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Media Virus

How silly videos and email pranks created the Bored at Work Network. Social networking guru Jonah Peretti explains.

by Carrie McLaren | Issue #25

Jonah Peretti of EyebeamIf you've ever forwarded a video of people "crying while eating" to friends, or spent hours in the office reading knitting blogs, you know about the Bored at Work Network (BWN), whether you realize it or not. As defined by Jonah Peretti, BWN is the largest alternative to corporate media, with a base of millions of activists, temp workers, and salarymen. Though its participants come from all walks of life, they share one thing: they've got internet connections at work, and they are bored.

Jonah Peretti has championed the BWN—and the "contagious media" that fuels it—as both participant and creator. During his own workday at Eyebeam Art and Technology Center, he has made a mission of understanding how things spread online. Part sociologist, part propagandist, and part entrepreneur, Peretti has taught New York University students about social networks and helped progressive causes use the internet to expand their reach.

I first heard of Peretti after someone forwarded me an email he had sent to Nike. The company had just launched a product that allowed buyers to customize shoes by stitching a word on them, and Peretti asked for shoes bearing the word "sweatshop." When a Nike customer rep rejected Peretti's request, he compiled the email back-and-forth and sent it out to friends, who sent it out to their friends, and so on, ultimately crossing the globe.

Peretti (with his sister Chelsea) followed up the Nike email with the hilarious and much loved Black People Love Us—a site poking fun at liberal white racism—and the Rejection Line, a phone number people can give out to unsavory characters who hit on them. Perhaps his best known project, however, is the (Arianna) Huffington Post, a lefty news and commentary blog he cofounded.

Food designerSTAY FREE!: When did you first start to think about the Bored at Work Network?

JONAH PERETTI: Around the time of my Nike "sweatshop" email. I was getting email from people around the world, and all of them seemed to be receiving and forwarding it during the workday. I would get emails from Californians in the afternoons, from Australians late at night, and from Europeans while I slept.

STAY FREE!: You organized the Contagious Media Showdown as a contest for online projects. Can you predict what's going to spread?

PERETTI: We didn't have to. We had a hundred entries, so it was more a matter of watching what emerged. In a way, that's a microcosm of the internet itself, where there are millions of people doing things, and the vast majority of them don't spread. When something does spread, it's unexpected. It's easier to detect when something is starting to spread or to recognize the beginnings of a trend than to predict something out of a hundred things that will do well.

STAY FREE!: But the mission of both the contest and your contagious media class was to purposefully make something spread.

PERETTI: Yes, and that's an increasingly popular way of thinking about something that is usually random. A designer makes a dancing baby and is completely taken aback that it spreads everywhere. Or a silly video circulates all over the web. Much of that is completely unintentional. But now people are thinking, "How do we do this intentionally?" It's still more an art than a science. Big, multinational corporations haven't put much money into it because it's not predictable.

STAY FREE!: But I thought they had, with viral marketing. What about Burger King, for instance?

PERETTI: They have the subservient chicken, but Burger King spent so much less on that than they do on ad buys. Large corporations want to be able to predict outcomes.

STAY FREE!: But you can't predict print advertising well either. One of the reasons marketers like online advertising is that they can measure—if not exactly predict—the results. Also, it's a lot cheaper than a 30-second spot on CBS.

PERETTI: Online advertising is increasingly popular, but that's different than viral marketing. Companies want to target particular demographic groups. With viral marketing, things spread on their own, so you have no way of knowing if you're reaching your target. Whereas, if you buy a print ad you can select a magazine that caters to the demographic you want.

ArchitectI never thought Black People Love Us would get passed around on white power groups; they thought the site was outrageous because there were black people and white people in the same house drinking wine together. I got cell phone calls in the middle of the night from hardcore racists saying they were going to find me and kill me. The site wasn't intended to attract that audience. It was directed to progressive hipsters who don't realize how insensitive some of their actions are.

STAY FREE!: Did you learn anything from the Showdown, in terms of how things spread?

PERETTI: Generally, if you show people a project and they immediately want to tell someone about it, there's a good chance it will be contagious. If the initial reaction is unenthusiastic, those things usually aren't contagious.

STAY FREE!: The one site from your students that sticks with me most is WhatIsVictoriasSecret.com.

PERETTI: Yeah, it's number two when you search for Victoria's Secret on Google.

STAY FREE!: I love that Victoria's Secret couldn't go after them.

PERETTI: But they did—

STAY FREE!: The lawyer told them to take down the direct links to the real Victoria's Secret site to make sure they didn't confuse users, right?

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PERETTI:
Yes, but initially they called and said to take the site down immediately. A guy who worked on the site got the call and took it down, but the women working with him put it back up. The Victoria's Secret lawyer called back begging, "Could you go after Calvin Klein or Frederick's of Hollywood instead?" But when they asked the lawyer to send a cease-and-desist, she refused to put anything in writing: "I don't want that showing up on the web." She didn't want the story to be about Victoria's Secret trying to shut down a site that girls created about body image. The site had already gotten some press and they didn't want it to get more.

STAY FREE!: The winner of the Showdown was the site for Forget-Me-Not Panties, fake high-tech underwear that supposedly tracks whether your wife is cheating. I read that blogs helped spread the panties site but that foreign newspaper and radio coverage brought the most traffic. Do you know if any of these media mistook it for real?

PERETTI: I don't know about, say, the Japanese sites. But, yes, a lot of web sites mistook it for real.

STAY FREE!: That site does seem to combine traits that are popular on many blogs: it's sex-related, it's a high-tech gadget that appeals directly to males, and it's an idea than can transcend cultural boundaries.

PERETTI: As my friend Duncan Watts has said, people often have very detailed explanations for why things spread after the fact. But before, when a panel of experts and the audience were voting, nobody picked the panties site to win. The panel and the audience responded to all of the top sites except the one that won the grand prize. But back to your question about what drives visitors. The rise of blogging and of contagious media happened around the same time, so there's a sense that if something gets on the blogs, it becomes contagious. But blogs don't send as much traffic as you might expect. Blogs are important because they can lead to the next stage of media. Reporters read blogs, and if a project winds up in a news story, it could bring ten times the amount of traffic. Of course, news sites that don't have a strong online presence don't send as much traffic. The Blogebrity site got a sidebar in Newsweek and didn't even get a blip.

Auto technicianSTAY FREE!: I've noticed that with Stay Free!, a mention in the New York Times might do nothing, but a good mention on Boing Boing or NPR will get us thousands of hits.

PERETTI: It could be that the NPR and Boing Boing audiences are the kind of people who'd like Stay Free!, so you get a better response rate from them.

STAY FREE!: Have you gotten better at predicting things?

PERETTI: I think so. With the Showdown, people had a sense of what would do well but didn't know what the winner would be. And that's generally the case with all information economies, whether it is software or video games, movies—anything where word of mouth can result in a cascade where popularity begets popularity. There's a book called Hollywood Economics, which basically argues that you can predict the things that will break even. But predicting huge hits is almost impossible because hits are rare and require people telling their friends about a movie. Those things aren't very predictable. And so the majority of the studios' revenue comes from something they can't predict well. Titanic probably brought more than half of the profits of the studio from that year, yet everyone thought it was going to be a flop.

That said, there are some things you can do to help something be contagious. You can make sure your content is linkable, and not trapped in Flash or frames.

STAY FREE!: Visual things seem to work well too because they're not tied to a specific language and are more accessible to international audiences.

PERETTI: There are two opposing things that need to be in the project. One, it needs to be somehow provocative or shocking. It has to be new in some way. And, two, it has to be broadly appealing enough that you want to send it to your whole address book. One reason I think JibJab did well was it made fun of both Democrats and Republicans; if it were left or right it would have had a more limited audience.

LawyerSTAY FREE!: I thought JibJab was edgeless, though. There should be a bored-at-home network for people like my parents who send that kind of stuff. They circulate whole different genres of things: religious stories and cards.

PERETTI: I've seen some religious emails that ask people to pray for a kid dying of cancer, which is unusual. In general, things with a sad message don't spread well.

STAY FREE!: Contagious projects are often ephemeral. They're all over the net one week, then vanish. Why is that?

PERETTI: That's partly because things that have a lasting impact stop seeming like contagious media. Hot or Not, for example, started as a joke but spread, and now it's a real business, a dating service. Companies have set up rejection lines in dozens of cities, selling advertising. So some things will transform into a useful tool. Hotmail was like that. It used to be super contagious: "Free email? That's crazy!" At the bottom of every email it said, "Get your own free email."

Also, you've got to keep in mind the social dynamics of how things spread. If you post things that people have already seen, that's considered lame. And so there's an incentive to post things when they're fresh and a disincentive to post things when they're old. And that dynamic shortens the lifespan of these things.

STAY FREE!: Blogs have replaced zines as the main underground form of self-publishing, but I think the ways they differ are revealing. I remember when The Zine Guide launched a survey that ranked zines—like Top 10 charts. I was really annoyed by it; ranking seemed antithetical to zines. But in the blog world, there's a big emphasis on stats, on rank. I'm as guilty as anyone—I check our stats obsessively and look at who is linking to us. Anyway, I just wonder if you have any thoughts on this shift in focus toward process and popularity.

Food designerPERETTI: When I taught the contagious media class at NYU, I would always tell my students that being interesting and thought-provoking isn't necessarily correlated with being popular. But the purpose of this class wasn't to create something interesting and thought-provoking, it was to create contagious media—and some of the students hated that. Personally, I like that it gives you a metric for success you don't otherwise have in the art or design world.

STAY FREE!: But what about outside the classroom? The average creative writer . . .

PERETTI: If you value having an impact and reaching a large number of people, you have a benchmark for doing a good job. That being said, there are all the obvious downsides of focusing on ratings and popularity.

STAY FREE!: We think of blogs as alternative media, yet the idea that what's good equals what's popular is a very market-centric one.

PERETTI: I think the left has had a problem in being anti-popularity. I don't come from an indie music background, where you love a band until they sell out by becoming popular. I'm somewhat sympathetic to that perspective—which is similar to the left-wing activist perspective—but I worry that thinking of popularity as bad is a good way to lose. If you're trying to have an impact in the world and achieve certain goals, being popular is a good thing. Of course, it shouldn't be an end in itself.

LawyerSTAY FREE!: Let's talk a bit about Stanley Milgram. Most people know him as the social scientist whose experiments showed that the impulse to obey authority was so great, people would administer life-threatening electric shocks to test subjects. But he did some pioneering work in social networking as well.

PERETTI: Milgram coined the term "six degrees of separation" and wrote a paper called "Small Worlds," which describes a 1970s experiment involving a group of people in the Midwest and a target person in Boston. He created a chain letter that said, "There's a stockbroker in Boston and we're trying to get this letter to him. If you know him, send it directly to him, but if you don't, send it to someone more likely to know him."

Before he did the experiment, Milgram asked various colleagues to make a prediction, and most of them estimated it would take dozens or even hundreds of jumps. Well, it turned out that it took on average six jumps to get to this guy in Boston. People would say, "Oh, I know someone on the East Coast," or, "I know a stockbroker so I'll send it to him." And with each jump, the letter got closer. This is where the phrase comes from.

STAY FREE!: Going back to teaching, have any of your students gone into making contagious media professionally?

PERETTI: A couple have. And I've done some consulting projects. Oxygen was launching a women's television program called Good Girls Don't and I came up with the idea to have one of the characters on the show write her own blog. The blog ended up doing better than the program.

STAY FREE!: For the Contagious Media Show at the New Museum, you and your sister Chelsea hired performers to chat up visitors, who weren't aware that these people were working for you. Do you have any personal rules or ethical guides for using duplicity in your work?

PERETTI: Hmmm.

STAY FREE!: Let me give you a personal example. Charles [Stay Free! vice president] and I were thinking about making an anti-Wal-Mart video and spreading it online. I thought if we could stage something somewhat shocking—like a Wal-Mart manager beating a Mexican worker—people who don't usually read about Wal-Mart's business practices might see it and talk about it . . . and maybe it would help open some eyes. On the other hand, it's kind of disgusting to resort to something like that. I'm just curious where you draw the line, and if this question has ever come up for you.

Medical clerkPERETTI: There are different kinds of duplicity, and I think it depends on what you're trying to achieve. There's the duplicity of [notorious pranksters] the Yes Men, where you're creating a fake identity and doing a critical performance to make people think about something that they might not have thought about. There are some politics in it but I think it's more effective as art. I'm not convinced that creating fake hoaxes helps specific political causes; the results are hard to predict and can have the opposite of the desired effect.

A second kind of duplicity is more politically strategic. I was sitting at a table with high-level progressives and one consultant said, "Here's what you do: ask a survey question ten different ways. Poll each of the ways and find out which one gives you an 80/20 split in your favor. Then do another poll where you just ask the question that favors your position. Finally, you send the results to every member of Congress and say, "It's 80 percent against you. We're going to bring the voters out in force in the next election if you don't support this cause."

That's a form of duplicity that can often be effective in pushing policy, whether it's the NRA or People for the American Way. It's effective but not particularly honest.

Those are two kinds of duplicity I'm familiar with and have participated in. One of them provokes people to think about the world differently; the other plays into people's assumptions and reaffirms them.

STAY FREE!: And you don't feel bad about that? So what's the difference between a lefty group that uses a deceptive tactic and, say, the Swift Boat Veterans campaign? When do the ends justify the means?

PERETTI: People have their own personal limits, and it tends to be more visceral than rigorous. I tend to not do hoaxes or pranks that are designed to trick people. Maybe I don't have the balls for it, but I could never do the kind of thing that the Yes Men do.

STAY FREE!: You'd have to be a good actor.

PERETTI: And I'm not comfortable lying to people. The people behind Forget Me Not Panties were able to mislead reporters, but I've never done that.

STAY FREE!: Someone at Eyebeam created a site intended to fool people, and you ended up getting personally sued for it. Can you talk about that?

PERETTI: Um, no.

STAY FREE!: Okay, never mind. What's Forward Track? Could you talk a little about it?

PERETTI: When I did the Nike email, there was no way to tell how many people had received it. The idea of Forward Track is to track email forwards. You could see that one person sent the email to ten people. The first project was Tom Mauser's petition to prevent the ban on assault weapons from being repealed.

STAY FREE!: Do you collect the email addresses of each person?

PERETTI: Initially, Forward Track worked entirely through email, but people were confused by it. They were more accustomed to visiting a web page and signing a petition, like they do for MoveOn. So we came up with a web version. Since then, there have been a dozen campaigns using Forward Track. It allows you to track emails on both a geographic map and a social network map.

STAY FREE!: What kind of issues is it being used for?

PERETTI: Oxygen did one for women's advocacy issues. One group used it for East Indian bone marrow donors. People for the American Way did one for the Supreme Court. Procter & Gamble did one for the launch of Tide Cold Water.

STAY FREE!: P&G, really? Was that something you engineered?

PERETTI: Forward Track is open-source software, so anybody can use it. But we did work with them, and it was an interesting opportunity to see how the software scales, because Procter & Gamble has email lists of millions of people. They said their response rate was ten times higher than any other campaign they had done, though people on the list were still much less likely to send an email about Tide than they would a politically targeted message.

STAY FREE!: Does the fact that this big corporation is using your software to send spam bother you?

PERETTI: Working with corporations has been interesting. I have spent most of my adult life working in schools, research labs, or nonprofits. And I've realized that a lot of things I thought about corporations are not 100 percent accurate. In terms of privacy issues, Procter & Gamble is much stricter than any of the political organizations I work with. They wouldn't show us any email addresses—they had to anonymize all of them. They had double opt-in and strict rules against spam. An activist group could never afford that level of privacy protection. Partly it's because Procter & Gamble has the resources to do it.

ProstituteSTAY FREE!: Last I checked, Procter & Gamble was the largest advertiser in America.

PERETTI: They have email lists of people who genuinely want information about new products. People subscribe to newsletters for homekeeping tips. People care about the products these big corporations make. I always think about open source and the mission, but it's possible that just as many people care about detergent. Wikipedia has lots of people contributing for free because it's a good cause. And MySpace, the social networking site, also has people who contribute content for free. Both sites are among the most popular on the internet. One of them is noncommercial and one of them just sold for over $500 million. Some people don't really care whether they are contributing their labor or time to a commercial enterprise or a nonprofit.

STAY FREE!: MySpace may be commercial, but it's not detergent. I don't think people care much about detergent. A lot of people may be on the P&G list because they are bargain hunters. With Forward Track, were you ever concerned about privacy issues? I don't know that I would want any group to know who I'm sending things to. I'm inclined to think we benefit from the anarchy of the web, in contrast to, say, a political sphere dominated by public opinion polls and all kinds of focus groups.

PERETTI: Do you mean that as a critique of MoveOn?

STAY FREE!: No, I'm just playing devil's advocate against contagious media analysis in general.

PERETTI: Okay, but MoveOn is a good example. They are a progressive organization, but, to build a movement, they think numerically: "If we write about this hot-button issue and send this out to our list, we'll get X many new subscribers." Their power and influence is based on the size of their list.

The idea behind Forward Track is to give ordinary people access to data that only MoveOn would see otherwise. It gives you a visual of how people are connected. Our theory was that if more people could see how their individual efforts created a larger movement, they might become more active participants.

There are two ways you can address privacy concerns. One way is to pass strict laws outlawing the sharing of information. Forward Track takes the opposite approach, which is to make the information open so that privacy becomes less of a concern because government and large corporations don't control everything. When information is open, it's harder to manipulate people with it.

Fundrace is another example; that data already existed, but you had to have an engineer process it. And so a political campaign or a corporation could use it, but nobody else could. Fundrace allowed anyone with an internet connection to search that info. I think making things easy and accessible benefits people with less resources.

STAY FREE!: But even if everyone has access, some people are going to be better able to take advantage and profit from the information than others. Knowledge isn't necessarily neutral.

PERETTI: If you look at all the stuff being passed around the web, most of it isn't marketing. I'd be interested in doing an analysis of what percentage is paid for by a company and what percentage is just kids fooling around.

STAY FREE!: Do you ever wrestle with the question of forbidden knowledge? I'm inclined to think that the lack of predictability is a good thing. Maybe there are some things we don't want to know about what makes things spread, because if there was a way to control how something spreads . . .

PERETTI: [laughs] You make it sound like I'm creating the neutron bomb!

STAY FREE!: If corporations can map our social connections, what's to stop them from working on breaking them?

PERETTI: Well, corporations have already figured out ways to influence social interactions. For example, web sites place related links at the footer of a web story to increase recirculation and page views. Built-in tools for emailing or IMing a friend increase the chance that you will send your peers to a company's web site. And Google gets you to click on sponsored links by matching them with your searches and only showing ads that have performed well with other people.

But we are at the very beginning of understanding how this works. Part of why I am interested in contagious media is that there is still so much room for developing new techniques. I agree that some applications of this knowledge can be scary, but I enjoy working in morally ambiguous spaces. I find that is where most of the interesting stuff happens.