3 Reasons You Don’t Hate Upworthy Nearly as Much as You Think
I submit that hating on Upworthy is—at this point—slightly more annoying than Upworthy itself. That’s not to say Upworthy can’t be annoying. Even Upworthy itself says it is changing its lampooned headline strategy. But past the headlines, it’s a great source of things anyone working in media should be excited about.
Here are a few reasons why hating on Upworthy might not be so worthy after all:
1. Upworthy is a phenomenon of the democratization of publishing
Upworthy never could have happened without the following: extremely cheap distribution and publishing platforms with immediate feedback (social media) and an archive of content that could be repurposed for almost no cost (open platforms like YouTube).
That’s no reason to like Upworthy, you might say. To counter, I’d say that Upworthy—along with BuzzFeed—showed the rest of the media world how to take advantage of a new opportunities in media, where anyone can be a publisher, test how their content is performing, optimize accordingly, and build a massive audience overnight.
That makes them more than a curiosity gap machine. It makes them a case study in data-driven publishing.
Conclusion: Yes, Upworthy can be annoying, but let’s not vilify an early experimenter taking advantage of the perks of a burgeoning system. In fact, the system is designed to weed out the bad actors. Upworthy is leading the way in that process—including on its own self-evolution. More on that in the next section.
2. Upworthy’s headlines are a sign of a healthy media and thus misunderstood
The biggest critique of Upworthy I see is that their headlines are awful. But that’s a misunderstanding of Upworthy. Upworthy’s headlines are the result of a process: Upworthy constantly takes stock of how people respond to their headlines and then changes their approach accordingly.
That might seem simple, but it’s a small breakthrough. When newspapers reigned, upstart publishers couldn’t compete and innovate like this. The barriers to entry were too high and feedback was too hard to measure in real time. The Atlantic‘s Alexis Madrigal outlined the change Upworthy represents in a recent piece:
They’re not trying to hit the computer-generated maximum with every story so that they can increase the variety and spread of their attempts. They also seem to recognize the power that the numbers can exert, even if they’re not that precise.
There’s one other piece of evidence in the story that suggests it’s working, too. They basically trademarked what became known as the “curiosity gap” headline. It’s also known as the “Upworthy-style” headline. And now, the site is poised to trend away from using it.
It’s not just headlines, either. Upworthy is masterful at packaging and seeding content so it spreads on the social web, using the data they collect to improve performance. As The New York Times recently pointed out in their innovation report, these are the types of media strategies that will likely succeed in the future.
So, if you value the experimentation and conversation aspects of social media, there’s no getting around lauding Upworthy for their efforts. Being able to quickly try new things is a boon for media.
Moreover, Upworthy’s actual headlines are not as bad as the myth. Here are some Upworthy headlines from when I wrote this article:
Are they really so bad? They’re a bit ingratiating, sure, and perhaps give the impression that they know how you feel and your behavioral responses. But compare them with the headlines we’re used to:
A. Shock schlock. Serial offender: The Huffington Post:
No fairer hell, I’d argue.
B. Or The New York Times, which has turned the use of the phrase following the comma into a gnomic art.
Which of the three is worst? Probably not Upworthy. Yes, Upworthy can dish out some clickbait, but the comma-heavy Times headlines are worse and a sign of the pretentiousness that the newspaper business could be home to. These headlines are also a remnant of a time when headlines were constrained to the print page’s tight character limits and running performance tests was impossible. Those are improvements.
Conclusion: Upworthy’s experiments are a sign of health in the system.
3. Upworthy is proof positive the media has still unfulfilled role to play in taking on serious topics
Upworthy is proving something important: Content about gender, race and politics is still a huge win on the Internet, on the same level as Reddit videos about finding a safe buried beneath your house. Let’s celebrate that.
Just look at the numbers in Upworthy’s end-of-year report for 2013: “We saw that tens of millions of Internet citizens are deeply concerned about the way women are treated and the way they (and their bodies) are portrayed in the media.”
Remember: Upworthy is getting those numbers because the audience is there for them. This topic is underreported by other media outlets. It might have taken some ingratiating headlines to generate those numbers, but it’s worth remembering that people’s emotional responses to Upworthy’s content drive these astronomical share rates—which are 29 times that of the average post on the top 25 media sites.
Just the fact that those share rates are possible is positive.
We also see Upworthy investing in quality for the long-term. Just look at their latest move, open-sourcing their metrics platform, “attention minutes,” in the hopes it accelerates the death of the pageview. That’s a worthy goal.
They’re also showing promise as leaders in the native advertising space. Their branded videos are performing phenomenally well in large part because of their investment in curating high-quality content and packaging it brilliantly.
Conclusion: Upworthy is showing new media publishers that on social media, there is enormous interest in topics that affect policy and people’s identities. And they’re investing in that vision.
That’s three pluses for Upworthy, and some minuses that Upworthy itself is actively expunging from their system. Sure, they can be ingratiating, and it would be good if they evolved more quickly past obvious headline-bait, but at least they give a damn enough to change. Four hundred years of newspaper innovation still left us with “To Age Well, Walk.”
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