Long Read: “Are You Cynical Enough to Hate Upworthy?”

As if one needed to ask. Dolly Parton jokes about her stage costumes, “It costs a lot of money to look this cheap”; apparently it takes a lot of behind-the-scenes labor to give Upworthy its… special character. From Nitsuh Abebe, at NYMag:

This is what Upworthy does: It finds stuff on the internet, identifies it as somehow meaningful or socially redeeming, adds a killer headline and a trace of description, and then gets lots and lots and lots of people to look at it.

It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to hate without feeling like a churl, villain, or snob. The site’s mission is to “draw massive amounts of attention to the topics that really matter,” which is almost tautologically hard to argue with. The things they collect can get fluffy, smarmy, or manipulative, but there’s no denying the amount of it that becomes Gangnam-style viral-smash material, leading millions of Americans to spend a few extra moments pondering meaningful societal issues; I mean, are you against millions of Americans pondering meaningful societal issues?…

This hasn’t stopped anyone from resenting Upworthy. It’s one of the fastest-­growing media sites in internet history; in its two years of existence, it’s bent the fabric of the web to make itself chillingly ubiquitous, a level of success that presents as a cultural sore spot. The site is jealously, relentlessly obsessed over by everyone else fighting for online traffic, and it’s disdained or distrusted by a solid percentage of the human beings who are constantly offered links to its content. It publishes both some of the web’s most successful material and some of its most widely mocked and reviled…

There are two main factoids that illuminate Upworthy’s place in the online universe, and both have to do with Facebook. (One of the social network’s co-founders, Chris Hughes, was actually an early Upworthy investor.) Factoid one: At some point in the site’s still-brief ­existence, someone found a statistic indicating that 52 percent of Americans on Facebook “liked” or had a friend who “liked” Up­worthy’s page; now, according to the company, it’s more like 78 percent. Factoid two: Those people share Upworthy posts at a rate that positively dwarfs the competition; according to a chart that made the rounds in December, it’s nearly eight times the rate of the next comparable site. The core audience may not be the biggest, but it can be relied on to echo links to everybody it knows. As Eisenberg tells me, “You’re not preaching to the choir. You’re preaching to the choir’s friends.”…

And they’ve developed an entire data-driven system to get this done—a system, and a far-flung network of contributors to operate it. (The founders are tickled to have one curator in a town called Brooklyn, Michigan, “on a farm that got Wi-Fi,” and in one meeting someone jokes that when climate change leaves New York underwater, Upworthy will be uniquely situated to take over the media world.) Curators like Eisenberg trawl the web for “seeds”—content to feature on the site—and develop them into “nuggets.” A nugget is, for the most part, a list of 25 potential headlines, developed in a kind of high-octane one-person brainstorming session. Then comes “click testing.” Curators load potential headlines and thumbnail images into a testing system, which shows each option to a small sample of the site’s visitors, tracking their actions—did they click it, did they share it? The system used to return detailed numerical feedback on each option, but it was decided that hard numbers over­influenced the curators; now it tags options with things like “bestish” and “very likely worse.” There’s fact-checking and copyediting and internal discussion involved—nuggets take days to actually wind up on the site—but the process itself, as played out in bedrooms and kitchens and back offices across the country, is the curators; now it tags options with things like “bestish” and “very likely worse.” There’s fact-checking and copyediting and internal discussion involved—nuggets take days to actually wind up on the site—but the process itself, as played out in bedrooms and kitchens and back offices across the country, is surprisingly simple: Find something. Ask yourself, “If a million people see this, will it make the world a better place?” (“If we can’t say yes to that,” says Koechley, “then we’re not going to post it”; many things on the site suggest a loose interpretation of this rule, but he says they’re working to keep raising the bar.) Keep writing headlines, and keep testing them until the results are maximally explosive…

As the curators work, they discuss thumb­nail pictures in great detail—when to split between two different images, when it helps to tilt one way or another, whether there’s any real difference between pictures of different whales. Headlines are discussed more in theory than in detail. One curator shares the tip of trying to express the core point of the content in four words. Mordecai gives it a shot: “Racism bad. Eat kale.” Then he lets everyone in on his newest data discovery, which is that descriptive headlines—ones that tell you exactly what the content is—are starting to win out over Upworthy’s signature “curiosity gap” headlines, which tease you by withholding details…

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53 replies
  1. 1
    Just Some Fuckhead, Thought Leader says:

    Yes. I despise Upworthy. The content rarely lives up to the hype and then I feel angry for getting suckered into clicking.

  2. 2
    Belafon says:

    The site is jealously, relentlessly obsessed over by everyone else fighting for online traffic

    That would be why I have not heard of it before.

  3. 3
    Baud says:

    Never heard of it before now. So I had that going for me.

  4. 4
    KmCO says:

    I liked Upworthy at first–it seemed to be a somewhat novel concept, and a shift toward positivity is always welcome. But it’s worn out its welcome now, by having to continually put a happy or inspiring spin on the most mundane phenomena. It’s old hat now, and needs to learn to ration its posts.

  5. 5
    NotMax says:

    With the increasing trend of candidates of a certain leaning blurting streams of outrageous, distressing, obnoxious, insulting, demeaning, clueless or pig-dog ignorant statements, it may be time for a site named Upyoursworthy.

  6. 6
    Anne Laurie says:

    @NotMax: Oh, the GOP already has that site — they call it Downtrend!

    I see (paid, I presume) links for it on the right-hand bar at Slate all the time, but this is the first time I’ve actually clicked over, because even the titles have all the subtlety and charm you’d expect from a bunch of defensive bigots & misogynists. It’s easy enough to make fun of Upworthy, but at least they don’t use ‘draws’ guaranteed to turn away all but the hardcore true believers…

  7. 7
    MikeJ says:

    descriptive headlines—ones that tell you exactly what the content is—are starting to win out over Upworthy’s signature “curiosity gap” headlines, which tease you by withholding details…

    I have one weird trick for figuring out why people hate upworthy.

  8. 8
    a hip hop artist from Idaho (fka Bella Q) says:

    Past its sell by date.

  9. 9
    ShadeTail says:

    The site’s mission is to “draw massive amounts of attention to the topics that really matter,” which is almost tautologically hard to argue with.

    Bullshit. It’s insultingly easy to argue with. Simply come back with: “Topics that matter to whom?”

  10. 10
    efgoldman says:

    @Anne Laurie:

    Oh, the GOP already has that site — they call it Downtrend!

    The Onion made that site up, right?
    Since the TeaHadis have been beyond parody since before the 2008 election, I guess not.

  11. 11
    Elizabelle says:

    But this post does not have a picture of Tunch.

    Looking like an aircraft carrier.

  12. 12
    Joel says:

    Upworthy is the Doctor Phil of the internet.

  13. 13
    different-church-lady says:

    …and then gets lots and lots and lots of people to look at it.

    What the fuck is Upworthy?

  14. 14
    lamh36 says:

    Both a dig at Romney and a dig at Putin…

    @AaronBlakeWP
    Obama on Romney: “Russia is a regional power that is threatening some of its immediate neighbors — not out of strength but out of weakness”

    Michelle Kosinski‏@MKosinskiCNN
    Pres Obama just called Russia a REGIONAL power. Ouch!

    Shorter Obama…http://media.tumblr.com/tumblr.....qbq7ok.gif

  15. 15
    different-church-lady says:

    @MikeJ: Thread has been awarded. Next game, Wednesday, here.

  16. 16
    Heliopause says:

    No, not cynical enough to hate Upworthy, but I have another datapoint confirming my cynicism about the human race. I checked it out after reading this post and it’s just one more confirmation of “you might just as well show them the last five miles of the M2…they’d watch it, eh?”

  17. 17
    srv says:

    … This is what Balloon-Juice does: It finds stuff on the internet, identifies it as somehow meaningful or socially irredeeming, adds a killer headline and a trace of description, and then gets lots and lots and lots of malcontents to look at it.

    fixed.

  18. 18
  19. 19
    danielx says:

    @srv:

    And snark about it, too.

    @Elizabelle:

    Aircraft carrier? White furry basketball, surely.

  20. 20
    danielx says:

    @srv:

    This is what Balloon-Juice does: It finds stuff on the internet, identifies it as somehow meaningful or socially irredeeming, adds a killer headline and a trace of description, and then gets lots and lots and lots of malcontents to look at it.

    Come to think about it, isn’t this what most blogs and a hell of a lot of web sites do? Plus pets, of course.

  21. 21
    Tissue Thin Pseudonym (JMN) says:

    @srv: Fuck you.

  22. 22
    muddy says:

    @Elizabelle: In this picture Tunch is kind of shaped like a turkey (on the table, not on its legs), only his head is facing the wrong way. Demon turkey.

  23. 23
    PsiFighter37 says:

    Upworthy is pretty much the epitome of what passes as the relevant items that are paid attention to in journalism nowadays: sensationalist headlines, thinly-sourced articles, and pagecounts and site views.

    Every time I see it or Buzzfeed on my newsfeed, I want to do bad things. That goes for a lot of other news sources as well that think that being snarky as hell is the most important thing EVAR!!!1!1 when it comes to any kind of news (e.g. Gawker, Deadspin). The site that I think strikes the right balance is Grantland, mainly because I get the impression that those guys actually know what they are talking about, whereas a lot of these other sites are full of college graduates who want to burn off the population’s brain cells at the same rate they were doing in school while informing absolutely no one.

  24. 24
    cdmarine says:

    Then he lets everyone in on his newest data discovery, which is that descriptive headlines—ones that tell you exactly what the content is—are starting to win out over Upworthy’s signature “curiosity gap” headlines, which tease you by withholding details…

    This is the best goddamn news I’ve heard in a long time. Clickbait headlines make my teeth itch, and have completely put me off Facebook. Well, that and my abiding hate for everybody.

  25. 25
    muddy says:

    I’ve actually had some minor success sending Upworthy links to people I know who are not politically informed, but say they are Republicans because Christian. Because “my family has always been”. It’s a way to present them with some information they would not otherwise hear in little digestible nuggets.

    It would help if the headlines were not so ridiculous.

  26. 26
    scav says:

    Cynical enough? Easily.

  27. 27
    Rafer Janders says:

    I Also Used To Hate Upworthy. Then This Amazing Puppy Showed Me How Wrong I Was.

  28. 28
    RuhRow_Gyro says:

    I have never visited Upworthy. However, I have visited Balloon Juice, TMZ, and Rachel Ray’s various contributions.

  29. 29
    chrome agnomen says:

    never heard of it, never been on it, likely never will. now get the hell offa my lawn, punks.

    i got your upworthy right here.

  30. 30

    @Elizabelle: He is not fat, he is floofy.

  31. 31

    I have no idea what Upworthy is. Does it have kittehs? If not, it is unworthy.

  32. 32

    I won a small, stupid battle at work, and yet it was one that was really bothering me, so winning felt pretty good.

    (How small and stupid? It came down to the color of a piece of paper and having someone find a non-stock (ie not from Microsoft Word) border for the paper. And yet it made me happy.)

  33. 33
    Constance says:

    I’m not on Facebook, Linkedin, or any other social media sites that I know of unless Balloon Juice is considered a social media site. Don’t think so. I recently subscribed to Upworthy and read one or two things on each post. I admit, I’m not very sophisticated and I don’t always notice how plebeian so much of internet content turns out to be until someone on BJ educates me. I rarely get upset about crap on the internet because, except for the BJ trolls, I’m not exposed to much crap on the internet. I also subscribe to blogs, read them for awhile and except for BJ and Krugman (which I often don’t understand), cancel them when they get boring.

    My point here is that if people hate Upworthy, don’t read the fucker. Why waste all that time complaining about it?

  34. 34
  35. 35
    Anne Laurie says:

    @Constance: I actually do read Upworthy, when my attention is caught by a headline elsewhere (Slate, NYMag, Go Fug Yourself) — I think I’ve actually recycled one or two of their videos here, when they seemed relevant to ‘our’ interests. That’s why I thought this article was worth linking — it’s the details of how the professionals running the site have managed to take the same link-and-forward webwork that so many blogs rely on to a much wider (paying) audience.

  36. 36
    Jade says:

    Huffington Post is now called Upworthy?

  37. 37
    cokane says:

    I can’t stand upworthy. It’s basically ripping off content created by other people and then profiting off of it. Not sure what’s progressive about it. If they hired some of their own reporters or whatever to go out and make these kind of videos, then cool. Otherwise they are literally just stealing clicks from the actual content creators who make the shit possible.

    Also they’re a one-trick pony. For awhile seemed like half my FB friends were relentlessly sharing. Now I almost never seen one. Create your own fucking content upworthy.

  38. 38
    Fred Fnord says:

    Many people here only think they hate Upworthy. What they really absolutely despise is the ‘low-information, easily distracted’ demographic at which it is aimed.

  39. 39
    Jerzy Russian says:

    I have never heard of it, probably because I spend most of my internet time on this fine blog.

  40. 40
    danielx says:

    @schrodinger’s cat:

    No cookies, but could use that tabby kitteh

  41. 41
    TooManyJens says:

    I’ve hated Upworthy for months without feeling the least bit churlish, villainous, or snobbish. It’s nothing but repackaged YouTube videos with clickbait headlines and pop-ups. What’s not to hate?

  42. 42
    Anna in PDX says:

    I love Dolly Parton’s sense of humor.

    I sometimes like Upworthy articles but the teaser headlines are kinda irritating.

  43. 43
    Constance says:

    @Anne Laurie:
    See. I told you I’m not very sophisticated. I totally missed your point. God, how long do I have to read Balloon Juice before I get a clue? And possibly, something you posted is what brought it to my attention. Chuckle (or whatever it is I’m supposed to write when I’m laughing at myself in a kindly way).

  44. 44
    Bobby Thomson says:

    @TooManyJens:

    I’ve hated Upworthy for months without feeling the least bit churlish, villainous, or snobbish. It’s nothing but repackaged YouTube videos with clickbait headlines and pop-ups. What’s not to hate?

    This blog commenter speaks the truth. What comes next will shock you.

  45. 45
    JGabriel says:

    Baud:

    Never heard of it before now. So I had that going for me.

    I’d heard of it, came across it a couple of times during searches, but I had no idea it had become so big or was growing so fast. I thought it was just another generic click-bait aggregator.

  46. 46
    RaflW says:

    Upworthy is total shyte. It may be the intertrons flavor of the month, but it is garbage.

    This web site schooled a million journalists, and you won’t believe how! is already most tired.

    Two very vigorous thumbs down.

  47. 47
    JGabriel says:

    Okay, I just went and checked out Upworthy for myself. Yes, the breathless headlines are annoying and irritating. But the content they highlight is largely progressive and well-meant. Since it seems we’re going to have low-information citizens no matter what, I’d definitely prefer that they get what little info they’re interested in from someplace like Upworthy rather than Fox News.

    So, instead of hating it, I guess I’ll just wish it well, and largely ignore it and/or treat it with benign indifference.

  48. 48

    @KmCO: your dissatisfaction might and UpWorethy’s failings may be a symptom of our World, not UpWorthy’s abilities.

  49. 49
    jomo says:

    Understand the appeal – but damned if it didn’t get old fast. Got to a point where I actively hated it. It felt like a sappy emotion machine.

  50. 50
    Applejinx says:

    I write weird pornography on the internet (easy enough to find as it’s associated to the name I’m using here).

    As such, I have thought more than a little about pandering, and what pandering is/means.

    This is the smoking gun: “Any kind of edge or stridency is a no-no for shareability.”

    It’s ‘soma’ in Brave New World. It’s an implicit assumption that you can’t do anything on a large scale without coaxing people along like sheep and never startling their poor sensitive feelings. You give them just what they were looking for and let them drowse, in hopes good things will happen through their shared somnolence.

    It’s nice that some good outcomes occasionally happen from this… or do they? These guys can track exactly which headline pulls the most views in March of 2014, and even extrapolate from this about how many earnest feelings are produced through looking at the winsome smile of a starving black child in Kenya where clean water is scarce, but do Upworthy users actually do a damn thing about it? I have a sound engineer friend who went to LIVE in fucking Kenya and build wells. I do not think he got the idea from a pandering, edgeless video, because he’s not a pandering edgeless person. He’s a person who does things and is fearsomely cantankerous and perpetually unsatisfied with anything, yet he’s the guy who is actually there staying and building wells.

    Maybe, maybe this sort of thing is building a groundswell of basic human expectation towards how life ought to be lived, a sort of humanistic consensus priming the world for action. These Upworthy people would sure like to think so.

    Maybe they will just get five hundred million people to take three seconds to say a prayer for the starving black child in the video before returning to their chicken nuggets made out of franken-corn and a engineered monstrosity with seventeen legs that can’t walk or feed itself but generates more body mass per gram of feed than any natural bird.

    I’m sure that would help.

    The baseline of sappy humanism isn’t bad. We build civilizations out of this shared, common acceptance of how the world should present itself to us. Without that, it’s Galt’s Gulch, unsustainable. There’s a place for it, which is more or less where Upworthy lives, insinuating itself into the sleeping, unthinking minds of the passive.

    But real artistry isn’t pandering, real artistry is engaging with the audience in such a way that they get enough of what they came for but they also woke up and had a novel thought. Real artistry is sneaking a payload into what you’re bringing so that it changes the recipient. Upworthy is strictly pandering, so it can only make people more set in their ways while hoping those ways are good.

    In the late thirties, they’d be quietly puzzled at how very aryan everything seemed to be getting, and how the zeitgeist just didn’t seem to resonate with some of their content anymore. And they’d be hard pressed to steer that zeitgeist—because they can’t. They are only feeding plants, never planting seeds.

  51. 51
    Julie says:

    @JGabriel: This. I find it hard to argue with the basic idea that crappy marketing and advertising tactics (unfortunately) work, so why not use them in the service of good rather than bad.

    The headlines are wildly annoying, but they as an org seem to follow the data… which is telling them that the crappy headlines don’t work anymore.

  52. 52
    Caravelle says:

    This is fascinating. I’ve always been cynical about Upworthy, from the minute I started noticing the clickbaitiness of those headlines I kept seeing on the sidebar were associated with a website called “Upworthy”. I mean, that name should tell you everything there is to know about that site I’d think. I won’t say I avoided those links reflexively because I have clicked on those links fairly often, but I did think long and hard before doing so (“sure, this title sounds tantalizing but what do I think the article or video it points to actually contains, and is it something I actually want to spend time on ?”), and seeing Upworthy or any other clickbait site behind it made me 99% less likely to click just by default.

    Now I’m reading this article about how there are actual people choosing all those articles (I’d been assuming some automated web-crawler for some reason ?), and those people are all (apparently) totally well-meaning, and I’m remembering that as JGabriel says the Upworthy content I’ve seen has usually been quite progressive and humanistic – in fact I remember several times thinking “wow I’m really glad this particular issue is being publicized”. A lot of that is probably selective memory (I mean, it’s not for nothing I tend to avoid clicking those headlines – it’s been frequently not worth it for me) and this article might be sucking up to the site, but the idea that actual people choose the articles to promote on the basis of “does it make the world a better place” makes total sense to me. And I just can’t hate that. It’s making me wonder whether it has an actual measurable effect, on people’s opinions or on donations to the charities it points to or what. Maybe I should finish the article.

    I cannot believe I actually got less cynical about Upworthy.
    /snip five paragraphs of second, third and millionth-guessing on whether I’m a sucker or a shallow cynic for liking or disliking the site/

  53. 53
    Caravelle says:

    Heh, just got to this bit :

    Whereas the founders, says Pariser, are “ultimately kind of Sorkin-esque idealists in the role of the media in society.”

    Oh dear, you mean both paternalistic and unrealistic ? Not that it matters, this is the real world and people can very easily invoke Sorkin without actually emulating the problems in his work, so –

    “But early Sorkin,” says Koechley. “West Wing Sorkin, not Newsroom Sorkin.”

    HAHAHA OK I like these guys xD

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