Is Upworthy Really Doing Good, Or Is It Just Good at What It Does?

The state of the universe.
May 22 2014 11:38 PM

For Love or Money

Is Upworthy really doing good, or is it just really good at what it does?

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Furthermore, what about context? A colleague of mine believes that Upworthy trivializes issues by divorcing them from their underlying causes and holding them up as completely alien instances of greed or ignorance or bigotry. Condemning a GOP precinct chairman for gassing on about “lazy blacks” is easy. Understanding the structural forces that perpetuate racism is hard—but far more valuable.

Research shows we seek out uplifting information even if it is irrelevant to our lives. We hide from distressing information even if it’s salient. Sure, people may spend a lot of time watching Upworthy videos, but as likely as not they’re just procrastinating. Their momentary emotional investment in an Upworthy post shuts out reality rather than inviting it in.

The kind of mindless Internet advocacy Upworthy’s been accused of promoting has inspired a new word: clicktivism. Clicktivists mistake gratification for meaning. They conflate feeling good (or self-satisfied or inspired or righteously indignant) with doing good. They watch a video of a kid sharing his lunch with another kid, forward it to their social networks or sign a petition, congratulate themselves on their political involvement, close the browser window, and diminish the definition of service for everyone. The hazard is not merely that these superficial do-gooders are annoying (though they are) or that they turn people off to service (though they do), but that their actions warp the meaning of political engagement. They achieve a sense of philanthropic agency through the shallowest possible means. 

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Now then. The prosecution rests.

I must acknowledge that little of the above critique reflects my actual attitudes about Upworthy. I have done my best to bring all my cynicism to bear, but here’s the truth: I may be turning into an Upworthy believer. (Disclosure: Slate and Upworthy have a parternship. Slate posts links to Upworthy content alongside our articles, and Upworthy promotes Slate stories on Facebook.)

The reason? I Talked to Peter Koechley, and the Result Blew My Mind. I asked him why it was OK to appeal to my emotions rather than my intellect. “I think the aversion to using emotions is interesting,” he responded, “considering that human beings make their decisions based on emotions, not reason. The question isn’t whether strong, fact-based emotional storytelling is good. It’s whether there is any other way of doing it that’s even 1 percent as good.”

Then Koechley made a point I hadn’t really thought of. Was he playing me, knowing I’m a woman? Or did he simply outfeminist me? “The fact that women are more known for emotion than men, while men are prized for reason and devalue things that are traditionally female,” he said, “is a nontrivial part of the story.”

But, I pressed, there are no downsides?

“Look, every powerful tool can be misused,” he said. “Something’s power relates somewhat proportionally to its danger. In the same way that things that look like rational, fact-based arguments can be spurious, compelling emotional stories that are false and misleading are also dangerous to the media world. That’s why we’re on full-time guard with copy editing and fact checking.”

So Upworthy falls somewhere between Tier 1 and Tier 2 with the feelings-based, narrative delivery. Emotions work, despite their potential perils, and besides, what the site is really looking for is “not exactly emotion, but energy,” Koechley explained. “An emotion is one type of energy, but [some of our videos] are more like fascinating conversations that keep your attention even though they don’t tug at your heartstrings.”

Koechley also has an answer to my colleague’s gripe about oversimplification. Upworthy does deliver complexity and context, he says, if you look in the right places. “We find tons of content making large structural arguments or tying the small example to the larger trend.” He points to a “lively, spirited” video on an “unsexy” topic: John Green’s lecture on the economics of health care, which now has more than 112,000 Facebook likes. Another video, of two kids of different races attempting to steal a bike, “is the sort of useful, unarguably valid, and evocative experience that tells a larger story without zooming out.”

What about the clicktivist charge? This is a tougher one, and Koechley noted that it dogs Upworthy staffers. But, he insisted, “awareness creates the conditions for change.” This is why Upworthy sees itself as part of the engagement ladder.

In activist parlance, the engagement ladder extends from click to complete view to share to some sort of post-video action—subscribing, donating, marching on Washington. “We are priming people for action,” Koechley said. “When you finish watching this incredibly powerful video, you want to do something.”

And in his experience, Upworthy readers really do want to do something. “Because our stuff is so energetic and we want people to share it, it leaves people eager to take the next step. We have this wonderful file of letters and emails. Notes from content creators whose stuff we’ve turned viral. It’s like, some guy is looking at his Kickstarter page, and suddenly he’s just watching the numbers go up and up.”

Is it possible that the site inspires at least some readers to go beyond clicktivism? Upworthy’s core community consists of about 7 million users who’ve signed up for the newsletter and who devotedly share stories. The remaining 43 million monthly Upworthy visitors are more transient. Of the base group, the most commonly represented demographics are college students and women in their 40s—people supposedly at the height of idealism, either because of youth or perhaps because they want to purify the world for their children. (Women aged 35 to 44 boast the highest volunteer rates in America.) Upworthy does not currently track click-through rates for the links it posts to external pages and causes. But Koechley is convinced that not everyone just scores their park-dancing dopamine fix and drifts away.

Exhibit A is Upworthy’s most shared video of 2013, a 22-minute documentary chronicling a teen with cancer. Its original headline was “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular,” which now reads, “This Amazing Kid Got To Enjoy 19 Awesome Years On This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.” Readers donated more than $300,000 to cancer research via a link Upworthy posted alongside the video. “The whole Internet heard his story,” Koechley told Businessweek. A key fraction of that Internet decided to put its money where its mouse was.

And Exhibit B: The nonprofit New Era Colorado unveiled an online crowdfunding campaign to block an amendment against a clean energy utility in Boulder. As part of the push, New Era created an ad accusing Xcel Energy, the monopoly currently providing Boulder with electricity and natural gas, of climate-disrupting greed; Upworthy curator Adam Mordecai threw the video on the site under the headline “A Bunch of Young Geniuses Just Made a Corrupt Corporation Freak Out Big Time.” The donations flowed in: In less than a month, New Era was able to raise $200,000—a sum that dwarfed the young geniuses’ original goal of $40,000 and helped them win the vote.

Stories like this weaken my cynicism, even as my inability to shake it completely just cranks up the paranoia. (What are you hiding, Upworthy? What devil’s bargain have you struck with the wraiths of virality?) Maybe the site simply is a socially conscious media company with a bag of benevolent tricks. Or maybe it’s a kind of happy accident—the usual look-at-this impulses expressing themselves in service, albeit low-stakes service. Or, no, scratch that, maybe it does drain “meaning” of meaning, spinning our smugness into soft, unrealistic cocoons. If so, too bad, because whether or not Upworthy’s the change we want, it’s the one we haz. Pass it along!

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

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