Before launching the billion-dollar media company BuzzFeed, Jonah Peretti's life looked pretty normal: He graduated from UC Santa Cruz with a degree in environmental studies and landed a teaching job in New Orleans. Then an email squabble with sports apparel giant Nike piqued his interest in viral media.
He spent three years teaching computer science before heading to MIT to get his master's. It was there that Peretti first started thinking about how ideas spread, why people share things and the media industry in general — but not because of a specific class or professor.
In 2001, towards the end of his time at MIT, Peretti was procrastinating.
"Someone told me that Nike had launched a service where you could customize your shoes, which was a new novel thing," Peretti tells Guy Raz at a live taping of NPR's podcast "How I Built This."
Rather than working on his master's thesis, Peretti decided to see what words the system would allow him to put under the Nike swoosh: "I first tried a four letter word and it rejected it, and so I was trying to figure out how the system worked. They had blacklisted a bunch of words. ... And then I put the word 'sweatshop' in, and it went through."