Still, the sense of those assembled was that the left needed an answer to the power of Matt Drudge—the secretive, right-leaning loner who had become the political world’s primary purveyor of content and opinion—and that perhaps Arianna’s many friends could help. People offered suggestions about how this might work. Lerer, as was his habit, said almost nothing; he had long cultivated the reputation of a canny strategist by being a good listener who waited until everyone else had their say before offering a trenchant opinion. Yet there was one constant in the comments: how to make best use of the growing fascination with blogging.
The phenomenon had with remarkable speed spawned a culture whose chief practitioners celebrated the end of the traditional way information flowed: top to bottom. No longer, the blogging champions claimed, would the power to disseminate ideas and information reside with the legacy news organizations. The Web had made everyone a publisher—even, it was repeated endlessly, the fellow who stayed in his pajamas all day.
Back in New York, Peretti reasoned that to try to replicate Drudge by being like Drudge would do no good. Those competitors who had tried—Drudge Retort, BuzzFlash—had gained little traction. “You could be 50 percent better but it wouldn’t matter,” he later said. “No one would need it.” Drudge already owned the franchise on what Peretti called “stickiness”—the capacity to have readers return, time and again.
While Drudge was sticky, so too were the bloggers, many of whom presented ideas that could be shared and, as a result, created communities among like-minded people, clusters. Clusters, while tightly knit, tended to grow slowly. Peretti wanted to grow fast.
He had already seen how effectively he could spread content. But the networks he created did not last. Arianna Huffington’s networks did. He had watched her move between networks she had created—no one, he believed, worked harder at it—all the while connecting people in a way that made them feel a part of something. It was not merely making weak ties into strong ones: “She makes her weak ties feel like strong ties.” And that, he recognized, “creates a large network of all kinds of people who feel close to you. That’s really important for power.”
To succeed, he concluded, the site that was to become Huffington Post would have to be both viral and sticky. People would have to feel a connection that brought them back. They would also need to have things they could share with other people. And what better way to take fullest advantage of the blogging boom than to have famous people do it? The blogging world might well hate it, but “they wouldn’t be able not to look,” he later said. “Even the haters would come every day.”
If the site was to be a blog, it had to look like a blog, and for that he would need to build it with blogging software. He chose Moveable Type and set about building a prototype. It was up to Lerer to raise the seed money—$1 million. And it was up to Huffington to find the bloggers. She wanted Arthur Schlesinger; he was a friend. So was Larry David. And John Cusack. And Harry Shearer.
Eyebeam’s “Contagious Media Showdown” began on Saturday, May 7, 2005, with a series of workshops and the launch of a contest, whose winners would be judged, fittingly, not on the aesthetics of their viral creations but on the metrics: hits, page views, unique visits, unique users, bandwidth, etc.
Submissions included Cryingwhileeating.com, thebrainfreeze.com, fartingsaucers.com, and the eventual winner, forgetmenotpanties—615,562 unique visitors! Jonah Peretti was the kickoff speaker. Four years had passed since he had hit the send button on his Nike campaign, and in that time, he had helped spawn a phenomenon that had developed a culture all its own and was moving beyond its underground roots. MSNBC, Slate, and the Los Angeles Times covered the event with the sort of tender wonder associated with seeing a child’s first drawing.
Huffington Post’s debut came two days later, and the reaction to it was decidedly less enthusiastic. The site was not handsome. But to its founders that was beside the point. Peretti, who like Huffington and Lerer was unencumbered by journalistic sensibilities, understood that all that really mattered was ease of use. Except for the “splash” headline and the tile architecture that the site would soon adopt, the HuffPost of May 2005 looked like a stripped-down version of today’s.