Upworthy co-founder Peter Koechley apologizes for the clickbait ‘monster’ his site unleashed on the internet

Peter koechley
Upworthy co-founder speaking at The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit in London. Business Insider/Lara O’Reilly

Upworthy’s co-founder Peter Koechley has an apology to make.

Speaking at The Guardian’s Changing Media Summit in London on Thursday, Koechley apologised for what made the site one of the fastest growing of all time: It’s bombastic, sensationalized, clickbait headlines like “This Amazing Kid Just Died, What He Left Behind Was Wondtacular” and “His First 4 Sentences Are Interesting. The 5th Blew My Mind. And Made Me A Little Sick.” They’re also the types of headlines that saw it punished by a change in Facebook’s algorithm last year, which sought to clean-up the news feed to surface more “high quality” stories, resulting in huge drops of traffic for Upworthy and similar sites.

Koechley said: “We sort of unleashed a monster. Sorry for that. Sorry we kind of broke the internet last year. I’m excited going forward to say goodbye to clickbait.”

Using a native advertising model, Upworthy has grown revenue to more than $US10 million, and now that the company has shifted from a fast-growing startup to a “vibrant business,” Koechley said the site’s content is pivoting.

He explained that Upworthy’s mission has always been to create and (mostly) curate “empathetic” content, the type of articles that make people come away feeling some sort of emotion like surprise, disgust, or simply to be tickled.

Upworthy still wants to do that — cat photos and viral stories like the blue/black white/gold dress won’t be going away — but the focus of its empathetic mission will be on more noble, societal issues. Those can come from its internal content team, other publishers on the web, non-profits, and even brands through native advertising (although Upworthy apparently “says no really often” to corporations that do not have genuine good intentions.)

Koechley said: “[We want to] build empathy at a truly massive scale, get millions, tens of millions, and hundreds of millions of people to understand and care about people they have never seen or will never meet. We will do it by sharing powerful stories that put you in someone else’s shoes to help you see the world in other people’s eyes.”

An example of this new approach that Koechley shared as a video from The Alzheimer’s Association, showing what it is like to suffer from the disease. Upworthy posted the video on its site under the headline: “I Was Totally Lost For 70 Seconds. And Then: ‘Holy Sh*t.'”

Koechley said with the editorial change, Upworthy has also been looking at different ways to measure the success of its content.

“We do track things based on emotion, sometimes just to see whether how a depressing story does in comparison to a though-provoking or inspiring one. We found the same things that other media owners find when they look it it. Active emotions get people reading forward, it doesn’t always have to be happy — anger, shock and outrage does as well as happiness and inspiration. It’s the confused, depressed, and deflated that tends to perform worse,” Koechley added.

Upworthy’s mission to improve readers’ empathy with other people around the world is an admirable one, but for a start-up known for clickbait, it does risk appearing a little po-faced — and could even turn readers off.

When asked whether readers might just become numb to all the well-intentioned, empathetic content it plans to produce, Koechley responded: “Like everyone in the industry you need to constantly be feeling like you’re new and fresh, bringing people into stories for different reasons and making it worth their while. We optimise for the feeling that you leave people with. If you bring people into a story and really make it worthy their while and leave them in a good place, they have an impulse to come back.”

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