Two weeks before George W. Bush was sworn in as the president, a liberal nerd was procrastinating at the MIT Media Lab in Cambridge, Mass. Jonah Peretti, who had just turned 27, went on nike.com and started playing around with the new customizable shoe feature. He typed the word "fuck" in the text box. When that didn't work, he tried "sweatshop." The prank went viral. A few weeks later, Peretti was wearing an ill-fitting jacket on the set of the Today show and yucking it up with Katie Couric.
The rest is history—or, at the very least, a semi-prominent footnote in the history of the early 21st century social media boom. A full chapter, perhaps, in the history of the carnage liberal nerds, utopian tech bros, and their progressive billionaire patrons have wrought on humanity.
That moment of online procrastination, which gave Peretti his first taste of a digital future quantified in clicks, would inspire him to become America's foremost pioneer in the field of online procrastination. He cofounded the Huffington Post in 2005 and helped it become one of the most successful celebrity blogs of all time. Then he launched BuzzFeed and briefly conquered the internet in a blitzkrieg of meme-themed listicles.
Peretti devoted his career to studying (and chasing) "traffic," a crucial data point for upstart media companies pitching venture capitalists and corporate advertisers, but also a window into the human soul that could be entered, exploited, optimized. It's also the title of a new book by one of Peretti's former employees.
Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral by Ben Smith, the former editor of BuzzFeed News, is a deeply reported history of the whiz-bang rise and whimpering fall of two Manhattan-based bloggers—Peretti and Nick Denton, founder of Gawker Media. (Remember them?) For those of us who were alive and online between 2005 and the moment former president Donald Trump descended his golden escalator, Traffic is an enjoyable, nostalgic read. It takes place in a distant reality, full of characters (Matt Drudge, Andrew Breitbart, Benny Johnson, Brett Favre's junk) and viral moments that felt so consequential at the time, but which you've probably forgotten thanks to the internet's corrosive effects on our attention spans and ability to remember things.
Delusion and dollars feature prominently throughout the story. There's even some rivalry between Denton and Peretti, two nerds who agreed about almost everything except whether the world could be changed or was even worth changing. They both excelled in giving people what they really want. "You can't pretend to yourself that people actually have highfalutin taste," Denton observed. "Nobody ever searches for 'Inequality in America.'" Does that make them geniuses? Or did they help unleash the forces that would elevate Trump, who has excelled at giving people what they really want since the Reagan administration? Both? Neither?
Whereas Gawker chased traffic by proudly publishing illicit content (sex tapes, dick pics, texts with male escorts) on its front page, Peretti turned Arianna Huffington's vanity project into a traffic juggernaut by, among other things, quietly cramming the site with celebrity "side boob" pics that didn't show up on the front page next to John Cusack's tedious blog posts about the future of the Democratic Party. Around the same time, he realized people liked to click on things that made them feel good about themselves, like videos of adorable animals making friends with a totally different kind of animal or the Top 10 Reasons Voting for Barack Obama Proves You're Not a Racist.
In the end, Peretti proved himself to be the superior nerd when it came to exploiting human nature (and Big Tech algorithms) to capture that sweet, sweet traffic to the tune of 130 million unique visitors every month. He "looked at behavior the way the linguist Noam Chomsky, an MIT professor, looked at language." In 2014, two years before Gawker shut down after Hulk Hogan (backed by billionaire Peter Thiel) successfully sued the site for publishing his sex tape, Denton vented about his rival to a reporter: "It's not Jonah himself I hate, but this stage of internet media for which he is so perfectly optimized. I see an image of his cynical smirk—made you click!—every time a stupid BuzzFeed listicle pops on Facebook."
Smith documents how Peretti's internet innovations helped shape our digital age, and it's horribly depressing. For example, he was among the first to figure out how to optimize a website's content for search-engine algorithms to boost traffic from bored office workers googling "Jennifer Aniston nude" or "What time is the Super Bowl?" Traffic surged at the Huffington Post after Peretti discovered that Google responded favorably to "pac-manning," which involves stuffing articles full of links to other reputable websites. He's technically a "genius" in the same way the people who pioneered the asbestos industry (and got rich doing so) were geniuses. Do you love getting bombarded with ruthlessly specific ads on your phone? You're welcome.
In retrospect, Smith concludes, it's hard to argue that BuzzFeed's meteoric rise was anything other than a blip compared with the larger forces at work. Facebook and Google were taking over the world, and Peretti was simply the most adept at riding their coattails. It turns out one of the best tricks Peretti discovered to boost BuzzFeed's traffic was "cultivating the mid-senior-level Facebook employees who ran its key product, News Feed," and persuading them to give his website favorable treatment, dooming others in the process.
In 2013, Peretti successfully persuaded a News Feed engineer to stop rewarding the "clickbait" headlines favored by upstart rival Upworthy. "It is really fun collaborating with Facebook’s team on how News Feed should work," he wrote in an email to Smith, who helmed the site's loss-leading "news" division, which helped potential investors be a little less wary of pouring money into a website dominated by listicles and cat memes. The following year, Peretti and Smith smoked a joint on a hotel balcony before deciding to reject Disney's offer to buy BuzzFeed for $650 million, concerned that the "corporate culture would stifle" their creative vision. It's worth a fraction of that now. BuzzFeed News, which Smith departed in 2020, no longer exists.
Peretti's attempt to prank Nike back in 2001 ultimately backfired. "Traffic and contact between Nike and consumers is up 75 percent in some categories and 100 percent in others," a company spokesman told Katie Couric on the Today show. "There's certainly more awareness of the fact that we personalize shoes." Nearly two decades later, as BuzzFeed prepared to go public and faced the grim reality that the "all growth, no profit" business model favored by Silicon Valley investors was not sustainable, the website teemed with paid "native" advertisements disguised as fun listicles in an effort to turn traffic into revenue. Among the headlines: "15 Pairs of Sneakers on Sale at Nike That'll Have You Clearing Out Space in Your Closet."
Traffic: Genius, Rivalry, and Delusion in the Billion-Dollar Race to Go Viral
by Ben Smith
Penguin, 352 pp., $30