There is conventional wisdom about what kind of material will go viral on the Internet: celebrity slide shows, lists like 10 tips for losing belly fat, and quirky kitten antics.
Then there is the path of Upworthy.com, whose goal is to make more serious content as fun to share as a “video of some idiot surfing off his roof.”
Surfing idiots are tough to beat, of course, but Upworthy has shown that by selecting emotional material and then promoting it with catchy, pretested headlines, it can fulfill its mission: to direct Internet audiences to what it deems socially worthwhile subjects. Already the site has drawn millions of people to share videos about sober topics like income inequality and human trafficking. A video featuring Patrick Stewart discussing domestic violence was viewed more than 6 million times after it was posted in May.
Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, Upworthy’s 32-year-old founders, say the effects have gone beyond simply tugging at viewers’ consciences to inciting viewers to action. The two point, for example, to a 20-minute biography of a young musician dying of a rare bone cancer that persuaded Upworthy viewers to donate about $100,000. A video by the founder of GoldieBlox, a company aspiring to make toys that will encourage young girls to be interested in engineering, was also a hit; Upworthy viewers bought enough toys to ensure a first production run.
Allison Fine, co-author of “The Networked Nonprofit,” which advocates for harnessing social media to enact progressive change, said most charities had not yet mastered how to use video to their advantage and need all the help they can get. Whether Upworthy will be that aid, she said, is unclear.
“If this is going to be a series of one-offs, then skepticism is warranted,” she said, “but if this is going to be strategically planned as part of a larger effort of grass-roots fundraising and organizing, then that will be their long tail of success.”
Only 18 months old, the site has experienced explosive growth; it is 40th on Quantcast’s rankings of most popular U.S. Internet sites, above both Fox News and the Yellow Pages, and it attracted more than 38 million unique visitors in September, according to its own Google analytics report.
One goal remains elusive, however: profitability. As the company lives on $12 million in venture capital – from, among others, Chris Hughes, an early founder of Facebook – the company’s leaders are testing strategies to make money. Their primary revenue stream to date – charging nonprofits for each potential donor sent their way – has been fruitful. But they now see even richer opportunities in having foundations or corporations pay a fee to be recognized as a sponsor of content related to a specific topic, like global health. They are also testing a model they call “ads we like,” where they recommend video created by advertisers.
The concept for Upworthy began when Koechley and Pariser were running MoveOn.org, a nonprofit group that uses digital media to aid liberal causes and politicians. Late in the 2008 presidential campaign, Pariser created a video of a post-election newscast contending that Barack Obama had lost by one vote because you, the viewer, failed to show up. Filled with humorous touches, it was viewed by 23 million people.
Still, the two were generally not happy with the direction of the Internet. When they started at MoveOn, both believed the Web would usher in an era of informed citizen democracy; instead, it came to seem more like a distracting circus.
They began thinking about a site focused on what they considered noble causes, but it took until 2011, when Hughes gave them $500,000 in seed capital, for both to start working on it full time.
In a recent interview at a Park Slope coffee shop, where Koechley says he works most days, the two said that they had spent the first months of their startup just overcoming skepticism about their mission.
“Everyone told us it would be niche at best,” Pariser said.
Born within two weeks of each other, Pariser and Koechley both temper their earnestness with a deflecting shield of sardonic humor (Jon Stewart of “The Daily Show” is their role model) that they believe will resonate with their peers.
“Our generation wants to know what is going on, but we want it to be fun,” said Koechley, dressed, like Pariser, in jeans and a buttoned-down oxford shirt.
Upworthy produces none of its own content. Instead, it employs roughly 20 “curators” who find obscure video and graphics (but not text) in topic areas – like sexuality, civil rights or economics – that they feel are meaningful but are being passed over. The site repackages the freely available content with snappy headlines and content teases. The owners acknowledge that “meaningful” is subjective, and their tilt is progressive. Still, curators are given few boundaries, and they are told that if they find something that moves them to laugh or cry or get angry, it will probably move others.
“We think people get virality all wrong,” Koechley said. “The reason people share things are not just because they are shiny and cute and crazy and fun, but because it is about something they are deeply passionate about. It can be about putting your best aspirational self forward.”
Adam Mordecai, a 37-year-old former actor, has been with Upworthy since the beginning and now helps train new employees. He says there are a few tricks to the trade.
First, despite the fact that Upworthy skews liberal, he says that partisanship hurts shareability.
“Don’t take a strong stance in a headline that will make people uncomfortable when they pass it – you don’t want people afraid to tell their conservative uncle,” he said.
Upworthy’s other tactic is to test at least five headlines for its videos on a small audience before going live for their full audience. They say that small word changes – using “eagle scout” instead of “boy scout,” for instance – can make huge difference in clickability.
But Upworthy’s curators are not experts, and they have occasionally paid a price for stirring emotional reactions. In late August, the site posted a video that put McDonald’s Chicken McNuggets under a microscope. Then, with scary music, it purported to find hairs and other material, none of which looked like chicken. An outcry from watchers ensued, many of whom pointed out a complete lack of scientific basis for the segment and accused the site of fear-mongering. Upworthy agreed, withdrew the video and had several of its employees apologized on its Facebook page.
Such missteps highlight the challenges Upworthy could face in attracting corporate advertisers, but the two owners say that because they want to protect their sensibility and values, not every corporation will be for them anyway.
“We won’t take an ad from Exxon claiming to be good for the environment,” said Koechley, “but Skype claiming they help people communicate – that seems about right.”