Upworthy Co-Founder Eli Pariser Explains What Upworthy's Doing And Why It Annoys Me So Much

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Last week, Upworthy, the website built for viral progressive political content, secured $8 million in funding. I wrote a piece about how annoying I find it. I compared it to San Francisco, which is the deepest epithet in my epithet bullpen.

I also complained that while Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser wrote a book about the danger of people online segregating into bubbles of like-minded viewpoints,  Upworthy itself seems to be one. Pariser got in touch to explain how he sees the role of the site. Our Gchat is below: 

ELI: Hi PJ. You there?

PJ: Hey! Yes. Thanks for doing this. I was thinking we could just sort of do a gchat about this, and I'll put it up on the blog. The only thing I'd edit is the myriad typos I'll probably have, and I can do the same for you if you don't mind.

ELI: OK, sounds great.

PJ: Cool, ok. So, what I was hoping to do was run my two complaints about Upworthy by you and see what you think.

ELI: Great.

PJ: The first one is the idea that Upworthy, to me, feels like a Filter Bubble. I get that it's not invisible, the way a Google search that shows you personalized results without telling you is. But it feels like a place where, if I'm a certain kind of progressive, I'm going to sign on and see ideas that I'm very likely to agree with.

Am I wrong? Or missing the point?

ELI: Totally fair question. So, to back up a bit: The critique I was trying to make in the book (and TED talk) had a couple of pieces. Part of it was about partisan echo chambers. But the other big piece was about information junk food, and the concern that in a personalized, filtered world, the whole public sphere might slide out of view for a lot of folks.

I think they're both problems, but I've always been a bit more concerned about the second problem than the first one. That is: I think it's better to hear more views about X important public topic than just the one I believe. But I think it's better to hear anything about it than nothing, and I think there's a real possibility that for a lot of folks, that's the first challenge to conquer.

Upworthy was really designed to try to tackle that piece -- to draw attention to topics that really matter on a mass level, and help it win out against the empty information calories.

And of course, we do have a point of view -- we felt like being honest about that was important to be able to connect with a large audience. But I'd like to think that there are a lot of important civic issues that don't fit neatly on a left-right spectrum. Our biggest pieces of content are about bullying and the way the media treats women, which lots of folks all across the political spectrum are concerned about.

PJ: Right. And that mission statement makes sense to me.

I guess I will say that the Upworthy story that made me start thinking about this was a story linking to a video where an actor posing as an Islamaphobe hung out at convenience store and yelled hateful stuff. Eventually, heroic strangers confronted him. It was sort of Candid Camera: Social Justice edition.

A lot of people on my various social networks shared it. In fact, they loved it. And it's not like I disagree with the message of a video like that. But to me, that sort of content feels sort of silly and manipulative. Of course most of us are against Islamaphobia. What's the point of sharing a video reminding us that we're on that page? As content, it seems kind of empty. And even from an activism perspective, I don't quite get what it does.

I feel like when I read Upworthy, a good chunk of the headlines are telling me that a piece of content, often a video, is going to enrage me, or break my heart. Maybe it's the journalist in me, but there's something rankling about that. I might also just be a curmudgeon.

ELI: Yeah. No question that that video isn't great journalism, in the classical sense of the word. We've been careful to say we're not doing journalism. (We love journalism, though! Many of our best friends are journalists!)

Part of the reason we started the site, though, was that we've seen a *LOT* of amazing journalistic coups over the years that never actually go anywhere. Great news institutions put huge amounts of money, time, and resources into getting the scoops and crafting the prose. And then they hit publish and the piece just, like... sat there. Or it got 10,000 hits.

So our starting point, which definitely rubs a lot of folks from more traditional editorial culture the wrong way, is -- if a lot of people aren't paying attention, it really doesn't matter if you crafted the perfect story.

We also err on the side of emotional story-telling rather than rattling off facts and figures, because we think that's what usually sticks with people. (Great journalism, I think, does that too, but standard journalism often doesn't.)

In the best moments, we're able to bring all of those things together. The top thing this month may well be this piece we published yesterday: http://www.upworthy.com/his-first-4-sentences-are-interesting-the-5th-blew-my-mind-and-made-me-a-little-sick-2?c=fea

It's 5 minutes of dense healthcare statistics, but it's emotionally compelling and interesting and a couple of million people will probably see it when all's said and done. I'm proud of that.

PJ: Yeah. As a sidenote, John Green is a brilliant superhuman who was probably made in a lab somewhere.

I guess my worry is that, beyond the John Green exception, it's really hard to make anything complicated go viral. So you end up with more emotional appeals and less like, Pro Publica pieces. Which maybe is fine! Like you said, it's not Upworthy's job to spotlight long thinkpieces.

I guess the other thing I'm curious about, and this is a genuine question, not a critique disguised as a question, is how much this translates into action.

You guys are doing a series with the AFL-CIO right now. Is there some conversion rate where, 1 million views equals X amount of people who sign up for a mailing list? Or Y amount of people who attend a rally?

ELI: Well, that's a little above our pay grade. (Is that how you use that phrase? I'm never sure.) Upworthy's goal is to draw massive amounts of attention to worthy topics -- like, in this case, the American middle class. We're not an advocacy group, so we're not trying to translate that into legislative reforms or whatever.

To go back to the conversation about journalism: We're trying to accomplish some Dewey-esque journalistic goals -- helping people pay attention to and understand the big things that are going on in our society -- through non-journalistic means. And the hope is that if that bar is met, that people will get together and do the right thing. But we focus on the first part of that equation.

One other thing I'll add here: I'm not convinced that "news" as it's traditionally construed actually does a tremendously good job of this. It's super-focused on stuff that's new, over stuff that's important

So you get daily coverage of various court cases, but very little coverage of, say, climate change or poverty or global health, which are clearly more important in the scheme of things. Hopefully if we're really successful we can help shift that balance a little bit.

PJ: Yeah. I very much agree as far as a lot of news reporting. 

It's weird. Talking to you, I feel completely convinced that what Upworthy is doing makes a lot of sense, and that I am very silly to be agitated by it. And then, I'll quietly tab over to the site itself, hit refresh, and be like, no! It's the tone! The tone still bothers you, Vogt! Do not be seduced by Eli Pariser's soothsaying.

I know that's not a question. I guess the last thing I'm curious about -- you said up top that the thinking behind these emotional appeals is that it's the way to get people to focus on and share a story. Uh, is there some other way? Or is this just what works and I need to grow up and get used to the internet / human nature / social network psychology?

ELI: Haha. I know it doesn't suit everyone. But I'd just so much rather be on the side of trying to make important stuff seem more fun and interesting -- and maybe be a little over the top tone-wise -- than the kind of Officially Boring headline-writing that mostly convinces people to skip over it entirely. Just think how many fewer people would watch that awesome John Green video if it was titled, like, U.S. Healthcare Costs In Context: A Report.

I do think this is one of the blessings and curses of social media. To fit in, you have to sound like a person, not an institution. And people can be so much more annoying than institutions. And also so much more interesting. I think that's the trade-off.

PJ: If this were a radio interview, this is where I would say, "Thanks, that's a really great last thought." Really, thank you for doing this.

ELI: Sounds great. Thanks for engaging here. I'm a big OTM fan.