Watching Team Upworthy Work Is Enough to Make You a Cynic. Or Lose Your Cynicism. Or Both. Or Neither.

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Photo: Amy Lombard

Rebecca Eisenberg, an editor for the viral website Upworthy, works from the back of her Jersey City apartment, surrounded by Star Trek posters, felt ­Muppet versions of herself and her boyfriend (he’s a schoolteacher), and a cat named Bones with an unerring instinct to hop on the desk during work-related video­conferences, nuzzling his head at Eisenberg and, by extension, pointing his anus directly at the camera lens. This happens often, because working for Upworthy involves a lot of videoconferencing. One of Eisenberg’s computer monitors has a rotating background of comedy heroines (Tina Fey, Lisa Simpson, the cast of Pitch Perfect); the other has her colleagues popping up from other apartments around the country (some next to unmade beds, some with toddlers trying to open the doors of the rooms they’re in, others from immaculate, Apartment Therapy–­looking pads) to discuss some bit of information they’ve found—a video about bigotry or sexism, an infographic about beauty standards, an inspiring quote, a startling statistic, an interesting ad campaign, an illuminating clip from a TED talk—and the best strategies for getting millions upon millions of people to look at it. This is what Upworthy does: It finds stuff on the internet, identifies it as somehow meaningful or socially redeeming, adds a killer headline and a trace of description, and then gets lots and lots and lots of people to look at it.

It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to hate without feeling like a churl, villain, or snob. The site’s mission is to “draw massive amounts of attention to the topics that really matter,” which is almost tautologically hard to argue with. The things they collect can get fluffy, smarmy, or manipulative, but there’s no denying the amount of it that becomes Gangnam-style viral-smash material, leading millions of Americans to spend a few extra moments pondering meaningful societal issues; I mean, are you against millions of Americans pondering meaningful societal issues? One of the site’s founders says the most exciting thing about its success is that “people would laugh if you said, ‘This 13-minute video from the point of view of a black kid getting stopped and frisked is going viral.’ ” Hear this, and you do worry there would have to be something seriously gangrenous happening in your heart to account for any suspicions you harbored.

Left: Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser. Top photo: Co-founder Peter Koechley.

This hasn’t stopped anyone from resenting Upworthy. It’s one of the fastest-­growing media sites in internet history; in its two years of existence, it’s bent the fabric of the web to make itself chillingly ubiquitous, a level of success that presents as a cultural sore spot. The site is jealously, relentlessly obsessed over by everyone else fighting for online traffic, and it’s disdained or distrusted by a solid percentage of the human beings who are constantly offered links to its content. It publishes both some of the web’s most successful material and some of its most widely mocked and reviled. Some are allergic to the site’s tone (cloying?), its substance (pandering?), or the machine-tooled headlines it uses to lure visitors, many of which read like the taglines for terrible movies that nevertheless make you cry (“The Things This 4-Year-Old Is Doing Are Cute. The Reason He’s Doing Them Is Heartbreaking”). Some associate Upworthy with the same terminal uncoolness that descended on Facebook when grandparents signed up; some insist that “the topics that really matter” can only be tackled with hard noses and daunting complexity, not (as Awl co-founder Choire Sicha once put it) “feel-good weepers”; some just enjoy the way any given tweet can be turned into a solid Upworthy dis by adding “You’ll Never Believe What Happened Next.” And some simply note how quickly the site’s amassed web-breaking amounts of traffic—up to a high of 88 million unique visitors in a single month last fall—and assume, based on all prior experience with viral content that drives staggering amounts of traffic, that the people behind the stuff must be the most craven, cynical content-mongers in a field already plenty crowded with them.

The site’s founders, Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, are, in fact, mellow, affable guys with half-beards and pleasant demeanors; they’re both married, in their 30s, and possibly the only people I’ve ever interviewed who seemed worried I might think I was cooler than they are. They have well-worn and convincing responses to all but one of the complaints above. Upworthy’s tone, they say, is what gets the job done, and if it grates, you’re probably too old. (Younger audiences are “more sincere.”) The content’s designed to “reach people where they’re at,” building from points of agreement rather than points of contention. (“You don’t want to be that guy in your Facebook feed going, ‘These ReTHUGlicans out there …’ ”) Emotional narratives are the most effective way for human beings to process information, even in a culture that denigrates feelings as “feminine” and irrational. Coolness is about standing apart, whereas Upworthy’s mission is to reach a broad mass of Americans. (Pariser, last year: “I’m not going to pay too much attention to some snarky New Yorkers who see [our headlines] too many times.”) But that last assumption—that they’re mere cynics—irks them, especially if you happen to bring it up after having spent time with Upworthy staffers. When I mention it, in the shared Manhattan workspace that constitutes Upworthy’s only real “office,” Pariser looks sort of thoughtfully wounded; Koechley looks indignant and asks: “Have you met anyone cynical here?”

Upworthy’s leadership team at a strategy meeting in Brooklyn in January.

I have not. There was one meeting where somebody was trying to figure out how to promote a video of orcas being hunted, and Adam Mordecai, one of the site’s star curators, asked if there was any chance they were feminist orcas—but that was pretty funny, in context. I’ve watched the staff hold long debates about what kind of content is truly “upworthy,” a word they use far more often as an adjective than a noun; I’ve met a woman who told me, “I don’t own a TV,” without even a trace of whatever knowingness normally halos that statement; and I’ve seen people collectively lip-sync “Bohemian Rhapsody” over video chat. No cynicism, though. It’s been a lot closer to Koechley’s description of the company as “the most earnest, do-gooder, touchy-feely group of 40 people that you’ve ever met in the world.”

Still, it doesn’t matter either way. Upworthy takes that old binary—earnest versus cynical, fair versus manipulative, righteous versus self-interested—and twists it into meaninglessness, from the mission statement on down. It turns out that if your noble goal is to “draw massive amounts of attention to the topics that really matter,” then the success of that mission (i.e., driving eyes toward meaningful content) and the short-term success of your company (i.e., attracting visitors to your for-profit, investment-backed website) are precisely identical. It’s the ultimate in “social entrepreneurship”—the good of the company and the good of mankind are, allegedly, the exact same thing. And not that the founders will say this explicitly, but there’s even some ambient implication that if this situation nags at you, you might on some level be more critical of getting the masses to think seriously about important issues than you are of a web-media status quo that on certain days seems to be 90 percent rage-bait essays and side-boob slideshows. Which would make you the cynic, nitpicker, hypocrite, or elitist.

Whereas the founders, says Pariser, are “ultimately kind of Sorkin-esque idealists in the role of the media in society.”

“But early Sorkin,” says Koechley. “West Wing Sorkin, not Newsroom Sorkin.”

“We see Upworthy as confirmation that the potential to have a broadly well-informed public still exists,” says Pariser. “And underestimating that, or writing people off because hey, reality TV gets great ratings—when you haven’t actually tried the experiment of making important stuff as compelling as reality TV—is throwing the baby out with the bathwater.”

Much of Upworthy’s content does feel like reality TV. A lot of it also feels like advertising. This isn’t an accident; the site’s built, tactically and deliberately, to appeal to what skeptics once called the lowest common denominator. Its choices are the ones you’d normally associate with a race to the bottom—the manipulative techniques of ads, tabloids, direct-mail fund-raising, local TV news (“Think This Common Household Object Won’t Kill Your Children? You’d Be Wrong”). It’s just that Upworthy assumes the existence of a “lowest common denominator” that consists of a human craving for righteousness, or at least the satisfaction that comes from watching someone we disagree with get their rhetorical comeuppance. They’ve harnessed craven techniques in the service of unobjectionable goals—“evergreen standards like ‘Human rights are a good thing’ and ‘Children should be taken care of’ ”—on the logic that “good” things deserve ads as potent as the “bad” ones have. “I think marketing in a traditional sense, for commercialism—marketing to get you to buy ­McDonald’s or something—is crass,” says Sara Critchfield, the site’s editorial director. “But marketing to get people’s attention onto really important topics is a noble pursuit. So you take something that in one context is very crass and you put it in another. People will say, ‘That’s very crass,’ but in the service of doing something good for humanity, I think it’s pretty great.” This happens often when you ask questions about Upworthy: It turns out that whatever you were curious about is actually wonderful, because it’s ultimately in the service of the good of humankind. Would you need to be a black-hearted monster to feel that there must be a catch? Or that one will arrive next month, when Upworthy is slated to announce its long-awaited monetization strategy? (Over the past year, the site has run content sponsored by Skype and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on an experimental basis.)

“There are tons of media outlets,” says Koechley, “that end the process when they think they’ve done something good. They think it’s beneath them to try and get people to see it.”

“I worked on a literary magazine in college,” says Pariser, “that was read literally only by the people who did the college literary magazine. Ever since then, that’s what I’ve wanted to avoid. And I think there’s a lot of that happening in the media world.”

There are two main factoids that illuminate Upworthy’s place in the online universe, and both have to do with Facebook. (One of the social network’s co-founders, Chris Hughes, was actually an early Upworthy investor.) Factoid one: At some point in the site’s still-brief ­existence, someone found a statistic indicating that 52 percent of Americans on Facebook “liked” or had a friend who “liked” Up­worthy’s page; now, according to the company, it’s more like 78 percent. Factoid two: Those people share Upworthy posts at a rate that positively dwarfs the competition; according to a chart that made the rounds in December, it’s nearly eight times the rate of the next comparable site. The core audience may not be the biggest, but it can be relied on to echo links to everybody it knows. As Eisenberg tells me, “You’re not preaching to the choir. You’re preaching to the choir’s friends.”

We could here descend a deep analytical rabbit hole concerning a bunch of questions media people and analysts are forever debating—why do people share things? Does it mean they care more? Do the people they share with care?—but I will give you, based on my reading, the layperson’s upshot. The first answer is that nobody really knows—although Tony Haile, CEO of the analytics company Chartbeat, did recently say that available data shows no link between how much a piece of content is shared and how much time the average person spends with it before closing her browser tab. The second answer is that, even if nobody really knows, some people nevertheless worry that Pariser and ­Koechley know better than they do.

Read about Upworthy, and amid all the wonky discussion of traffic metrics, Facebook algorithms, and testing tools, you detect a collar-tugging fear that these guys have, like Keanu Reeves in The Matrix, seen into the drizzle of numbers that hides behind virality and are now able to bend it to their will. Toward the start of the year, there was much happy crowing when a change in Facebook’s news feed appeared to have decimated Upworthy’s traffic—palpable glee at the thought of Upworthy as a naked dethroned emperor—but the apparent drop was just the comedown from a huge spike in November; zoom out a bit, and you still see steady growth. (The company line is that Facebook’s news-feed algorithm is like the weather: It’s always changing, so you dress appropriately and go about your business. Besides, they’re now dropping traffic as a main metric and focusing on “attention minutes,” the amount of time people spend actually watching stuff.) The unsettling thing about all this stats-talk is the way it assumes all “content” is equivalent, an interchangeable widget Pariser and Koechley are better at distributing than the competition; you see precious little talk about what makes Upworthy’s relationship with the web different from, say, BuzzFeed’s. Nevertheless, it’s not an entirely unreasonable thing to think about. Upworthy really is constructed from the ground up to make sure its content spreads far and wide. Even phrasing it like that feels backward: On some level the site was built from the start to figure out why things spread far and wide, then operate accordingly.

Photo: Amy Lombard

The founders first met through the world of viral videos “back before YouTube, when that meant QuickTime and AVIs.” Pariser’s background was in ­nonprofits and organizing; Koechley’s was partly in comedy, including time as managing editor of The Onion. Both, interestingly, grew up with educators—Koechley’s parents started a Waldorf school in rural Wisconsin, and Pariser’s ran an alternative high school in Maine. They wound up working together at MoveOn.org, where, during the 2008 presidential campaign, they made a video that got 23 million views. “There’s something about sharing and how ideas spread that we’re both really interested in,” says Koechley. “And then Eli got all big-thinky about the structure of algorithms on the internet”—Pariser wrote a book, The ­Filter Bubble, about how personalizing algorithms shield people from outside points of view—“so we argued about that for a while. And then we were like, let’s pick something to do.” Critchfield, the editorial director—tall, sharp, confident, and friendly, a firm handshake of a person—answered an ad they placed for interns. When I meet with her at the massive Clinton Hill loft the company booked on Airbnb to house employees during a New York conference, she tells me that before Upworthy she’d studied graphic design, co-founded an intellectual-property research firm, and worked on international development. “When you’re in D.C.,” she says, “you’re talking to legislators, and they’re like, ‘It would be great to feed hungry children in Africa, but we don’t hear about that from our constituents.’ And I wondered how we get from not hearing about it to hearing about it.”

Upworthy isn’t really these people’s vision; it’s merely the best answer they’ve found to that question. Even core aspects of what the site does—like the way it curates and aggregates content produced by other people—turn out to be answers to that question: Koechley tells me they chose curation because it “increases the learning curve.” (You can post and analyze dozens of videos in the time it’d take to create one.) When he and Pariser describe their original idea for the site, you get the sense it was something snappier, funnier, edgier, maybe more overtly political. But this wasn’t the answer: Any kind of edge or stridency is a no-no for shareability.

Critchfield lived in Cleveland when she started with Upworthy and says she worked “from the perspective of a Clevelander. I was completely unexposed to New York media, so I wasn’t thinking anything like that. I would just go to the 7-Eleven and be like, Hey, what’s in the news, what are you thinking about? And whatever that person said to me, I would go home and write about.” The media reference is a running theme: She and Pariser and Koechley all talk about the world of “New York media” with a kind of arm’s-length amusement, casting it as an insular elite that struggles to connect with most Americans. “Being in New York,” says Koechley, “and living about where you’d expect us to live in Brooklyn, there’s a mind-set and a clubbiness that we try to aim wider than.” They find it strange that journalists obsess over Twitter when “it’s not where people are.” (Facebook is.) At one point I suggest to them that Upworthy works because it is, for lack of a better word, “uncool,” something I assume they’ll take as a compliment. Both founders make slightly pained faces in response. “For a long time,” Critchfield tells me, “we were describing our site persona as ‘the cool kid at the party.’ And eventually we started calling ourselves out on that. Are we really? I think we wanted to be a little more Daily Show when we started, and wound up being more … Upworthy. Mothers think we’re cool. People who do charity work think we’re cool. People in D.C. tend to think we’re a lot cooler than people in New York.”

Something funny happens, though, when you track the decisions Upworthy’s made in order to differentiate itself from the rest of what they call “medialand.” They emphasize quality, not quantity, taking their time to cull content down to the most potent material. (“Nobody was desperate for a media site that offers a faster stream of content.”) They stress videos, visuals, narratives, and emotional experiences. They aim to drive the topics the internet’s discussing on a given day, not latch onto them. They care about fostering deep engagement with their brand as a one-stop provider of substantive experiences. Their target audience is the whole broad mass of Americans. Sure, they may be wary of online media’s usual suspects, but what they’re creating is not some bold next step beyond the Huffington Posts of the world; it’s a step back to the broadcast values of older media. What they’ve come up with is a lot like old-school general-interest programming, a sort of web-based cross between 60 Minutes and Reader’s Digest and a very socially responsible TV morning show.

And they’ve developed an entire data-driven system to get this done—a system, and a far-flung network of contributors to operate it. (The founders are tickled to have one curator in a town called Brooklyn, Michigan, “on a farm that got Wi-Fi,” and in one meeting someone jokes that when climate change leaves New York underwater, Upworthy will be uniquely situated to take over the media world.) Curators like Eisenberg trawl the web for “seeds”—content to feature on the site—and develop them into “nuggets.” A nugget is, for the most part, a list of 25 potential headlines, developed in a kind of high-octane one-person brainstorming session. Then comes “click testing.” Curators load potential headlines and thumbnail images into a testing system, which shows each option to a small sample of the site’s visitors, tracking their actions—did they click it, did they share it? The system used to return detailed numerical feedback on each option, but it was decided that hard numbers over­influenced the curators; now it tags options with things like “bestish” and “very likely worse.” There’s fact-checking and copyediting and internal discussion involved—nuggets take days to actually wind up on the site—but the process itself, as played out in bedrooms and kitchens and back offices across the country, is surprisingly simple: Find something. Ask yourself, “If a million people see this, will it make the world a better place?” (“If we can’t say yes to that,” says Koechley, “then we’re not going to post it”; many things on the site suggest a loose interpretation of this rule, but he says they’re working to keep raising the bar.) Keep writing headlines, and keep testing them until the results are maximally explosive.

Watching a curator crank out headlines is a bizarre experience, insofar as it’s almost indistinguishable from watching people toss out parodies of Upworthy headline styles—either way, the mind runs immediately to stock phrases like “you’ll never believe,” “you’d be wrong,” or “everything wrong with [topic] in one [piece of content].” This does not bother Critchfield at all. “I’m not making a fashion statement here,” she says. “I’m trying to get shit done. We could hit the next big thing in testing tomorrow, and then completely reorient and change.”

 

The advent of click testing seems to have been a pivotal development for touchy-feely Upworthy, with each staffer developing his or her own balance of hard data and intuition. (Critchfield likes to dismantle this binary by talking about “emotional data,” arguing that a gut feeling is every bit as meaningful as hard numbers.) The foremost data-lover might be Mordecai, a former actor and Howard Dean organizer—he likes to credit his audience-riling for enabling that memorable Dean “scream”—who beams into video meetings from Denver, and seems equally loved and head-shakingly tolerated by his colleagues, like a grumpy uncle whose tics everyone’s learned to enjoy. Eisenberg tells me with some happiness that Mordecai didn’t have a single “hit” until click testing came along; now he’s the staff’s biggest advocate of using data to optimize content, testing dozens upon dozens of headline variations until one succeeds. “The guy’s brilliant,” says Critchfield. “But because he’s so brilliant, his ideas are, like”—she mimes a scatter with her hands. “And the data channeled his energy in a really powerful way. He was like: I could do this, or this, or this. And the data was like: Do that one.”

He and other Upworthy staffers keep cycling through Eisenberg’s screen. They convene for “lunchtime karaoke,” dominated by a highly put-together redhead named Melissa Gilkey, who’s previously auditioned for American Idol (the experience was disappointing) and plans on trying The Voice next. (One guy explains his lack of participation by introducing the Russian idiom for tone deafness: “A bear stepped on one’s ear.”) Then comes the “nugget race,” in which a set of curators all try to create as many complete nuggets as they can within an hour. Eisenberg works on an infographic that recommends some of the great books of the current century—the greater-good logic allegedly being that school curricula are stuck on the classics and not responsive to new literature. She starts firing off headline options: “If you liked Reading Rainbow as a kid, you’ll love this flowchart as an adult.” “Do you think the only good books are old books? You’d be wrong.” “The best books of the 21st century—take that, Dickens!” One of the first things she told me when I arrived at her apartment was “I have ADD,” which was meant to explain why she doesn’t drink coffee but could just as easily go under “special skills” on her résumé: At one point she’s writing in two separate documents, checking email, video-chatting with other nugget-racers, text-chatting with someone else, and ordering a pizza on GrubHub, more or less simultaneously, and is still the person to notice and call five minutes left in the race.

As the curators work, they discuss thumb­nail pictures in great detail—when to split between two different images, when it helps to tilt one way or another, whether there’s any real difference between pictures of different whales. Headlines are discussed more in theory than in detail. One curator shares the tip of trying to express the core point of the content in four words. Mordecai gives it a shot: “Racism bad. Eat kale.” Then he lets everyone in on his newest data discovery, which is that descriptive headlines—ones that tell you exactly what the content is—are starting to win out over Upworthy’s signature “curiosity gap” headlines, which tease you by withholding details. (“She Has a Horrifying Story to Tell. Except It Isn’t Actually True. Except It Actually Is True.”) How then, someone asks, have they been getting away with teasing headlines for so long? “Because people weren’t used to it,” says Mordecai. “Now everybody does it, and they do cartoon versions of ours.” (CNN, for instance, recently ended a tweet about a child-murder story with a ghoulish “the reason why will shock you.”) There’s general delight about Upworthy leading the curve. “It’s like everyone’s watching whales on a boat,” says one curator. “And we’re the ones going, they’re all on this side!”    

Photographs by Amy Lombard

*This article appeared in the March 24, 2014 issue of New York Magazine.