Still, networks were eternally undermined by the inevitable force of randomness. It was one thing, say, to go to a baseball game and hear the stirrings of rhythmic clapping that then cascade around the ballpark so that quickly everyone is clapping in unison. A powerful thing to behold—so much so that an inning later, you yourself might want to start the whole stadium clapping. Maybe the person to your left joins in, and maybe five or six others do, too. Until the clapping dies. In Watts’s view, networks were a wonderful phenomenon to observe, but all but impossible to replicate. Why did everyone in the ballpark feel the desire to join in the clapping in the sixth inning but not in the seventh? What was different? Could you somehow recreate the precise conditions that made that ephemeral but resoundingly successful sixth-inning network happen?

Watts doubted it. There were simply too many variables at work. Still, you could, in theory, try something: Start to clap, see if anyone joins in, stop if they don’t, wait for a new set of conditions to arise—another player to bat, a runner reaches second base? Or third? In other words, experiment, and measure the results as they occur, all the while adjusting, tweaking—try clapping louder, say, then faster, maybe adding a chant—but do so having accepted the likelihood that animates work for all scientists: failure.

Ken Lerer listened, and he was not deterred. Networks did, in fact, occur—vast networks through which previously disconnected people suddenly found themselves joined together, perhaps to share an idea, a song, a sentiment, a cause. Why not then try to create a network that could challenge the vast and powerful and sustaining network of the NRA?

“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.”

Michael Shapiro is a contributing editor to CJR and teaches at Columbia's Graduate School of Journalism. His most recent book is Bottom of the Ninth: Branch Rickey, Casey Stengel, and the Daring Scheme to Save Baseball From Itself.