Sometimes a story or idea goes viral because it's too big to be ignored. But more often it's because a single human being passes it along to an audience that's either massive, highly influential, or both. There aren't too many people who can do that.
These are the ones who can. When they post something to a website, Twitter, or Facebook, it's almost assured of blowing up. Meet the 25 most viral voices on the Internet.
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Platform: Torrez.org, MLKSHK, Twitter
Do you know Andre Torrez? You should. The most influential person you follow on Twitter knows him. He's created some of the most interesting communities online. From private watering holes for the Internet's jet set, to his new, open-to-anyone image board, MLKSHK. But more to the point, programmer-blogger Torrez is a classic idea seeder; a person who introduces concepts to the people who take them big.
Ben Huh started with LOLcats, but his network of Websites have become the definition of virality on the Web, from infancy to grave. While The Daily What takes on the newest oddities of the day, Know Your Meme has become the canonical reference for everything viral. In short, Huh has built an end-to-end platform for Web popularity that lets people create things to go viral, point to web flotsam, track what's trending, and then explain how and why something has become popular. It's genius.
Stumbleupon is the long boom. It's the stock to Twitter or Facebook's flow. Things that go big on StumbleUpon continue to generate traffic for years to come. And few have more juice than the self-described "woman from a mountain town" StarSpirit. She's been on StumbleUpon's list of top Stumblers for years, thanks to the massively interesting links she surfaces and spreads. She's one of those Stumblers who by liking something another user has found, instantly makes it go big as it spreads across her network of 9,000 followers.
Platform: Hacker News
If you want to stay up on what's happening in the tech industry, you'd better read Y Combinator's Hacker News. It's the go-to news aggregator for the digital set, the place startup founders and c-level types go every day to get smart. Like Reddit (which sprang forth from a YCombinator session), its users accrue karma when others upvote their stories and comments. Now, Weissman isn't top ranked in karma points on Hacker News (that'd be Thomas Ptacek). He's not even number two (hello, Patrick McKenzie). But he does have, far and away, the highest average score of any of Hacker News' top users, which means that when Weissman weighs in on something, people who matter very, very much tend to pay attention.
Platform: Radio, Radiolab.org, Twitter
Not only is Radiolab the new must-listen radio program for the chunky glasses set, but it also has a way of bringing science stories to the mainstream. One of the ways it does this is with a great website, that makes listening online (and sharing) easy. Meanwhile, Radiolab host Abumrad has one of the best science-oriented Twitter feeds out there. It's followed by the biggest names in media, and can provide the bridge from obscure posting on a random science blog or journal to the top slot on Reddit the next day.
Look, this isn't just a plug for one of our writers. Sure, Jesus Diaz is the most-trafficked writer at Gizmodo. (And for that matter, one of the most widely read writers online.) But the truth is Jesus can find some weird story that might otherwise have been but a mere blip on Reddit, like these weird formations in the Chinese desert, and turn it into the classic "Gawker exclusive," with great packaging, a killer headline, and presto, it's all over the mainstream media.
Platform: Twitter, Brainpickings.org
Popova uses the handle @brainpicker on Twitter, but really she's more like the Successpicker. The things she highlights go end-of-the-world-bird-flu viral. She does that by plucking out stories about technology, history, art, industry, tree frogs, you name it. Following her Twitter stream is like getting a liberal arts education.
BuzzFeed's managing editor has been there since Moses split the stylesheet. And over the years he's been the cause of more virality than a dirty needle. But don't think he can't still find the killer link. And while Buzzfeed may largely traffic in cat photos and Internet ephemera, it's biggest traffic day ever was a retrospective of largely newsworthy photos.
Platform: LaughingSquid.com, Tumblr, Twitter
Scott Beale's events tracker the SquidList gave birth to his Laughing Squid web hosting business. Which gave birth to his weblog. Which gave birth to his Tumblr and Twitter—all of which breathed life into thousands of obscure stories that otherwise would have fallen soundlessly in digital forests. Today the smiling cephalopod is basically his own media empire.
Platform: The Onion, Twitter, Baratunde.com
The Onion's digital director is more than just a funny fella—although he certainly is that. But that cutting edge humor informs both political and cultural sensibilities that let him stay consistently ahead of the curve in terms of knowing what's next. His Twitter feed is among the most engaging on the Internet. His blog is a must-read for anyone interested in things that are awesome. And not only does he call out interesting stories and takes, his own ideas often become the day's conventional wisdom. (His video on Barack Obama's birth certificate release, for example, quickly became the definitive take.) Oh. And he also runs the Onion's Web presence. Maybe you've heard of it?
Drew Curtis if the one-man editorial force behind Fark. It's been plucking quirky little nuggets of random weirdness—often culled from local media sources—and aiming a firehose of traffic at them since 1999. In fact, Fark has been at it for so long, you could be forgiven for forgetting about it. But that's a mistake. Look at the timestamps of stories on Fark, and you'll see they're typically hours, or even a day, ahead of the attention curve.
At any given moment, you can tell which technology stories are big by looking at Techmeme, the site Rivera founded. And if you want to see what the news of the day will be, just look at what's trending there. Journalists certainly do. It's the first thing every tech journalist you follow looks at each morning, and the place where all of them want their stories to land. It uses both algorithms and humans to place stories on the page. And although Rivera has mostly handed off to other editors on a day to day basis these days, the site is still very much a reflection of its founding editor. (Hey, his Twitter feed is pretty boss too.)
Platform: Metafilter.com, a.wholelottanothing.org
Matt created the modern group weblog in Metafilter, way back in 1999. When you look at some of the other hoary old Web properties that launched back then, it's a testament to Haughey's ceaseless focus on community that "the blue" is still relevant. Matt isn't writing a lot of front page posts himself anymore these days, but he keeps the house in order in a way that makes everything possible. Moreover, many of Metafilter's most interesting nuggets appear on Matt's personal weblog, twitter feed, or as bookmarks, making him a personal best-of list for people to busy to check MeFi every day.
Platform: JimRomenesko.com, Twitter
Jim Romenesko's influence has never been more apparent than over recent weeks. When Poynter flubbed his departure, trying to paint him with a plagiarism brush, the move blew up in editor Julie Moos' face. Moos was widely reviled and looked either dumb or craven for making a stink. How did everyone find out about it? With a single post to his new site, JimRomenesko.com. And while Poynter already feels like a graveyard, JimRomenesko.com is now the new media must-read. We wish Jim the best of luck in his new gig. (PS: Link us?)
Image: Robin Eley
Platform: Tumblr, Twitter
De Rosa is the Internet's news of the day amplifier. His personal Tumblr and Twitter feeds are so popular and so influential that Reuters put him in charge of its social media presence. And that's because stories go into De Rosa's Tw/umblr as itty-bitty blips, and emerge as memes. Part of that is due to his eye for compelling stories—if he jumps on something odds are it's interesting. Paradoxically, he's gained such a following that stories can become big simply by virtue of his interest. It's a tricky balance, but so far he's pulling it off.
Platform: Twitter, New York Times
Jenna "Jenny Deluxe" Wortham is way cooler than you. (Or at least: she's way cooler than I am.) The Bits blogger and New York Times technology reporter has both the megaphone and meticulous eye to surface cool tidbits form around the Web and then lift them to prominence. On Twitter, her 425,000 followers swarm the things she links to. Yet unlike a lot of reporters on Twitter, she doesn't just link to her own bylines. In fact, that's exactly what makes her so influential.
Platform: Twitter, Longreads
Mark Armstrong harnessed the short form of Twitter to find and promote the best in long form writing. He collects the best of user-submitted long form articles and shares them on Longreads. This year @longreads exploded in popularity—surging from 9,500 to more than 40,000 followers—and editorial influence. A look at some of those submitting Longreads is like a who's who of publishing. In the process, Armstrong went from a guy looking for something to read on the subway, to a powerful media gatekeeper. More than anyone else Armstrong is the one who decides which feature stories should be widely read. And if you want to see the best features of the year, no one has a better list. (Sorry, ASME awards).
Platform: 4chan, Canvas
Poole is the Internet's unseen hand. Better known as 4chan founder moot, Poole built the place where most of the memes you see today are born. While his low key admin style means its often a chaotic sea of confusion, that's basically incomprehensible to the olds, it's also the crucible for Internet culture. And while you may think of it as little more than LOLcats and Pedobears, in recent years with the rise of Anonymous 4chan has become a powerful societal change agent. Now Poole is seeking to repeat the act with Canv.as, a board for sharing and remixing images. It's going to be huge.
Platform: Google Plus, Twitter, Tekzilla
You may think of Veronica Belmont as a TV personality from Tekzilla. And admittedly her 1.6 million Twitter followers are nothing to gloss over. But the real reason we put her on this list? Google Plus. Belmont's managed to make something interesting happen in what may otherwise be the Web's least interesting social service by mixing the personal with the professional with the purely intriguing. Consequently a single Belmont plus-one (or whatever the hell you call it) can push an obscure story, video or even photo into memetic territory.
Platform: Radio, Twit.TV, Twitter, Facebook, Google Plus
Leo's nationally syndicated Tech Guy radio show is huge, airing on 150 cities and XM radio to boot. But it's possible that his podcast, This Week in Tech, is the even bigger deal. The show is listened to by basically everyone in the valley, from VCs, to influencers, to programmers, to hangers on hoping to be in on the next big thing. Meanwhile he can push people to topics he cares about via outsized audiences on Twitter, Facebook, and even (yes) Google Plus.
Platform: Boingboing.net, Twitter
BoingBoing is the Ur blog. Everyone reads it, and it often sets the tone for the Web's take on issues of the day. That's a testament to its editors, who each bring their own voice and personal interests to the site. Xeni, however, is probably the Boinger with the highest visibility all around the Web. That's partially due to her ability to give great Twitter. Her recent live-tweet of a trip to get a mammogram, followed by the news she had cancer, was both honest and courageous, and more to the point it got the mainstream media talking about mammograms.
Platform: Rogerebert.com, Twitter, Chicago Sun-Times
In the past five years, Ebert has transformed himself from powerful movie critic to powerful everything critic. And just as he lost his voice in person, he gained one online, with both sharp longform writing on his blog and a Twitter following of more than half a million that retweets the hell out of his 140 character missives. For example, @BPGlobalPR, the fake twitter account that skewered the company's failures in the Gulf, was one of the biggest Internet sensations of 2010. Yet you may never have heard of it had it not been for Ebert.
Ashton Kutcher may be a cowardly quitter, a cheater, and something of a moron, but let's face it: Dude has influence. When Kutcher drops a link, mad traffic follows. When he calls out a web service or app (often one of his own) users follow like hyenas swarming a carcass. His authentic (if dumb) voice is the reason we hate to see him handing the keys to his feed to a bunch of soulless social media marketing whores, even if they are from his own firm.
Matt Drudge? That old motherscratcher? Sure, his site's design is older than your grandpa's undies, but here's the thing: People in the media still read him. More to the point, your dad reads him. Your barber and accountant and doctor read him. Matt Drudge's curated quick hits still appeal to people who lack the patience or time to set up deep social media reading lists. Too busy to find obscure links from all around the Web? Matt's site is always there. In the age of social media, he proves a single player on his own platform can still be the loudest voice in the din.
Who the hell is Maxwellhill? Is Max a he or a she? A media pro, or a high school student? A reporter? An editor? A dog? It doesn't matter. What matters is that "Max" is the first person to rack up more than one million karma points on Reddit—a score earned by Redditors for submitting good links and making good comments. Over the past six years. Maxwellhill's selections have made Reddit what it is. You could even think of Maxwellhill as a stand-in for Reddit as a whole. Reddit has democratized editorial. It is the newspaper by and of the people. Anyone can have a say as to what should be news there. Still, on the board where stories go to explode, no one done more to detonate them than Max.