Tomorrow’s PandoMonthly guest Chris Hughes is best known for cofounding Facebook, jumpstarting Obama’s online campaign, and taking over the New Republic. What’s less talked-about is his role as an early investor in Upworthy, the socially conscious, social-media-powered beast of a content site that exploded to 30 million monthly uniques last May. (Fast Company declared it the “fastest-growing media site of all time,” a point we won’t argue.)
But at the time, Hamish McKenzie expressed concerns that Upworthy was becoming a one-note wonder. Its success is driven by carefully crafted headlines that elicit empathy and clicks in equal measure (A favorite of mine is “Dustin Hoffman Breaks Down Crying Explaining Something That Every Woman Sadly Already Experienced“). The formula is “Outrage + Uplift + Mystery = Clicks.” But as the novelty of its approach fades, these irresistibly clickable headlines become, well, resistible. As McKenzie wrote, “The hammer of its unrelenting moralism starts to feel not so much as if it is breaking barriers as it is cracking your skull.”
Now there’s a parody account that gives voice to the click-fatigue Upworthy inspires: It’s called “UpWorthIt” and it takes Upworthy’s breathless and sensational positivity to its logical conclusion with headlines like:
Like I said: Outrage (“He’ll shatter your heart!”) + Uplift (“He’ll change your life!”) + Mystery (“So why is he in a coma?”)
So Upworthy’s parody-ready headlines are predictable. Who cares? What kind of asshole hates a story about a “special lady who overcame an entire country’s homophobia”? Who doesn’t want to watch Australia’s Prime Minister verbally dismantle one of her sexist Parliament members?
But Upworthy often feels like a parody of itself, like in the headline “This Dude Just Used Jelly Beans To Convince Me To Live My Life To The Fullest.” Jelly Beans won’t save your life any more than a pizza party will end ethnic cleansing. Want to know how to live life to the fullest? You can start by not watching YouTube videos about jelly beans.
Upworthy also gets into trouble when it tackles more complicated topics. A GMO story titled “Why Coke is Getting All Up In Your Broccoli” brings to mind vegetables genetically-engineered to include high fructose corn syrup and caffeine. In reality, the story’s about Coca-Cola’s opposition to a GMO labeling initiative. But it still gives the author a “tummy-ache.” There’s also the “scare ellipses” when she writes, “Companies that profit from GMO food say it’s perfectly safe…” when in reality, so do most scientists.
UpWorthIt isn’t alone in mocking Upworthy’s headlines. Last week, the Hairpin took a crack at it with entries like, “You Are Going To Think These Poor Kids Playing Soccer In The Dirt Are Amazing. We Dare You Not To Cry When You Realize They Don’t Have Feet.” But despite the easy, satisfying mockery, Upworthy, like Buzzfeed, is part of a larger media pattern where emotive headlines matter as much as the content below them. In some ways, Upworthy is merely a site for its time, and parody is the sincerest form of flattery. And for investor Chris Hughes’ part, I bet he wouldn’t mind that kind of attention, snide or not, to be showered on his main squeeze, The New Republic, which he owns and publishes.
On the other side of things, the parody headline racket is itself getting pretty predictable. To go with “UpWorthIt,” we have “Vice_Is_Hip” (which bides its time “Arm wrestling with the autoerotic asphyxiation mogul backing Hillary Clinton’s bid for the Whitehouse”) and of course “NYTOnIt,” one of the earliest examples of media ridicule on Twitter.
These single serving Twitter accounts are hilarious for a while, yet grow just as tiresome as the targets they ridicule over time. But if they play a role in eliminating the scourge of predictable headlines, then more power to them.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]