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?

UpworthyIllo.

Illustration by James Emmerman

Here’s why you should love Upworthy: It harnesses the latest wisdom about Internet sharing to bring staggering amounts of attention to important issues. Or here’s why you should hate Upworthy: It is craven, formulaic, and sickly-sweet, despoiling the innermost secrets of the Web and human nature and getting rich. 

Katy Waldman Katy Waldman

Katy Waldman is a Slate staff writer. 

The “mission-driven media company,” launched in March 2012, is really good at what it does, and what it does is … really good, right? The outlet lures in 50 million to 60 million readers each month and regularly floods the Internet with topics like global poverty, domestic violence, drunken driving, gender bias, income inequality, AIDS, bullying, bigotry, and pediatric cancer. No other site has close to its success in publicizing these issues. So despite the treacly aura and Pavlovian headlines (“Watch The First 54 Seconds. That’s All I Ask. You’ll Be Hooked After That, I Swear”), and despite the fact that these tactics are also raking in gonzo dollars, the company must be doing some serious good. 

Yet how can it be right when it feels so wrong?

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I like to imagine Upworthy in three descending tiers of moral rectitude.

In Tier 1—which the site’s founders promote—Upworthy consists of earnest do-gooders who believe “the things that matter in the world don’t have to be boring and guilt-inducing.” According to co-creator Peter Koechley in a mission statement, “the addictive stuff we love doesn’t have to be completely substanceless. Our core message is: I CAN HAZ MEANING.”

Upworthy Head 2.

In this view, no contradiction exists between virality and depth. (And is it a flaw in some of us that we assume otherwise, disdaining the penchants of crowds?) In fact, Upworthy’s popularity may be rooted in its goodness: “We see ourselves as serving … a powerful network, which is like a searching-for-meaning network,” co-founder Eli Pariser told Nieman Lab. “People who want to be part of something that feels like it has a purpose.”

What about the tabloidy giftwrapping? Editorial Director Sara Critchfield claims in New York magazine that Upworthy’s methods—emotional appeals, “curiosity gap” headlines, a focus on videos—strike some people the wrong way only because they evoke commercial marketing techniques. Purged of that crass context, Critchfield insists, the Upworthy MO is “noble” and “great.”

The Concourse’s Tim Marchman recently trashed the derogatory term “clickbait” in an article about how some readers write off anything people might want to read, simply because people might want to read it. Marchman argues that the clickbait label throws up “a false binary” between stories that serve the public interest and those that pique our curiosity. Griping about clickbait underestimates both readers and the spell-weaving power of important pieces—it “confuses decorum with integrity.”

Perhaps Upworthy-style efforts to entice readers are actually encouraging signs that the news market is growing keener and more competitive. Upworthy stands “willing to break the rules of journalism,” a company spokeswoman told me on the phone. Outlets can no longer afford what Marchman calls “the dreary precepts that prevailed in high-end U.S. newsrooms over the last half-century—a period, incidentally, of widespread newspaper consolidation that allowed those newsrooms to be just as self-serious as they liked.”

This top-tier understanding of Upworthy virtue smacks down the mistrustful attitudes about pleasure we’ve inherited from Kant and the Puritans. Kant argued that one should get moral credit for good deeds only if they bring no emotional satisfaction; if a Boy Scout helps a little old lady cross the street, his solicitude doesn’t “count” unless he derives zero happiness from helping little old ladies. The angel-Upworthy riposte: What’s wrong with taking joy in doing good? (Also: You mean you don’t?)

But angel-Upworthy seems off here. The reasons the site is popular are not the same reasons that it is worthy—otherwise petitions from the Water Project would be breaking the Web every month. And marketing techniques aren’t crass simply because of their context: The problem with a headline like “9 Out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact” isn’t that it resembles, in tone and structure, one weird tip for eliminating belly fat. The problem is that such presentation is manipulative. We click on Upworthy titles not because they’ve persuaded us to care about starving children or redwood forests but because they’ve put their fingers on the triggers of our human nature, mining deep reserves of curiosity in this case, and smugness (“I Wish I Was More Surprised At What A Student Exposed About His School, But I’m Not”) or righteous anger (“How Can We Support These Survivors If We Don’t Talk About What They Survived?”) in others.

Upworthy Head 3.

Which brings me to Tier 2. Maybe we ought to understand Upworthy’s mission as an exercise in utilitarianism. The site will do what it takes to get eyeballs on important issues. The same food metaphors crop up over and over in stories about Upworthy: “chocolate sauce on Brussels sprouts,” “chocolate-covered news broccoli.” The nutritionally suspect glaze provides a delivery system for the veggies we need.

So through Tier 2 runs a savvier form of idealism. In a way it shifts responsibility to us: Maybe the site’s leaders wish they could adopt a different tone, but it’s our clicking habits that shape their strategy. Or as Derek Thompson puts it in the Atlantic, “When readers find themselves hating a headline picked by a testing audience and shared by 10 million people, whose tastes are we really objecting to—Upworthy’s or ours?”

Poor Upworthy! It’s just trying to get people to pay attention to the right things the most effective way it knows how. Unless … it couldn’t care less about social redemption and is simply after clicks (or attention minutes) it can show to investors. Unless all that crafty idealism is actually cynicism. Welcome to Tier 3.

The best explanation I’ve read for why Upworthy makes us uncomfortable—and the theoretical groundwork for my worst-case scenario—comes from that March New York magazine feature. Author Nitsuh Abebe writes: “It turns out that if your noble goal is to ‘draw massive amounts of attention to the topics that really matter,’ then the success of that mission (i.e., driving eyes toward meaningful content) and the short-term success of your company (i.e., attracting visitors to your for-profit, investment-backed website) are precisely identical. It’s the ultimate in ‘social entrepreneurship’—the good of the company and the good of mankind are, allegedly, the exact same thing.”

In other words, we can never rule out the possibility that whatever good Upworthy accomplishes is just a byproduct of a less noble quest. What if Upworthy only amplifies important issues because doing so makes for a great business venture? Would the accidental nature of our readerly “virtue” lessen it somehow?

For the record, all of my interactions with the Upworthy masterminds indicate that they are not a bunch of scurvy capitalists bamboozling us to make bank. They actually seem lovely and genuinely motivated to do good. But the blurriness Abebe describes might make people dream that Upworthy’s monster traffic successes translate into equivalent human victories. Even if that’s not the case.

Upworthy’s superhero reach—which peaked at 88 million viewers in November 2013—is definitely a coup for the feels, but some think that means a lot of readers are encountering a dumbed-down, Nickelodeon version of reality. The best person I’ve read on this is Tom Hawking in Flavorwire, who worries that Upworthy reduces “confusing and contradictory” challenges to kids’ stuff—“heartwarming narratives” and “cliffhanger headlines.” (Although Upworthy has started to coast away from its signature headline style, citing fewer clicks as the novelty fades.) What about “the problems to which there aren’t startlingly simple solutions involving recycling and being mindful and nice to one another?” Hawking asks.

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