March 12, 2014

The cofounder of Upworthy, speaking at South by Southwest Interactive on Monday, called for traditional news organizations to find better ways to engage readers with important journalism that previously never had to worry so much about promoting itself.

Grilled by David Carr of The New York Times on Monday, Eli Pariser defended Upworthy’s viral headline tactics with free market language: “We don’t do well unless people like what we do so much that they share it.”

He emphasized Upworthy’s social mission, rejecting Carr’s challenge that some of the site’s content constitutes clickbait without a cause. The site is partnering with ProPublica and advocacy groups for climate change and human rights, and recently shared a video by Lean In about girls being called “bossy.”

Pariser also pointed to a video of aggressive stop-and-frisk tactics in New York that was viewed 17 million times in five days. The 13-minute video isn’t “anybody’s idea of viral content,” Pariser said, but it gave viewers a powerful glimpse into a world they might not be familiar with.

“For me this is what media should do, which is help us understand what life for other people is like,” he said. “In a democratic society that’s really important. … this makes me care about something that I only knew about in the abstract.”

(When Carr asked what the headline on the Upworthy post was, Pariser said he couldn’t remember. It was Meet The 17-Year-Old Who Blew The Lid Off Racial Profiling With His iPod.)

Headlines that oversell?

If you grant Upworthy’s claim that every piece of content can be defended on its merits as addressing an important social issue, it seems unfair to lump the site in with other viral sensations like BuzzFeed (where sideboob goes to “a whole new level”) and ViralNova (where what happens to Peruvian guinea pigs at a festival will make you go OMG), as Esquire did in its The Year We Broke the Internet piece.

Yet Upworthy’s headlines present an interesting question of whether the ends — consuming meaningful content — justify the means. One question-asker at the SXSW session remarked that, although he often likes what Upworthy shares, he thought headlines too often overpromise or are not representative of the content. (Carr summed up the feeling of some viral critics: “You’re not making the news more interesting, you’re making the news sound more interesting.”)

Pariser (a progressive who didn’t want to talk much about an Upworthy political mission) again said the invisible hand of the Web would take care of that: If people feel tricked, they’ll stop visiting the site.

How quickly might that happen? Quantcast data — short-sighted Business Insider reporting to the contrary — indicate Upworthy’s traffic has generally stabilized after its much-ballyhooed spike in November.

What can traditional news media learn?

If The New York Times shoots itself in the foot by underselling its content with bland headlines (see: Obama’s New Approach Takes a Humorous Turn), Upworthy could have the opposite problem: headlines that oversell content and possibly betray readers’ trust.

Still, the traditional news media has to recognize the important of people actually, y’know, reading its stuff (as Carr put it, analytics people in newsrooms often keep traffic data about painstakingly reported stories to themselves because “it would break our hearts”).

Quote-unquote important journalism used to get an “artificial leg up,” Pariser said, by virtue of its A1 placement at newspapers. Readers on their way to the home and garden section or crossword might have some incidental contact with the important news of the day (which is similar to how Facebook users come across their news; social media sites are the new bundlers).

Now, digital unbundling means news has to stand on its own. Bloggers have already started to learn from viral sensations — see the Washington Post’s “Know More” blog, which I’ve written about.

The Upworthy lesson: headlines and packaging matters, but no one wants to be manipulated into clicking. Maybe you get more hits in the short-term, but readers could start to think twice before following your links in the future. If I like a video but still feel a little disappointed my head is still intact, was it worth promising my head would explode just to get me inside the door?

Then again, 60 million monthly unique views and a feeling that you’re accomplishing something meaningful seems well worth some negative attention. And there’s always the chance that the Upworthy brand becomes so strong that it can tone down the hard-sell headlines now that it’s made such a big name for itself.

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Sam Kirkland is Poynter's digital media fellow, focusing on mobile and social media trends. Previously, he worked at the Chicago Sun-Times as a digital editor,…
Sam Kirkland

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