The World's Most Controversial Viral Site Posted A Great Defence Of Itself

Upworthy, a site dedicated to viral content, has become the newest punching bag for reporters from both new and old media.

It’s rare to see those two agree, but they do about Upworthy. They pretty much think it’s a bad site because it uses outrageous headlines to get people clicking.

For instance, the top story on Upworthy right now has the headline, “These Little Girls Are Asking The Most Devastating Question I Can Imagine.” And the story below it says, “A Kid Came Up To Her In The Hall And Told Her She Saved His Life. He Wasn’t The Only One In Tears.

Today, Upworthy has written a great defence of its headlines, and its overall content.

First, it says that it has 87 million monthly visitors, which is up from 5 million at the start of the year. That’s a staggering number considering it’s less than two years old.

For some context, Gawker Media — which includes Deadspin, Gawker, Lifehacker, Gizmodo, Jezebel, etc. — had 106 million visits last month. (Gawker Media boss Nick Denton said in a recent memo that Upworthy was nipping at Gawker’s heels.)

So, how is Upworthy doing it? It has to be those crazy headlines, right?

Actually, no.

Upworthy says its posts are successful because people want to share the stories it’s posting:

Upworthy posts don’t go viral because people click — Upworthy posts go viral because people share.

“Clickbait” — overselling content with outrageous headlines in order to get people onto a website — is a totally viable (if totally annoying) way to get a bunch of initial views. But it doesn’t create viral content. By far the most important factor in getting people to share a post is the actual quality of the content in the eyes of the community. To share, they have to love what they see.

That’s not to denigrate Upworthy’s headlines, either. It says, “We write at least 25 of them for each post. We test them rigorously.”

But the main point, and this is important for any critic to grasp, is that Upworthy’s success is built on having content good enough that millions of people want to share it. The headline is a piece of that, but it’s not the only piece. You can’t slap a crazy headline on a crappy video and expect success.

This Upworthy defence comes at a time when Facebook says it’s going to start tweaking its NewsFeed algorithms to cut back on bad content. This appears to be as much of a defence of Upworthy for media critics as it is for Facebook engineers who might think about reducing the visibility of Upworthy stories.

Upworthy, for its part, says it focuses on quality:

And that’s the reason we focus on quality over quantity. We gauge quality on three things:

  1. Is the content substantive, engaging, and maybe even entertaining?
  2. If 1 million people saw it, would the world be a better place?
  3. Does the content actually deliver on the promise of the headline?

Our top curators comb through hundreds of videos and graphics a week, looking for the 5-7 that they’re confident are super-shareable. That’s not a typo: We pay people full-time to curate 5-7 things a week. What are they doing with all that time? Partly, crafting headlines. Mostly? Finding really great stuff people will want to share with everyone they know.

Read Upworthy’s full post here >

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