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.
The launch featured an introductory blog by Huffington herself, along with blogs by, yes, Arthur Schlesinger, Larry David, and a much-maligned co-bylined post by Julia Louis-Dreyfus and her husband, Brad Hall, on gay marriage. The knives were out: “I’m predicting it’ll be at least as successful as Arianna’s last campaign for governor, and you can quote me on that,” wrote Ned Rice in National Review Online. “The problem with blogs like The Huffington Post is that they divert our attention from real and serious journalism,” wrote Cal Thomas of Tribune Media Services, which had been carrying ariannaonline.com. But no one could rival the delighted venom of Nikki Finke in LA Weekly: “Judging from Monday’s horrific debut of the humongously pre-hyped celebrity blog the Huffington Post, the Madonna of the mediapolitic world has undergone one reinvention too many.” Finke went on to hit where it seemed likely to hurt most, suggesting that Arianna’s Hollywood friends wanted little to do with the venture.
In truth, there was little need to scrounge for copy; all sorts of people were willing to have a turn once they realized how easy it was to send along their musings. There was little in the way of editing, save for some cosmetic tending to prose, and the admonition, especially to the writers among them, to “be bloggier.”