BuzzFeed's Jonah Peretti on How Internet Memes Work

The BuzzFeed founder on how to make memes and influence people.

Photo: TechCrunch

The BuzzFeed founder (above, right) on how to make memes and influence people.

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DETAILS: Is there a recipe for a successful meme?

JONAH PERETTI: It's hard to predict in advance what's going to be a hit, but they tend to be easy to communicate visually. They tend to be fairly constrained, but still allow for variations on a theme. They often will connect to other things in culture. So you'll see the Sad Keanu meme where there's a picture of Keanu Reeves looking sad sitting on a bench, and people are adding in the caption. People already care about him, and the picture is kind of compelling. One thing we've also seen more recently is that pop culture and Web culture have become the same thing. You have things like Kanye West interrupting Taylor Swift, and instantly that becomes a meme. The Web influences mass media, mass media influences the Web.

DETAILS: Do you think public figures deliberately try to become meme-ified?

JONAH PERETTI: I think that when Angelina Jolie wore that dress at the Oscars and posed that way, on some level she was trying to create a meme out of her appearance. Actually, BuzzFeed created a Twitter account—@AngiesRightLeg. There's an awareness from celebrities and media producers that there are certain meme-friendly ways of presenting content, or presenting yourself. Like, you know, that Jersey Shore thing—the GTL. These things used to happen accidentally, but increasingly people are creating television shows or making their appearances at the Oscars as meme-friendly as possible because they want these things to circulate in the larger culture.

DETAILS: Some crusty old commentators might say that this represents a dumbing-down of the culture. Discuss.

JONAH PERETTI: I don't think it dumbs down the culture. I think some of the crusty old commentators don't understand how all this stuff works. It actually requires a higher level of media literacy. I think the fear should be that it requires people to be too smart. It's hard to keep track of what's spreading on the Internet and in mass media and how they relate. Even if some of the component parts are simple, the overall system is more complicated.

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