Upworthy Is People

This is meant as a brief follow-up to last night’s post about Upworthy. Jordan Fraade responded to my critique via twitter with the following reply:

@davekarpf@ntabebe vouching for their personal goodness/awareness of injustice. i’m talking abt ed strategy, not curators’ personal beliefs — Jordan Fraade (@schadenfraade) June 10, 2014

I think this is a pretty interesting disagreement.  Fraade feels that curators’ personal beliefs are distinct from the editorial strategy/organizational model.  This lets him lump Upworthy together with copycat sites like viralnova and policymic (where, he notes, he used to work).  I think that the identity and beliefs of the curators — who you hire, essentially — is actually quite central to the model.

Swap out all of Upworthy’s curators, and you no longer have Upworthy.  Selecting the right people as curators is a crucial first step.

Digital curation sites like Upworthy move content through a three-stage process.  They gather inputs (videos, infographics, or other distinct pieces of online content) at stage 1.  Once they select something worthwhile, they move to stage 2, creating a frame.  This stage includes brainstorming 25 potential headlines for each piece of content (a process that Koechley learned while working at The Onion), then pick the best 3 or 4 headlines.  They then run those headlines through a proprietary analytics engine, nicknamed the “magical unicorn box.”  They discuss technical details of this analytics process on their R&D blog.  Then in stage 3, they promote that content through Facebook, e-mail, Twitter, and the website.

 

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Stage 3 is highly visible.  Stage 2 is harder to see, but there’s been plenty of journalism on the subject.  Stage 1, is mostly invisible, and has been left entirely unexplored.  Copycat sites like Policymic and Viralnova have mimicked stage 3 and approximated stage 2, but they haven’t attempted to adopt the same stage 1 as Upworthy (as far as I can tell, at least).  Independent Journal Review is trying to occupy the “conservative upworthy” landscape, but it sure looks like they’re just latching on to stage 3, not even bothering with stage 2.

Stage 1 is about finding the right content.  It is a subjective process, based on shared taste and values.  Or, phrased differently, stage 1 is entirely about ideology.  What topics and issues deserve a better megaphone?  What narratives and conflicts best illuminate those issues?

And that brings me back to Fraade’s critique.  He takes issue with Nitsuh Abebe’s New York Magazine feature article, “Are You Cynical EnoughTo Hate Upworthy?” (which you should really read, btw.) When Abebe asked Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley whether they were cynics, Koechley replied “have you met any cynics here?”  Fraade offers the rejoinder,

This is a skillful evasion of the question. No one particularly cares whether Pariser and Koechley are cynics. What’s cynical is the strategy of finding “meaningful” content about social or political issues, and adding an emotionally manipulative headline, monetizing the results, all the while claiming earnestly that your goal is to make the world a better place. So it is that two liberals may end up playing an outsize role in shrinking the horizons of liberalism.

I don’t think Koechley was evading the question, though. I think he was directly answering it.  Upworthy’s success rests on hiring the right people.  Many of those people come out of progressive politics, and that isn’t an accident.

You could construct a cynical version of Upworthy.  Just hire cynical people.  But the result would be a distinctly different organization, with different content, different brand concerns, different impacts and a completely different funding model.

Or, put more simply, Fraade’s criticism of the Upworthy model only holds up if we avert our attention from a big chunk of the model itself.