For Love or Money

Is Upworthy really doing good, or is it just really good at what it does?


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. 

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?

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.”

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.

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.

Furthermore, what about context? A colleague of mine believes that Upworthy trivializes issues by divorcing them from their underlying causes and holding them up as completely alien instances of greed or ignorance or bigotry. Condemning a GOP precinct chairman for gassing on about “lazy blacks” is easy. Understanding the structural forces that perpetuate racism is hard—but far more valuable.

Research shows we seek out uplifting information even if it is irrelevant to our lives. We hide from distressing information even if it’s salient. Sure, people may spend a lot of time watching Upworthy videos, but as likely as not they’re just procrastinating. Their momentary emotional investment in an Upworthy post shuts out reality rather than inviting it in.

The kind of mindless Internet advocacy Upworthy’s been accused of promoting has inspired a new word: clicktivism. Clicktivists mistake gratification for meaning. They conflate feeling good (or self-satisfied or inspired or righteously indignant) with doing good. They watch a video of a kid sharing his lunch with another kid, forward it to their social networks or sign a petition, congratulate themselves on their political involvement, close the browser window, and diminish the definition of service for everyone. The hazard is not merely that these superficial do-gooders are annoying (though they are) or that they turn people off to service (though they do), but that their actions warp the meaning of political engagement. They achieve a sense of philanthropic agency through the shallowest possible means. 

Now then. The prosecution rests.

I must acknowledge that little of the above critique reflects my actual attitudes about Upworthy. I have done my best to bring all my cynicism to bear, but here’s the truth: I may be turning into an Upworthy believer. (Disclosure: Slate and Upworthy have a parternship. Slate posts links to Upworthy content alongside our articles, and Upworthy promotes Slate stories on Facebook.)

The reason? I Talked to Peter Koechley, and the Result Blew My Mind. I asked him why it was OK to appeal to my emotions rather than my intellect. “I think the aversion to using emotions is interesting,” he responded, “considering that human beings make their decisions based on emotions, not reason. The question isn’t whether strong, fact-based emotional storytelling is good. It’s whether there is any other way of doing it that’s even 1 percent as good.”

Then Koechley made a point I hadn’t really thought of. Was he playing me, knowing I’m a woman? Or did he simply outfeminist me? “The fact that women are more known for emotion than men, while men are prized for reason and devalue things that are traditionally female,” he said, “is a nontrivial part of the story.”

But, I pressed, there are no downsides?

“Look, every powerful tool can be misused,” he said. “Something’s power relates somewhat proportionally to its danger. In the same way that things that look like rational, fact-based arguments can be spurious, compelling emotional stories that are false and misleading are also dangerous to the media world. That’s why we’re on full-time guard with copy editing and fact checking.”

So Upworthy falls somewhere between Tier 1 and Tier 2 with the feelings-based, narrative delivery. Emotions work, despite their potential perils, and besides, what the site is really looking for is “not exactly emotion, but energy,” Koechley explained. “An emotion is one type of energy, but [some of our videos] are more like fascinating conversations that keep your attention even though they don’t tug at your heartstrings.”

Koechley also has an answer to my colleague’s gripe about oversimplification. Upworthy does deliver complexity and context, he says, if you look in the right places. “We find tons of content making large structural arguments or tying the small example to the larger trend.” He points to a “lively, spirited” video on an “unsexy” topic: John Green’s lecture on the economics of health care, which now has more than 112,000 Facebook likes. Another video, of two kids of different races attempting to steal a bike, “is the sort of useful, unarguably valid, and evocative experience that tells a larger story without zooming out.”

What about the clicktivist charge? This is a tougher one, and Koechley noted that it dogs Upworthy staffers. But, he insisted, “awareness creates the conditions for change.” This is why Upworthy sees itself as part of the engagement ladder.

In activist parlance, the engagement ladder extends from click to complete view to share to some sort of post-video action—subscribing, donating, marching on Washington. “We are priming people for action,” Koechley said. “When you finish watching this incredibly powerful video, you want to do something.”

And in his experience, Upworthy readers really do want to do something. “Because our stuff is so energetic and we want people to share it, it leaves people eager to take the next step. We have this wonderful file of letters and emails. Notes from content creators whose stuff we’ve turned viral. It’s like, some guy is looking at his Kickstarter page, and suddenly he’s just watching the numbers go up and up.”

Is it possible that the site inspires at least some readers to go beyond clicktivism? Upworthy’s core community consists of about 7 million users who’ve signed up for the newsletter and who devotedly share stories. The remaining 43 million monthly Upworthy visitors are more transient. Of the base group, the most commonly represented demographics are college students and women in their 40s—people supposedly at the height of idealism, either because of youth or perhaps because they want to purify the world for their children. (Women aged 35 to 44 boast the highest volunteer rates in America.) Upworthy does not currently track click-through rates for the links it posts to external pages and causes. But Koechley is convinced that not everyone just scores their park-dancing dopamine fix and drifts away.

Exhibit A is Upworthy’s most shared video of 2013, a 22-minute documentary chronicling a teen with cancer. Its original headline was “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular,” which now reads, “This Amazing Kid Got To Enjoy 19 Awesome Years On This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.” Readers donated more than $300,000 to cancer research via a link Upworthy posted alongside the video. “The whole Internet heard his story,” Koechley told Businessweek. A key fraction of that Internet decided to put its money where its mouse was.

And Exhibit B: The nonprofit New Era Colorado unveiled an online crowdfunding campaign to block an amendment against a clean energy utility in Boulder. As part of the push, New Era created an ad accusing Xcel Energy, the monopoly currently providing Boulder with electricity and natural gas, of climate-disrupting greed; Upworthy curator Adam Mordecai threw the video on the site under the headline “A Bunch of Young Geniuses Just Made a Corrupt Corporation Freak Out Big Time.” The donations flowed in: In less than a month, New Era was able to raise $200,000—a sum that dwarfed the young geniuses’ original goal of $40,000 and helped them win the vote.

Stories like this weaken my cynicism, even as my inability to shake it completely just cranks up the paranoia. (What are you hiding, Upworthy? What devil’s bargain have you struck with the wraiths of virality?) Maybe the site simply is a socially conscious media company with a bag of benevolent tricks. Or maybe it’s a kind of happy accident—the usual look-at-this impulses expressing themselves in service, albeit low-stakes service. Or, no, scratch that, maybe it does drain “meaning” of meaning, spinning our smugness into soft, unrealistic cocoons. If so, too bad, because whether or not Upworthy’s the change we want, it’s the one we haz. Pass it along!