The ability to alter content into sharable nuggets of gold could also prove a powerful boon to advertisers: Up until this point, Upworthy hasn’t sold ads, but in April they put forward a unique strategy built around native advertising. Titled “Upworthy Collaborations,” the idea is to wave a magic wand over the advertising videos of paying brands in the same way the site does for news content. The first to line up is Unilever, the third-largest global consumer goods company, and a brand currently pitching itself as socially responsible when it comes to sustainability.
But Upworthy has deflected focus from its packaging, arguing its strategy is about finding the intersection between the kind of content that travels around the internet and the kind of content that’s worth covering—something journalists, traditionally, have struggled with. “There’s no point in publishing a great story about what’s happening in Kiev and having like 500 people read it,” Upworthy founder Eli Pariser told a packed auditorium at New York’s Social Media Week in February. It’s not just about headlines, Upworthy staff argue, it’s about harnessing the primal urges that drive people to click and engage with content—whether about Syria or angry cats. 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.
The idea behind Upworthy has its roots in the late-aughts with concerns about how the internet changes the flow of information. In 2006, Facebook introduced its News Feed, a homepage for the social networking site that pushed content to users that they were most likely to click on. That Facebook’s filters might skim over weighty topics in favor of more digestible bites was a non-issue for founder Mark Zuckerberg: “A squirrel dying in your front yard may be more relevant to your interests right now than people dying in Africa,” he told a reporter. But plenty of observers found reason to worry that readers would find only the most palatable information rather than the most newsworthy or significant. At the time, Pariser was working as executive director of MoveOn.org, an activist website designed to align the public behind progressive causes—like people dying in Africa. He struggled to envision what a world converged around this kind of relevance would look like.
Pariser began work on a book about the subject, talking frequently to Peter Koechley, a friend and former managing editor of The Onion—another publication that takes on serious topics with humor, making them translate to Facebook feeds. The two began by “laying out” the problem of visibility driven by relevancy, “how this gap is being created where the stuff that’s most likely to be read isn’t the stuff that’s the most important,” Koechley explained to me on a phone call. Zuckerberg’s quote served as a springboard to an ideology and to Pariser’s book, The Filter Bubble: How The New Personalized Web Is Changing What We Read And How We Think, which became a New York Times bestseller when published in 2011.
In Pariser’s conception, the filter bubble is the world created by the shift from “human gatekeepers,” such as newspaper editors who curate importance by what makes the front page, to the algorithmic ones employed by Facebook and Google, which present the content they believe a user is most likely to click on. This new digital universe is “a cozy place,” Pariser writes, “populated by our favorite people and things and ideas.” But it’s ultimately a dangerous one. These unique universes “alter the way we’d encounter ideas and information,” preventing the kind of spontaneous encounters with ideas that promote creativity and, perhaps more importantly, encouraging us to throw our attention to matters of irrelevance.
“It’s easy to push ‘Like’ and increase the visibility of a friend’s post about finishing a marathon or an instructional article about how to make onion soup,” writes Pariser. “It’s harder to push the ‘Like’ button on an article titled, ‘Darfur sees bloodiest month in two years.’ ” A year later, in March 2012, he and Koechley founded Upworthy explicitly to conquer this problem.
Upworthy’s infrastructure betrays the site’s age, barely two years old: In the last year, its founders have doubled their staff to 50 and still arrange meetings via Google Hangout since they lack a brick-and-mortar office. But for such a young company, it has remarkable presence. In February, just after his keynote address at Social Media Week, Pariser flew to South By Southwest for a Q&A with New York Times media columnist David Carr. That same month, Upworthy won “fastest rising startup” in TechCrunch’s “Crunchie” awards.