Much of Upworthy’s content does feel like reality TV. A lot of it also feels like advertising. This isn’t an accident; the site’s built, tactically and deliberately, to appeal to what skeptics once called the lowest common denominator. Its choices 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 (“Think This Common Household Object Won’t Kill Your Children? You’d Be Wrong”). It’s just that Upworthy assumes the existence of a “lowest common denominator” that consists of a human craving for righteousness, or at least the satisfaction that comes from watching someone we disagree with get their rhetorical comeuppance. They’ve harnessed craven techniques in the service of unobjectionable goals—“evergreen standards like ‘Human rights are a good thing’ and ‘Children should be taken care of’ ”—on the logic that “good” things deserve ads as potent as the “bad” ones have. “I think marketing in a traditional sense, for commercialism—marketing to get you to buy McDonald’s or something—is crass,” says Sara Critchfield, the site’s editorial director. “But marketing to get people’s attention onto really important topics is a noble pursuit. So you take something that in one context is very crass and you put it in another. People will say, ‘That’s very crass,’ but in the service of doing something good for humanity, I think it’s pretty great.” This happens often when you ask questions about Upworthy: It turns out that whatever you were curious about is actually wonderful, because it’s ultimately in the service of the good of humankind. Would you need to be a black-hearted monster to feel that there must be a catch? Or that one will arrive next month, when Upworthy is slated to announce its long-awaited monetization strategy? (Over the past year, the site has run content sponsored by Skype and the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation on an experimental basis.)
At the moment, Facebook assumes that people click on exactly the material that they want to click on, and that if it serves up a lot of clickbaity curiosity-gap headlines, then it’s giving its users what they want. Whereas in reality, those headlines are annoying. Curiosity-gap headlines are a bit like German sentences: you don’t know what they mean until you get to the end, which means that the only way to find out what your friend is saying is to click on the headline and serve up another pageview to Upworthy. (Or ViralNova, or Distractify, or whomever.) It’s basically a way of hacking real-world friendships for profit, and there’s no way Facebook is going to allow it to continue indefinitely.
All of which is to say that the massive advantage which Upworthy has … is certain to go away. It’s a temporary phenomenon, a function of the fact that Upworthy is better than anybody else at turbocharging virality by using artificially-optimized curiosity-gap headlines as a way of sending a (false) message to Facebook that those headlines are the stories its users really want to read. Upworthy’s formula will work until it doesn’t.