Upworthy's biggest threat: Becoming a one-note wonder
Upworthy is one of the hottest media stories around. In May, it registered 30 million unique visitors, an incredibly high number for a 13-month-old company, placing it above Hulu.com, NBC Sports, and Us Magazine on the pageview totem pole. It has so mastered the science of social sharing that it alone accounts for 20 percent of all social actions measured by analytics company SimpleReach, which tracks a total of 5,000 publishers. It is, that company's CEO says, the most socially optimized site SimpleReach has ever seen.
You have to wonder, though, if Upworthy's current popularity is fashion or fixture. Much of the site's success has been built on repackaging videos and graphics produced by other people and distributing them via Facebook with grabby headlines. The founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, told me in April that some of Upworthy's virality can also be attributed to the company's smart targeting of social media influencers, such as former "Star Trek" actor George Takei. If he shares a piece of Upworthy content on Facebook, you know it's going to do very well.
For now, that strategy is working a treat. No one can argue with 30 million unique visitors. Even five-year-old BuzzFeed, which publishes more than 370 pieces of content a day, clocks in at 50 million uniques a month. It can't be long before Upworthy joins that club.
But can it last? That's a different question.
Upworthy is still novel. Its clever headlines are fresh and alluring -- its writers write up to 25 alternative headlines for each piece of content before settling on one -- and just beg to be clicked on, especially if you're the type who responds to socially conscious messaging. Check them out:
- "Dustin Hoffman Breaks Down Crying Explaining Something That Every Woman Sadly Already Experienced"
- "This Comedian Is TOTALLY Right About America's Newest Disgraced Celebrity"
- "A Room Full Of Bigots Had No Idea He Was Making Fun Of Them. So They Sang Along"
Upworthy has embarked on an admirable mission: It wants to use the powerful network effects of social sharing to lift up things that really matter. But it is so effective in this goal that the hammer of its unrelenting moralism starts to feel not so much as if it is breaking barriers as it is cracking your skull. Upworthy's team of eager young curators are super smart, and their hearts are clearly in the right place. But they can also come off as kind of preachy.
1. "I may not like the jokes about Paula Deen's weight in the beginning of this comedian's set, but that doesn't mean the rest of what he's saying about her situation isn't completely right -- and his thoughts on TV executives are definitely worth sharing."
2. "Back in the day, for those of you younger folk, Dustin Hoffman made a movie called 'Tootsie.' It was a hilarious and touching movie about an actor who can't get a gig, decides to become a woman to see if it helps, and scores a role on a soap opera. Hilarity ensued. But it was more than just a comedy. Here's why."
3. "Sacha Baron Cohen often used his character Borat not only for laughs but to expose an underbelly of American culture that most would prefer not to believe still exists."
I mean, fair enough. In small doses, such rhetoric is totally manageable. But if you happen to have "liked" Upworthy on Facebook, your newsfeed will be inundated with these little lessons in outrage/humility/empathy/wonder/delight. And let me tell you, there's only so much earnestness you can take in a day.
Upworthy's problem is that it has only one tone. It dog whistles, probably deliberately, at a pitch that only social liberals can respond to, which is not only limiting but also stifling. There is so much saccharine do-goodery going on that, eventually, the only option becomes tuning out. For a media company whose only content model is to attach new headlines and context to other people's videos and images, that should be a major concern.
Upworthy's model, of course, is preferable to the alternative: websites and blogs that serve only to attack other people's ideas and repackage them for the purpose of a laugh at someone's expense. Upworthy, at least, isn't intellectually lazy, and its contributions to the field are additive rather than deleterious -- its mission, clearly, is to be useful to society rather than to just make fun of it. There's also every chance it will be able to build a sustainable business with that approach, just as partisan blogs such as DailyKos, Crooks & Liars, and Instapundit have done in the past.
But it also risks falling into that same partisan ghetto as its predecessors, to the point where even some of its most ardent followers might eventually feel fatigued by the torrent of unceasing moral righteousness.
As Upworthy moves into its next stage of growth and ups the ante on monetization, the pressure to produce more content will only increase. If it isn't careful, that imperative could ultimately turn out to be a curse.
Now that it is sailing into high-stakes territory, it needs to not just keep a steady hand on the till, but also a light one.
[Illustration by Hallie Bateman]