In the summer of 2010, a conservative talk show host named Michael Graham scheduled a pit stop on his tour of Ireland to debate a spokesperson from the country’s Labor Party. It was a casual affair, recorded in a pub for a radio show airing to an audience primarily in Dublin. Despite the setting and the booze, the conversation grew heated, culminating in a brief exchange where Graham’s adversary, a man named Michael D. Higgins, accused the Tea Party enthusiast of being “a wanker whipping up fear.”
It was a moment that might have languished in some small, dark corner of the internet but for an intervention. A year and a half later, Higgins was elected president of Ireland, and not too long after, a six-month-old business called Upworthy found the tape. It was ideal content for Upworthy’s website, which scouts for material sitting around the Web, repackages it to reach broader audiences, and, in the case of the Dublin radio show, lifted the sound bite off of YouTube and worked some magic. A 21-year-old student working for Upworthy embedded the YouTube post on Upworthy’s page, changing the title, “Michael D. Higgins v Michael Graham,” to something catchier: “A Tea Partier Decided to Pick a Fight With a Foreign President. It Didn’t Go So Well.”
Producers at the radio show The Right Hook had never heard of Upworthy, but when traffic on their website surged from people clicking back to the original interview from a link Upworthy tucked under its post, they started paying attention. Within 24 hours, Upworthy’s post had become the first on the site to reach a million people. The Irish Times ran a cover story and the “wanker” line became a defining one in the president’s career. Upworthy’s attention had forced the debate back into the public sphere: Ireland’s president still receives letters about the comment.
This was the first Upworthy post to break a million views, but it wasn’t the last. In just over two years Upworthy has propelled 240 of its posts to more than a million eyes—and 41 posts to more than 5 million—numbers that are especially startling when you consider its employees are not creating any of that content themselves. Even on most major news sites, attracting a million eyes for one story is a major event. At Upworthy, each post begins with a video or infographic, plucked from the internet, embedded on the site, and packaged to entice readers not just to click, but to share—amplifying the effect of each view. Staffers exchange dry headlines for dramatic ones, engineered to encourage clicks—”Watch A Preacher Attack Gay Marriage For A Really Good Reason;” “Meet The 17-Year-Old Who Blew The Lid Off Racial Profiling With His iPod”—and upload cover art that looks good on Facebook.
If Upworthy has found the formula, it could fundamentally shift what we read on the Web. And if information instructs the choices we make as citizens, consumers, or humans, it could have rippling effects on society.
These subtle tweaks, with no change to the underlying content, have powerful results: Upworthy’s repackaged videos and articles receive an average of 75,000 likes per post on Facebook, about 12 times that of any other news organization, and the site spiked to 87 million unique viewers last December. Each view is more powerful because Upworthy doesn’t just entice readers to look, it encourages them through a swath of buttons on its homepage to share. This mastery of Facebook means that Upworthy reworkings produce significantly more views than the originals, whose creators are placed in an odd position. Upworthy works as a scavenger, drawing huge traffic to its own site by repurposing other people’s material. But to the original creators Upworthy brings new eyes; often the trickle-down traffic from people clicking to the original post (from a modest link published under each Upworthy article) is far greater than the viewership the organization could cultivate on its own.
Upworthy’s founders argue they’re not scavengers, they’re salvagers—and their acts of reclamation are making the world a better place. Most viral stories are not meaningful—think BuzzFeed’s “19 Cats Who Have Absolutely Had It” oeuvre—while Upworthy traffics in important topics: climate change, Afghanistan, gender discrimination, racism. And lifting these kinds of stories can transform the internet, they claim. “At best, things online are usually either awesome or meaningful,” reads the site’s founding statement. “But everything on Upworthy.com has a little of both.”