How BuzzFeed founder Jonah Peretti literally discovered viralityx.

In Tim Wu’s Attention Merchants pg 276-277 he tells the story of BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti going viral for the first time as a graduate student, as an e-mail exchange with Nike circulated to millions after he forwarded it to a few friends:

While goofing off—“ surfing the web” in the vernacular of the time—Peretti went to Nike’s website and noticed a feature allowing customers to order shoes personalized with any word they might like. On a whim, he placed an order for Nike Zoom XC USA running shoes with the following embroidered on them: SWEATSHOP He thought nothing more of it until the next day, when he received the following email:

From: Personalize, NIKE iD To: Jonah H. Peretti Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000 Your NIKE iD order was cancelled for one or more of the following reasons. 1) Your Personal iD contains another party’s trademark or other intellectual property. 2) Your Personal iD contains the name of an athlete or team we do not have the legal right to use. 3) Your Personal iD was left blank. Did you not want any personalization? 4) Your Personal iD contains profanity or inappropriate slang. If you wish to reorder your NIKE iD product with a new personalization please visit us again at http://www.nike.com Thank you, NIKE iD

Seeing comic potential, Peretti wrote back asking just which rule he had broken. A Nike customer service representative replied: “Your NIKE iD order was cancelled because the iD you have chosen contains, as stated in the previous e-mail correspondence, ‘inappropriate slang.’ ” Peretti, just warming up, wrote back: Dear NIKE iD, Thank you for your quick response to my inquiry about my custom ZOOM XC USA running shoes. Although I commend you for your prompt customer service, I disagree with the claim that my personal iD was inappropriate slang. After consulting Webster’s Dictionary, I discovered that “sweatshop” is in fact part of standard English, and not slang. The word means: “a shop or factory in which workers are employed for long hours at low wages and under unhealthy conditions” and its origin dates from 1892. So my personal iD does meet the criteria detailed in your first email. Your web site advertises that the NIKE iD program is “about freedom to choose and freedom to express who you are.” I share Nike’s love of freedom and personal expression. The site also says that “If you want it done right . . . build it yourself.” I was thrilled to be able to build my own shoes, and my personal iD was offered as a small token of appreciation for the sweatshop workers poised to help me realize my vision. I hope that you will value my freedom of expression and reconsider your decision to reject my order. Thank you, Jonah Peretti

In response, Nike simply canceled the order. Peretti wrote one last email:

From: Jonah H. Peretti To: Personalize, NIKE iD Subject: RE: Your NIKE iD order o16468000 Dear NIKE iD, Thank you for the time and energy you have spent on my request. I have decided to order the shoes with a different iD, but I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes? Thanks, Jonah Peretti [no response] 1

What’s striking about this account, itself replicated in other texts, concerns how Peretti experienced it as discovering virality as a communicative possibility inherent in ‘new media’. Once it is encountered as an object it becomes possible to study it with a view to replicating it. Thus a more instrumental orientation towards the new communicative ecology is born and the social web inevitably begins to unwind, particularly given the inequalities of resource that are brought to bear on the possibility of winning visibility.

This is how he framed his earliest account of ‘contagious media’ from pg 280 of Wu’s book. Note the amplification imperative found in the final lines and consider what this means as a production ethos in relation to the algorithmic filtering of social media platforms.

Peretti may not have been able to create anything while at Eyebeam on the scale of his Nike experience, but he would author a twenty-three-point manifesto that he called “Notes on Contagious Media,” expounding just what distinguished that variety from others. Some of it was obvious: “Contagious media is the kind of media you immediately want to share with all your friends. This requires that you take pleasure in consuming the media but also pleasure in the social process of passing it on.” Some more theoretical: “Contagious media is a form of pop conceptual art” in which “the idea is the machine that makes the art (LeWitt, 1967) and the idea is interesting to ordinary people.” For that reason, “a contagious media project should represent the simplest form of an idea. Fancy design or extraneous content made media less contagious. Anything inessential constituted a ‘payload’ that the contagion must drag along as it spreads. The bigger the payload, the more slowly the entire project spreads.”

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