It is almost too convenient to read that passage and, given the state of the news business in 2003, not think of newspapers as the equivalent of all those steel caves, sealed off and closely bound. In the two generations since the great migration of readers from the cities to the suburbs, the prevailing wisdom in newsrooms was that readers, having abandoned the outward view of the street for the inward view of the backyard, cared only about what was taking place in closest proximity. To work in a newsroom with a strong suburban readership was to be told, time and again, that the metric for success was market penetration, and that looking outward beyond geographical limits of the circulation area was a kind of journalistic heresy. Meanwhile, a whole new way of disseminating information was exploding—sending stories and news into those heretofore seemingly impregnable caves, and ending the monopolies on content. Readers may have still wanted their newspapers, but they no longer needed them as they once had.
The alternative to the steel caves, to the “clusters,” was the ephemeral network of Solaria. But where, in the here and now, did that network exist? How could it be harnessed? Peretti, whose stock in trade was the dissemination of pieces of disconnected content, believed he had an answer: He called it the Bored At Work Network. All across the world, he believed, men and women sat at their desks, staring at computer screens, bored senseless. How better to provide a momentary relief from the tedium than to disseminate something so engagingly simple that recipients would take a moment to forward it to friends—Rule No. 1 of the Peretti School of Viral Content: It must be explainable in a sentence.
What was forwarded, of course, reflected something about the sender, which, as Watts pointed out, was why few ever send pornography—not cool. And while a good deal of these bits of content had all the permanence of footprints in sand, every so often the Bored At Work Network would light up, and weak links were instantly transformed into strong ones. A vast network sprang to life.
“It’s hard to reproduce,” Peretti would later say. “It’s hard to understand.” But when it happened, its power was palpable.
Which was why Lerer remained undeterred. the 2004 presidential campaign had begun, and for Democrats there was the growing sense that President Bush, saddled by the increasingly unpopular war in Iraq, could be defeated. Peretti was still experimenting with contagious projects and teaching at NYU’s Interactive Telecommunications Program (ITP) when Lerer called with an idea: He wanted Peretti to fly to Los Angeles to meet Arianna Huffington.
Lerer had met her that year, at a dinner on the Upper East Side. His wife had declined the invitation and Lerer went reluctantly, only to find himself succumbing to the charm that had worked so well for so long on so many people. Lerer thought it might be a good idea for Huffington to meet his young collaborator. At that moment, Peretti represented that small sliver of American society who had no idea who Lerer was talking about.
In the fall of 2004, Arianna Huffington was well along in yet another iteration of what her many critics and perhaps even some of her many friends might call the Saga of Arianna.