Today I blocked the popular viral site Upworthy from appearing in my Facebook feed.
I felt like I couldn’t take any more of its manipulative headlines and biased videos. It was just too much.
The consequences of my action took my breath away. Prepare to be stunned.
What was the consequence? Why, I wrote a blog post! That’s pretty unbelievable – I haven’t posted anything here in six months.
Now, how do you feel? Annoyed? Short-changed in the “stun” department? Maybe slightly trolled?
Welcome to the Upworthy style of clickbait journalism.
Upworthy is remarkable. In its 18 months of existence as of writing, it’s managed to hit 50 million monthly uniques or more – BuzzFeed gets 75 million. Its founders (from MoveOn and The Onion) have dedicated the site to focus on left-leaning issues – but what they really care about are your clicks.
Hence the high-emotional-impact content. Hence the single-item strategy – no listicles here. And hence, most of all, those headlines. You know the ones – the utterly-vague, yet leading, yet compelling one or two sentences, often written in the second person.
Here’s a few examples, taken from upworthy.com and its Facebook page just now:
- A Comedian Has Some Truth To Drop About Diversity, And You’ll Want To Listen
- He’s The Only One In His School. Instead Of Feeling Special, He Gets Bullied Everywhere.
- What Warren Buffett And Bill Gates Think Is ‘Very Unfair’ Might Shock You
- The One Where A Woman Keeps Repeating A Hurtful Term That’s Been Hurled At Her For Her Entire Life
- If You Tell This Dude To ‘Man Up,’ You Better Be Prepared To Learn Why What You Said Is Awful
Note the common factors here. First, almost no specifics: “A Comedian”/”Some Truth”, “A Woman”/“A Hurtful Term”, “He’s The Only One”, “This Dude”. The exception is the Buffett/Gates headline, and even here the headline doesn’t tell you what they think is “Very Unfair”. This absence of hard information just begs you to find out more.
Next, that second person: “You’ll Want To Listen”. “Might Shock You”. It’s a cheap tactic, but effective. Look at that last headline – it’s accusing you (YOU!) of being awful! You don’t want to be awful, right? So of course you have to click through, so you can learn not to be awful – or otherwise smirk in moral superiority that this “you” would never say that. I’ve said that in the past. I would click.
I’m a bleeding-heart centrist. I hate discrimination and prejudice and all that jazz, and I try not to be discriminatory or prejudiced in my life (work in progress). So a lot of Upworthy’s poached content (let’s face it, what’s cool about producing things, right?) does ring true with me.
But that’s not the point – the way they get me there is so manipulative, so against the principles of clear communication and unbiased reporting I claim to hold dear, that I feel dirty every time I end up on the site.
Because ultimately, I don’t think Upworthy’s founders care all that much about the tone of the content. It’s a convenient hook, to position the site as a place to find “things that matter”, and it keeps the fans pretty loyal, in a way that a politically neutral or diverse site could not.
Again: what they really care about are the clicks. The site’s team of 40 agonise over their headlines – and it shows. I doubt even punny British tabloids put in as much work to headlines as these folks. Why do they agonise? Because that’s what makes people click.
The vast majority of Upworthy’s traffic comes from Facebook. This is where its pilfered vids get shared, and people can’t help but click through, and click “like”, and share.
So, I blocked it. No more Upworthy posts will appear for me, I hope.
And if you find something truly incredible through Upworthy, I urge you to click through to the original video, or the source of the content, and share that instead.