A year and a half after its launch, it seems as though Upworthy is legitimately onto something. On a superficial level, the reason seems obvious: The company’s distinct headline style, which is both widely parodied and imitated, is working like gangbusters—the company is rapidly closing in on traffic giants like BuzzFeed and Gawker. But below the surface is a story of social networks and the algorithms they tinker with, and how tweaks to the formula can upend even the best laid plans for reaching massive amounts of people online.
In a piece for the Atlantic, writer Robinson Meyer argues that while Upworthy and its many imitators have found success with their signature style, it was just a part of a larger story: Upworthy is one of the smaller traffic kingdoms in the middle of a distribution battle between Facebook and Twitter.
Meyer cites this Facebook corporate blog post from mid-October in which the social media giant states that average referral traffic it has shuttled to other media sites has increased by 170% in the past year. Last week, Facebook explained why: it’s actively trying to promote what it calls "high-quality content" in user’s News Feeds, and will now begin to bump them up even more than before.
While no one really knows precisely what makes Facebook’s News Feed algorithms tick, Upworthy’s approach is to specifically design its pages, buttons, and layouts to be Facebook shareable. The company claims that their headlines aren’t what matters most, it’s that people share their posts.
Whatever tweaks Facebook made to News Feed helped make Upworthy the new king of the viral content game: From October to November, their unique monthly visitors absolutely skyrocketed from 42 million to 88 million.
As Facebook and Twitter reach something close to critical mass, new users become much less of a reliable metric for their success. Instead, they both want to be the feed you scroll through most. Sharing and re-sharing is now the means by which any content provider worth its salt will define their worth.
What separates the big distribution networks (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn and Tumblr) from an intermediary content-provider like Upworthy is community. There's no commenting on Upworthy—it doesn’t want a community of its own.
It has been argued by some that the tremendous growth advantage provided by the perfect storm of Upworthy’s viral strategy and social networks’ viral ambitions may not be an ethical or healthy practice. As part of a long essay over at Gawker, Tom Scocca argues that it is symptomatic of a larger problem of the way we communicate online. Namely, that it’s limiting: To go viral the Upworthy way, to be spread and shared and tweeted about, you have to be liked. You have to be nice. You can’t be divisive or mean or disagree. Who wants to invite a buzzkill?
"The result of this approach, the Upworthy house style, is a coy sort of emulation of English, stripped of actual semantic content: This Man Removed the Specific and the Negative, and What Happened Next Will Astonish You," says Scocca.