Their Reasons for Doing it Are Obvious. Their Methods Make Me Want to Hit Them.
Admit it, if you are reading this post by following a link you clicked on Facebook, you probably clicked because the Upworthy-inspired title aroused your curiosity. I’m hoping the screencap from the 2006 Indian movie Muruga helped.
As many Facebook users should know, Upworthy is a site that’s more or less dedicated to spreading viral things, or as they say, “Things that matter”. Their entire model of getting hits is to get people to share links on Facebook, which is why they encourage you to “Pass ’em on”.
Needless to say, it works. According to an article in The Atlantic from last month, Upworthy’s top 11 posts ranged from 4.3 to 17 million hits. Upworthy was launched in March 2012, while The Pop Culture Historian was around since August 2011. Despite being about six months newer, Upworthy (obviously) has beaten us in the sheer number of hits they get by several orders of magnitude. In fact, the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation bought space on Upworthy to share some of their own content.
What is my problem with Upworthy? The main thing is that Upworthy is a site that generates zero original content. Their “curators” just scour the Internet for videos and other things that could potentially be popular, and then attach a highly sensationalized headline to them. People then click the links purely because the headlines are expertly constructed to arouse curiosity.
From the links I saw shared on Facebook, I think I know exactly what Upworthy is going for. One I can think of off-hand was headlined, “9 Out of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-blowing Fact”. The Facebook link is always accompanied by a screencap of the scene in The Matrix where we see the reflection in Morpheus’ sunglasses as he offers Neo the choice of taking the red or blue pill, despite the fact that the image is absent from the actual post on Upworthy. What is the video itself about? There is economic disparity in the United States, and it is really big. I feel like if you were reading the news at all in recent memory, particularly with the Occupy Wall Street movement, you are unlikely to be wrong, even if you don’t know the exact numbers, about the fact that the rich people in America are significantly richer than the next richest people.
The parallel I draw is when people were sharing links related to the documentary Kony 2012 in the spring of 2012. As I said in a previous post, Facebook is a medium through which people seek validation, and “Stop Kony” images were used to validate, “I shared this link which I think relates to an important issue. That makes me a good person, right?” I suspect at least 70% of the people who shared such images didn’t even know who Joseph Kony was. Sharing a link on Facebook is a quick and easy way for people to fool themselves into thinking they’re doing something that positively affects the world at large, and Upworthy picked right up on it. It’s for that reason they pick topics that relate to issues people get very passionate about on Facebook, like economic disparity or feminism.
More often than not, I find the content to be very superficial. Like most things that are viral, the content is meant to be consumed, then discarded. As far as I’m aware, the content is selected purely to elicit an emotional response rather than prompting reflection or discussion. Have you noticed they never post content relating to exciting scientific discoveries or something that pertains to a solution to the problems they always talk about? Have you noticed they play it safe and don’t share anything about more controversial topics like the wrongdoings of our own government?
Upworthy is clearly the result of a very cynical study of the use of social networking sites like Facebook or Twitter. I find the fact that they just facilitate the spread of viral, but often lacking in substance, content irresponsible at best and downright manipulative at its worst. What makes me most wary is the fact that Upworthy has no obvious way of making money from this content, even though they clearly are raking the dough in as they show on their homepage that they’re hiring. It’s for that reason, I personally opted to boycott Upworthy, checking myself when I see a link posted on Facebook with sensational headlines.