Design Economics Marketing

Upworthy headlines and copycats: just say no. Please.

Scanvine screen capture
Scanvine data from June 28, 2013, via Forbes

Upworthy has infected traditional media.

In January, the New Yorker explained: The Six Things That Make Stories Go Viral Will Amaze, and Maybe Infuriate, You:

Positivity and arousal go a long way toward explaining the success of Web sites like Upworthy, which started in 2012 and is known for using headlines designed to make you laugh, cry, or feel righteous anger… Its posts are like the infamous cat videos on YouTube—funny, positive, and arousing—but taken to a new level.

Also from PandoDaily last year:

But despite the easy, satisfying mockery, Upworthy, like Buzzfeed, is part of a larger media pattern where emotive headlines matter as much as the content below them. In some ways, Upworthy is merely a site for its time, and parody is the sincerest form of flattery.

Emotive = manipulative.

And yes, their profits are funneled to nonprofits not Wall Street. But it’s still manipulation.

As Atlantic writer Robinson Meyer wrote last year:

Clickbait has been around for years. Through ridiculousness, sexiness, or just by withholding critical information from a reader, it tantalizes people in such a way that they can’t help but see what’s on the other side—tallying, crucially, a page view (and then maybe a Facebook like) for the clickbaiteer.

If everyone writes like this (“There is an amygdala-tickling genius here, but also a kind of movie-trailer mawkishness.”), Twitter and Facebook signal-to-noise ratio will really go to hell. I love LOL cats, but they never take themselves too seriously. And don’t pretend to.

But the drive for clicks (read traffic and its corollary, income) and ROI means this type of tease is only the tip of the iceberg:

For there are larger forces at work in the explosion of Upworthiness, forces that tug at the question of what the Silicon Valley-maintained Internet has become and what Wall Street might do to it. If you want to understand why the Upworthy style is suddenly everywhere, you start with a program that controls what millions of people see and read everyday—and which very few people understand.

That something could be Facebook and its algorithms.

Or not.

Regardless, it’s clear that something changed from January 2013 to January 2014:

Scanvine, January 2013
Scanvine, January 2014

There’s a little voice in the back of my head that’s trying to get my attention. How might this be like the criticisms of USAToday when it launched, back in the day (September 15, 1982)? Wasn’t it considered frivolous? All that color and those short short stories; it was seen as dumbing down the news, like television.

Maybe we really are living in an age of unreason, one where emotion trumps logic. Or it’s a 21st century version of Roman circuses, a welcome distraction from reality.

Upworthy apologyIn other words, although I feel that the emotional appeal is manipulation, it’s possible that all of those clicks are merely a reflection of us. Upworthy clicks may tap into the same emotions that drive sales of the National Inquirer, People and Hollywood Insider.

After all, Upworthy posts are (mostly) true. Upworthy copy chief Matt Savener on their fact-checking ethic:”If it says ‘Upworthy,’ you can share it with confidence, knowing that it checks out.”

However, about that apology that Savener mentioned. If a friend made a face like the one is this GIF when apologizing to me, I might channel righteous Buffy and punch her out. As anyone with half a brain will tell ya, none exhibit an “I’m sorry” expression.


Nevertheless, I have no beef with Upworthy veracity. But its Valley Girl like, breathless gushiness is calculated emotional manipulation. It sets my teeth on edge.

Evidently, I’m not alone. (We’re probably all xxTx on the Meyers-Briggs type indicator.)

The Downworthy browser plugin “[turns] hyperbolic viral headlines into what they really mean.” And a lot of frustration is expressed in 140 characters or less.








In writing this, I feel like a looky-look creeping past a freeway accident.

But I can’t help myself. I’m going to document the ones I encounter.

It was this SF Times headline that pushed me over the edge tonight:

This will be a work in progress. Here’s hoping it dies an early death. I’m not holding my breath.

Upworthy-like headlines hall of shame


By Kathy E. Gill

Digital evangelist, speaker, writer, educator. Transplanted Southerner; teach newbies to ride motorcycles! @kegill

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