According to Julie

“Racism bad. Eat kale.” – Why Upworthy is noteworthy

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Upworthy finds stuff – often, but not always, videos – on the internet, adds a longer-than-standard headline and gets lots and lots and lots of people to look at this stuff.

Here’s their front page today:

screenshot from upworthy.com

There’s something generally annoying about Upworthy. Maybe it’s their incessant nagging demanding that I like their Facebook page or maybe it’s their constant presence in my Facebook feed, whether I like them or not. Maybe it’s the same vague irritation I feel whenever anything becomes super-popular (yeah, there’s some hipster in my personality).

But as a communication geek, I have more reason to like Upworthy than dislike it.

One of Upworthy’s founders is Eli Pariser, the guy who wrote The Filter Bubble. It’s probably a good thing that one of the fastest-growing sites on the internet is founded by someone who thinks Google’s and Facebook’s content filtering algorithms could have scary consequences.

Upworthy’s mission is to “draw massive amounts of attention to the topics that really matter”. It’s hard to hate that. Upworthy uses all the tricks at their disposal to spread content they think is meaningful. They argue that the lowest common denominator when it comes to human beings browsing the internet is not sex, violence or sheer silliness, but “a human craving for righteousness”, to quote this New York Magazine article about the Upworthy team.

The whole NY Mag piece is worth reading, to get a behind-the-scenes view of how the Upworthy team works. In terms of readers, Upworthy is one of the fastest-growing sites in internet history, and more traditional news media are copying Upworthy’s methods for spreading information (from Washington Post’s Upworthy-inspired Know More to tweets that parody Upworthy’s headline style). This supposedly silly video-sharing site is doing what The New York Times says it cannot do right: Researching and testing headlines and other tools for spreading information, so that stories reach the biggest possible audience.

When I worked as a front page editor, I followed the principle that “Readers don’t mind being tricked into reading something worth their time.” If the actual story was good, I could break out every trick in the book (read: not at all written in any book I had access to. It’s not like there was a journalism school syllabus for online front page editing). At a business newssite, that could mean pictures of pretty women or furry animals (bear market = cute grizzly bear). But basically, the more in-depth and well-researched the story, the more tabloid I could go on the front page. I used tabloid as a verb, as in “tabloidizing” important facts and stories.

Upworthy follows this same principle. They’re using different – newer – ways of tabloidizing to spread messages they believe make the world a better place.

Here’s one of the most interesting paragraphs from the NY Mag article:

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. (“She Has a Horrifying Story to Tell. Except It Isn’t Actually True. Except It Actually Is True.”) How then, someone asks, have they been getting away with teasing headlines for so long? “Because people weren’t used to it,” says Mordecai. “Now everybody does it, and they do cartoon versions of ours.”

 

Today’s Upworthy front page shows that the headlines are adapting to this new discovery. On the surface, Upworthy seems to break most of the established headline-writing rules, but that’s mainly because their headlines are so long. They’re still doing what headlines are supposed to do: tell the reader why they should click on the link.

I’ll be following what Upworthy does going forward, to see how the new social media version of tabloidization develops.

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