QASIM: The problem with Upworthy

A few days ago, an article popped up on my Facebook newsfeed with the lengthy title “His First 4 Sentences are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick.”

The article had been posted by the website Upworthy, which shares progressive videos and promotes them in the hopes that they will go viral via social media. As the website puts it, Upworthy seeks to make “important issues as shareable as a video of someone jumping on his bed and falling out the window.” In a sense, Upworthy’s mission is a noble one. If, like me, you are sympathetic to most of the causes discussed in the videos, then you can get behind efforts to promote them in an engaging way. However, Upworthy, and a growing number of sites imitating its methods, represent a very serious, troubling trend in the future of our media landscape.

There are many objections that could be raised against Upworthy and other similar sites. They are often patronizing and manipulative. They overuse effusive words like “awesome” in an attempt to draw readers in, dealing with even serious subjects in a light-hearted manner. But Upworthy’s problems extend beyond editorial childishness.

Upworthy frames its narratives using emotions, not information. The goal of an Upworthy article is to create the expectation of some emotional sensation that the video will then fulfill. Videos may be educational, but that’s not their primary purpose. Consider the headline that I quoted at length in the first paragraph. Someone who sees this link on Facebook does not click on it because she wants to learn about healthcare — in fact she has no way of knowing healthcare is the topic of the article. She clicks on it because she wants to have her mind blown in an unsettling way. The article might be informative as well, but information comes second to emotion.

Upworthy’s approach is effective because it motivates readers to share their posts, as people are likely to pass on materials that move them. But this emotional approach to informing people is troublesome because it makes facts subservient to the emotional narrative constructed. Facts are included because they strengthen the power of the emotional climax, but those facts that might muddy the issue and add unwelcome complexity are discarded for the benefit of the narrative. If someone’s views on a topic have been defined by an emotional framework, then new facts are only accepted if they bolster that framework. It is more appealing for online progressives to rest in dignified outrage or profound empathy than deal with the muddied world of actual politics and policy.

Of course, Upworthy was not the first to use this emotional approach to policy. Cable news and talk radio have tread this path many times before. But these venues typically maintain the veneer of valuing facts. Fox News famously claims to be “Fair and Balanced.” With Upworthy, it seems we are shedding that veneer and simply embracing the idea that narrative legitimizes fact, instead of the other way around.

Why does all this matter? Upworthy may well be the future of journalism on the web. Business Insider labelled it the fastest growing media company of all time. Its model is extremely successful, with nearly 90 million unique visitors last December. Even if Upworthy itself does not survive, its imitators will. These websites see themselves as taking up the role of traditional journalism, explicitly aligning themselves on their website with the “noble mission to inform the public and draw attention to the things that really matter in our society.” Upworthy has the potential to truly revolutionize how we consume news, and we would be much poorer for it.

So please, the next time you see an inspiring video on Upworthy, look up the topic in The New York Times, or some other fact-driven news source, and share that article instead. Traditional news sites may not be as flashy, but at least they’re grounded in real information.

Isa Qasim is a junior in Jonathan Edwards College. Contact him at isa.qasim@yale.edu.

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