After four hectic months working remotely from Austin as the weekend editor for the New York–based news and entertainment website BuzzFeed, Summer Anne Burton accepted a full-time editing position with the company in 2012. For someone who loves creating and curating things on the Internet—she has an active Tumblr, a blog featuring her drawings of major league baseball Hall of Famers, and another blog devoted to obscure music from the fifties and sixties—it was a dream job. Except for one minor thing: she had to leave Texas, her home since the age of seven. Fortunately, Burton found a way to ease her homesickness in her new Brooklyn neighborhood. She rented an apartment in the same building as some old friends from Austin, right down the street from what might be the only place in all five boroughs where you can get an authentic kolache. “I post about Texas, I talk about Texas, and I also say ‘y’all,’ which I get made fun of for,” says the 32-year-old Burton, now BuzzFeed’s managing editorial director, as she sips a beer in Manhattan’s Union Square. “Being Texan is a very big part of my identity.”
And it was that identity that led Burton and her team to develop an editorial strategy that has made BuzzFeed synonymous with viral content. “We were thinking about why people share specific stories in social media, and we were developing what was, at the time, a fairly new theory about homing in on specific identities,” she says. “Stuff based on where you lived was a huge part of that.” In February of last year, Burton wrote the first in what would quickly become a series of posts from various staff writers that targeted users where they lived. The post, “50 Sure Signs That Texas Is Actually Utopia” (#4: Breakfast Tacos; #27: The Menil Collection; #34: Patrick Swayze), has been viewed more than 960,000 times. “24 Things No One Tells You About Leaving Texas,” “101 Reasons You Should Live in Texas at Least Once in Your Life,” and “31 Things Latinos Who Grew Up in Texas Know to Be True”—not all of them written by Burton—soon followed.
“For a huge website, it can feel anti-intuitive to do something where your audience is that limited,” she says. “But when you’re speaking to a group of people who feel like you’re really addressing them, they’re so much more likely to share.” Presenting things as definitive lists, she says, is another secret to getting attention on Facebook and Twitter. Failing to mention barbecue as one of those “50 Sure Signs” was “extremely controversial,” says Burton, a vegetarian. But she brushed off the angry commenters in true BuzzFeed fashion. “It’s good when something is missing. It gives people something to talk about when they’re sharing the post.”
Burton’s work isn’t all about the page views. An incidental part of her role as BuzzFeed’s resident Lone Star is to clear up any misconceptions her readers (and co-workers) have about her home. “People think Austin is the only cool part of Texas,” she complains. Letting the world know about the surprises that can be found from the Panhandle to the border in the form of compelling lists has proved to be a successful corrective to those sorts of notions. “Thinking about Texas just makes me feel better,” she says. It’s a sentiment that, thanks to her work, appears to have gone viral.