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Meme-ing Our Way to the Top

We hang out with friends in restaurants, bars, living rooms, and increasingly, in our Facebook and Twitter news feeds. That’s hardly a revelation, but we nonetheless owe the idea consideration for how fundamentally it changes our interactions with each other, with the media and with culture at large.

In social networking environments, by choosing which Facebook friend requests to accept and which Twitter handles to follow, we have an unprecedented ability to curate our own exposure to the news. In a sense, we are now our own narrowcasting agents; we pick and choose which content is relevant to us, and share it with friends who have similar interests.

Borrowing an idea from Bill Wasik’s book And Then There’s ThisPitchfork writer Tom Ewing recently described this environment and all it contains as nanoculture, a realm “[encompassing] the streams we create, curate, and consume online, and the stories that flow through them, and the things we do to that stuff: sharing it, liking it, reviving it, changing it, arguing over it.”

When we share and manipulate content that resonates with particular social circles (or in rare cases, the Internet community as a whole), memes develop and go viral. We keep content and ideas alive by spreading them across the social Web, but because viral trends are often considered nothing more than shallow and irreverent humor, high-brow media outlets tend to shy away from participating, despite the deep social penetration of these memes.

That uncharted space, where nanoculture’s creative collaboration and viral dissemination meet serious editorial, is where New York-based BuzzFeed looks to stand apart from the rest. Founded in 2006, the site has long been a leader in aggregating viral trends on the social Web, and proudly boasts its M.O. to the world: “We feature the kind of things you’d want to pass along to your friends.”

Indeed, the recent announcement that prominent POLITICO blogger Ben Smith will join BuzzFeed as editor in chief in January 2012 turned more than a few heads, since POLITICO’s clout as a serious news organization stands in stark contrast to BuzzFeed’s penchant for jokey internet memes and pop culture news.

But it makes sense. When nanoculture’s content streams serve as our primary entry point for news, perhaps the best way a news outlet can stand out is to always take the angle, “how can we maximize the potential for social sharing of this story?

Most news outlets have at least broken the ice with social media, delegating staff or recruiting interns to maintain social profiles, integrating share buttons on articles to allow for easy social sharing, and so forth; but these gestures are merely social-friendly retrofits on traditional Web media.

BuzzFeed’s new mission moves beyond the web native editorial structure we have become accustomed to in the last five years, and positions the site as one of the first truly social native editorial content creators.

“Social media is what moves a story,” Smith said in an official statement. “It has become the primary way people, from plugged-in insiders to casual readers, get their news.

“BuzzFeed is the best in the world at distributing content on social sites, and it is a tremendous opportunity to join BuzzFeed… to build a new model for high-quality reporting,” he said.

In addition to Smith, BuzzFeed is looking to add more than a dozen new editorial staffers in the New Year. Given that the site already rakes in over 20 million unique visitors per month, the move gives BuzzFeed potential to become a leader in the online news business.

For BuzzFeed brass, such success would not be without precedent: Site co-founder Jonah Peretti was also a co-founder of ever-growing Huffington Post, while Smith’s early involvement with POLITICO placed him at the forefront of web native journalism.

Their entrepreneurial instincts and faith in Web-based trends have paid off before. Don’t be surprised if they pay off again.

About Stone Hansard

Hansard is an associate features editor and features writer for Cision Blog, covering trends in journalism and content marketing, innovative new editorial platforms and more. He is also the supervisor of Internet Media Research at Cision, and occasionally covers jazz for ChicagoMusic.org. Prior to joining Cision in 2010, he was the music director at WVFS-FM, the alternative radio station at his alma-mater, Florida State University. Give him a bowl of fancy ramen and a Bulls game, and he’s a happy camper.

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