A simple rule of thumb: no social problem can be solved by reliketweettumbling anything. At all. Not even a little. However, you can make clever men famous and amoral men wealthy. Upworthy’s founders have ridden this fact of life into the sunset of early retirement, where they can enjoy the best rum and escorts that ad money can buy.
Some of you are bound to be unfamiliar with Upworthy. Congratulations on either cutting off the social media umbilical cord or avoiding the whole mess altogether. The rest of us are trapped in a mental state somewhere between a coma and a cabbage. Upworthy is a website that takes advantage of that fact, drawing users in with socially conscious link bait. Said link bait takes the form of videos with titles a clever step beyond vanilla sensationalism. But we’ll get into that hat trick a bit later.
Upworthy works off of two simple principles. People feel helpless, and people hate reading.
I was blessed with the ability to enjoy watching things circle the drain. The more empathetic among us do not have that luxury. For some, the newspaper is an exercise in endless horror. Page after page of tragedy, inhumanity, and systemic injustice. Fighting any of these problems would require a heavy investment. Time. Research. Money. Things most people barely have enough of to keep their own lives running, let alone try to save the world.
But what if you could just share a video? Suddenly, you’re helping! It just took a minute on your Wall. Isn’t that great? You can pat yourself on the back after you finish channeling the ghost of Rosa Parks.
I broke my modus operandi by painting a sympathetic picture of the average Upworthy spam receptacle. I have enough optimism left in my dying reserves to believe that. But their audience isn’t exactly limited to the truly empathetic. It also draws people in a love affair with self-importance. Upworthy releases a great deal of content tailor made for the social justice weekend warrior. But that’s not today’s whipping boy.
Then there’s the second principle: people hate reading. The simplest manifestation of this is the exclusive focus on video content. Youtube is Upworthy’s bread-and-butter. A sharp strategy, considering that the average attention span taps out around the third sentence of this article. Too much reading might tickle the part of the brain that wonders when its being exploited.
The second manifestation of this is that people hate critical reading. A three-second look at any Upworthy headline reveals an obvious layer of “CLICK ME” sensationalism. The title “9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact” is a nice fusion of loose statistics, buzzwords, and hyperbole. Ideally, this would be enough to put people off of it. We see this kind of emotional manipulation all over new and traditional media. Sadly, the ideal thing only happens if you’re a fan of death, taxes, and
Something else emerges after reading more headlines. An element that’s admittedly clever. Panic-mongering isn’t the only tool in Upworthy’s arsenal. Upworthy titles also all rely on a sense of ambiguity. There isn’t a site around better at exploiting curiosity. Sometimes it’s obvious, like in “People Should Know About This Awful Thing We Do, And Most Of Us Are Simply Unaware.” It’s a touch more subtle in the title “This Kid Was Bullied A LOT. He Could Have Told His Teacher Or His Principal. He Had Bigger Plans.” That title is almost a story in itself. The last sentence sets up all the mystery of the prior article, with none of the hyperbole. It’d be a good tutorial about storytelling in advertising if it weren’t such naked garbage.
A quiz for the reader. Pick up a pen, I’ll wait. Will e-mailing me the latest Upworthy link bait A) End bullying B) Solve the patchwork of issues in sub-saharan Africa C) End misogyny or D) Put a dollar in Upworthy’s bank account. Take a moment to think about it. In fact, feel free to cheat. Pens down. If you wrote anything but D down, eat your pen whole, point-first. Sometimes pain is the only way to learn.
Upworthy found a way to mass produce the Kony 2012 slacktivism that half your idiot friends reposted. Find a real problem, whip up a tagline, half-ass a video, and monetize it until you never have to do a day of real work again. In their defense, I wish I’d come up with it first.
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