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Watching Team Upworthy Work Is Enough to Make You a Cynic. Or Not.
March 26, 2014 8:15 AM   Subscribe

Watching a curator crank out headlines is a bizarre experience, insofar as it’s almost indistinguishable from watching people toss out parodies of Upworthy headline styles—either way, the mind runs immediately to stock phrases like “you’ll never believe,” “you’d be wrong,” or “everything wrong with [topic] in one [piece of content].”
Nitsuh Abebe visits the Upworthy offices.
posted by frimble (85 comments total) 16 users marked this as a favorite

 
"It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to hate without feeling like a churl, villain, or snob."
Oh I assure you, it's not hard.
posted by fullerine at 8:23 AM on March 26 [41 favorites]


Yeah, I'll take snob and not feel bad about it.
posted by dammitjim at 8:26 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


I got dibs on being the churl.

/what's a churl?
posted by surazal at 8:27 AM on March 26


One small trick discovered by hacks to get rich through culture war.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 8:27 AM on March 26 [7 favorites]


Ok, I'm villain, used to it...
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 8:27 AM on March 26


You won't believe whatwe learned about the history of the word "churl".
posted by chapps at 8:28 AM on March 26 [6 favorites]


I hid Upworthy posts from my Facebook feed months ago. You'll never guess why.
posted by roomthreeseventeen at 8:29 AM on March 26 [59 favorites]


Upworthy’s tone, they say, is what gets the job done, and if it grates, you’re probably too old.


In my experience, nobody shares Upworthy content as much as my aunts and other friends in their 50s or older.
posted by gimli at 8:31 AM on March 26 [30 favorites]


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. (“She Has a Horrifying Story to Tell. Except It Isn’t Actually True. Except It Actually Is True.”)
This is the one thing I can't fucking stand about Upworthy and its imitators, and I'm glad to know they're moving away from it.
posted by xbonesgt at 8:33 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


I was recently verrrrrry tempted to apply to an admin job with Upworthy; it sounded really good at first (work from home, competitive hours, they were based in New York so if I had to get into the office it'd be fine). Except - I realized I honestly wouldn't have been able to be gung-ho about what Upworthy does.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 8:33 AM on March 26


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

“But early Sorkin,” says Koechley. “West Wing Sorkin, not Newsroom Sorkin.”
So clueless fucking rubes who think the Bush years just didn't happen?
posted by fullerine at 8:36 AM on March 26 [4 favorites]


This thirty-something man was told he was too old for Upworthy. What happened next will blow you away.
posted by spaltavian at 8:39 AM on March 26 [14 favorites]


who think the Bush years just didn't happen

They actually didn't happen in a show set in a fictional universe where someone else is president. Weird.
posted by spaltavian at 8:40 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


They actually didn't happen in a show set in a fictional universe where someone else is president. Weird.

I think the issue was that fans of the West Wing liked watching it because it prevented a fantasy escape world in which political staffers had intense discussions about policy and the liberal intellectual fantasy president gave conservative archetypes their comeuppance at the end of a 60 minute episode. In short, a fantasy universe that a certain strain of earnest liberals WISH existed.

Am I the only person who preferred Sports Night Sorkin?
posted by deanc at 8:45 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Nobody preferred Studio 60 Sorkin?

/ no, nobody did.
posted by the man of twists and turns at 8:48 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Upworthy is sort of the "be careful what you ask for" warning for everyone who whines about how there needs to be more POSITIVE news, dammit.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:48 AM on March 26 [10 favorites]


OH COME ON PEOPLE

/what's a churl?


$20, same as in town.
posted by jquinby at 8:52 AM on March 26 [17 favorites]


deanc: In short, a fantasy universe that a certain strain of earnest liberals WISH existed.

It also served as a critique of Bush-dominated political culture, and specifically conservative Republicans. I mean, James Brolin played one of the least subtle romans à clef I've seen, so saying the show was about "rubes" doesn't really fit, it's about an aspirational alternative.

Am I the only person who preferred Sports Night Sorkin?

I liked Sports Night too, but there was little daylight between that show and The West Wing. Which made Sports Night suffer in contrast because they annoying-uplifting-profound things they said were about hockey rather than, say, war and peace. At least the pretend stakes were high enough on West Wing for the characters to act like that.
posted by spaltavian at 8:53 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I'm not living in a continual state of childlike awe or heartbreak at everything I read on the internet. It grates on me that I'm being instructed to feel that way, every day. And it grates on me that I'm not invited to form my own feelings and opinions about things that are presumably worthy of my attention. Come to my own conclusions about a given event after a small amount of analysis. And paradoxically, it kills any sort of genuine awe or heartbreak I might've felt to be didactically pandered to in that way. That's right, Upworthy is killing any semblance of childlike joy within my withered husk of a heart.
posted by naju at 8:54 AM on March 26 [32 favorites]


I can't tell you the number of times I heard fellow liberals complain about the weakness of the liberal messaging machine during the Bush years. People were constantly lamenting about the potency of right wing chain emails, talk radio, and Fox News and the fact that Democrats and liberals had nothing like that.

Upworthy was explicitly founded as an engine to promote and distribute true stories that support the liberal point of view and push liberal framing. And since it has achieved pretty substantial success, it's become an important piece of the liberal messaging machine. If it's not to your taste, that's fine, block it or whatever, but I really don't get why left-leaning people want to attack it.
posted by burden at 9:05 AM on March 26 [12 favorites]


I assume that the accompanying photo taken under the table is meant to show how casual they all are, not wearing shoes at work...But instead to me it seems creepily -- hm, what's the word -- upskirty.
posted by doctornecessiter at 9:07 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


The other tribe has obviously learned from Fox News and the Tea Party, but me personally I'd rather revile propaganda machines.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 9:13 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


If it's not to your taste, that's fine, block it or whatever, but I really don't get why left-leaning people want to attack it.

Getting liberals to agree about internet memes is like herding lolcats.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:15 AM on March 26 [5 favorites]


I really don't get why left-leaning people want to attack it.

My reason has always been that they're ebaums-world-like parasites skimming ad revenue off of other peoples' content. The fact that they make issues I care about look ridiculous by wrapping them in their cloying feel-good do-nothing clicktivism ("I believe the world should be a happier and more joyous place! Yes/No") is just a bonus.

But that's just me.
posted by ook at 9:17 AM on March 26 [11 favorites]


Upworthy’s tone, they say, is what gets the job done, and if it grates, you’re probably too old. (Younger audiences are “more sincere.”)

The tone doesn't grate with me because I hid it from FB ages ago. The curiosity gap headlines mean I never click through, especially since it's almost always videos. Those two points may be why I'm too old for it, not because it grates.
posted by immlass at 9:21 AM on March 26


Oh and the unbelievable pretentiousness that all of this is quote "in the service of doing something good for humanity" unquote. That really chaps my ass too.

I could make a list. It'd be a long one.
posted by ook at 9:24 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Curious about that bump on your asshole? You won't believe how much fiber you SHOULD have been eating!
posted by ReeMonster at 9:24 AM on March 26


The other tribe has obviously learned from Fox News and the Tea Party, but me personally I'd rather revile propaganda machines.

It would be nice if everyone could simply agree on the self-evident superiority of liberal policies and implement them, but Krist Novoselic convincingly argues that political change requires Celine Dion fans on our side.
posted by deanc at 9:25 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Upworthy’s tone, they say, is what gets the job done, and if it grates, you’re probably too old. (Younger audiences are “more sincere.”)

Man I don't know offhand exactly how I'd describe Upworthy's tone but I'm pretty sure 'sincere' wouldn't be on the shortlist.
posted by shakespeherian at 9:32 AM on March 26 [7 favorites]


I wish Aaron Sorkin was still doing tv. I loved West Wing and I loved Sports Night. I liked that my apolitical son liked to watch Sports Night with me, and it generated excellent discussion.

Upworthy is all video, and I hate getting information via web video, though I still watch tv news, so, hmmm. I like their idealism; it's probably kind of good for everybody. I like it so much that I'm suppressing snarking about it.
posted by theora55 at 9:45 AM on March 26


Man I don't know offhand exactly how I'd describe Upworthy's tone but I'm pretty sure 'sincere' wouldn't be on the shortlist.

Oh, come now. I'd say they're at least as sincere as your average monorail huxter.
posted by Atom Eyes at 9:48 AM on March 26


I know I am too old because nothing seems upworthy. Where are my blue pills?
posted by srboisvert at 9:51 AM on March 26


I can't believe it if I don't read it, that's my policy.
posted by The Card Cheat at 9:52 AM on March 26


This kind of candied, emotionally and intellectually infantilizing affirmative culture is vacuous and indulgent, and denigrating those who critique its emptiness is basically a defense of people's right to enjoy being emotionally manipulated by a savvy business while congratulating themselves. It's utter dreck, disposable joy for a bored and terrified readership too overwhelmed by the slow-motion disaster of contemporary life to take any meaningful action aimed at systemic justice.
posted by clockzero at 10:07 AM on March 26 [43 favorites]


Upworthy headlines are tantamount to movie trailers that show you all the plot points.
posted by rhizome at 10:21 AM on March 26


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

Surely this is inevitable. Upworthy's gimmick seems like it has a limited shelf life. Eventually everyone is going to tire of "I won't tell you what this is, but trust me, it's awesome."
posted by straight at 10:23 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


How do they think anybody comes up with any short pithy wordplay?

Writing jokes is just figuring out what basic format of joke you want to write and what the joke is about, and playing mad-libs with it until it's funny.

Writing headlines is just figuring out how to distill the main idea of an article down to five words, and then tweaking it around until it fits the column width.

Writing ad copy is just figuring out how to sell a thing to people, and then distilling that down to two sentences that will work well next to a picture of the product or an attractive person using the product.

Writing haiku is just figuring out which natural phenomenon you'd like to muse on the beauty of, and then counting syllables.

I kid, about the haiku thing, but seriously the way to write stuff like this is to just generate a million of them, figure out which ones work, and tweak them until they do exactly what you want them to do. I'm sure it seems asinine to outsiders, but there's really no other way to do it.

Nothing about this article surprises me in any way or makes me question my understanding of how the sausage is made. How does New York Magazine think people write things? Were they imagining some kind of nineteenth century Elizabeth Barrett Browning/Lord Byron type, sighing over a parchment and quill in a garret somewhere?
posted by Sara C. at 10:28 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


O tempora o mores speeches are fun and all but I'd love for someone to draw any kind of plausible causal chain between what Upworthy does and the alleged inability of modern people to take any meaningful action aimed at systemic justice.

Upworthy is a megaphone that is used to amplify true stories and frames that support the contemporary American liberal point of view. It's not going to fix the world on its own, but I don't see how it hurts.
posted by burden at 10:28 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


> Upworthy’s tone, they say, is what gets the job done, and if it grates, you’re probably too old.

In my experience, nobody shares Upworthy content as much as my aunts and other friends in their 50s or older.


Intelligent, they meant. If it grates, you're probably too intelligent.
posted by officer_fred at 10:35 AM on March 26


The saddest thing of about the article is losing the word Curation to yet more shitty internet startups that piggy back on the actual hard work of other people.
posted by DigDoug at 10:35 AM on March 26 [10 favorites]


Callowfornication
posted by Chitownfats at 11:00 AM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Eventually everyone is going to tire of "I won't tell you what this is, but trust me, it's awesome."

Maybe so, but The National Enquirer has been in business for 80-something years and I don't see signs of them stopping.

I've never actually looked at Upworthy and since I almost never look at Facebook, I've never encountered it there, either. Everything I know about Upworthy I've learned here. (I blame you all.)

Interestingly, churl, villain, and snob are all words which originally described rustics, the low-born, or workers. Just thinking about Upworthy makes me feel like a serf.
posted by octobersurprise at 11:47 AM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Upworthy headlines are tantamount to movie trailers that show you all the plot points.

This man says "Ouch!" after he walks into a bar. You'll never guess why!
posted by gauche at 11:53 AM on March 26 [3 favorites]


This kind of candied, emotionally and intellectually infantilizing affirmative culture is vacuous and indulgent, and denigrating those who critique its emptiness is basically a defense of people's right to enjoy being emotionally manipulated by a savvy business while congratulating themselves. It's utter dreck, disposable joy for a bored and terrified readership too overwhelmed by the slow-motion disaster of contemporary life to take any meaningful action aimed at systemic justice.

And yet this sort of critique is so easy. Let me do it, too. It's disposable; it's emotionally vacuous, infantilizing, condescending, pre-chewed pre-digested baby-food-news.

Now that I've got that out of the way:

Upworthy is playing the political game, plain and simple. They're not a journalism outlet. They're doing politics. They're trying to change the landscape of what is disseminated and what is talked about.

An investigative journalist asks people, does interviews, does research. An article is thus made out of research and interviews. But that's not what good journalism does - good journalism is circulated, talked about, publicly shines light on issues, changes the conversation. A protest on the street is made of is a bunch of signs and people and voices and emotion. What a protest does, is that it becomes disseminated, talked about, discussed, and hopefully transforms into political pressure.

Similarly, cheap clickbait feel-good journalism is the tool that Upworthy uses; it's not what they're doing.
posted by suedehead at 11:57 AM on March 26 [9 favorites]


Upworthy is basically the very definition of smarm.

(Also, the only people I know who haven't already blocked it from their Facebook feeds are the people who didn't know they could block things from their Facebook feeds, which is a hell of a demographic to target. Maybe their deep-down business model is to sell advertising to companies looking for viewers so gullible they'll click on basically anything.)
posted by Kadin2048 at 12:17 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


I wish Aaron Sorkin was still doing tv.

Um, he is? Well, it's HBO, so therefore Not TVTM -- but on topic... I could argue that merely lifting pages out of the right-wingers' playbook might not have been the takeaway from the Bush years we all necessarily need. I'd like the Dems to actually get their shit in a pile without resorting to manipulation or pandering, but let's be real, that'll always be wishful thinking.
posted by axiom at 12:30 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Upworthy - the Internet equivalent of Donald Dane's "Boo!"
posted by Naberius at 12:36 PM on March 26


She didn't think she could be manipulated, but then she saw these two links.
posted by cosmic.osmo at 12:44 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Upworthy is basically the very definition of smarm.

Flagged for Smarm.
posted by Pudhoho at 12:54 PM on March 26 [3 favorites]


Having RTFA, the questions posed, how to organize people, information, messaging, etc., are interesting. It's a good piece. And I had a moment of "a-ha" when I realized oh it's that Eli Pariser. Not sure if that makes me want to seek out Upworthy, but I might recommend it to my mom.

I'd like the Dems to actually get their shit in a pile without resorting to manipulation or pandering

I mean, I'd like to live in a nation of philosopher-kings as well, but manipulation and pandering is politics on any large scale, at least to some degree. Beyond being somewhat doubtful, I don't have a clue if Upworthy will have any effect on politics at all, but the effort's at least as interesting as watching twitter used for the same thing.
posted by octobersurprise at 12:56 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Upworthy: Less Thinky, More Linky?
posted by ZeusHumms at 1:02 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


To all the people who complain that upworthy is just piggybacking on the work of others - would rather those voices weren't heard?

There are so many interesting and important stories and pieces of advocacy that I only heard about through upworthy - and I'm a person who pays attention to online politics and advocacy work as part of my job. I mean, Upworthy (unlike Buzzfeed or many of Upworthy's imitators) is super-careful to give massive amounts of credit where credit is due, and often end up giving a big platform to activists and organizations that wouldn't have one otherwise.

A great example was last year, when they featured one of those big romantic-gesture wedding proposals, which was especially touching because it was a same-sex couple in Washington State, where marriage equality is a new and exciting thing. Even better, the woman being proposed to works at Washington Bus, a great social justice group in Seattle, and Upworthy gave them a shoutout and a link too.

I mean, would it have been better if millions of people hadn't seen that adorable video of two women getting engaged and hadn't had the opportunity to learn about and support a social justice organization's work?
posted by lunasol at 1:02 PM on March 26 [7 favorites]


One thing I'll say about Upworthy and politics is that, interestingly enough, I see a lot of more conservative Facebook users on my stream sharing Upworthy videos than one would expect. Certainly vastly more that would ever share anything from an overtly liberal political website.

It's interesting how many people I know who are like the poster children for American conservatism, but who also share uplifting videos about gay marriage, ethnic/religious diversity, immigration reform, the plight of homeless people, etc. on Facebook.
posted by Sara C. at 1:05 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Sara C, I kind of wonder if that means that these videos don't actually have a political effect; people are responding to the awwww and the feelgood signals and not thinking about them enough to notice that the videos are contrary to their core beliefs.

I mean, I'd love to be wrong about that. Do your poster children for american conservatism start supporting gay marriage after they share the uplifting video about a cute gay marriage? Does it appear to be modulating their beliefs at all? Or is it just share-and-forget?
posted by ook at 1:27 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]


I'm not sure, and I wonder the same thing.

I have one Facebook friend who is a white southern Republican man in his 60s (he's a family friend). He has repeatedly shared Upworthy and Upworthy-style content about both gay marriage and immigration reform, and has commented at length about how he supports these things. My guess is that the fluffy, friendly, apolitical tone of sites like Upworthy -- and the fact that Facebook stands in as a middleman preventing him from actually visiting liberal sites -- makes it easier for him to feel that he can have nuanced takes on these particular issues and engage with that kind of content publicly.

In a lot of ways, politics are pretty malleable based on region, family, tradition, expectations, etc. Having grown up in a red state, I think a lot of people who identify as conservative Republicans would probably be liberal Democrats if they lived in a different part of the US. And, likewise, having lived in blue states as an adult, I've met plenty of liberal Democrats who'd probably align themselves differently if they'd grown up in a more conservative milieu. (Though, interestingly, I don't see any of these people sharing politically conservative posts on Facebook.)
posted by Sara C. at 1:57 PM on March 26 [4 favorites]


/what's a churl?
$20, same as in town.
Wait everybody hold the fuck on here
posted by churl at 2:44 PM on March 26 [36 favorites]


fluffy, friendly, apolitical tone of sites like Upworthy ... makes it easier for him to feel that he can have nuanced takes on these particular issues and engage with that kind of content publicly.

The article touches on this strategy also, and I have to say it resonated with me. There have been times where I would like to share an interesting and convincing take-down of homeopathy or some other woo with my mom, but usually the content is full of cusses or directly insults the people you would think it is trying to reach and sway.

Kind of like how I would read a Richard Dawkins book that he seems to think is targeted to Christians, and makes plenty of good points, but in the first few pages I think, "Yeah, Mom and Dad would be shelving the book at right about... THAT little dig at their intelligence." You know, some condescending little nickname for their way of thinking, like "history denier"... um, yeah.

I don't really know a ton about Upworthy aside from this article and the internet making fun of it, but I like that they seem to be attempting to put out a viewpoint in a way that won't just end up making people who already agree with them feel superior to those idiots who don't agree with "us".
posted by history_denier at 2:51 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


The only thing worse than Upworthy headlines is the smarmy disdainful tone of its critics. Oh yes, you're so smart, you saw right through their not-veiled-at-all attempts to manipulate you! Except that if you were that smart, you'd also understand the critical importance of this type of nonthreatening feel-good content in shaping mainstream discourse.

It's like people who, when Gawker/HuffPo or whatever massive content churn is publishing facile social justicey-type stuff, whine that they're only "preaching to the Tumblr choir" or "doing it for the clicks". You should be overjoyed that issues you care about are visible/popular enough that they can be considered clickbait. One of my hobby horses is women in games; I don't care what motives Kotaku has for publishing con groping stories or yet another piece on chainmail bikinis, I'm just thrilled when they go that route instead of posting another booth babe gallery.
posted by Freyja at 3:03 PM on March 26 [9 favorites]


I hate, hate, hate, hate the word "curator" or the verb "curate" used in any context other than that of putting together an art exhibit. Putting together this sort of shitty content doesn't qualify.
posted by sfred at 3:27 PM on March 26


Similarly, cheap clickbait feel-good journalism is the tool that Upworthy uses; it's not what they're doing. That makes them a propaganda outfit.
posted by sfred at 3:38 PM on March 26


I didn't even know Upworthy was supposed to be political, progressive, or liberal oriented until I read the article and this thread. Easily 80% of the links I've seen shared have been uncontroversial human interest stories, funny little things, etc. Maybe I've gotten Upworthy confused with Viral Nova? Are those two totally different approaches?
posted by naju at 3:56 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Upworthy (unlike Buzzfeed or many of Upworthy's imitators) is super-careful to give massive amounts of credit where credit is due

LOL, you must be joking, or maybe we just have different definitions of "massive."
posted by dhammond at 4:27 PM on March 26


I didn't even know Upworthy was supposed to be political, progressive, or liberal oriented until I read the article and this thread.

Well, it is really lightly political. For instance one of the top stories when I went to the site at some point today (mostly for research purposes) was all about who Gloria Steinem is and why she's awesome and inspirational. It's liberal subjects for people who are either intensely apolitical or moderate-to-conservative.

You know how we have these intense social justice arguments and everyone gets het up about "Feminism 101"? Upworthy is basically a Progressive 101 clearinghouse.

Topics of other videos on the main page right now are how it's OK to be Christian and not homophobic, making sure kids get enough food is a net positive, and it's unfair to discriminate against hijab-wearing Muslim girls who want to play sports. Nothing is terribly controversial, and plenty of their content isn't really political at all. (For instance that video where people with Downs Syndrome speak out about their lives, which made the air in my office very dusty all of a sudden.)
posted by Sara C. at 4:41 PM on March 26


Upworthy (unlike Buzzfeed or many of Upworthy's imitators) is super-careful to give massive amounts of credit where credit is due

LOL, you must be joking, or maybe we just have different definitions of "massive."


I guess we do, because I am quite serious. For instance, right below the Gloria Steinem post Sara C. links to:

This video is by Makers, which has a ton of awesome videos about amazing women. You may spend a good few hours watching them all.

Not only do they link to the source, but they actively promote them.

Or the Washington Bus post I talked about earlier:

If you would like to know more about the awesome place Alissa works, you can Like the Washington Bus on Facebook. They do amazing things for equality and young voters.

Again, they promote the organization.

I can't really think of how they would more proactively give credit to their sources, but I guess you can?

And honestly, I think the issue of credit is secondary to the fact that they give their sources a huge platform. As I alluded to earlier, I produce online advocacy content, and I would be THRILLED if something I created was featured on Upworthy.
posted by lunasol at 5:20 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


Except that if you were that smart, you'd also understand the critical importance of this type of nonthreatening feel-good content in shaping mainstream discourse.

To be honest, I never thought of it that way. It actually makes me uncomfortable to think of it that way; do I live in a society where you have to create a business around tricking people to engage with the kind of ideas Upworthy [claims they] espouse?
posted by Room 101 at 5:46 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Are they really tricking people though?

I just don't really get what is so sinister about their operation from what I've seen. They have an agenda, and want to get people thinking differently about things than they normally would, but it just seems to me that they are sharing their perspective (by way of content they think is important) in a not so "us vs them" sort of way.

Again, I'm not super familiar with them, so feel free to enlighten me.
posted by history_denier at 6:23 PM on March 26


It actually makes me uncomfortable to think of it that way; do I live in a society where you have to create a business around tricking people to engage with the kind of ideas Upworthy [claims they] espouse?

Meh, I think "tricking" is a pretty loaded way to look at it. I think it's more about reaching people where they're at instead of trying to drag people to where you are, or expecting them to come to you on their own.
posted by lunasol at 6:25 PM on March 26


And I don't think it's "tricking" because they're open about who they are and what their mission is.
posted by lunasol at 6:26 PM on March 26


I can't really think of how they would more proactively give credit to their sources, but I guess you can?

Sure, they can put more background info and links in the body of the article itself, as opposed to what's pretty much a footnote at the bottom. But that might drive people away from their site. Given that increasing the length of user sessions is one of Upworthy's key goals, this is almost certainly by design.

I'm not denying that they credit their sources but it is, pretty much without fail, at the bottom of the page and usually below the ever-important "share" buttons. This is pretty much the bare minimum of giving credit.
posted by dhammond at 6:50 PM on March 26


This was a really interesting read. I appreciated that they addressed the issue of the off-putting, manipulative headlines. For anyone who didn't make it that far into the article:
Much of Upworthy’s content does feel like reality TV. A lot of it also feels like advertising. This isn’t an accident; the site’s built, tactically and deliberately, to appeal to what skeptics once called the lowest common denominator. Its choices are the ones you’d normally associate with a race to the bottom—the manipulative techniques of ads, tabloids, direct-mail fund-raising, local TV news (“Think This Common Household Object Won’t Kill Your Children? You’d Be Wrong”). It’s just that Upworthy assumes the existence of a “lowest common denominator” that consists of a human craving for righteousness, or at least the satisfaction that comes from watching someone we disagree with get their rhetorical comeuppance. They’ve harnessed craven techniques in the service of unobjectionable goals—“evergreen standards like ‘Human rights are a good thing’ and ‘Children should be taken care of’ ”—on the logic that “good” things deserve ads as potent as the “bad” ones have. “I think marketing in a traditional sense, for commercialism—marketing to get you to buy ­McDonald’s or something—is crass,” says Sara Critchfield, the site’s editorial director. “But marketing to get people’s attention onto really important topics is a noble pursuit. So you take something that in one context is very crass and you put it in another. People will say, ‘That’s very crass,’ but in the service of doing something good for humanity, I think it’s pretty great.”
I'm not sure I agree with it being "great." Yes, I wish people cared more about these important topics being presented in Upworthy posts. But more than anything, I wish people would think for themselves and resist obvious attempts at manipulation. On the other hand, we don't live in the society of my dreams, and it turns out that this distasteful strategy is what gets people to click. So, mixed feelings. I'm uncomfortable with the means, but boy they seem to get the job done.

Oddly enough, the cynic in me was most put to rest when I read this description of their headline testing algorithm:
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.”
It's kind of adorable. They really don't seem like cynics or profiteers, despite their massive share of the click market. Maybe they're trying too hard, with their lunchtime karaoke and whatnot, but I'm not enough of a cynic to really hate on people for being too earnest.
posted by vytae at 6:58 PM on March 26 [1 favorite]


Sure, they can put more background info and links in the body of the article itself, as opposed to what's pretty much a footnote at the bottom. But that might drive people away from their site. Given that increasing the length of user sessions is one of Upworthy's key goals, this is almost certainly by design.

I'm not denying that they credit their sources but it is, pretty much without fail, at the bottom of the page and usually below the ever-important "share" buttons. This is pretty much the bare minimum of giving credit.


OK, yeah I can see your point. But this is pretty standard and accepted practice in the online advocacy world, so it didn't seem "footnotey" to me. For instance, when one org shares another's facebook post, they'll do the description, with a "thanks to OtherOrganization[linked] for the image!" And Upworthy goes a step beyond that by talking up the other organization and what they do. I mean, maybe I overstated my point in my first post, but it is above and beyond. They really do care about promoting people and organizations doing good work.

Also, as for putting it below the other content: like everything else Upworthy does, their pages are rigorously A/B tested, so it is about optimizing the page for sharing (and apparently keeping people on the site). And yeah, that serves Upworthy, but again it also serves the organization/person whose content they're sharing, because those people staying on the site are watching/reading that content.
posted by lunasol at 7:24 PM on March 26


… do I live in a society where you have to create a business around tricking people to engage with the kind of ideas Upworthy [claims they] espouse?

It's a fact that you live in a society where the powers that be use these techniques to promote ideas — and, ultinately, a culture and society — that is absolutely counter to your best interests.

Frankly, thank goodness someone is using these manipulation techniques for good.
posted by five fresh fish at 10:53 PM on March 26 [2 favorites]


I'm not denying that they credit their sources but it is, pretty much without fail, at the bottom of the page

Boy, wait'll you learn about footnotes.
posted by octobersurprise at 8:21 AM on March 27 [4 favorites]


Or imagine the outrage when he discovers endnotes.
posted by straight at 10:06 AM on March 27


It actually makes me uncomfortable to think of it that way; do I live in a society where you have to create a business around tricking people to engage with the kind of ideas Upworthy [claims they] espouse?

I would argue that what you call "tricking people" is what has been called "rhetoric" since Ancient Greece, and that such 'tricks' are actually endemic to any sort of political structure that is not about physical force, but about political opinion and persuasion in order to gain votes -- namely, democracy.
posted by suedehead at 11:59 AM on March 27 [1 favorite]


I mean, would it have been better if millions of people hadn't seen that adorable video of two women getting engaged and hadn't had the opportunity to learn about and support a social justice organization's work?

It's not actually a dichotomy -- Upworthy's approach is not the only available method to get adorable videos seen by millions of people. And that same approach is apparently turning off a lot of people who would totally be interested in that social justice work.
posted by Celsius1414 at 2:23 PM on March 27


It's not actually a dichotomy -- Upworthy's approach is not the only available method to get adorable videos seen by millions of people. And that same approach is apparently turning off a lot of people who would totally be interested in that social justice work.

No, of course it's not the only method. But it's an extremely effective method. And it may be turning off some people, but it's apparently engaging many, many more, judging by the site's insane pace of growth.
posted by lunasol at 8:28 PM on March 27


Are there really any dyed in the wool progressives who are leaving the left because Upworthy exists? I don't feel like the site really speaks to me, and I groan when I see their content on my Facebook page, but I'm not willing to become a Republican over it.
posted by Sara C. at 8:34 PM on March 27 [2 favorites]


Frankly, thank goodness someone is using these manipulation techniques for good.

I'm feeling like this is either some Dark Side of the Force shit what you can't use for good, or something like violence where you can only rarely and carefully, in dire straits, use it for good.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:30 PM on March 27


If we can't even use basic 21st century marketing strategies to win people to our side, what even is the point?
posted by Sara C. at 11:33 PM on March 27 [1 favorite]


Driving to the bottom may get your personal message out, but there's a lot of message in that medium tagging along.
posted by locrelite at 10:30 AM on March 28


If we can't even use basic 21st century marketing strategies to win people to our side, what even is the point?

For some people, politics isn't about ensuring that your interests get their piece of the public pie, but rather about making a public expression of your personal aesthetics. Adlai Stevenson was one of those people who seemed to take it as a personal affront that Eisenhower's campaign broadcast commercials in favor of his candidacy. Some people consider themselves "too good" to sully themselves with winning.

But this is less marketing than an attempt to culturally normalize liberalism. The idea is that showing solidarity to a bullied Muslim or gay student is "just one of those things people do," and the idea of mocking someone who is gay or Muslim subtlety shifts to being the "deviant behavior" that the public disapproves of.

So much of our public dialog around social justice has revolved around normalizing the conservative dialog-- eg, how many times has a republican relative said around the dinner table, Upworthy-style, "This single mother got government aid to support her family. You'll never believe what she spent it on!" That constant drumbeat has shifted public perception without any counter narrative. So best to highlight the stories that justify liberal policies, and do it over and over until the public perception shifts.
posted by deanc at 1:48 PM on March 28 [4 favorites]


basic 21st century marketing strategies

which are used to sell bullshit. You turn your politics into bullshit.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 5:43 PM on March 28


No, politics has always been about marketing and persuasion; here's Aristotle's take on it. That doesn't make it smarmy or bullshit. Or: it's just as bullshit as it has always been.

I keep on hearing about this dream for 'clean unmanipulative politics' and I wonder if that has ever existed. Even the most civil debate between disagreeing parties is about rhetoric and persuasion, which is the foundation of all 'marketing'.
posted by suedehead at 7:31 PM on March 28


You don't see it with these "21st century marketing strategies" from big corporations and political parties, but a good way to market something to me is to honestly convince me of the actual quality of the product - enough indie places and smaller operations manage to do this. Upworthy every once in a while deceives me into clicking on a link.
posted by save alive nothing that breatheth at 10:25 PM on March 28


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