Gelf Magazine - Looking over the overlooked

Food

November 30, 2009

Mayo Dripping at the Gates of Hell

A viral-media expert by trade, Jessica Amason crafted a web sensation out of bacon and melted cheese.

Max Lakin

As viral media editor for BuzzFeed.com, Jessica Amason has the enviable charge of sifting through untold video hours of children doing things their parents find hilarious but are actually not, and their close cousins, cats in sink basins. Carrying over the media-item-as-unnecessarily-fearsome-disease metaphor, Amason says she's actually responsible for "investigating the contagious web"—something she has practical experience with. Amason, along with Gawker's Richard Blakely, is the creator of Thisiswhyyourefat.com, the fever-dream blog and unholy online museum of inventive and decidedly bad-for-you foodstuffs.

Something like a cookbook from the Ninth Ring, This Is Why Your Fat is at once a less-than-gentle reminder that we're killing ourselves, bacon-style—and a dare to deep-fry up the next bastard amalgamation somehow more stomach-turning than a mac-and-cheese meatloaf roulade (yes, bacon-wrapped).

Jessica Amason
'It's viewed as a sure-thing, though having a viral following translate into book sales is something the industry is just now figuring out."

Jessica Amason

This Is Why You're Fat was not the first exercise in web-sourced, cholesterol-heavy blogging, but it was the most explosive, gaining bona fide sensation status within its first week. Now, as Gawker praises, part of "the lucrative Urban Outfitters bathroom reading book table," This Is Why You're Fat: Where Dreams Become Heart Attacks, is a loud, glossy Dollar Menu, in book form, of the site's most popular (read: disturbing) creations.

Gelf spoke with Amason, appropriately via email, about what fuels viral media's rapid burn, how contagiousness is informing the publishing industry, and why viral trends represent a seismic shift in the way people talk to one another. (The interview has been edited for clarity.)

Gelf Magazine: BuzzFeed seems like a distiller of—or perhaps even an end run on—YouTube, sieving and curating potential insufferable memes, and, in a sense, directing that entire conversation. I'm curious to know where the site identifies itself in the social-media landscape—if it was in fact conceived to be a competitor to like-minded aggregators, or if it fancies itself as more of a nonpartisan filter.

Jessica Amason: The cool thing about BuzzFeed is that it is a hybrid site: We do have an editorial team that shapes our voice, but we also have an active community that contributes content. It is both a top-down editorial model and a crowdsourcing model. The BuzzFeed team curates and creates content that is already viral or has the potential to go viral. Obviously this leaves our spectrum pretty wide open, but of course, it also means you'll see a lot of kittens.

Gelf Magazine: Your official job title is viral media editor, which seems like something uniquely drawn up for BuzzFeed's purposes. It also seems like a weighty duty, like some kind of gatekeeper to all the web's kinetic energy, or something. What does your job actually entail?

Jessica Amason: It's definitely a custom title. "Viral" is a pretty loaded term to have in your job title, but essentially my job is to bridge the gap between editorial and marketing—for lack of better terms. I am an editor for the site but I also work with advertisers and brands to help them "socialize" their content and learn how to effectively leverage the BuzzFeed's viral-media platform. We're working to change the way people think of advertising and contagious media. Anyone who is producing content—advertisers, publishers, some dude with a personal blog—wants their stuff to "go viral" and most tend to think there is a magic code. The sad truth is that it takes a bit more work than that; while there may not be a code, there is a framework.

Gelf Magazine: How would you define viral media? What's more, how does BuzzFeed, or anyone for that matter, gauge the virality of something put on the Web? Hopelessly complex algorithms? A room of unpaid interns perpetually refreshing the page of content aggregates? Hourly office-wide darts tourneys?

Jessica Amason: In the simplest terms, when something tips into viral territory, it means that the majority of the traffic to that content is coming from the web at large (i.e. not simply the site where the item is posted). So you can think of it as a ratio. As for our viral badge on BuzzFeed, that involves an algorithm that takes into account time, rate of sharing, viral traffic ratio, etc.

Gelf Magazine: Your new book version of the cult blog, ThisIsWhyYou'reFat.com, seems like an excellent example of a piece of social culture gone viral. Why do you imagine it's as popular as it is? Did you intend, as many blogs seem to be blooming into flash-published books, that it would be adapted?

Jessica Amason: I created the blog back in February of this year. In under 24 hours it had over one million pageviews, in under 48 hours it had over two million, and it snowballed from there. It was quite a whirlwind—we had a book deal within the first month of the site's existence and were flooded with thousands of submissions. It led to appearances on CNN, The Today Show, Headline News, and others and helped launch what Gourmet Magazine called "The Gross Food Movement." I plan to talk a bit more about that during the panel and why blog-to-book deals are as popular as they are. It's all part of the same discussion really: Publishers are gravitating toward content that shows a certain level of contagiousness on the web. It's viewed as a sure-thing because there is an avid following and strong buzz for these kinds of trendy sites—though having a viral following translate into book sales is something the industry is just now figuring out.

Gelf Magazine: From where did you cull the entries? Which was the most obscene?

Jessica Amason: We pulled a few gems from around the web initially (and believe me, with sites like Pimp That Snack and Bacon Bacon Bacon, there were plenty), but as soon as we opened submissions to the public, we were inundated! Probably one of the nastiest though completely brilliant is The Meat Ship. And what's really cool is that wacky concoctions like that all have a story: The creator of the Meat Ship actually contributed a piece for the book on the genesis of his meat-themed sculptures. Call it gross or call it genius—there's no debating the gross-food community's passion. I now know more about this movement than I ever thought existed.

Gelf Magazine: Much of what has come to be regarded as "viral" is largely ephemeral, throw-away gobs of people doing something outrageous—immediately entertaining, but ultimately low on cultural value. Can you argue that there's some kind of larger meaning that the existence of this kind of media realizes? Or is it just a sideshow?

Jessica Amason: What we're really talking about here is a sociological shift in how information travels. To me, the most interesting cultural impact is how this will be applied to branded media—there is great power in the new social network, but how will that translate to revenue?
I think that the debate over whether or not viral media is a fad has gone on long enough to prove that it's anything but. Though the debate continues in part because people are confused by the terminology: The term viral is usually associated with fleeting stunts or videos. But we need to take a more macro approach and understand we're all talking about the same thing: Viral media is social media. Social media is contagious media. It's less about the content itself and more about the system by which it reaches people.

Gelf Magazine: TIWYF seems to have to break one of two ways. Either it's a sincere love letter to imaginative carbo-loading, or it's a Dickensian, Three-Spirits-like cautionary tale: an illustrated diatribe on excess. You say as much in the book's introduction, saying you "like to think of it as a finger-wagging and high five in one." I guess I'm asking, what's the inside joke?

Jessica Amason: The site and book are intentionally designed to allow for this sort of shape-shifting. Everything from the design of the site to the dishes' names is meant to provide another relatable angle. The beauty is that now we do have both ends of the spectrum engaging in the same conversation. Maybe we should send some Krispy Kreme burgers to the Senate.

Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.







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Article by Max Lakin

Max Lakin is a writer and journalist based in New York.

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