You Don’t Have to Be Cynical to Worry About Upworthy


It was only a matter of time until someone wrote an in-depth profile of Upworthy and its founders, and happily, the task fell to Nitsuh Abebe, whose excellent article on the Internet’s feel-good sensation appears in this week’s New York magazine. Throughout the piece, you get the sense that Abebe is struggling with the same reaction that plenty of people have to Upworthy — there’s something mildly off-putting about it, but it’s hard to put your finger on exactly what. And it’s hard to hate, or even dislike, Upworthy without feeling bad about doing so.

So why does Upworthy rub people the wrong way? As Abebe writes, “The things they collect can get fluffy, smarmy, or manipulative, but… [they lead] millions of Americans to spend a few extra moments pondering meaningful societal issues. I mean, are you against millions of Americans pondering meaningful societal issues?” And the answer to this is, of course, no. As with anything about Upworthy, it feels almost, well, unworthy to quibble — as Abebe acknowledges, “It’s the sort of thing that’s hard to hate without feeling like a churl, villain, or snob.” But I don’t think we have to hate Upworthy to question whether its method of getting Americans to ponder such issues is not without its problems.

Foremost among these is that there really isn’t a whole lot of pondering going on. Upworthy does all the pondering for you. It tells you what you’re supposed to feel; one of the key elements of the much-imitated/parodied Upworthy headline style is that you’re left in no doubt as to how you’re meant to react to what you watch when you click through. This means that audiences are engaging with “issues” on only the most superficial of levels — and that means that the way in which you engage with them is open to manipulation.

Of course, Upworthy founders Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley have an answer for such complaints: “Upworthy’s tone, they say, is what gets the job done.” This is either startling cynicism or brute pragmatism, depending on your point of view, but either way, it’s successful — click through to Upworthy’s website proper and you find an endless stream of leading headlines and heartwarming narratives, a sort of Starbucks-and-yoga world of political activism where the “things that matter” get passed on so everyone can be Very Concerned Indeed about them over coffee. But what of all the nasty things in the world that can’t be condensed into cliffhanger headlines or heartwarming narratives, the challenges that are confusing and contradictory, the problems to which there aren’t startlingly simple solutions involving recycling and being mindful and nice to one another?

The problem with Upworthyism, if I can coin the term, is that it tends to skip over such things, focusing on issues that can be condensed into a snappy, emotive narrative at the expense of those that can’t. Do we really need a heartwarming story about a girl whose father is, um, a “poop guy” (Upworthy’s phrase) to care that some 68.7 percent of people in India live on under US$2 a day? Do we need a “beautiful video” to remind us that, shit, we all need water to live? Do we really need an Upworthy original playlist™ to prove that we shouldn’t feel “rough-gross-want-to-curl-up-and-hide-ugly”?

The credo of Upworthy is that the answer to this is “yes.” Pariser and Koechley explain to Abebe that their website is based on the idea that “emotional narratives are the most effective way for human beings to process information.” This is a nicer way of saying “people need a story or they don’t give a fuck.” Perhaps that’s true. Perhaps, though, it’s self-fulfilling. Upworthy’s entire raison d’être is a sort of conviction that people aren’t fundamentally bad, so why assume they’re fundamentally stupid or uncaring?

There’s still something disquieting about the fact that Upworthy’s method is predicated on an appeal to the lowest common denominator, their assumption that the only way Americans can be reached is through simplistic, emotive manipulation, the idea that people need Serious Issues to be packaged in human interest stories with clear morals (Racism bad! Being nice to poor people good!) or they’ll decide it’s all too hard. As Abebe points out, the site’s techniques are “the ones you’d normally associate with a race to the bottom — the manipulative techniques of ads, tabloids, direct-mail fund-raising, local TV news… They’ve harnessed craven techniques in the service of unobjectionable goals … on the logic that ‘good’ things deserve ads as potent as the ‘bad’ ones have.”

Is this the best we can do? Is the future of activism and, y’know, actually caring about shit limited to clicktivism and the sharing of stories about poop men? There’s definitely room to rethink how to engage people in politics and the importance of things beyond their front door — Pariser has a point when he recalls, “I worked on a literary magazine in college, [which] was read literally only by the people who did the college literary magazine. Ever since then, that’s what I’ve wanted to avoid. And I think there’s a lot of that happening in the media world.”

And sure, the way the media tends to discuss Serious Issues can be off-putting. But the world is a complicated place, and it’s the only one we get to live in. The idea that we need to treat the public like small children — regardless of whether this is being done for good or bad — is ultimately destructive. Our politicians have spent generations racing to the bottom as far as electoral cynicism goes, and the result is ever-increasing disengagement and disenchantment, with US voter turnout declining steadily over the course of the 20th century.

This is not a time to behave like small children. We already do enough hiding our head in the sand — from the fact that this planet is vastly overpopulated, from the fact that the vast gap between rich and poor is increasing on both a national and global scale, from the fact that our reliance on fossil fuels remains undiminished, from the fact that the planet’s heating up and that the time to prevent irreparable damage may well have already passed.

The worst political movements in history — and, of course, pretty much every religion — have worked by manipulating emotions rather than appealing to reason. It’s the single most objectionable hallmark of any sort of demagoguery. I’m not comparing Upworthy to any such movement — Abebe’s profile makes it hard to argue that their intentions are anything but genuine — but seriously, humanity as a whole needs less of this shit, not more.

But, y’know, that’s just me. Share on Facebook if you agree!