In a presentation on Thursday at the Personal Democracy Forum, a New York City gathering on the intersection of tech and politics, Upworthy editorial director Sara Critchfield explained how the site, dedicated to resharing stories with social impact, is leveraging emotional data to become the fastest-growing media site in history. Upworthy, which MoveOn founder Eli Pariser started in March 2012, clocked 8.7 million monthly unique visitors within its first six months and now garners more than 10 million uniques a month.
Upworthy, which is kind of like a soulful Buzzfeed, grew out of Pariser's work in online organizing with MoveOn, as well as his book The Filter Bubble, which is about how Internet algorithms often insulate us from ideas and people we don't agree with. Like any media startup today, Upworthy is known for its use of data to drive growth, testing up to 16 different headlines for a single story. But Critchfield highlighted another important source of data: emotion.
What Critchfield called "the feminization of emotion," where feelings are thought to be a trivial female attribute, "has set up a false dichotomy that's distorting our decision making," she said. "We're in danger of rapidly moving toward a monolithic understanding of decision making."
As an example of how Upworthy editors use emotions to inform their choices, Critchfield cited one of their recent videos on a teenage musician who died of cancer.
After being posted to Upworthy, the video was reshared around the Web. It has over 9 million views on YouTube. Its star, the late Zach Sobiech, became the first independent artist to go to #1 on iTunes, and viewers also raised hundreds of thousands of dollars for cancer research.
How did Upworthy know this was going to be so big? The post's author, Adam Mordechai, who lost his own dad to pancreatic cancer, was still crying the second time he watched it, says Critchfield.
[Image: Flickr user Steven Lilley]