Every month or two, it seems like the same cranky opinion piece gets written about Upworthy. The latest, “Upworthy’s unworthy politics” comes from Jordan Fraade at Al Jazeera America, bears all the hallmarks of the genre: There’s (1) the glib references to “you won’t believe what happens next” headlines, (2) the equating of A/B headline testing and “clickbait,” (3) the pretend-OUTRAGE that the site is neither a non-profit advocacy organization nor a venue for traditional journalism, and (most importantly) (4) the lack of any actual understanding of what Upworthy is trying to achieve.
Here’s the worst passage from Fraade’s think-piece:
To the extent that Upworthy has stated goals, they basically run along the lines of “We want to help you share things that are meaningful,” and “We want viral content to be a tool for social good.” (Upworthy also has actual goals, which involve making money for itself and its investors.) The site leans left; its 30-something founders both worked at MoveOn.org during the 2008 presidential campaign. But the ideology of the site and others like it isn’t a recitation of the Democratic Party platform. It’s not really a cohesive liberal worldview of any sort. Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures. It’s what happens when liberalism is treated as merely a set of lifestyle preferences.
There are two head-smackers in this paragraph.
First, describing Upworthy’s founders (Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley) as having “worked at MoveOn during the 2008 presidential campaign” is a bit like saying San Antonio Spurs coach Greg Popovich “worked for the Spurs during the 2012 NBA lockout.” Pariser was the Executive Director of MoveOn from 2004 through 2008, and was central to turning the organization into a progressive juggernaut. He’s also the author of The Filter Bubble, an excellent book about the danger of online echo chambers (close readers might recall my shoutingloudly review of the book, incidentally).
Upworthy was created as a partial solution to the Filter Bubble problem. This is pretty important contextual information for anyone who wants to actually understand the site.
Second, Fraade asserts that “Upworthy liberalism is liberal politics stripped of any awareness of systemic barriers or perverted incentive structures.”
I’ve met a lot of Upworthy staff. Every one of them is deeply aware of systemic barriers and perverted incentive structures. I’d go so far as to say that this sort of awareness is one of the things they look for in the hiring process. And I’ve watched a lot of Upworthy videos. Nearly every one of them deals, in one way or another, with systemic barriers to social change.
They just don’t deal with it in Fraade’s preferred format.
Though Fraade never gets around to describing a solution or preferred model, his complaints all center around the supposed lack of nuance in Upworthy content. Upworthy does not promote 6,000 word essays on mass incarceration. It doesn’t produce two-hour documentaries on race in America. Its vision and values aren’t neatly arrayed in a platform or manifesto for our perusal. And, since it has become massively successful, it is now a convenient vessel for us to place blame for the failings of the broader media system.
Here are four basic things you should actually understand about Upworthy:
1. Upworthy is curation, not journalism. Upworthy isn’t meant to replace The New Republic, MSNBC or The New York Times. They don’t hire journalists or film crews. It plays a strict curatorial role. They find quality content, tinker with the headlines and visual frames, and try to help videos about the health care system get as much traffic as videos about kittens.** If you’re pinning your hopes for the future of journalism on Upworthy, you’re going to be disappointed. They aren’t journalists.
2. Upworthy reaches beyond the echo chamber. I wrote about this last year, but it bears repeating. Outside of elections, the politically-attentive segment of the American public is vanishingly small. The biggest barrier for activists trying to engage in a public conversation about inequality, or fracking, or racism isn’t that the other side is reframing the debate; it’s that almost no one is paying attention.
Upworthy reaches between 40 and 80 million individuals per month. That’s between 10 and 30 times larger than any program on MSNBC. What Pariser and Koechley have done seemed downright impossible. They have found a way to reach large segments of the American public with substantive progressive content. It may not always be the specific content you or I would choose, but I would argue that it is the most dramatic change in the political information landscape of the past 5 years.
3. (High clicks)x(High shares) = virality. Upworthy has been surprisingly public about their model. One of the most important elements is their “virality equation” (see below).
“Clickbait” generally refers to headlines that draw a lot of clicks, often in a misleading fashion. That isn’t an accurate representation of Upworthy’s model, though. Upworthy measures both shares and clicks. If shares and clicks are both low, the content isn’t particularly exciting. If clicks are high but shares are low, then you’ve probably caught people in a “clickbait” trap. When shares are high, but clicks are low, it indicates that the content has the potential to engage a large audience, if and only if it is framed correctly.
And that’s where Upworthy’s vaunted A/B testing regime comes into play: they fiddle with headlines for highly-shareable content, helping it to get clicks. The Upworthy model doesn’t work for clickbait junk.
4. Upworthy is a force multiplier. Upworthy is not meant to be political activism. But it is activism-adjacent. One of the biggest evergreen problems for social movement organizations lies in reaching beyond the choir and gaining the attention of the broader public. Upworthy doesn’t solve this problem on its own: the most popular videos on the site don’t end with a stirring call-to-action or even with a “donate” link. But when advocacy groups create polished, high-quality content, Upworthy potentially serves as an engine for mass appeal.
As an example, consider John Oliver’s EPIC net neutrality segment on Last Week Tonight. Oliver is also activism-adjacent. He educates his viewers on Net Neutrality — a major, but-also-boring matter of public importance. He is funny and informative. He ends with a call to all internet commenters to do what they do best: leave angry comments on the FCC’s website. Originally airing on HBO, the segment drew about 1 million viewers. It was then rebroadcast via digital links, embedded in blog posts, facebook walls, and tweets. It quickly galvanized a torrent of FCC input, crashing the government agency’s comment site.
Upworthy is now helping to give Oliver’s segment an extended boost, under the headline “John Oliver Goes Off On An Epic, Fact-Checked, Mic-Dropping Rant For 13 Minutes That You Need To See.”
…I guess Jordan Fraade doesn’t see much value, or nuance, in posts like this. I do, though. I think it’s significant that a curation site like Upworthy can help drive public engagement with substantive policy issues.
The site isn’t a replacement for high-quality journalism, or for high-quality activism. But it isn’t supposed to be. It’s filling a vital niche in our patchy public discourse — a niche that no one else has been able to fill.
That ought to be celebrated. Or, at least, it ought to be accurately described before we critique it.
*Fun fact: Upworthy.com never actually uses that phrase.
**Related note: kittens are stupid. Dogs are amaaaaaaazing.