If the Internet ever had a mad scientist who mailed tasty viruses to millions of inboxes, Jonah Peretti would be him. It all began in 2001, with a Nike promotion and a chain of emails. While Peretti was a grad student at the MIT Media Lab, the shoe company was custom making sneakers emblazoned with words that consumers could choose themselves. But among the “inappropriate slang” not allowed by the company, Peretti discovered, was the word “sweatshop.” Peretti took a polite email correspondence he had with a Nike employee to Harpers. When they refused, he sent the emails to ten of his friends. This wasn’t just any old email forward. With their combination of social commentary, moral conscience and sheer hilarity, the “Nike Sweatshop Emails” was the first link to spread via “six degrees,” pass the internet tipping point, and go truly viral.
The sensation turned Peretti into an internet celebrity, landing him on national television and on class syllabi, earning him plaudits from the New York Times and Vogue, and consulting gigs with big companies. But his base remained the ragtag world of the internet. Other fun experiments followed —BlackPeopleLoveUs.com, the New York City Rejection Line, FundRace.org — and in 2003, Peretti co-founded the Huffington Post. Internet news would never be the same.
But Peretti’s real focus is BuzzFeed, the site he founded in 2006 with the internet video star Ze Frank. Playing master referee in the internet’s giant popularity contest, it’s both a tool for tracking online social behavior, and a vehicle for turning Internet hits into true viral sensations.
The site’s helped make Peretti into not just a spreader, but an epidemiologist of the internet’s viruses, and an expert on the “Bored at Work network,” an audience he says has surpassed that of most network television shows. In a way, it’s a journey that’s landed him right back where he started with the Nike emails: a world of semi-forbidden words (and images), big corporations, and a new kind of online “sweatshop”—the kind where thousands of unpaid internet users help move ideas across the internet just because, “hey, you gotta check this out.”