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May 10 2013

15:46

How’s it going with The Big Round Table and other narrative ventures, Michael Shapiro?

As if longtime Columbia J-school professor Michael Shapiro didn’t already have enough to do, with Big Round Table launching in September: Yesterday he put 17 of his students’ stories online in a pay-what-you want experiment. Project Wordsworth runs for the next week. The idea intrigues us* and we’re interested to see what will happen. As of this morning Project Wordsworth had seen 5,000 page views and the writers, Shapiro said, had earned more than $1,000. Excerpts from a few of the stories:

W.125th to 99 Madison Avenue: 30 minutes on the 1 and N trains according to Google, which was five minutes off. Apparently, Google doesn’t account for 4 inch heels in their walking and transfer time estimations. Seat: Yes. Ambiance: 4. Time in transit: 35 minutes. The OpenData NYC meet-up was hosted at ThoughtWorks, one of the many Manhattan tech start-ups indistinguishable from each other with their fridges full of beers and vague mission statements. ThoughtWorks was unusual only in that its offices were in Midtown rather than the downtown corridor of the original “Silicon Alley.” (from “The Little Blue Book: The Worlds of Commuting Obsessives,” by Madeline K.B. Ross)

Sitting on a plastic bed in the in-patient/out-patient wing of the Weinberg Cancer Center at Johns Hopkins with an IV connected to a catheter that had been implanted in my chest, things were looking up. It was 2008 and I was 28 years old, and due to a recent battery of high-dose chemotherapy that had left me with maybe one white blood cell, which I’d named Melvin, I had to wear one of those surgeon’s masks at all times to keep the world’s germs out of my face. Here I was, if you can imagine, bald and eyebrowless with a paper mask over my mouth, a tube coming out of my chest, the picture of cancer, and things were looking up. Scans showed that the cancer (along with just about every other cell in my body) was disappearing. (from “Healing Me Harshly,” by Keith Collins)

Kathryn Denning spends a lot of time studying scientists who think about aliens. Denning, an anthropologist at York University in Canada, is fascinated by the idea of The Other in relation to humans. Her recent research has focused on how scientists think about the evolution of intelligence in relation to hypothetical extraterrestrials, ethical difficulties and the future of the human colonization of Space. A big reason we’re so drawn to space, she told me, is “its importance in traditional culture.” We all share the experience of looking up at the stars and trying to make sense of it all. “It tends to get intertwined with the heavens and Heaven and we think of it as a place of revelations and knowledge and dreams,” Denning said. (from “Cosmic Postcards: The Adventures of an Armchair Astronaut,” by Kamakshi Ayyar)

In the days and months that followed I replayed the incident in my head over and over again. It seemed so unreal that I often questioned whether what I saw actually happened or if I dreamed it all up. What always made it real again was not the image of a man jumping but the memory of the jolt the train made as it ran over his body. I needed to know who this man was. I looked in the newspapers but found very little. I learned that his name was Dwight Brown and that he was 27 years old. He lived on the Upper West Side of Manhattan. Then the trail dried up. It was as if this man’s trace of life vanished. I thought if I could find more about this man, meet his family and friends, I would be able to make sense of that morning. (from “The Witness,” by Mary Ann Georgantopoulos)

Screen Shot 2013-05-09 at 4.51.05 PMShapiro also gave us a status report on his larger project, The Big Round Table, a Kickstarter-funded web-based publisher of longform narrative that attempts to crowd-curate storytelling by bypassing the “gatekeepers” of publishing and posting what readers say they want to read. Stories get greenlighted by a cooperative of journalists “committed to the future of big narrative ambitious nonfiction” based on the first 1,000 words. Writers earn $1 of every sale. We talked to Shapiro last night by email. Here’s some of the discussion:

Storyboard: You went big with the pitch: “There is a revolution taking place in journalism. With it have come possibilities for writers who despaired of ever finding a way to make a living at their craft. Writers are now freed from the constraints of convention in telling their stories and from the commercial needs of editors and publishers, who determine what tales get told. That, in turn, means a new era of creativity for authors of narrative nonfiction—new writers, new stories, new audiences waiting for a friend to say, Here’s a story you’ll want to read. The Big Roundtable is more than a digital publishing platform; it is a movement, one that we believe can expand the possibilities for writers, and readers.” Where’d this idea come from?

Shapiro: It came from, how best to put it, 35 years of writing for a living—in newspapers, magazines, and books, and seeing how the publishing world felt as it were shrinking, while all around it, the world was expanding. Believe me, I felt the pinch. There was ever more pressure, especially when it came to books, to come up with ideas that were sure to sell. Well, how is anyone supposed to know what will sell, other than genre fiction? At the same time, magazines were feeling ever more predictable, and had been for years. For several years I was a judge at the National Magazine Awards, and found ever more that while the stories I was reading while not bad, seldom lifted off the page. The writing had become so formulaic, so safe—anecdotal lede, nut graf, quote from eminent sociologist. It was ever harder to find a story that you sensed a writer needed to tell. And we all know the difference. We know what it is like writing a story that burns inside of us, and a story that is, well, interesting. The result was a landscape of predictability. Why were journalists, smart and eager journalists, constrained, when writers of creative fiction were freer to experiment and push? What happened to the New Journalism revolution? I cannot believe it peaked a generation ago. Where was the surprise?

You had a $5,000 Kickstarter goal and took in nearly $19,219, from 220 backers. Who gave, and why?

People we know—God bless them. And a lot of people we’d never heard of who contributed generously and who sometimes wrote to say, Hey, cool idea. I have a story. Can I send it along? The answer was, and is, always yes. (Pitches should go to TheBRTable@gmail.com.)

“Now everyone can be a writer and a publisher,” you said in your campaign. Please explain. 

I suspect every writer falls asleep and dreams that come the dawn they will become the next Amanda Hocking, that from the acorn of a few sales via Amazon to friends will spring the mighty oak of best-sellerism. Pretty to think so, no? The problem isn’t one of production or dissemination; no one needs a publisher to print and sell. The problem is audience. How do you find one, and make people feel as if their lives will be lessened if they don’t read your work?

But hold on: There’s still a gatekeeper aspect, because BRT ultimately decides which stories move forward. No?

Shapiro

Shapiro

Yes. But. The gatekeeper is not me. Lord knows if it were me there would be a surfeit of baseball stories. Who is to say that my taste, or any other individual’s tastes, is superior? I may be skilled at seeing where a story slips and can be improved. But I enjoy no monopoly on taste, and nor does anyone else. And so, we’re experimenting, yes experimenting because in a venture like the BRT we are in a permanent state of beta, with the idea that if you ask a small group of readers what they think about a story, you improve the chances of achieving that rarest and most sought after quality in a story: surprise. In an early—call it alpha—version of the experiment, we asked people to read full drafts. Huge mistake. Because presented with a story, writers cannot help but take out their red pens and try to fix things. So, we wondered what would happen if we asked those same people to read, say, the first 1,000 words. Takes five minutes. You can do it on your phone waiting for your tall soy latte. All we asked was: Do you want to read more, or no thanks? Quick response, and much more useful. It told us whether the story had an audience. Why 1,000 words? Because—and here, I am drawing more on experience than data—if you can nail the first 1,000 words of a story, the odds are good that you’re on your way.

Curation is the thing right now—Longreads, Longform.org, etc. You describe the project as a platform “through which writers of nonfiction stories too long for most magazines, and too short for most publishers, can find their readers,” but that also describes, sort of, platforms like Byliner and, to some extent, Kindle Singles, which publishes stories too long for a magazine and too short for a book. How does BRT differ from those?

All our content is original. Byliner does some original work, but mostly curated; they’ve been very kind about curating my stuff. I know David Blum, who edits Kindle Singles, and think he is a very smart editor. But in the end, David, talented as he is, is the gatekeeper. We’re trying something different.

The idea is that a happy reader will (and can) share the story with three friends, which is encouraged through the BRT model. The sharing aspect seems central to this concept. Why the sharing? 

Think about it: When you choose what you read for pleasure is on the basis of a) a review, b) something you heard or read about, or c) because a friend, not a Facebook friend but a living breathing want-to-get-dinner-this-week friend, said, You Have to Read This! I’ve asked this question many times to many different groups of people over the past year and the answer always comes up C. It is all about sharing. The question is, How do you replicate that moment at scale? That, in the end, is what this is all about. Again, it is all about increasing the chances of finding under your nose a story that is surprising.

Writers will make $1 per sale. How will you handle the operational transparency aspect with writers? How will writers know precisely how well their work is doing and whether they’re getting their fair share? 

We will do so contractually—no writer should ever for a moment think, Jeez, these guys aren’t being straight with me. That would be bad on so many levels.

You use the term “nonfiction novella,” the kind of language that makes a lot of people nervous. What does that term mean, from BRT’s perspective?

It means too long for most magazines and too short for a conventional book. Say, 5,000 to 30,000 words. Loosely. There are so many times I wished I had more space—and I have written 17,000-word magazine stories. I also can look at my books and think, you know, I think this would have been perfect at 40,000. If my publisher reads this they will not be pleased. Sorry fellas.

Where does this project live? Looks like you’ve got Facebook, Tumblr and Twitter covered.

It lives on the Internet because we live in a world where it is ever clearer that the Internet—and by this I mean the great amorphous amalgam of feeds and inboxes—decides what shall thrive. There is a terrific book by the sociologist Duncan Watts called Six Degrees—as in, yes, six degrees of separation—that captures as well as anything I’ve read the science of social networks. Watts is a pal of Jonah Peretti of Buzzfeed and HuffPost fame, and they take different views of network creation. Peretti, a born optimist, believes that it is possible to tweak a budding network into something larger. Duncan takes a less sunny view. I fall someplace in between but veer toward Jonah. The Internet feels to me like a lava lamp, bubbling around, waiting for someone or something to tip it and get all that action flowing a certain way. Does this analogy make me sound like a Dead Head?

Yes. In a good way. The first story runs in August. What’s in the lineup? Can you give us some idea of the first few pieces?

Some great ones, and I will do so as cryptically as I can, so that people might think, “cool:” Inside the Albanian Mob; My Weekend at Adolf’s; How Disco Never Died; The Mother of Creedmoor; Of Inmates, Fire, and Death; The Miracle on Molokai. And those are but a few.

Generally speaking, are BRT stories those that got rejected elsewhere?

Maybe. We look at the stories as stories. We don’t ask them to come with a CV.

It can be hard enough getting phone calls returned when you’re on staff, but when you’re working without an institution attached to your project, how do you represent yourself? How would you advise a prospective BRT author to identify herself?

I am a writer with a story to tell. Here it is. Our promise is that people will read the first 1,000 words.

Will the authors report/write the whole piece on spec and then hope the thing flies with readers? So much of great storytelling depends on the reporting. You need to report enough to write a great top, since readers will green light the piece (or not) based on the first 1,000 words, but that puts writers working without a net. Say you spend three months reporting enough just to get a great opening, but then nobody bites. That’s three months you just spent, for nothing. Or no?

Out there, as I write, I know, just know, that there are all these wonderful writers with stories burning in their notebooks who are thinking, “There is more to this story than 700 words.” Maybe the New Yorker? The Times magazine? Maybe. But the odds aren’t good. I know this because I have been that writer and I wanted to tell that story and yes, I wanted to be paid for it. But I needed to tell it. And to put my money where my mouth is, I’m working on one now for the BRT. I really need to tell this one. No advance.

Who is your envisioned audience?

Ah, that is the $64,000 question. We have an incredible story in which a woman recounts her banker father slowly drinking himself to death. (Trust me, you cannot put this one down.) Is that only for an audience of children of alcoholics? Or will others, for whom this bears no direct connection to their lives, nonetheless see in the story a quality that speaks to them, that surprises them?

Who will edit the stories? Will there be fact checkers? Copyeditors? How will the actual editorial process work?

We have my all time favorite editor working with us, Mike Hoyt, the longtime editor of Columbia Journalism Review. Best hands, as they say, in the business. If we don’t have terrific stories, and yes fact-checked stories, we are nowhere. But it is not Mike’s job to choose. It is his job to lift those stories, with the author.

You have a stated goal of studying “how people find, read, fall in love with a share stories” and becoming “the research lab of the longform revival” by gathering data that “will at long last illuminate what happens when one friend feels compelled to share a story with another.” There’s a longform revival?

Don’t you think so? Look at all these ventures—Atavist, Longform, Longreads, to say nothing of these heretofore impossible to imagine stories in the Times and elsewhere.

We like “longform” without the hyphen. Looks like you do too.

Cleaner, no?

You’ve said a paid staff will produce BRT. Paid how? Who’s on the masthead?

We have some money from Kickstarter and hope to start getting more—grants, we hope. We have a small staff: Mike, me; our product manager is a journalism school grad, Anna Hiatt. We’re being assisted by Rashmi Raman, who is our engineer, Anna Codrea-Rado, who manages the audiences and our designer, Eleonore Hamelin.

You’ll sell directly from the BRT website rather than through a distributor like Amazon. Why?

Because Amazon does not share all its data. And we want, need, to be able to see and test and iterate.

Whom do you envision as your typical writer?

The writer with a story he or she is burning to tell. Really, it is that simple.

The goal is to understand how readers find, read and fall in love with work, and share it. Assuming you figure that out, what next?

Heaven knows. We’re making this up as we go along. I am learning what it means to be involved in a startup.

 

(*having had some experience with it ourselves) 

August 27 2012

03:09

Monday Q&A: Josh Miller on Branch, comments as content, and the state of online discourse

Like a lot of tech startups, it’s easier to describe what Branch isn’t than what it is. The newly launched discussion platform — bankrolled in part by Twitter’s co-founders — is not Twitter, because the discussion is linear, longer-form, and invitation-only. It’s not chat, because all are welcome to observe. It’s not a comment platform, such as Disqus, because a Branch conversation is the content, not metadata attached to the content.

Josh MillerJosh Miller, the CEO, often employs the “dinner party” metaphor to describe Branch. A couple of summers ago, he was an intern for Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein of California, his home state. He would read Politico every morning on the subway, then he would get to the comments section, and then, without fail, there was raidersfan27 screaming profanities.

“I started to think about…how do I express my opinions in the real world? And it’s around a dinner table, or at a bar over beers with friends, or in a coffee shop,” Miller told me. He created Branch, then called Roundtable, with co-founders Hursh Agrawal and Cemre Gungor. “We started out to kind of replicate the types of intimate, direct conversations we have in the real world,” he said.

The point of Branch is to start a conversation, usually with a question, and then invite people to respond. What’s the best concert you’ve ever seen? How do blogs need to evolve? ‘Giff’ or ‘Jiff’? There’s a generous 750-character limit. Branch does not want you to fuss over spelling or grammar or getting your point just right. There’s no edit button and no delete button. If you make a mistake, just keep going. It’s a little unsettling, but Miller wants to force a little more thoughtfulness in online dialog. (There’s no undo at the dinner table either, I suppose.)

Miller managed to win the attention of Jonah Peretti, an early mentor, and the Twitter co-founders (turned Obvious Corp. investors), Evan Williams and Biz Stone. Somehow Miller landed on one of those “20 innovative startups” lists on Business Insider, he said, and things took off. The company raised $2 million.

Branch also attracted the attention of Gawker czar Nick Denton, who publicly praised Miller and went on to release a new commenting system that bore some similarities to Branch. (“I wish Denton all the best and I hope it works out, but I don’t see us as being direct competitors,” he told me.)

This year, the 21-year-old Miller dropped out of Princeton to focus on Branch full-time. (He would have been a senior this fall.) Here is an edited and condensed transcript of our conversation.

Phelps: So you dropped out of Princeton.
Miller: Right. And my mom kills me when I say “drop out.” Yes, I dropped out, took a leave of absence, whatever you want to call it, and one part of this story that gets over looked now, because Ev and Biz and Jason are involved, is that the main reason we did that. Someone said, “You gotta meet this guy, Jonah Peretti.” I was like, “Who’s Jonah Peretti? So I Wikipedia him, and I was like, OH MY GOD, yes please. So we kinda stumbled into Jonah’s office, half-understanding who he was or why he was important and showed him the sketches for this idea that was really just a side project. He said, “I think this is really cool, guys. I don’t know what your plan is, or if this is a startup or what, but if you decide to work on this full-time, I want to help. I don’t need money or equity. I think it’s a cool idea. I like your guys’ enthusiasm and would love to be helpful.”
Phelps: What is Branch? It’s really hard when tech companies release products not to describe them as something for something or a combination of something and something. So how would you describe it?
Miller: We still don’t have a great one-liner, and we like that. I think the best way to explain it or describe it is kind of explain where it came from. I found comment sections very chaotic and unwelcoming and, you know, MySpace Tom was my Justin Hall. I’ve only grown up in an Internet where I knew who I was talking to, so it was weird for me to go to this place where raidersfan27 is yelling profanity. And even when there quality commentaries, it was really hard to kind of follow the discussion because there were usually like 10 going on at once. It was a mess.

I think [social media] are amazing, powerful platforms. But for me to express my opinions, it was this weird notion where you kind of are talking, but not to anyone in particular. It’s like, Here’s my opinion, world. I’m going to stand up and tell it to you, and it’s so great, what do you think? Go comment down there.

And I don’t think any of the people that I’m friends with on Facebook want to talk to me about politics. They don’t want to talk about politics. I mean, once I posted a Daily Show clip and my old college counselor went on a rant about the Tea Party and it was just, like, the most awkward thing ever.

Phelps: Oh, that is awkward.
Miller: There’s so much you get out of sharing your opinion online and in an open way that could be shared and viewed and other people can jump in. But I think there’s also something to be said for knowing exactly who you’re talking to. And you know, part of the thing, too, is that a lot of people think, “Oh, you know, well, comments can be great.” They were great, back in the day. But I felt like the Internet is a different place than it used to be. Some of the old classic blog comment sections did have amazing conversations, but there weren’t that many people on the Internet at the time. The people that knew about a certain blog were kind of self-selected already.

So part of what’s wrong with comments is that what’s valuable about a conversation is the back and forth, and that if you think about the real world — if you sit around a dinner table, once you get to a certain number of people, it fractures off into two separate conversations, because there can only be so many people talking at once.

There’s a need for a platform that’s built around a conversation, because when you think about all the platforms online, they’re all built around monologue. And we just think that online there should be a place where you go to have dialog, to have conversations, and we think that’s complementary.

Phelps: It reinforces that idea that comments themselves, the conversations, are content, not just metadata.
Miller: By no means do I think Branch is perfect and that everyone’s going to adopt it and it’s going to be great. So I’m very active in soliciting feedback from people that have used it. And I was talking to Choire [Sicha] the other day and he said that the reason that he liked using it is that it kind of bridged the gap for him between the reader and the writer.

Because that’s another big thing with me about comment sections, that I feel like a second-class citizen. It’s like, “All right, well, that guy up there is the big man and the hot shot that shares his opinion. And I’m less down here in the dungeon section trying to duke it out with this raiderfan27.”

Phelps: You use this “dinner party” metaphor a lot. I remember you had asked me a while back what I thought about the experience after we used it for a Nieman Lab conversation, and I wrote:

I found myself wishing more than once that I could edit the original question. I kind of hated the way I framed it to begin with and wished I could tweak, especially before the conversation really got going…I posted the original question hastily, perhaps because I am accustomed to a world in which things can be edited. Maybe this product will force me to slow down and consider that I can’t undo. Or maybe it will drive me [expletive] crazy.

Miller: The real places that are built for expression of your opinion or ideas impose this feeling that everything needs to be perfect, because if I’m going to write a blog post I need to make sure my punctuation and grammar is correct, and I’ve covered all my counterarguments, and I’m witty and tell a funny joke, and I do my research.

We want the ethos of Branch to be where you go to take your half-baked ideas, and the point is to be imperfect. The whole ethos is “I don’t know enough alone, so I need help from other people and I want to talk to other people to make my half-baked ideas better.” So, you know, we’re quickly learning that we do want to work with publishers, so we’re going to need to have a way to edit posts. But we want to build in a way that’s more about typos than re-writing stuff.

Phelps: Part of the reason it bothered me was because I started the conversation with the expectation that it would work like other products I’m already familiar with. And maybe next time when my expectations are different, it won’t bother me — and maybe even become somewhat liberating.
Miller: You should go see the language I use in my branches. You know, I screw capitalization every once in a while. I won’t go back and correct that comma that shouldn’t have been there, and, like, my sentences will not be complete. And I’m not doing that on purpose, but I’m purposely not correcting it because I want to demonstrate to everyone that it’s okay. We want you to see kind of the evolution of the conversation and how it got there. That’s what bothers us about the other platforms, that it’s like, “Okay, so here’s this question, and here’s the best answer, because the community voted it up.”
Phelps: Of course, one major way that the “dinner party” metaphor breaks down is that at a dinner party the conversation is not recorded word-for-word, and something someone said 20 minutes ago will never be documented — tomorrow or five years from now.
Miller: I think that a lot of the conversations we have online that are private are just private by default, because that’s the way the systems were originally designed, but if you really think about the stuff you care about, and the stuff you can talk about on a daily basis, most of it doesn’t really need to be private, especially if it’s not actively being promoted. So yes, it’s going to be an awkward concept for some, and it’s not great for every conversation, and we’re okay with that. But I do think there’s a lot to gain by having a lot of these conversations in the open.
Phelps: Let’s switch gears and talk to Josh the business man. What is the business model? Is there a business model?
Miller: When we started Roundtable, at the time we had no money. We did not have any funding, so for the first roundtables I actually went and sold sponsorships for a thousand bucks. We used to boast in our pitch meetings that Branch was profitable from Day 1! When we got to work with the Obvious guys, and we were kind of considering who to take money from, one thing they said is that,”Look, we are lucky enough to be in a situation where we have the finances to allow you to not worry about financing. So we want you first and foremost to build a product that’s going to change the world. That should be your No. 1 goal, not worrying about revenue.” I tell this to potential hires, that I personally, as a CEO and one of the cofounders, would much rather build the next Wikipedia than the next Zynga.

Separately, I think just like in the early days, when we had Samsung and G.E. reach out to us about sponsoring roundtables about the future of energy and the future of smartphones, I think there are really easy sponsorship opportunities with brands. I mean, if you just look at The Economist today, they make, from my understanding, a really good amount of money selling sponsorships to Intel and Exxon and whoever else, because these brands want to be associated with conversations with experts in domains that their companies operate within. I think sponsorship — not necessarily display advertising is one huge opportunity.

One example is: I was in a branch the other night, “What movie should I see this weekend?” And there’s a great pop where if we knew you were talking about movies, or that “Bourne Identity” movie that just came out, we could display showtimes or modules for you to buy tickets. Or, for example, I was just in a branch about “I’m going to Berlin, where should I go in Berlin?” There was a great opportunity where we might display ads or modules for you to book a hostel in Berlin or restaurants in Berlin or whatever else. So in the same way that you go to Google to seek out information or you go to Twitter to seek out information, you’re going to go to Branch to talk about something you need answers to.

May 05 2010

16:00

Tracking memes on their native turf: Viral anthropology at ROFLcon

If ROFLcon isn’t the world’s largest gathering of Internet celebrities, it at least appears to have the highest concentration. In the audience was Matt Harding, who danced around the world in his series of videos, Where the Hell is Matt? Brad O’Farrell, creator of the viral hit video Play Him Off, Keyboard Cat was around and in costume, as was the man behind the cat’s paws from the original footage, Charlie Schmidt. They were among the many creators and enthusiasts of viral web content meeting at the MIT campus last weekend for the two day conference.

Now in its third year, ROFLcon (Rolling on the Floor Laughing conference, for the n00bs) seems less like a discussion of some obscure online culture than a look at an edge of the mainstream. After all, 4chan was the answer to a question on Jeopardy. CNN’s played the Keyboard Cat video, and ABC Nightly News had a segment on Three Wolf Moon. Many of the best known web celebrities have appeared on late night talk shows or in ad campaigns.

This year, ROFLcon looked to the past to better understand the Internet memes it celebrates. Guests included Usenet moderators, FidoNet creator Tom Jennings, and Mahir, whose “I Kiss You” website dates back to 1999. But the climate’s different from the web’s earlier days, with the growth of Facebook, Digg, Twitter, 4chan, and other social media networks. That Neiman Marcus cookie recipe couldn’t last an afternoon if it were sent around today.

A viral Tumblr, single serving site, or a humorous web video can now see massive traffic in a short time frame. Tens of millions have seen Matt Harding dance. Over a thousand have added humorous reviews to the Three Wolf Moon Amazon page, and since the meme began, it has ranked among Amazon’s bestselling clothing items. But the behavior of sharing and linking content is difficult to predict.

The hunt for the heart of buzz

The huckster with a formula for making your brand “go viral” is the Brooklyn Bridge salesman of our time, but ROFLcon presenter Jonah Peretti isn’t your average social media “strategist.” The Huffington Post co-founder was invited to talk about the “social reproduction rank” measured at his other website, Buzzfeed.

Buzzfeed’s focus is on the media that gets shared, with buttons and traffic stats on posts indicating the trajectory of these memes. There are millions of people bored at work every day, sharing links with their friends, and that “bored at work network” is bigger than the BBC, NBC, or any media outlet, Peretti explained. High clickthrough rates don’t always predict lots of sharing: “Porn isn’t viral,” Peretti said. (Those who click a link to see “Lindsay Lohan sideboob” probably aren’t going to then tweet or blog about it.) Peretti also finds that what people search for online is similarly kept private. But while Peretti was clear about what doesn’t create a meme, what does remained something of a mystery. Certainly, engaging with groups of “maniacs” (Ron Paul voters, Justin Bieber fans) or providing an outlet for playful narcissism (“Elf Yourself“) can build crowds — but that still leaves a lot of high-traffic Internet weirdness still unexplained.

As for the meme makers, few had an answer for why their media had taken off the way they did. Most of them were not the sort of SXSWi-attending microcelebrities who were in the audience; as Matthew Battles tweeted, “unlike most conferences, the audience are the experts & the panelists are outsiders. And *they* are the creators.” One guest pronounced “meme” incorrectly several times, and two other panelists were unfamiliar with the term “IRL.” Given the lighthearted spirit of the conference, ROFLers seemed to regard this less as ignorance than further proof of their authenticity. They weren’t “trying too hard” (the worst insult to a meme maker.)

Tracking the numbers

Sharing wacky Internet memes seems driven by some of the same desires that lead to sharing news or more serious media. The gut-wrenching video of Neda Agha-Soltan’s death and the footage of ex-marine David Motari throwing a puppy off a cliff spread on the Internet as easily as Keyboard Cat. News of a celebrity’s death — real or not — gets “shared” on Twitter, and many people first heard about the earthquake in Haiti or the bomb in Times Square via social networks.

There may be no crystal ball to predict “virality” in advance, but media organizations can control how an existing meme gets aggregated and filtered. Trending topics and to-the-minute analytics like Chartbeat are essential for tending to traffic spikes as they happen. Peretti explained The Huffington Post keeps constant watch over every post, moving items up and down the homepage as pageviews rise and fall — even rewriting headlines when they don’t appear to work.

It is unclear why one cat video finds a million viewers and another never reaches a thousand. And success may only come once: At ROFLcon, Brad O’Farrell and “Dancing Matt” even made a video together, and at around 8,000 views, it does not appear to be viral. But if your content does go viral, you’ll want to be able to laugh along with the crowd when the traffic spikes— especially if they are laughing at you. Otherwise, you’ll never live it down.

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