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.

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.

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.