The Simple Distinction That Will Completely Change How You Think About Upworthy

I just pulled a random headline from the Upworthy Generator:

What This Bullied Millennial Did Is Genius

This headline does two things. First, it makes you interested in this bullied millennial. Second, it is mysterious about what he did. Its opposite would be a bland headline that reveals all, such as:

New Anti-Bullying Strategy: Gandhian Passive Resistance

The two traits sound like they go together: after all, mystery provokes curiosity. But they are very different. An interesting headline is respectful of users; it explains why they should care about the post. Concealing what the post actually says, however, is disrespectful: it hides from user the information they need to decide whether it’s worth their time to find out more. An interesting but transparent headline would be more like:

Millennial Flummoxes His Bullies by Quoting Gandhi

What unites interestingness and mystery is not concern for users, but rather a desire to maximize click-throughs. A user who knows what the post contains might realize it’s not for her.

Unlike Upworthy, BuzzFeed mostly fights fair; its headlines are usually transparent. “38 Pictures That Prove Cats Have Hearts of Gold” does what it says on the tin. I’m not especially interested in cat pictures; I won’t click on that link. With an Upworthy-style headline, I don’t know that cat pictures lie within until it’s too late. BuzzFeed tries to entice you into reading more, but Upworthy tries to trick you into reading more.

Of journalism’s many traditions, putting the most important information up front is among those most worth preserving. It signals a basic attitude of respect for the reader as a reader. Upworthy is explicitly progressive. It thinks highly of its readers’ capacity to improve the world—but also appears to believe that they need to be fooled into improving it. The uplift comes with a side serving of contempt.

Once you recognize deliberately mysterious headlines, they’re everywhere. Phrases like “in one chart” hint without telling. So do constructions like “here’s how X will do Y,” “this X will change the way you think about Y,” and, of course, the infamous “one weird trick.” Starting today, please join me in never clicking on them.

I cant find anywhere on Upworthy’s site where it purports to be “journalism.” What I see is a bunch of videos which Upworthy hopes users will like and pass on (many of which are very entertaining). That requires users to actually watch the videos, unless you believe their duty is to transcribe them all for us, like journalists would supposedly do.

As far as readers, what about the possibility that there’s a benefit, albeit small and/or subconscious, to the reader from initially being curious about the headline and then uncovering the substance (with video entertainment thrown in to boot)? Sort of like the satisfaction that comes from hearing the set-up of a joke and then finding out the punchline. Would it be more “respectful” of comedians to lead with their punchlines? The analogy isn’t perfect, but the point is that there’s more than one way to deliver content. There’s the direct journalistic way, there’s the comedian’s way and many other ways in between, one of which is Upworthy’s.

With all due respect, I will continue to click on Upworthy links I find intriguing (which is only small fraction to begin with). I find much of your commentary very insightful and informative, but the anti-Upworthy rants I’ve seen now from you and others is incredibly whiny. I honestly don’t get it.

The web, of course, is completely different from print. I believe that The Economist magazine contains intelligent enticing headlines that encourage reading. There’s no deception; the purchase is already complete (unless you’re one of those people at the bookstore).

“DMC” is a sock puppet. Upworthy, like many companies, monitor mentions of themselves online and have a rapid response team to quickly counter criticism, especially when it’s valid. A telltale sign is they use disingeniuity to derail the point and then follow by a call to action that appeals for the opposite point of the post.

This is certainly not the first time someone has posted about Upworthy’s strategic use of Dark Patterns to generate traffic, but it is one of the better ones. Thank you!

Remember when nightly news first starting doing this? “Four things in your kitchen that could kill you … tonight at 11!” That is always what Upworthy has reminded me of. Most off-putting for me is the excessive hyperbole: genius, astonishing, unforgettable, hysterical, tear-inducing. Though, to be fair, that may just be the stuff that hits peak facebook.

Sean, nice try. This is me,

Hardly a sock puppet. I’m just an opinionated independent thinker.

To reiterate, Upworthy does not purport to peddle in journalism. If it did, I would agree it’s a fraud. Also, as far as I can tell, its content is mostly or entirely video. And the videos often deal with substance that cannot be whittled down to enumerated lists or technically precise one-liners. Regardless, I don’t understand why it’s so offensive that Upworthy, a non-journalistic endeavor, buries the lede.

Tons of people obviously enjoy the content. You don’t, or won’t because of some misguided principle. To each his/her own.

I’m probably biased since I work for a media organization that abuses “in one chart” shamelessly, but I think you’re giving it a bum rap here. “In one chart” gives the reader valuable information. (1) The post will contain an easily-digested chart, rather than a wall of text, and (2) the chart will give you a fresh insight into a topic you’re interested in.

The point of the “in one chart” formulation is that there are some insights that are hard to convey in text but easy to convey in chart form. So demanding that journalists summarize a hard-to-summarize chart in a headline seems a little unreasonable.

Just to pick one of my posts at random:

What would your preferred headline for this story be? “The price spread between Mt. Gox and other exchanges is growing”? “The premium for Bitcoins on Mt. Gox grew from 3 percent to 15 percent over the summer”? Those strikes me as less interesting and less helpful to the reader.

I disagree with DMC’s comment, but have no reason to think that it’s the work of a sock puppet. DMC left a valid email address when commenting, and has no connection at all to Upworthy that I know of. Sean’s point that mysterious headlines are a form of Dark Pattern is otherwise well-taken.

Whether an “in one chart” is problematic depends on what the alternatives are. Tim’s example is a good one for “in one chart” because the chart is relatively infomration-dense and conveys much more than a simple change of a quantity from one value to another. So a good test for “in one chart” stories is whether the story needs a good chart!

In this case, another factor is that the axes of the chart, and their relevance to the story, require further explanation. A hypothetical @switchspoiler for this one would be unsatisfying, because readers would be asking “bid-ask whats?” So the story itself here, as well as the chart, is doing work the headline couldn’t do.

Let me just say that this is not always, or even often the case, with other “in one chart”s.

@sean, we don’t use sock puppets, we are rather transparent in our response to criticism, valid or otherwise. I’m usually the one doing a lot of it, in my role as Editor-at-Large.

Here’s an explainer of why we do what we do.

All of our headlines are different. Some are specific, others aren’t, depending on the test results we get. But all of them offer more than a hint of what they are about. If they don’t, we are doing our job wrong.

Some recent ones that appeal to what James would prefer: Hear The Moment This Audience In Boston Found Out JFK Had Been Shot. An Elegant And Concise Breakdown Of Why Drug Prohibition Will Never Work Stephen Fry Somehow Makes Sense Of Racism ​Read The Witty Suggestion An Advice Columnist Gives To A Homophobic Parent

Our headlines are a constant work in progress, and while we sometimes fall on the vague side, we hear from our audience when we blow it. If we don’t do it right, they won’t return.

I’ve been ranting about these a lot lately too (and immitating the for fun) — they’ve become a lot more prominent in my facebook lately too.

Even though I know them and recognize them now (and know I’m likely to find the actual article unsatisfying) — I find myself STILL sometimes really wanting to click on them. They are like the junk food of the internet, and just as companies have spent lots of R&D money figuring out how make junk food that is almost irresistable even if you know it’s bad for you and even if you don’t actually like how it tastes very much — apparently the internet had led to extensive R&D in making headlines that you are irresistably drawn to click on.

“depending on the test results we get” indeed. It’s a different kind of ‘data-driven’ ‘journalism.’ Articles written by robots according to mathematical formula which tickle our brains in just the right way.

What bothers me most about Upworthy is how it often takes something moderately interesting, and uses the most hyperbolic wording ever.

Instead of “John Stewart hilariously points out flaws in Republican strategy” you get “See John Stewart DESTROY the GOP”. Nothing gets destroyed, the guy you already agree with gets a laugh at the expense of the people you already disagree with.

Instead of “Poet reads poignant piece about street harassment” you get “This woman sums up what women have been struggling to express for centuries” or “This poem will change the way you act in public forever.” However, the actual poem is a decent but pretty standard fare for a live reading, and offers nothing new aside from that poet’s personal twist.

The second most annoying Upworthyism is the need to write a play by play of the 4 minute review. “At :11 he says what we all think, at :32 he builds his case. By 1:12 you’ll never look at neckties the same way.”