HuffPost, in a sense, has recreated on a grand scale what might be called the Arianna Experience, one that she first learned at Cambridge and which, in the decades since, she has developed into a network of thousands of people of varying degrees of familiarity who are nonetheless connected by virtue of their connection to Arianna. She herself can be somewhat disingenuous about this talent—her mentor as a “gatherer,” she likes to say, was her late mother, who would invite all sorts of people to sit at her table, and who always made sure they were fed. When she reminisces about the Cambridge Union, it is not merely the conversation Arianna speaks of, but rather the experience of a young woman with a Greek accent making a name for herself in that most hidebound British institution by cultivating the power of her words. With words came friends, and with friends came an ever-wider circle of acquaintances, and it did not much matter what they thought or where they lived, because Arianna was not one to “cluster” her associations. Everyone was potentially welcome because—who knew?—some day, they might be worth calling. When Howard Fineman first met her in 1995, she was married to Michael Huffington and hosting salons in their Washington home, where she gathered such one-time kindred spirits as William Bennett, the conservative author and critic, to talk about non-governmental answers to social issues. She and Fineman did not lose touch. He is now HuffPost’s editorial director.
“I’ve never had a bad gathering,” she says. “Some of them may have been more boring, less fascinating. But not bad.” When she is invited to speak in public, she asks that the house lights be turned up so that she can see the faces in the audience. “If you speak, you know when you have the audience, and you know when you lose them,” she says. “I want to see peoples’ eyes. I want to connect to them. I want to speak to what I sense they want to hear next.”
Tim Armstrong paid a good deal of money in the hope that HuffPost’s network might become his, too. And if that is to happen, his fortunes lie, in large measure, with people like Justin Isaf and Travis Donovan who (with apologies to all those who spend their days producing journalism for HuffPost) are part of the larger army of young men and women charged with the work that is at the core of the enterprise: cultivating, feeding, tending, and stroking the network.
“People will do anything for recognition,” says Isaf, who is 28 and a community manager. “When [we] say you’re good enough to be recognized by the whole world, that goes a long way. They become loyal to your brand.”
Donovan, 25, a senior verticals editor whose arms are ornately tattooed, was a social worker before coming to HuffPost, working to integrate a group home of disabled adults into their community. “It’s the exact same thing on social,” he says. “We want to change the landscape of media. News is inherently supposed to be social. It’s supposed to be something you want to talk with your friends about.”
“Once [we] get into someone’s network, we spread within that group,” says Isaf. “They share it. And we spread within it.”
“It’s not that we want to be the cool dinner party,” Donovan adds. “We want to be the table itself.”
An intriguing aspiration, not only for Huffington Post but for every enterprise, existing or still being imagined, that sees in the story of HuffPost’s rise a series of replicable steps that assure success. This sort of thinking troubles Duncan Watts. In the end, some things just happen. There is a confluence of events that could not be envisioned, that came together in precisely the right way and at the right time and which, in hindsight, could not have been predicted. “I know that they didn’t know they were going to succeed,” Watts says of the HuffPost founders. It was not just their complementary skills and temperaments. It was also the moment—the blogging phenomenon, the bitterness of the left after 2004, the coming of Web 2.0 and the excitement of the 2008 election, the rise of the Bored at Work Network, the evolving ease of technology—all of it, all at once. The rhythmic clapping in the sixth inning that, as Watts would put it, cannot necessarily be replicated in the seventh.
“The larger point of this is that we think deterministically,” he says. “If you think about the major religions, they’re deterministic—creator, plan, faith, destiny, causality. Journalists are prone to this. They tell stories. And stories are confining. There is a tendency to kind of tell a story that makes it seem as if everything had to happen the way it did.”