FROM WIRED | MAY 1, 2017
THE WORLD FINDS itself in an age saturated with anxiety—at least, that’s the sense created by the daily deluge of news portraying a grim present of economic hardship, global tensions, terrorism, and political upheaval. The five-year-old site Upworthy doesn’t want you to see the world that way. At one time, if Upworthy was known at all, it wasn’t for its mission, but for its attention-gathering headlines. “You wont believe what happened when this couple started saying nice things to each other.” Those were widely derided as “clickbait.” But they were effective. Upworthy figured out ahead of most more established media rivals that a shareable story equals a seen story. Now it’s chasing the battered but not-yet-extinguished promise of an optimistic take on the world by marrying a lexicon of idealism to an almost metronomic pursuit of substantive clicks.
In March of 2012, Eli Pariser—one of the leaders of the activist group MoveOn—and Peter Koechley—also of MoveOn and an editor at The Onion—launched Upworthy with several million dollars of seed money and a surfeit of hope. It was and is a bold attempt at reframing what constitutes news. In a world of proliferating information that travels like quicksilver through the virtual ether, the media adage “if it bleeds, it leads” has never been more relevant. Fear and anger are the currency of the media realm. Upworthy seeks to upend that formula and focus instead not on what is going wrong but on what might go right.
Let it be stipulated that in a time beset by deep, chronic pessimism about the fate of the world, an endeavor founded on the premise of positive social engagement (which is how Upworthy describes its mission) can sound achingly naïve. I cannot count the number of times that I have advocated a more optimistic way of looking at the world only to be ineluctably forced into a defensive posture by the pushback of others, as if championing a more constructive view constitutes an unconscionable rejection of risks and suffering that are everywhere evident. Upworthy adamantly rejects that, and insists that stories “can make the world a better place” and engage people in a way that makes them want to do something instead of tuning out.
On the numbers, Upworthy has 11 million subscribers, 20 million unique visitors to its website, and more important, substantial community engagement through its main distribution platform, Facebook. For those of you who think Upworthy has faded, Facebook’s own research (at least according to Upworthy) demonstrates that the site and its stories have some of the highest community engagement of any Facebook page, behind Fox News but ahead of CNN, the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed. The exact methodology of “engagement” is a bit opaque, but include metrics such as time spent reading, number of shares, comments and links.
A recent glance at the home page shows a mix of soft and hard news, with “Bill Nye’s new show is opionated, unapologetic and exactly what we need” along with “Stigma against undocumented immigrant hurts everyone seeking a better life in the US”, “What Serena Williams wrote to her baby on Instagram and why it matters,” and “Things get heated as New Orleans dismantles Confederate monuments.” As a scan of Upworthy headlines these days suggests, its version of optimism doesn’t seem to have strayed far from its founders’ roots in liberal politics. Upworthy says it does not define its mission in left-right, liberal-conservative terms, and Pariser says the site’s audience is surprisingly diverse in terms of politics and geography—an expected clump of progressives but more than a handful of Trump supporters and centrists and “folks who aren’t really tuned in to politics.” Content-wise, however, Upworthy clearly hasn’t discovered a magic formula for transcending the intractable pull of partisanship online. Its experiment seems to be more one of tone: positive encouragement rather than inflammatory antagonism.
In addition to his work at MoveOn, Pariser also authored a book called The Filter Bubble in 2012, which anticipated the great dangers of a world where news is disseminated primarily by internet platforms: People read only news and stories that accord with their views. At the same time, Upworthy depends on those same platforms, relying on advanced techniques of audience engagement to get more eyeballs. The result is simultaneously uplifting with a slight uneasy feeling that you are being manipulated, a sense that has caused problems for the company in the past.
Three years ago, Upworthy found itself whipsawed by Facebook’s changing algorithms, with hits skyrocketing above 80 million, then plummeting in half in the subsequent months when Facebook changed the algorithm it used to place and disseminate content. It was around the same time that Upworthy came under fire for “clickbait” stories that seemed designed to get traffic rather than foster substantive discussions. Headlines like “This Amazing Kid Just Died: What He Left Behind Is Wundtacular,” were held up as Exhibit A along with equivalent stories on sites such as Buzzfeed that seemed more interested in generating quick attention. Upworthy’s vulnerability to Facebook’s mercurial algorithms only seemed to solidify the impression that the site was good at buzz, less good at substance.
Still, one person’s clickbait is another’s definition of a catchy headline that draws readers into a good story. Editors have been doing that for a century, and some of the ire directed at Upworthy was undoubtedly a mix of scorn for the naked idealism and some legitimate critiques of a site still finding its voice. In the years since, Upworthy has refined its methods and moved toward more of its own content rather than repurposing others. It has placed a heavy emphasis on video and recently merged with the parent company of equally optimistic GOOD magazine.
Upworthy’s current editorial director is Amy O’Leary, who came from the New York Times a few years ago. She emphasizes that they aren’t looking for “feel good” stories as much as stories that “have weight and influence, that have a message embedded in the story that leads to action and influence.” Facebook remains a powerful distribution platform, and dependency on that doesn’t alarm O’Leary much. “There are strong advantages to having a powerful Facebook audience,” she explained to me. “They want to create a place where people want to spend lots of time, and Upworthy tries to create stories that people want to spend time with, and so long as those are aligned, I see a lot of opportunity and not much threat.”
Given Pariser’s history with activism and his insights into how information is parsed and segregated, the Upworthy team is intensively focused on metrics, on gauging what works in a narrative and then tweaking and testing different story and video structures to gain more engagement. They can and do shift headlines, words, story flows and narrative construction to see who reads what and for how long, and then try to codify that into formulas of what works and what doesn’t. Whether you find the idea of a control room replete with graphs and metrics to tailor messages creepy or encouraging depends on your sense of what media means in an era when far more “user behavior” can be measured. Consumer companies do that constantly, as do politicians.
The question for Upworthy going forward is not just can it survive as a media company but does it stay a media company (if it can survive economically) and seek ever more platforms and partnerships? Does it seek to harness its audience for political and social activism, or give those audiences greater tools to put their passions to work? You could imagine multiple pathways with Upworthy combining with groups like Change.org or DonorsChose or a political party. You could also imagine Upworthy becoming the go-to home for stories with a purpose as surely as Breitbart is home to American nationalism. Finally, there is the unanswered question of whether it will become trapped in its own “filter bubble” of urban, educated readers or find a path to significantly broaden its appeal.
And of course, it isn’t yet clear that optimism, or at least Upworthy’s brand of it, has a more than a niche market. Fear and anger have a mass market, but hope and a vision for a better future, who knows? Brands and companies like to affiliate themselves with an uplifting ethos, but ultimately their goal is to sell products. Upworthy’s goal is to propagate ideas that matter and make enough money to continue doing so at ever-greater scale. Optimism is a needed lubricant for positive social change; Upworthy is one test if it is also an idea that sells.
For now, Upworthy appears to be reaching a wide enough audience to attract investors and make some coin. Whether it is yet shaping the discussion is another question, and given the plethora of dark pessimism, it has a steep road before its ripples make even modest waves on the murky pond of contemporary journalism. Clearly, it has tapped a chord in our culture that is tuning out the cacophony of impending crisis and is instead yearning to hear about what is working and and might. Like Upworthy or cringe in the face of it, we need that chord to grow and thrive if our worst fears and darkest instincts are not to dominate.