When Jonah Peretti was a graduate student at the MIT Media Lab in the winter of 2001, he was procrastinating from work and decided to order personalized shoes online from Nike with the word “sweatshop” on them. A customer service agent e-mailed back to say that the word wasn’t appropriate, and Peretti exchanged a few pointed notes back and forth before giving up.
But his story was far from over. Peretti wanted more people to see the e-mail exchange, so he posted them online and forwarded them around to a small group of friends. Less than six weeks later, the San Jose Mercury News, Time magazine, the Village Voice and the Independent (UK) had all written about the Nike e-mails, and Peretti appeared on the “Today” show to debate a Nike spokesperson. This was Peretti’s first adventure with what he calls contagious media and led to collaborations such as “Black People Love Us” and “The Rejection Line.”
After setting up his own site, ContagiousMedia.org, and becoming director of R&D for the art/science non-profit Eyebeam, Peretti recently decided to let loose a whole group of media creators on the Web with a contest called the Contagious Media Showdown. The rules were simple: Create a new site and launch it on May 19, and build the most traffic or get the most Technorati links by June 9 — with no paid advertising.
“I was wondering … how does something get e-mailed around the world and become a mass media story?” Peretti told me. “My last couple months at MIT I spent a lot of time talking to other students and professors, trying to get ideas about the dynamics of how these things work. One of the people I spent a lot of time talking to is Cameron Marlowe, who runs Blogdex. We were both obsessed with how ideas spread on the Internet. His way of figuring it out was to develop Blogdex and my way was to figure out how things show up on Blogdex and the Showdown was a way of looking at a bunch of projects all at once.”
When I talked to Peretti last week, entries such as Forget-Me-Not Panties (purportedly women’s underwear with GPS tracking built-in for jealous males), Crying While Eating (videos of people doing just that) and Ringtone Dancer (videos of a strange caped crusader dancing to a phone’s ringtone in public places) were leading the pack in unique visitors. They ended up finishing 1-2-3, with Blogebrity — a planned magazine about A-list bloggers — winning the Technorati prize.
The secret sauce for contagious media
What set these sites apart from the pack of 60 entries? Obviously there’s some humor in each of the entries. And perhaps an element of unreality — is it fake? — along with a dash of the provocative or controversial.
The Forget-Me-Not Panties site was sure to stir it up with this copy: “Unlike the cumbersome and uncomfortable chastity belts of the past, these panties are 100% cotton, and use cutting-edge technology to help you protect what matters most.” Sure enough, the duo behind the site, a pair of New York City female artists who go by the name Panty Raiders, received complaints from feminists and concerned bloggers.
“There’s a weird combination [for contagious media projects], where you immediately get them,” Peretti said. “You see the project and you immediately say, ‘I get what this is about.’ There’s also this weird ambiguity where it’s provoking you to think, ‘Is this real or is this right? Is this an outrage? Is this a good thing or a bad thing?’ The best projects are a combination of being immediately accessible but are thought-provoking on a deeper level.”
The duo behind the Crying While Eating site, filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski and writer Daniel Engber, agreed that the humor of their site had to be mixed with a certain gut-wrenching feeling.
“We made a simple, utilitarian site that showcased video adhering to two principles: make people laugh and/or make people vaguely uncomfortable,” Nozkowski and Engber told me via e-mail. “It was also a chance to shoot footage that didn’t have to fit into a larger narrative. It could just be in service to a simple idea — in this case, people crying while they eat.”
A similar entry called 60 Second Story allowed people to submit one-minute video stories, but the concept was flat on controversy. Other popular sites such as Farting Saucers and Felon Check were funny, but lacked interactivity and provocation — though Felon Check did get a cease-and-desist order.
Can online marketers or publishers learn from contagious media projects? Perhaps, though marketing types often gravitate to the tried and true, with the exception of Burger King’s bizarre “Subservient Chicken” online campaign.
“As a result of their paramount need for some predictability, I think most marketers are looking [at viral campaigns] with great curiosity and relatively low expectations,” said Tig Tillinghast, longtime marketer and publisher of MarketingVox. “You can waste money on some traditional media thing, and it’ll still look good to your management (what do they know?). The returns are predictable, if unaccountable and generally low. While you can grand slam with a viral, you can — and probably will — also fizzle very obviously. That’s not tolerable in most marketing organizations. Burger King seems to be the exception to this.”
Debunking promotional myths
When it comes to contagious media, there are a lot of exceptions to marketing norms and assumptions. Peretti says that when he launched “Black People Love Us,” a spoof of awkward white people who celebrate their black friends through pictures on a clunky Web site, he expected it to be popular among hipsters who got the joke. What he didn’t expect was that the site would become popular on forums for white supremacists, where people were upset about the white couple making friends with blacks.
“I know with my projects, you might think that your intended audience might be a certain group of people, but then your audience comes from a totally different group,” Peretti said. “You can’t really choose your audience. In a way, it’s the opposite of the niche publishing vertical stuff. … Of course to make something that’s modestly popular, you do have more control. There’s certain people that do more techie projects, and they get linked on BoingBoing and Slashdot and they get some good traffic. But not the kind of traffic that the top entries in the show are getting.”
Another surprise from the contest was the long domain names of some of the most popular entries. Contestants were allowed to register any domain name available, as long as they mapped it to the ContagiousMedia.org server for traffic-tracking purposes. But the winning entry was at the domain forgetmenotpanties.contagiousmedia.org until recently, as was ringtonedancer.contagiousmedia.org. It shows the power of hyperlinks on sites, and links spread by e-mail and instant messaging.
“We all had different hypotheses about what would do well,” Peretti said. “A lot of people thought that Forget-Me-Not Panties wouldn’t spread, and sites that had the contagiousmedia.org domain wouldn’t spread. But Forget-Me-Not Panties and Ringtone Dancer both spread without their own domains. There’s a lot of conventional wisdom about the Web that’s wrong, like people think you have to spend hundreds of thousands of dollars for a short catchy domain name, and people have to remember that. There is some value to that, but even with a long name like forgetmenotpanties.contagiousmedia.org, it can be the #1 site in a contest.”
While blogs have been getting a lot of attention for bringing attention to political stories, they’re not always the biggest drivers of Web traffic. Tillinghast and Peretti both noted that blog traffic, while important, is a bit overblown in raw numbers. Instead, the meta-sites such as Slashdot, MetaFilter, CollegeHumor and Fark wield more traffic power with contagious media projects.
“Blogebrity is good at getting links from blogs, but it’s fifth in traffic,” Peretti said. “I’m seeing that with some of my projects. Where all the traffic is coming from in referrals, from sites that are bloggy like CollegeHumor, and message boards and certain online communities get a lot of traffic. Sometimes I think the traffic from blogs is overestimated even though the people who read blogs are a pretty smart demographic. Fark sends a huge amount of traffic. Fark was one of the things that really pushed the Panties site to the lead because no one else had been linked by Fark, and then they got a Fark link.”
The Panty Raiders said blogs were helpful but that newspaper and radio reports from the UK, Eastern Europe and Japan brought the biggest influx of traffic. Peretti said that Forget-Me-Not Panties’ biggest chunk of visitors — 122,000-plus hits — came from Excite Japan. Plus, even Blogebrity, an obvious play for blog links, got a boost from a print mention in Time magazine and a story on CNN.
“The Time Magazine one was huge — it came at a time when some of the initial heat we had from the launch had cooled,” said Greg Johns, one of the three Los Angeles interactive marketers who ran the Blogebrity site. “But the Time mention caught a lot of people’s attention and stoked the fires of the Blogebrity conversation again. Other offline media mentions such as CNN helped the concept, although we didn’t get a significant traffic push from them.”
What comes next for these projects? Peretti and Eyebeam will study the results of the Showdown and use that knowledge for future contagious media projects. The contestants have the option to continue their sites, and many plan to do just that. Probably the most intriguing/annoying concept was the Blogebrity print magazine, and the site’s proprietors don’t appear to be joking about a future for it.
“As much as we would like to see a print version in the future, I will say that we are all pragmatists, and wouldn’t proceed with something we didn’t think the market would bear,” Johns said via e-mail. “However, we know consumers continue to devour virtually any celebrity-based media. … Combine this with the nearly exponential spread of blogging (both in authorship and awareness), and by no means would I say the translation of Blogebrity to other mediums would be out of the question for much longer. It will be an exciting possibility for the team.”
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The Winning Contagious Media Showdown Sites
A look at the three sites that won prizes
Site Creators: The Panty Raiders, two female artists based in New York City, who are “committed to blurring reality and fiction, challenging ideas and preconceptions, provoking emotional responses and the distortion of mass communication.”
What It Won: $2,000 Grand Prize from Eyebeam; topped traffic chart with 615,562 unique visitors.
Winning Combination: Bizarre combo of high-tech concept with humorous “testimonials” and permanently SOLD OUT merchandise. Appeals to gadget-crazed Japanese and jealous males while angering feminists.
Tipping Point: Newspaper and radio coverage in Japan, Eastern Europe and the UK, along with link from Fark.
Quotable: “We have had hundreds of order inquiries for Forget-Me-Not Panties, 63 business-to-business proposals, and over 100 press inquiries (Internet, radio, TV, and print). We have also been criticized by several bloggers and concerned feminists. Additionally, we have had hundreds of requests for a male version of the panties. The Panty Raiders are already in production with new top secret projects. Don’t find us, we’ll find you.”
Crying While Eating
Site Creators: Writer Daniel Engber, 29, and filmmaker Casimir Nozkowski, 28, who both live in New York City and met at Hunter College High School.
What It Won: $1,000 Alexa Prize for being the first site to break into Alexa’s top 20,000 sites; $1,000 Creative Commons Prize for being the most trafficked open source site, with 386,638 unique visitors.
Winning Combination: Kooky original idea to host videos of people crying while eating various food — playing off of interactive ideas such as Sorry Everybody. Bonus: The duo shot the first 12 videos and the other 30 were submitted by readers.
Tipping Point: Early mention in BoingBoing on the contest’s opening night. According to the site creators, “One posting on CollegeHumor.com seems to have been a lot more important at spreading the site than appearances on VH1 or the CBS Evening News.”
Quotable: “The fact that so many people can potentially see something you make — all at the same time — is very exciting. We will also maintain CryingWhileEating.com into the foreseeable future. … The Creative Commons license matches up well with the spirit of the site — as a freely accessible archive of video clips sent from around the world. We weren’t coming at this from a viral marketing perspective — if you want to download the clips and make copies, go right ahead!”
Site Creators: Founded by Kyle Bunch and Jeremy Hermanns, with editorial direction by Greg Johns. Hermanns and Johns work at the L.A. office of Tribal DDB, an interactive agency, while Bunch works for Pinacol, a boutique interactive agency in Orange County, Calif.
What It Won: $1,000 Technorati prize for most Technorati links from blogs, 490.
Winning Combination: A celebrity magazine for bloggers, stroking their egos with People magazine-type ideas like “The 50 Most Beautiful Bloggers” but stirring up trouble with actual lists of A-list, B-list and C-list bloggers.
Tipping Point: Early exposure from InstaPundit (the day before the contest), Slashdot and MetaFilter, with a late boost from Time magazine.
Quotable: “We very much want to launch a print magazine about bloggers and online media, if for nothing else than the irony of a print magazine about blogs and the Internet. But in the near future, the focus will definitely be on creating quality content on the Web site (a full version of which is set to launch sometime in the next couple of weeks). Overall, our goal is to get more people reading quality writers, and inspiring more people to add to the conversation, via whatever vehicle.”
Note: Ringtone Dancer received an Honorable Mention for finishing third in overall traffic, with 205,761 unique visitors over the life of the contest.