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BuzzFeed, the addiction of the year

Oh, how best to describe BuzzFeed? You could start with a recent day on the site's main page, which featured this mix of stories: "14 creepiest things kids have said about their imaginary friends"; "27 reasons 'Hook' is actually the perfect holiday movie"; and If Buzz from 'Home Alone' had Instagram."

But you'd also find serious-minded pieces on Benghazi and protests in the Ukraine. Jack Shepherd, BuzzFeed's 34-year-old editorial director, said this ever-present mix on the site reveals much about the way people experience and process media in 2013.

"Think about what the experience on Facebook is like: You might see a funny picture of your friend's cat, followed by an update about a family member is doing at their new job, followed by a link to news about Syria or political analysis," Shepherd said via e-mail. "The unifying factor is that these are all pieces of social content ... and I think that's an extremely natural way for people to get news, information and entertainment."

So natural that BuzzFeed has made it something of an admirable art, and seven years after its launch the company reported more than 130 million unique visitors in November, its biggest month ever. Find out why — and then, you know, move on to that "41 most unbelievably flawless moments from Beyonce's new album" post everyone is sharing.

I'm sure you're aware of this, but there's a time suck when someone explores BuzzFeed. Is there some sort of official name for this phenomenon?

Yes. It's officially called a Buzz Vortex. Buzz Vortices are the primary reason why we recommend alerting a friend before you read BuzzFeed so someone will know what happened if you disappear for more than a couple of days. 

Which subjects are slam dunks for you guys? Can you ever predict when something will catch on? 

You can never be totally sure what's going to catch on, which is good because it keeps us from getting complacent, but the one thing you can be sure of is that if you have a strong emotional reaction when you're creating a post, your readers will as well, and that emotional reaction is the key to sharing. In my personal experience, posts that are about people at their best, succeeding against overwhelming odds, or being selfless in difficult circumstances are the ones that are most likely to be shared widely. An extremely strong positive emotion is contagious because people want their friends to have the same good experience they did.  

In July, Vanity Fair published a story titled "40 Signs you are a BuzzFeed writer running out of list ideas." How'd that go over in the office? 

We're a big enough office now that I can't speak for everybody, but most of us (myself included) find this sort of thing to be funny and flattering. It wasn't a mean-spirited post, and it was kind of a great showcase of the crazy diversity of stuff we make. We strongly encourage our writers to experiment all the time at BuzzFeed, so it's great when people notice some of the more off-the-wall posts we make. They're not always hits, but it really is the experimental stuff that keeps us moving forward, and it's at the core of what we do. 

Over this year, you've been beefing up your coverage of traditional news, even treading into investigations. Why is that a natural progression for the company?

The core of what we do has always been making or writing about things that people want to share, and doing that with news or with longform or with serious investigations is just as important and interesting to us as doing it with more entertaining content, even if it requires flexing some different muscles. One of my absolute favorite things about working with BuzzFeed is having the opportunity to work closely with (and learn from) these incredibly talented people with totally different backgrounds and areas of expertise who all share the same goal of making things that are going to be engaging to a reader. 

Is anything ever off limits?

Lots of things are off limits, but we tend to think a lot more about tone and voice than we do about topic when we decide to kill something or not to go in a certain direction. One of our great strengths is that we'd prefer to let people draw their own conclusions than tell them what to think about something, and we think a lot about writing in a voice that shares our enthusiasms or voices a criticism without being preachy or self-righteous or that dreaded default of lazy bloggers everywhere, "snarky." 

What are three characteristics you look for when hiring writers? 

The first thing I look for in interviews is enthusiasm — I like people who like things. A writer's enthusiasm for their topic is one of the secret ingredients to making something shareable — people naturally respond to that. I'm also keen on people who have a strong sense of humor, and I love folks to be highly analytical about their work. So: Enthusiastic, hilarious wonks. If you know any, send 'em our jobs page. 

Is there a key to ensuring that something goes viral? Is there a BuzzFeed philosophy on this? 

There are no guarantees, unfortunately. But one of the "secrets" is craft — make it really, really good and you'll be in great shape (which I know is the most annoying piece of advice ever but it's true and people weirdly overlook it all the time). The other is emotion — if people respond to something emotionally, they'll be more likely to share it. And the third is identity — if something you're writing speaks strongly and honestly to a person's identity, that'll certainly help. People like things that are about them.

What was the one article that BuzzFeed created this year that perfectly captured 2013? 

Without question, that would have to be "Miley Cyrus Twerks On Famous Paintings": buzzfeed.com/jenlewis/miley-cyrus-twerks-on-famous-paintings

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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