Before there was social media, there were e-mail chain letters.
People would try all sorts of tips and tricks to get their friends to forward the e-mail.
Some would say, “If you don’t forward this to 20 people in the next hour you’ll receive a year of bad luck”.
Others would say, “You’ve been hit by the beautiful truck! Forward to 8 beautiful people or you’ll be cursed with ugliness!!!!!”
Every now and then, people would get an e-mail that was so funny, so interesting, so audacious, that they would want to forward it to their friends and colleagues without any coercion whatsoever.
Jonah Peretti understood this better than anyone else.
In 2001, Jonah ordered a pair of Nike trainers from the new Nike ID shop, which let the customer choose their own design.
Jonah saw an opportunity for some fun, and ordered a pair of Nike trainers with “sweatshop” stitched on the side.
Nike e-mailed him back, saying that they wouldn’t do it. They said it violated one of their four ordering policies: using another company’s trademark, using the name of an athlete or team, leaving the space blank, or using profanity or inappropriate slang.
Jonah wrote back, saying that they were wrong. He said that asking for the word “sweatshop” didn’t actually violate any of their fine print, and that he chose it because he wanted to remember the toil of the children that would make his shoes.
Nike e-mailed him back, insisting that “sweatshop” was inappropriate slang.
Jonah wrote back again, with a dictionary definition of “sweatshop”, showing that it was not in fact slang.
Nike wrote back saying that in the fine print, it said that they reserved the right to deny any request that they deemed objectionable, so they could refuse on any grounds.
Jonah sent one last e-mail back, saying that he had decided to change the word, but would like a colour photo of the Vietnamese girl who makes the shoes.
Jonah sent this correspondence to a few friends. They forwarded it to a few of their friends. Within a few weeks the e-mail was forwarded millions of times, truly going viral. And that was before the word ‘virality’ was the buzzword that it is today.
That got Jonah thinking.
Why spend half your time writing news articles, and half your time marketing them, when you can create things that people will want to share all by themselves.
Things that are funny.
Things that are interesting.
Things that are audacious.
So Jonah founded Buzzfeed.
A company recently valued at a billion dollars.
And it all started with trolling one of the most powerful corporations in the world.
Sometimes it pays to take on the big guy.
Michael Bodansky, Account Executive