See how annoying the Upworthy click-baiting title structure can be? But we’ll get to that in a moment. First, a tangent:
The vast, volcanic ash-plains of the Internet are a lot like the Galapagos Islands. Freed of all our petty mainland notions of quality control, strange and terrible mutants are free to evolve, seemingly in defiance of all natural laws. Sometimes, you’ll come across something and just have no idea what you’re looking at, and have absolutely idea why any caring god would allow such a travesty to evolve in the first place. Media on the Internet evolves the same way, a fact which is best demonstrated by a look at the “news” website and viral content distributor Upworthy.
Since its launch in March 2012 with the mission of spreading progressively-themed content across social networks, Upworthy has become a huge success, with millions of hits a day and more capital funding per year than most of us will see in our lives. And that terrifies me. The trends we see developing in sites like Upworthy and to a lesser extent Buzzfeed will cripple the foundation of journalism if left unchecked.
A lot of the problems in Upworthy are also present to a lesser extent in the venerable Buzzfeed. Now, Buzzfeed is one of my favorite sites to visit. But I don’t go there for serious news, I go there to waste time looking at pictures of cats. Buzzfeed, like Upworthy, is meant to spread memes. That’s why it uses a gratingly informal headline convention that seems more at home on a chain e-mail than a news article. It’s designed to be click-bait, something that pulls your attention in and gets you lost in peeping at more and more articles. Upworthy does the same thing, only it’s even more annoying because unlike the simple, ADHD-like quality of Buzzfeed, Upworthy’s not just pushing cat pictures, but a worldview.
My biggest problem with Upworthy isn’t the way its headlines blatantly and cynically play to your emotions. That certainly doesn’t help, but it goes beyond that. The biggest problem I have with Upworthy is its dishonesty: it claims to be hard-hitting, truth-to-power viral journalism when it…just isn’t. The foundation of any good journalism is objectivity. The purpose of a news reporter is to report facts and let the readers draw their own conclusions. Opinions are for the editorials. Upworthy throws all that out the window for the sake of preaching to the choir, who in this case are the absolute lowest of the low-information voter demographic. It’s like Christian Rock for people who still watch The Newsroom: people will flock to anything that tells them what they already want to hear if they package it in an entertaining way. And I find that both personally annoying, but deeply offensive to real journalists. If Upworthy openly admitted that they were spreading a bunch of “info-tainment” targeted to a specific demographic, I’d have far less of a problem with them, and really all I’d point out is that their titling conventions are annoying. But that might leave some of their audience with some cognitive dissonance, and that could lead to THINKING! Can’t have that!
Upworthy is not interested in deep thinking. It’s interested in mobilizing lazy and shallow people with vaguely progressive heart-tingles into spreading viral memes.
That’s not to say that Upworthy doesn’t have its uses, of course. If you’re on Upworthy to look for a nice progressive news story to make you feel good about how “sensitive” and “socially aware” you are, then you’ll get what you’re looking for. If you’re looking for an accurate picture of the world around you, then you should probably go somewhere else. Upworthy’s just not in that line of work.