The Poster Boy of Guerilla Media

Jonah Peretti has already had his 15 minutes of fame. Last year, he ordered a pair of customizable Nikes online. He asked Nike to stitch the word "sweatshop" into them. Nike refused. Peretti and Nike exchanged a series of emails, which ended with Peretti's message: "I have decided to order the shoes with a different iD, but I would like to make one small request. Could you please send me a color snapshot of the 10-year-old Vietnamese girl who makes my shoes?"

The series of emails between Peretti and Nike became an overnight email sensation. Peretti had sent the text of the exchange to a only few close friends. Through the power of the Internet, he became a minor celebrity.

Now, Peretti and his sister, stand-up comic and performer Chelsea Peretti, have had another lightning-quick, word-of-mouth success. It's called Rejection Line, and it's a phone number in Manhattan as well as a Web site at "Operators are Standing By!" the site trumpets, "Someone won't leave you alone? Give them 'your' number: 212-479-7990, the official New York Rejection Line! The rejection line team takes care of the rest, providing premium rejection services -- completely free of charge!"

The Rejection Line is a real phone number, complete with a message of rejection, and subsequent options to listen to "a comfort specialist," "a sad poem," or just "cling to unrealistic hope." It has gotten attention from everyone from the morning DJs at Z100 to Esquire magazine. AlterNet spoke with Peretti about his success, the power of technology, social networks, viral marketing and the trouble with the Left.

JONAH PERETTI: I promise this will be Authentic and Soundbite Free.

ALTERNET: That was already a soundbite.

JP: Right. Chelsea and I are actually trying to write a humorous piece about Rejection Line for All Things Considered on NPR, and it's hard not to write like an ad, when you're writing about your own project.

Do you have an overall philosophy?

JP: Yes. Chelsea is a performer and stand-up comic, so she sees this project more in those terms. But I'm really interested in social networks and media, and I'm interested in Rejection Line almost purely from that perspective. I like that it's funny, and I try to contribute to the humor. But there is a philosophy.

You know, none of the other press so far has made the connection between Rejection Line and the Nike email. The Rejection Line is getting pretty much just fluff pieces about it. A couple writers at the New York Times wanted to write different pieces, but their editors didn't want them to. Nothing ever showed up there.

So how does Rejection Line connect to the Nike emails?

JP: I was amazed that something I sent out to a dozen friends ended up going to a million people. It wasn't planned. I started getting emails saying, "Why are you sending this to me?" and they were from total strangers. I sent it to my close friends and, at the peak of the phenomenon, I was getting emails from New Zealand and Australia and all over the world, depending on what time of day it was in what time zone. How is it that something I sent to a few friends, that I didn't actively promote, or even put on a listserv, did that? How does that happen? I became intellectually fascinated by that.

Where were you at that point?

JP: I was at the MIT Media Lab in Boston, where those types of issues were being discussed, and there was a lot of research on related topics. It's very broad and interdisciplinary work, but for example, there's work about understanding meme -- self-replicating ideas, or self-replicating information. That's one area. Another rich area is social networks theory. Stanley Milgram is sort of the founder of that field, from Yale University in the '70s. He was doing experiments that led to the concept of six degrees of separation. He called the paper the "Small World Problem."

Milgram did an experiment where he got a whole bunch of letters together and gave them to people in the Midwest. He said, those letters should ultimately go to a stockbroker who lives in Boston. If you know him, just send him the letter. If you don't know him, send it to someone you think is more likely to know him.

So, basically, a bunch of people in the Midwest, none of whom knew the stockbroker, sent these letters to a friend in Boston, to someone who was a stockbroker, to someone close to Boston -- whatever metric they could think of. It took a little less than six steps for most of the letters to get to him. That's the concept of six degrees of separation, you're only six steps from everyone in the world.

In a way, that didn't matter that much until recently, because the Internet puts technical networks over the social networks. Before, Milgram had to use this specialized experiment in the mail. Now, with things like email forwards, in a couple of days you jump right through those six degrees. Social networks research becomes a way to think about new media.

And this brought you to Rejection Line?

JP: I started getting interested in that and, for me, the main thing about Rejection Line was that it was a way of doing another social experiment about how things spread.

Chelsea and I thought it was really funny to explicitly automate the process of rejecting someone. In New York, you outsource everything, there's someone who does your laundry, you order take out, any inconvenience in life, you outsource it. So why not outsource the unpleasant task of rejecting people? Plus, it was kind of a commentary on the bar and pickup scene.

So what did you learn with this social experiment?

JP: Rejection Line is most successful as a phone line. We can handle 10 calls simultaneously, and it's almost always busy. The problem is that we can handle hundreds of people simultaneously visiting the Web site, but not the phone line.

It's a lesson about how scalable the Internet is for viral media, because everyone is using their own technology to spread it. Even the hosting for a Web site is cheap, that's pretty scalable. A phone line is a whole other level of expense, when you're trying to provide access to a large number of people.

What else have you learned?

JP: It's been interesting to see the way the press hears about the project. I just followed the same rules that I did with the Nike email: I would only tell my friends about the Rejection Line. I never pitched it to people, I just told personal friends. It went from that to a couple hundred thousand people calling the line, and about 60,000 visiting the Web site.

Even reporters who hear about it always hear about it from a close friend, because it's spreading by going through social networks. On Fox 5's 10 o'clock news, the reporter interviewing us was this pretty TV reporter girl, super smiley, whose sister is an actress. Her sister had emailed it to her.

So, you don't have me calling you up and asking you to do a story, your close friend emailed you saying, "Oh there's this funny thing."

True [disclosure: Peretti, the above-mentioned close friend and I all went to the same high school. My friend emailed me about "Jonah's latest stunt."]

What does it all mean?

JP: It shows how a bunch of personal relationships lead to mass or print media. People think of media as this monolithic thing that chooses to cover one thing or another. But really, it's people who make media, and they hear stories from friends of theirs. Social networks tie into the way mass media works.

The subplot is I'm trying to demonstrate that the Internet hasn't become totally corporate. Individuals with very little money can still reach millions of people.

Well, you can, at least. What's the secret to your magic touch?

JP: I have a whole series of ideas I want to try. So far, these two have worked. Have I learned the secrets of doing something like this? If I produce something else, will it spread the same way? In that sense, part of the reason I did [Rejection Line] was to see if I abstracted the right principles from my earlier experience. I don't think I?ll always have success.

If you do, you're going to have marketing companies beating down your door. Would you like that?

JP: I'm teaching a course at Eyebeam [, a new media arts organization] with Parsons [School of Design] on these topics. Possibly some of my students will do that kind of work. But I'm interested in non-commercial art, in social experiments and art-type projects. But it's not inconceivable. If one of my projects were making money, I wouldn't be averse to it. If someone wanted to buy the Rejection Line, I would sell it, for money for other projects.

Literary agents have already approached us about doing a comedy/relationship/dating book. Chelsea would write that, not me. She just wants the opportunity to do creative work, to support herself doing comedy, writing and performing. That's her best case scenario. I'm starting to feel like I want to do another project.

What might be different?

JP: After the Nike thing, I got a little bit annoyed with some of the reactions to it. I'm interested in promoting the democratic potential of the Internet, but I don't want to be a political guru or a spokesperson for a rigid ideology. I get nervous around people who are too sure that they're right.

The goal of my projects is to demonstrate how the Internet can be used by individuals without corporate support. My teaching and writing is geared towards explaining the dynamics of media to help other people become producers of creative media that reaches a large audience.

Michelle Chihara is an editor and staff writer at AlterNet.

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