What Upworthy Says About Us (Whether We Like It or Not)

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Upworthy, a viral content media company with a liberal political worldview and business model, launched in early 2012, feeding into the social political sharing climate during the presidential campaign. But then a funny thing happened, the election happened and the campaign was over, but Upworthy was still around. In fact, the Newman Media Lab just called it the “fastest growing news site on the web,” with 87 million site visitors in November 2013. In September, Upworthy ranked third (behind only Huffington Post and BuzzFeed) for Facebook interactions compared to September 2012.

So what is this viral company with a heart of gold doing right? Is it just BuzzFeed for liberals? Well, not exactly. Turns out, Upworthy has a whole different strategy for maximizing content’s viral value. For instance, instead of trying to drive up clicks with “click bait” like sexy headlines that aren’t fulfilled by the content, Upworthy focuses on relevant headlines; shares over clicks; and it respects Facebook as a primary mover of viral content.

So what does Upworthy’s content machine tell us about who we are by what we share?

In its top 10 most shared videos of 2012, two were anti-bullying videos; two were pro-gay rights pieces; two were pro-womens rights videos; two pieces addressed income inequality; one attacked the Tea Party; and one promoted global awareness.

For its most-shared content of 2013, Upworthy built a dynamic graphic, which shows all the content categories for its top 100 most shared stories of 2013. When you click on each circle, a sample story related to that category is displayed on the right column. Overall, the most shared content seems to break down into a few clean categories:

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Women’s Issues

There were four stories in the top 100 on body image, including 2 People Described The Same Person to a Forensic Artist and This is What Happened with 3.9 million shares; five posts on gender equality, like Watch This Incredible Young Woman Render Jon Stewart Speechless, with 3.4 million shares; nine posts on standards of beauty like this one with 4.5 million shares; and four posts on parenting like this one with 2 million shares and change.

Health Care

Among the Upworthy top 100, there are three posts on cancer, including This Amazing Kid Died. What He Left Behind is Wondtacular with 3.9 million shares; five posts about disabilities, like I Bet These People Never Expected to Be Models, But The Results Are So Gorgeous with 2.8 million shares; four posts on mental health, like this one on depression with 1.8 million shares; even a story on health policy can rack up 1.5 million shares.

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The Environment and Globalism

Of the top 100 most-shared posts, four were dedicated to the environment, like People Should Know About This Awful Thing We Do, And Most of Us Are Simply Unaware with 1.4 million shares; two posts on geography, like We Have Been Misled by an Erroneous Map of the World for 500 Years with 715,000 shares; and two posts about space, like this one of interviews with former astronauts with over 1 million shares.

Race and Bigotry

Three of the top 100 Upworthy posts were about bigotry, including A Boy Makes Anti-Muslim Comments In Front of an American Soldier. The Soldier’s Reply: Priceless with 2.1 million shares; and five posts on race, like Know Anyone Who Thinks Racial Profiling is Exaggerated? with 2.07 million shares.

LGBT Rights and Bullying

There were three posts about gay marriage, like this one with 2.2 million shares; three posts on homophobia like Watch These Straight People Answer A Question Gay People Have Been Asked for Years with 1.7 million views; and two videos about bulling, like Bullies Called Him Pork Chop with 1.67 million views.

Politics in General

Then there were a number of stories that were political but outside the larger groupings, like Congress Did Something So Spectacularly Creepy That It’s Too Unbelievable to Make Up with 1.5 million shares; four posts on income inequality like this one with 2.5 million shares; and three on the media, like this one that explores the problems with celebrity coverage with nearly a million shares.

What does all this say about us as consumers of political content? We share content on Facebook that’s important to us and that excessively long headlines aren’t a hindrance to the content’s virality. It’s only a matter of time before some conservative organization tries to replicate an Upworthy for conservative issues with hilarious results.