Upworthy’s popularity shows unflattering reality of American ‘news’ consumption

By Jessica Huseman
@JessicaHuseman
Jan. 22, 2014

Upworthy.com — a left-leaning site that aims to “make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing off his roof” by providing ultra-clickable videos and stories — has amassed upwards of 30 million unique views a month, even though the site is less than two years old. While their success is impressive, it mainly speaks to the unflattering way in which Americans choose to share information.

Upworthy Unique Views per Quarter

Click to enlarge.

Visit Upworthy, and you’ll see dozens of links to feel-good articles that lean left like Sean Hannity leans right. While the topics are important — gender bias, sexual acceptance and poverty are popular choices — they don’t ever challenge the beliefs of the audience they cater to, and all of the links are so shareable because they act as a humble brag about how forward-thinking the sharer is. You can almost hear Upworthy’s average audience member thinking, “If I put this on Facebook, my friends will think I’m groundbreaking and progressive! Where’s the share button?”

But maybe that’s all that Upworthy’s creators really want from you anyway. On the site, they say their mission is “to elevate and draw attention to the issues that really matter … through irresistible social media.”

They’ve certainly accomplished that. The headlines are the most carefully crafted click-bait tools on the internet — read them, and you can’t help but click.

“A 4-Year-Old Asked A Lesbian If She’s A Boy. She Responded in the Awesomest Way Possible.” Click. “You Might See Tattoos In A Different Light After You See Them On This Woman.” Click. “How Precious Is Your Spit To You? Because To Him It’s Potentially Life Saving.” Click. “9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact.” Click click click.

This is the “news” site equivalent of those spammy ads showing you that one “weird” trick to lose belly fat.

But if their goal is to make people see the significance of what they are sharing, I’m not sure they accomplish it. Many of their videos are too long for the average internet-surfer to watch all the way through. The one about the lesbian responding to a toddler who asked if she was a boy, for instance, is 11 minutes long. Of the thousands that shared that video via Upworthy, how many do you think actually watched the whole thing? I bet many of them didn’t watch it at all.

The significance of these videos are also lost in that the people who watch them likely already agree with them. The study “Life in the Bubble: Examining the Forwarding of Political Videos” found the following:

  • Democrats forwarded political information when it elicited positive emotion.
  • Democrats were not politically or dispositionally similar to the targets of their forwards.
  • Republicans forwarded political information when it elicited negative emotion.
  • Republicans were politically and dispositionally similar to the targets of their forwards.

Given that Upworthy’s videos are almost entirely optimistic and emotion-eliciting, it stands to reason that the vast majority of people who are going to watch this and pass this on didn’t have to think at all before they clicked share, because none of their opinions had been challenged in watching it. It is passing on “significant” content like Fox News believes it passes on “significant content” — to people who don’t really enjoy having their views challenged, but would like to be entertained.

Image by Forbes.

Image by Forbes. Click to Enlarge.

But that’s really the genius of the entire thing. Step 1: Create a headline that young, liberal people who are internet savvy will have to click. Step 2: Watch those young people put it on their Facebook and Twitter feeds so they can feel good about themselves. Step 3: Profit.

Money? Yes. Money. Upworthy currently publishes promoted videos for “things they think are Upworthy,” but in the future they also plan to allow companies who want to associate their product with the site’s left-leaning message to create paid “partnerships” with Upworthy.

The “partnerships” mentioned in the announcement refer to underwriters, as co-founder Peter Koechley told TechCrunch. “We think a number of these sections that we might want to delve more deeply into are sections that people might want to underwrite,” he said, adding, “If there’s a real alignment of a sponsor section on a particular topic, we find the best content in the world on that topic and draw attention to it better than anyone else can, and it’s great for our partner in those cases. We leverage how to draw attention, and they associate their brand with that.”

Given that Upworthy creates no original content and instead spends it’s time finding things that already exist and giving them snappy headlines, they’ll be making money by repackaging other people’s original work and drawing hits to their site. This is the reality of the internet, but if it strikes you as a little unfair, maybe it should.

Regardless of it’s mission, Upworthy is now getting more hits than Gawker, CNBC, and US Weekly, so their model is clearly working. It’s just a little bit of a sad look on how we choose to get our information in the internet age.

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Posted by on January 22, 2014. Filed under Media,Recent News. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0. You can leave a response or trackback to this entry

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