Ah, Upworthy: an online beacon of earnestness and hope, a place where gentle souls find refuge against the casual horrors and bleak humor of the larger Web, a destination for anyone—no, please, come in, all are welcome—who wants to absorb bit of human warmth from a story or video about a kid who triumphs over bullies with the power of empathy, or a couple that re-bonds over a shared love of woodworking.
Over the past year, Upworthy managed to ride that Rainbow Tidal Wave of Empathy to mega-pageviews, racking up almost 90 million unique visitors in November alone. That’s the point: the Website is a business, an engine designed to squeeze as much coin as possible from human beings looking for a bit of emotional succor in a cold, uncaring world. Although it positions itself as the antidote to cynicism, Upworthy is perhaps the most cynical place on the Web.
This is Upworthy’s formula for pageview success: scour the Web for content that’s compelling enough for readers to share it on their social networks. Repackage that content with leading headlines designed to spark maximum curiosity (“You Think His Big Brother Will Fight the Attacker. Then There’s a Shockingly Beautiful Twist”) and lots of prominent sharing icons, for epic clicks and follows. Sprinkle the text with outbound hyperlinks for optimized SEO. Cross those fingers, and hope that the package goes “viral” as bored Web surfers share it with their networks.
A key demographic in that quest for viral domination: middle-aged women. “Let’s talk about your Mom, dude,” reads Upworthy’s own publicly available Slideshare. “Fact: no one likes to disappoint their mom. Double fact: Middle aged women are the biggest sharers on the interwebs. Ergo: If you frame your content to not make your mom shake her head, you have a better chance of winning.”
Forget the worthiness of the actual text, in other words: In Upworthy’s philosophy, a compelling headline—clever but not too clever, its every predicate engineered for Hypothetical Mom Approval—is the key differentiator between an article racking up 10,000 views and 10,000,000 views. But how to best reach that readership stratosphere? According to Upworthy’s executives (again, from the Slideshare), Reddit is too hard to social engineer (“if you crack it you are a god”), Twitter isn’t capable of delivering sufficient volume, and Tumblr is only good for lots of pageviews over a lengthy period of time (“slow cook it to perfection”).
Instead, Upworthy leans heavily on Facebook to deliver its millions of pageviews a month, and that dependence is its Achilles Heel: if the social network’s anticipated changes to its newsfeed algorithm results in less surfacing of Upworthy-style content, it could have a severe impact on the Website’s traffic.
“If and when Facebook begins to ratchet back on this new wave of viral content it can do so in ways that separate the really manipulative posts from the ones people actually enjoy,” The Washington Post’s Ezra Klein wrote in a column earlier this month. “But as a genre, this stuff is flooding into Facebook so fast, and it’s so much more effective at getting shared than anything that came before it, that it seems almost certain that there’ll eventually be a correction in the algorithm to keep it from taking over news feeds entirely.”
Facebook wouldn’t be the only Web gatekeeper with a proud tradition of nuking content farms from orbit: Google launched its Panda algorithm “readjustment” in 2011 with the express purpose of eliminating the presence of so-called “thin sites” from search results. Subsequent tweaks have further emphasized quality content over spam. Every time Google and Facebook update their math, however, “SEO experts” and other online manipulators will do their level best to game the new-and-improved algorithms to better benefit their clients.
So where would a big Facebook readjustment leave Upworthy? If they were truly dedicated to spreading peace and love throughout the online world, Upworthy’s creators probably wouldn’t care all that much about distribution channels, or how many millions of views they racked up every month. But no business model is built with peace and love as an end-goal, because that’s not what buys hilltop mansions with awesome pools: from its inception, Upworthy’s only concern has been maximum readership for maximum profit, via a fine-tuned campaign of social engineering.
Whether it’s acquired or eradicated, the Website has shown a way for other publishing entrepreneurs to get big and get rich fast—by leveraging all those millions of people who head online for a scrap of heartwarming connection. A readjustment might harm its monthly metrics, but it won’t kill the model.