“I know the answers,” Watts told him. “I am confident they are not there.” Then, having deflated Lerer, Watts threw him a lifeline: “Maybe my friend Jonah can help you.”
Jonah Peretti was 29 and had already earned a reputation as something of a wise guy. He had been a technology teacher at a New Orleans private school when he was admitted to a graduate program at MIT. His plan was to study ways networks might foster communication among teachers, but got sidetracked midway through his master’s thesis. In 2000, Nike was inviting customers to create footwear with personalized wording. The company had been criticized widely for selling sneakers made by desperately poor people in impoverished countries. Peretti, tall, skinny and bespectacled, submitted his request: He wanted his sneakers emblazoned with the word SWEATSHOP. Nike declined. At which point, Peretti did a clever thing: he e-mailed.
Nike replied. Back and forth they went: Peretti pressing his request; Nike, grasping at excuses, going so far as to refuse on the grounds that “sweatshop” was slang and therefore not permissible. Peretti, citing Webster’s, insisted it was not. He ended the exchange with a final request: “Could you please send me a color snapshot of the ten-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?” What happened next represents one of those moments in which the tectonic media plates experienced a subtle but profound shift: Peretti offered the e-mail trail to Harper’s. The magazine declined. So, on January 17, 2001, Peretti forwarded the e-mails to 10 friends. Those friends, in turn, forwarded the e-mails to other friends and before long, a lot people who had never heard of Jonah Peretti—some of them in Australia—were sending around his e-mail conversations with Nike.
Less than two weeks after he first forwarded the e-mails, the San Jose Mercury News published a story about the exchange. Salon soon followed. Then Time, The Village Voice, and The Independent and The Guardian in London. Years later, Peretti would recall the sensation of watching something he had originated spread so widely that it would culminate in his appearance on the Today Show with a chagrined representative of Nike. “Every person who’s made something that’s gone viral remembers the experience with glee and disbelief,” he says. “Part of it feels powerful and part of it feels like magic—I just did this little thing and a big thing happened.”
To his credit, Peretti completed his thesis on teacher communication, but his mind was elsewhere, looking for ways to replicate the sensation he had experienced with Nike. He left Cambridge and moved to New York, where he started a laboratory for what he called “contagious media.” At Eyebeam Art & Technology Center, Peretti, together with like-minded friends including his sister, Chelsea, an aspiring stand-up comic, produced what would come to be regarded as early independent benchmarks of virality: blackpeopleloveus.com—in which white people try to ingratiate themselves with black friends in a manner so compellingly offensive that it earned a piece in The New York Times; and the “breakup hotline,” a telephone number and accompanying website for women attempting to rid themselves of unwanted suitors. “I was trying to have an impact on culture,” Peretti says.
Where Watts believed in “embracing” randomness, Peretti nodded to it but had seen that he possessed a talent for improving the odds of a viral launch. Watts would later say, “Basically, he’s a prankster.”
Which was why he thought Peretti and Lerer should meet.
Stopthenra.com did not, in the end, stop the NRA. The goal was to ensure that the Clinton-era assault-weapon ban would not expire in September 2004. And though the ban did end—Congress simply avoided voting on it—Lerer would remain pleased with the effort. (Later that year he donated the site to the Jim Brady gun-control campaign.) For Peretti, the experience provided important lessons. He had learned through the Nike saga how essential a role mainstream media played in adding legitimacy to a viral meme, a lesson underscored by Lerer’s PR skill. But there was something more, a point that Watts had raised early in his book.
The problem with Stop the NRA was that it spoke to an audience that was, in Watts’s words, already “clustered.” That audience was akin to a group of friends or colleagues who already knew one another. As an example of “clustering,” Watts cited a science-fiction trilogy by Isaac Asimov, in which Earth is a land of atomized steel caves, as opposed to Solaria, where all communication is virtual. On Earth, everyone whom everyone knows is known intimately, but they do not know anyone else. On Solaria, the connections are vast, but weak.