures, it was unquestionably the best. “In this case we’re popularizers of something that was more widely known in the world of Reddit or 4Chan,” Peretti says. NedHardy’s post includes several blurry images and a few that aren’t easy to figure out. Shepherd removed all those. His list has better, bigger pictures, and he added explanatory captions. “We’re making it into something that will delight and be understandable to the Facebook audience,” Peretti says. “It was almost more what we didn’t include that was the key to that post—we didn’t include inside jokes and memes that most people don’t understand. We took it down to its emotional core and made it more relatable to a general audience. That’s a service we provide, and we’re adding value by doing that.”
This sounded like a pretty good defense to me. But I still wondered why BuzzFeed was so cagey about its sources. Taking other people’s stuff as inspiration is a time-honored practice online. Bloggers do it every day, and most of them acknowledge the original source of whatever they’re writing about. Even posting other people’s pictures without permission, a copyright no-no, has become standard practice on the Web. (BuzzFeed does this often; Peretti has defended it by arguing that because BuzzFeed transforms photos into lists, it is protected under the fair use exception to copyright rules.) Peretti wasn’t hiding the fact that Shepherd spotted the NedHardy post while making his list. Why not at least link to it?
Peretti had no good answer for this. “In cases where it relates to anonymous Internet culture, we don’t have a clear policy” about when to cite your sources, Peretti says. “It’s a moving target—we think a lot about it and try to understand what’s the right way to handle this stuff.”
At the moment, many of BuzzFeed’s editors seem to have their own sourcing policies. Some of them cite Reddit sometimes; others never do. Some of them tell you where they found their images; others almost never do. (Peretti did say that BuzzFeed has a policy not to link to 4Chan because it doesn’t want to steer unsuspecting readers to the graphic horrors found on that freewheeling site.)
I should note that BuzzFeed’s reliance on Reddit doesn’t bother Reddit. Erik Martin, that site’s general manager, told me he doesn’t think BuzzFeed is doing anything wrong. Ordinary Redditors aren’t bothered either. Indeed, they’ll often link to BuzzFeed posts that were inspired by Reddit memes—and those posts are often brimming with appreciative comments.
I did ask Peretti what he thought of it when other sites take content from BuzzFeed. This happens all the time: See the Daily Mail’s rip-off of BuzzFeed’s “34 Pictures That Should Never Have Been Uploaded to the Internet” or Fox Nation’s copying of “35 Photographs of Barack Obama as a Young Man.”
“We see people taking entire posts of ours and publishing them and sometimes linking back and sometimes not linking back,” Peretti says. “My general feeling is that you’ve got to keep your head down and do great work, and sites that do that are never going to be respected. Sites that just look for someone else’s hits—sites that take much more than they add—are never going to be respected.”
I’ll leave it to you to decide if BuzzFeed is taking more than it’s adding. But all ethical issues aside, my exploration into BuzzFeed’s process has left me feeling a bit let down by a site I’ve long loved. It’s still possible to find completely original stuff on BuzzFeed—lists like “The 21 Absolute Worst Things in the World”—that are creative, wonderful, and (as best as I can tell) novel. Most of the time, though, that’s not what BuzzFeed is peddling. The secret to its viral success is to find stuff that’s already a minor viral success and make it better. Repeat the process enough, and you’re bound to get a few mega-hits. That’s not genius. It’s a machine.
Farhad Manjoo is Slate's technology columnist and the author of True Enough: Learning To Live in a Post-Fact Society. You can email him at email@example.com and follow him on Twitter.