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.”

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.

It has also been remarkably successful in using Facebook’s algorithm to get topics that matter onto people’s feeds, in a time when Facebook is becoming increasingly crucial to publishers. The dominant social network in America, Facebook claims 57 percent of American adults as members and 73 percent of teens between 12 and 17. More importantly, 64 percent of users visit the site daily. Facebook’s power over publishers surfaced this fall, when the company announced changes to its News Feed that would place “quality” content, like journalism, in more prominent places in people’s feeds. Traffic to publishers from Facebook referrals shot up. Sites in the BuzzFeed network released a report showing that Facebook was now sending them 3.5 times more traffic than Google.

Upworthy has been able to vault content past the wall of Facebook’s algorithm with just a few tweaks. Before Pariser and Koechley founded Upworthy, MoveOn.org reworked the headline of a video about a young man testifying on behalf of gay marriage. The original post, “Zach Wahls speaks about family,” earned one million hits. But when MoveOn.org retitled it “Two Lesbians Raised A Baby And This Is What They Got,” it received 17 million. In the world of Facebook, 11 words, posted at the top of the same video, could mean an additional 16 million readers for a video, not about cats, but about marriage equality.

“The big overarching story of Upworthy, and the world of journalism should be very heartened by this, is that there are tens of hundreds of millions of people that care intensely about the most important issues of society,” Koechley told me when I asked him how reporters should respond to the site.

But those people only care about important topics within a specific context. Upworthy’s most popular posts of 2013 include heavy subjects—gender, body image, cancer—but the videos themselves are, as the site’s cheery name suggests, often oriented around uplifting messages. The cancer story isn’t about research funding; it’s about a 17-year-old cancer patient recording an album. Their top “racial profiling” story is an alarming, advertisement-like stunt showing that an African-American kid trying to steal a bike gets dealt more skepticism than a white kid. At South By Southwest, Carr summarized criticisms of the site as, “you’re not making the news more interesting, you’re making the news sound more interesting.” Which begs the question—is Upworthy really changing the world for better by altering what it sees?


Upworthy’s seemingly effortless ability to transform ordinary stories and videos into hits actually hinges on a whole lot of research about what drives us to click and to share. It also hinges on a time-honored workforce: twentysomethings. Titled “curators,” this remote crew trolls the Web for items they find personally arresting. They come from a variety of backgrounds, usually not journalism. “Lots of journalists have been so ingrained to write in the opposite way and come in so allergic to analytics,” Sara Critchfield, Upworthy’s editorial director, told me via email. “Our voice and methods can be hard for them to pick up.”

But as Upworthy’s staff knows, it takes more to get people to share than it does to click. The selection process is about exclusion—a curator may post only five or six items a week. In December, for instance, Yahoo’s news network published 130,000 articles; The New York Times produced 7,000. Upworthy posted 246. Items are “packaged” with a Facebook-ready image and a headline that’s been rigorously A/B tested in a focus group. (Curators, infamously, must produce 25 headline options for each post.) The most promising videos are posted to sites in Upworthy’s “partner network,” whose thousands of fans act as lighter fluid to a gently stoked flame. In February Upworthy announced a shift in the way it measured its audience from “page views” to something called “attention minutes”—counting not just readers but how much time they spend on each piece of content. It’s a collective measurement of not just who is viewing a piece of content, but how deeply it’s sinking in. A recent video by Human Rights Watch, consisting of interviews with people released from North Korean prisons, has garnered over four minutes of attention per user. “Which means that for each person that is spending 10 seconds on the video, there is someone sticking around for eight minutes,” says Koechley.

Upworthy has a good rationale for its workforce: The gut is the best way to find the kind of emotional stories that travel. “I think of it as user empathy,” says Critchfield. “Really being able to put yourself in the shoes of a user so you can make a product that appeals to them—even if that product is a headline.” Curators are encouraged to use their feelings when selecting items, the best of which come complete with personal stories. A much-touted example of the phenomenon is the video that tops the cancer section, an inspiring story of a young boy pursuing a singing career despite suffering from terminal cancer. After hearing he had passed away, Adam Mordecai, one of Upworthy’s curators, became fixated on the boy’s story, sharing his experience with staff in an email: “I googled more videos of his and fell upon the documentary. Then I hit play. Then I started crying and having flashbacks to my dad dying of pancreatic cancer and what one goes through when that happens. I wasn’t sure if I was biased but the whole thing seemed timely and wonderful.” He posted the short documentary with the title, “This Amazing Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind is Wondtacular.”

It’s one of Upworthy’s greatest hits, garnering 15 million pageviews and over 2.8 million Facebook shares. A single by the then-deceased boy briefly held the top sales slot on iTunes. While Mordecai watched the numbers rise, he was excited but not surprised. “On the second view I was still crying so I had a sense it was going to be a hit,” he wrote.

Upworthy’s techniques fit well with the research about human psychology and what arouses our emotions. In the largest study of its kind, Jonah Berger and Katherine L. Milkman, two marketing professors at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School of Business, analyzed 7,000 articles appearing in The New York Times in 2008 to see which were the most shared. Controlling for other factors, like popularity of the author or prominence on the Times’ website, the two found that the most easily shared articles were ones that aroused feelings—in a positive way, such as awe, or a negative one, such as anger or anxiety. People share positive content for “self-presentation,” says Milkman. “I want to be associated with positive things; if it’s going to make you feel good it’s going to rub off and affect your opinion of me.” Milkman explains the anger-inducing content as a way for people to bond over “shared emotional experiences.” “When we see someone being fired, it’s something we can get angry over—it brings people together.” The two found the patterns consistent in a secondary test where they rejiggered the headlines of the articles to make them less intense and arousing. The subtler articles were less likely to arouse, and thus, less likely to be shared.

It’s a phenomenon that may even predate the internet: A group of Northeastern University professors analyzed 132 newspapers, published in the years before the Civil War, when it was routine for editors to lift and reprint stories from other papers—a primitive precursor to aggregating or retweeting. “Just like we do see with a lot of viral content today, [the most reprinted posts] often contain an inspirational or uplifting message,” says Ryan Cordell, a professor of English at Northeastern who led the study. One of the most popular was titled, “The following most touching fragment of a letter from a dying wife to her husband was found by him some months after her death.” If you add, “it will amaze you,” it might as well be an Upworthy post.

Upworthy’s “curiosity-gap” headlines, which entice by leaving out titillating details, emerge from research pioneered by George Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University in the late 1990s. In Loewenstein’s eyes, curiosity closely resembled a drive—like hunger or sex—that was triggered strongly by absence. Curiosity exists in the gap between “what one knows and what one wants to know,” he wrote in a seminal review published by Psychological Bulletin in 1996. “Such a focus on missing information is a necessary condition for curiosity,” Loewenstein continued. Missing information propels curiosity. It’s a simple point that, nonetheless, explains why mystery novels are engrossing—until one is told whodunnit—and why Upworthy’s headline’s are so eminently clickable.

‘I was talking to students a couple of days ago about the question, “How do you make something go viral?” And it really struck me that this is not a question for me, this is a question for God.’

Though Upworthy has, through its headlines, popularized Loewenstein’s idea of a curiosity gap, he hadn’t heard of the website until March, when I asked him to look at it. I waited on the phone while he navigated to Upworthy’s homepage from his office at the London School of Economics, where he’s on sabbatical. Upworthy’s headlines create logic puzzles, powerfully enticing people to solve by reading. He starts with: “3 Non-White Actresses Show Up to An Audition. I Think We Know Where This is Going.” “The person who wrote this clearly knows we don’t know where this is going,” he says. “But if you read that you wonder: ‘What’s so obvious that I don’t understand?’ ”

Quickly, he dissects the pattern. “A lot of curiosity is due to violated expectations: You become curious when you expect to see something and you see something else.”

But Loewenstein adds that curiosity doesn’t always lead people to respond to a story. “When curiosity is satisfied, the result is generally disappointing,” he said. “The pleasure you get from getting information is incommensurate.”

Applying the curiosity gap to serious news—the kind that comes without an inspirational or anger-inducing message—has in practice proven difficult. Readers were horrified when CNN briefly commandeered the strategy, tweeting “What state has the highest rate of rape in the country? It may surprise you,” and “14-year-old girl stabbed her little sister 40 times, police say. The reason why will shock you.”

It’s tempting to think that these formulas provide a fail-safe way to use the internet to pass along content. And yet even Upworthy admits that nothing is foolproof. “I was talking to students a couple of days ago about the question, ‘How do you make something go viral?’ ” says Critchfield. “And it really struck me that this is not a question for me, this is a question for God. I cannot make something go viral from my sheer determination or will. The audience has to be there.”

And even if Upworthy has found a formula to compel readers to share content, it doesn’t necessarily translate to those readers engaging in action. Some social scientists see reason to believe that supporting a cause publicly can make it less likely a person will participate in subsequent actions—an effect that translates to liking a Facebook page or sharing a Facebook group. “You’re less likely to [give support] now that you’ve satisfied that need to look good to others,” says Kirk Kristofferson, a doctoral student in marketing at the University of British Columbia who recently published a paper looking at the effects of such digital “slacktivism.”

That may be why the most successful efforts to produce true social engagement involve action and sharing in a single activity—an insight commandeered by Mark Zuckerberg when he decided to increase organ donation using Facebook. Clicking a box simultaneously registered a user for the organ donor list and shared the act with friends—triggering a sweep of activity that increased organ donor enrollment in 44 states by a factor of 23, according to MIT Technology Review. Some of Upworthy’s most shared stories have led to action, but on a relatively modest scale, considering the number of views of each video. A video about a group of kids creating a renewable energy campaign attracted 1.6 million views and raised $150,000 for the kids’ campaign. It’s a far larger swath of money than the kids would’ve attracted without Upworthy, but small in comparison to the people that watched, shared, and did nothing.

Even if Upworthy’s posts don’t trigger legions to action, the fact that they can trigger action at all is a powerful antidote to the filter bubble Pariser bemoaned in 2011. What Upworthy has proven is that understanding, and rigorously testing, the kinds of things that drive people to share content can turn that random behavior into something predictable. It’s a formula that can overcome Facebook’s algorithm and, in a way, act as its own algorithm—catering to our most base needs in order to commandeer attention. If Upworthy has figured out a formula for directing attention, they’ve figured out a new kind of formula—one that makes the content they choose to promote increasingly influential and important.

It’s a force that might make Upworthy more powerful as it inches closer to producing its own content. In March Upworthy announced partnerships with news organizations like Climate Nexus and ProPublica. Though the details of the unions are still being ironed out, and will likely just involve cross-promotion of material, Upworthy isn’t ruling out branching into original content. Koechley said they are thinking of themselves as “Netflix”—gathering data and waiting to find holes in the market.

“We approach it from a place of humility from the outset,” says Koechley. “We’ve spent some time looking at the great content other people have made and figuring out where it really connects with other people . . . . We’re really happy to wait for all the insights that we have from that before we say, ‘Here’s a void and no one’s doing it,’ and then we’ll step in.” He pauses. “And then we’ll do it with something as good as House of Cards.”

Ends today: If you'd like to help CJR and win a chance at one of
10 free print subscriptions, take a brief survey for us here.

 

Alexis Sobel Fitts is a senior writer at CJR. Follow her on Twitter at @fittsofalexis.