BuzzFeed’s Scott Lamb on the Art of Viral Hits

Memeologists are very famiiar with BuzzFeed, the go-to site for what’s trending on the Web at any given moment. Jonah Peretti, one of the co-founders of the Huffington Post, started the site/viral analytics platform in 2006, and since then it has raised $11.5 million in funding and has 11 million unique visitors a month, according to Quantcast. The mission is simple: curate the stuff that the Web’s talking about. Doing that is a mix of art and science. BuzzFeed’s managing editor Scott Lamb took time to talk to Digiday about what it’s like curating viral trends, unexpected meme sensations, and why cats will never die as an Internet trend.

So what is it like being a viral tastemaker? How much is viral an art versus a science?
We don’t think of ourselves as coolhunters or tastemakers. We are a site that people go to to understand the sensibility of the Web, and in that sense, since so much of the Web is about viral content, we are tastemakers. We aren’t gatekeepers. We are trying to surface the best stuff. We are what you ought to know on the Web. As for art versus science, I think it’s a mixture of both. People often ask us about how do you know what goes viral, and it’s kind of impossible on a granular level to predict what is going to go viral. But we can know how something is going to go viral. The “how” is the science part. People share things that reach them on an emotional level. The content they share is about the person and not the thing itself, and we look at framing content in that way. And that’s the art part.
What recent Internet meme that took off surprised you?
We kind of created a meme, and it was kind of surprising to us how well it did. It was in the wake of planking, and we made this thing called horsemaning. We came across this and decided to make a thing out of it; we made a half dozen photos of the staff doing it, and it was right on the coattails of planking and it just took off. That was kind of cool to breathe new life into something that was played out. Another thing is Nyan cat. Everyday there is something new with it. It is just not going away, and there is nothing to it. There is nothing there but people love it.
Speaking of Nyan cat, will the Internet’s obsession with cats ever end?
No, I think it’s impossible. There’s a lot about cats that work well with the Internet. Cats are inscrutable. You can put any expressions and emotions on them. We often look to Japan for viral trends, and cats are big there. The Japanese love cats. Like Maru cat. Cats are definitely not going away.

Part of what BuzzFeed does in curating the “Web’s obsessions in real time” is finding obscure subculture fads and making them mainstream. Do you think this has done more harm or good to culture as a whole?  
I’ve never thought of it as a bad thing. I think it’s a good thing. I think it comes back to the question of what role the Web plays in culture. It’s a fairly new idea to think of Web culture as important — as a part of mainstream or even “high” culture. The New Yorker doesn’t have a Web columnist yet, and at this point it wouldn’t make sense for them to have one, but eventually they will. I think that BuzzFeed works as a point of translation, and I think Reddit does this too, in taking smaller ideas from the Web and making them bubble up to the mainstream, and I think that’s a good thing. Like lolcats, they didn’t cure cancer, but they are entertaining. The idea that you can take a discrete part of culture and remix or play with it to create something new and make it spread is a new way to think about culture, and I think that’s a positive. And I don’t think that giving people a place to keep tabs on things like Nyan cat is a waste of time. Beyond entertaining them when they’re bored at work, it also provides cultural talking points. At cocktail parties these days, you’re more likely to discuss the thing that’s going around the Web than what was on one of the late-night talk shows.

Are you personally a consumer of social media? 
I’m a huge consumer of it myself. For us, social sharing is the most important thing that there is. It is certainly the benchmark by which we measure our success. [The Web] is moving away from the older version of page views or unique views as how you measure a site’s success. Social sharing is going to be the metric. That is really where the value is for advertisers. So for us, it’s terribly important. Viral is just sharing — it’s a fancy word for people sharing things that they like, so that’s the thing we go after the most.