How BuzzFeed won #TheDress sweepstakes Feb 27 2015
The internet went crazy yesterday three separate times: when the FCC officially endorsed Net Neutrality, when two llamas escaped, and over the color of this dress.1 A solid three meme day. That scuffling sound you hear is the media scrambling to deliver all sorts of different takes on What It All Means™. The only one I really read, and the only one I'm going to link to, is Paul Ford on why Buzzfeed got 27 million pageviews for #TheDress2 and some other site didn't.
What I saw, as I looked through the voluminous BuzzFeed coverage of the dress, is an organization at the peak of a craft they've been honing since 2006. They are masters of the form they pioneered. If you think that's bullshit, that's fine -- I think most things are bullshit too. But they didn't just serendipitously figure out that blue dress. They created an organization that could identify that blue dress, document it, and capture the traffic. And the way they got that 25 million impressions, as far as I can tell from years of listening to their people, reading them, writing about them, and not working or writing for them, was something like: Build a happy-enough workplace where people could screw around and experiment with what works and doesn't, and pay everyone some money.
This is not said as an endorsement of BuzzFeed. BuzzFeed is utterly deserving of insanely paranoid criticism just like anyone who makes money from your attention, including me. But it's worth pointing out that their recipe for traffic seems to be: Hire tons of people; let them experiment, figure out how social media works, and repeat endlessly; with lots of snacks. Robots didn't make this happen. It was a hint of magic, and some science.
I'm reminded of a story about Picasso, possibly apocryphal:
Legend has it that Pablo Picasso was sketching in the park when a bold woman approached him.
"It's you -- Picasso, the great artist! Oh, you must sketch my portrait! I insist."
So Picasso agreed to sketch her. After studying her for a moment, he used a single pencil stroke to create her portrait. He handed the women his work of art.
"It's perfect!" she gushed. "You managed to capture my essence with one stroke, in one moment. Thank you! How much do I owe you?"
"Five thousand dollars," the artist replied.
"B-b-but, what?" the woman sputtered. "How could you want so much money for this picture? It only took you a second to draw it!"
To which Picasso responded, "Madame, it took me my entire life."
Similarly, designer Paula Scher took only a few seconds to come up with the new logo for Citibank for which Pentagram likely charged big money for:
How can it be that you talk to someone and it's done in a second? But it is done in a second. it's done in a second and in 34 years, and every experience and every movie and every thing of my life that's in my head.
Ford is exactly right about BuzzFeed; they put in the work for years so that a post that took probably 3 minutes to write captured more traffic in one day than some media outlets get in an entire month. (thx, @DigDoug & @jayfallon)
Update: A post from BuzzFeed's publisher, Dao Nguyen, explains how the company's tech team reacted to the unexpected traffic.
We have a bunch of things going for us at this point. We have heavily invested in infrastructure provisioning and scaling. We know exactly how to scale fast from running drills.
Weirdly, I saw the dress as gold and a light blue. What a fucking cliche I am, needing to see even this dress as a different set of colors than anyone else.↩
I don't think I'm betraying any confidences here in saying that BuzzFeed had to spin up a few extra servers to handle the intense burst of traffic from that post...everyone does it. That's right, dedicated #TheDress servers. Move over, Bieber.↩