The most popular Upworthy story of all time contains the word "wondtacular."
The post in question is about a talented 14-year-old musician who recently lost his battle with terminal cancer, and it has been viewed 17 million times and counting. It's very touching. You may have already come across it in your Facebook feed.
And if you haven't, chances are you have already encountered something eerily similar. Perhaps it was the site's second-most viewed post of all time: "See Why We Have An Absolutely Ridiculous Standard of Beauty In Just 37 Seconds" (11.8 million pageviews). Or maybe it was the instant classic: "His First 4 Sentences Are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick" (4.9 million). There are many, many others, and they all follow the same basic template.
This, my friend, is the wondrous world of socially engineered content. And we might as well get used to it.
For the unfamiliar, Upworthy is a progressive website built around the idea that heart-warming, life-affirming content — in this case, obscure YouTube videos unearthed by the site's editors — deserves to be put in front of as many eyeballs as possible. This is accomplished almost exlusively through social media channels like Facebook.
To give a video wings (the "up" part), Upworthy contributors write dozens of headlines for each story designed for the sole purpose of plucking your heartstrings. Then they pick the one most likely to spark an emotional reaction.
The site's overwhelming success is enviable. At just 17 months old, Upworthy attracted 46.7 million unique visitors this past October according to ComScore, making it much more popular than many news sites. Its earnestness, exemplified by its sticky-sweet two-sentence headlines, has already been duplicated by a host of imitators, some unabashed in their flattery (Viral Nova) and others still finding their footing (Viral Conservative). Even the venerable Washington Post has launched an Upworthy-style vertical.
Ryan Holiday at Betabeat writes that what these sites (which include BuzzFeed) have in common is that they have mastered the art of "filtering and exclusively delivering only a small sliver of reality — one that is all sweet and no sweat." They provide a quick endorphin rush to make you feel warm and fuzzy — and, hopefully, generous with your clicks.
Which isn't a bad thing! But with all that success comes the inevitable blowback, which in this case has manifested itself in the Upworthy headline generator created by former BuzzFeed and Google employee Mike Lacher.
The single-serving site, which is "in no way affiliated with Upworthy," pokes fun at some of the Upworthy's more cloying attempts to snare clicks from your Facebook friends. It's quite funny, too:
I think part of the Upworthy generator's appeal is that it mockingly strips away the warm veneer that can make Upworthy feel one-dimensional. It's a gentle reminder to the feel-good economy that the world is sometimes awful and largely indifferent, and that armchair inspiration still takes place, well... in an armchair.
To say Upworthy does more harm than good is downright silly. But like most things, it's best enjoyed when you know a bit about how it actually works.
HT: Joe Puglisi