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June 20 2013

15:00

“If you’re not feeling it, don’t write it”: Upworthy’s social success depends on gut-checking “regular people”

Back in November, the Lab’s own Adrienne LaFrance wrote a number of words about Upworthy, a social packaging and not-quite-news site that has become remarkably successful at making “meaningful content” go viral. She delved into their obsession with testing headlines, their commitment to things that matter, their aggressive pushes across social media, and their commitment to finding stories with emotional resonance.

Things have continued to go well for Upworthy — they’re up to 10 million monthly uniques from 7.5. At the Personal Democracy Forum in New York, editorial director Sara Critchfield shared what she sees as Upworthy’s secret sauce for shareability, namely, seeking out content that generates a significant emotional response from both the reader and the writer.

upworhty monthlys

A slide from Critchfield’s PDF presentation.

Critchfield emphasized that using emotional input in editorial planning isn’t about making ad hoc decisions, it’s about making space for that data in the workflow, or “making it a bullet point.”

Here’s how she explained it:

When I spoke with Critchfield after her talk, she underscored the way in which packaging content is Upworthy’s bread and butter (most likely WonderBread and Land o’ Lakes [Sorry, Don Draper]).

“If you watch people shop in a grocery store, 95% of the time they are scanning the shelves for the packaging, making the choices on that before they turn the bottle around and look at the nutrition information. People choose their media that way too. So you can have a piece of media with the exact same nutritional value in it with different packaging and the consumer is going to choose the one that appeals to them most,” she said.

But before you can package content, you have to create it — or at least, select it from out of the vastness of the Internet. The people who do that are Critchfield’s handpicked team of curators.

“Of the things we curate at Upworthy, I think our editorial staff is what we pride ourselves the most on curating. We really focus on regular people. We reject the idea that the media elite or people who have been trained in a certain way somehow have the monopoly on editorial judgement, what matters or should matter. So we focus almost exclusively on hiring non-professionally trained writers,” she says. “To be honest, it’s sometimes difficult for folks who have professional background to come into Upworthy and have success.”

In other words, Critchfield builds the element of genuine emotional response into her team by hiring people who were never trained to worry about what’s news, and what isn’t.

“I tell my writers, ‘If you’re not feeling it, don’t write it.’,” says Critchfield. “We don’t really force people, we don’t let an editorial calendar dictate what we do. There will be big current events, and if someone on staff feels really passionate about it, then we cover it. And if there aren’t, then we don’t.”

The vast majority of Upworthy’s traffic comes from social media sites, where Critchfield says conversation is more valuable to the reader anyway. Some of their biggest hits have been about the economy, bullying and, recently, as displayed in her talk, funding cancer research after a young musician died of pancreatic cancer.

Critchfield says she encourages her curators to have huge vision for their posts. If they don’t expect it to get millions of views, then it’s not worth posting. Adam Mordecai is a great example of that kind of intuition, she says. He’s the guy who posted “This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind is Wondtacular,” the video about cancer that ended up raising tens of thousands of dollars. (The original YouTube video got 433,000 Facebook shares; Upworthy’s got 2.5 million.)

Trained journalists are often rubbed the wrong way by the idea of writing headlines like that, or being asked to spend so much time on them. (Critchfield says instead of spending 58 minutes writing a story and 2 minutes on a headline, most journalists would be better served by spending 30 or 40 minutes on their piece and 20 to 30 on their headline. “People look at me and say that’s crazy, I don’t have time, I would never do that,” she says, “and they walk away all sad. That’s happened to me over and over again.”)

“I have a broadcast journalist who just came in and said, ‘Sara, I just can’t get over it. Every time I write ‘wanna’ in a headline, I feel like I’m going to hell,’” she says. “You have to match appropriately to the context. You’re competing — people on Facebook are at a party. They’re around friends, they’re trying to define themselves, they’re trying to look at baby pictures. You have to join the party, but be the cooler kid at that party. You’re not going to do it by speaking formally to people who are there to have fun.”

Fighting that training can be hard, which is why Critchfield has so carefully assembled team of “normal people.” “In the curation of the staff, I look for heart. What moves this person? There are people on staff — I have an improv comedian, I have a professional poker player, I have someone who works for the Harlem Children’s Zone, I have a person who used to be a software developer,” says Critchfield. “What they’re trained in isn’t as important as the compilation of a group of people with various hearts and passions.”

Or at least mostly normal people. Femi Oke was a radio producer when she decided to apply for a job at Upworthy. Oke says she was looking for a side gig that would give her experience with social media when she saw an ad for the job. “In typical Upworthy fashion,” she says, “it wasn’t a normal ad. It was a crazy ad — it was really intriguing.”

Oke describes going through an intensive training process at a retreat in Colorado where the curators learned to “speak Upworthy.” At first, she was surprised that the majority of the staff weren’t journalists, but soon the strategy of broadening the audience through diverse hires started to make more sense. But as the site’s popularity grew, Oke says it became increasingly important for curators to embrace traditional media tasks, like fact-checking. “As people started to see them as news, they started doing things news organizations would do,” says Oke. “They have such a fantastic reputation, they don’t want to ruin it.”

Since starting at Upworthy, Oke’s been hired to host The Stream, Al-Jazeera’s social media-centric daily online TV show, a concept born out of the Arab Spring. “At the end of each show, we have a teaser for what we’re doing on the next show. It would be a really heavy, intense, stodgy but accurate breakdown of what the next day’s subject is. I walked in and said, if we can’t make it a one-liner where I’m going to watch the show tomorrow, we shouldn’t be writing that,” Oke remembers. “My producers said, ‘Oh my god, she’s crazy.’”

So for a show on the 50th anniversary of the African Union, she might say “Happy 50th birthday, African Union! Are you looking good — or do you need a makeover?”

“That’s me anyway, but Upworthy made me even more certain that that was the style of broadcast that works for all media. It’s about being inclusive, accepting, and inviting people in.”

The one thing Critchfield says brings all the curators together is their competitive spirit and obsession with metrics. All Upworthy curators have direct access to the analytics for their work, and she says they are obsessed with testing different tricks. (How many more people will click this story if there’s a curse word in the headline?) But Critchfield says no post gets published without gut-checking its author to see how committed they are to the larger cause it’s meant to represent.

“We’ve really clarified internally that we can’t separate data analytics from human editorial judgment. Working to combine those two together is sometimes difficult,” she says. “What makes a thing viral can have just as much to do with how the person writing the piece up or working with the piece feels about it as it does with big data or listening tools.”

Photo by Esty Stein / Personal Democracy Media used under a Creative Commons license.

May 19 2010

15:30

Andrew Keen on why “the Internet is ideology”

Is the Internet technology or ideology? Is our media culture today really more meritocratic than it’s been in the past? And when we talk about the web fostering democracy, what kind of democracy, actually, are we talking about?

Worthy questions, I’d say. They’re ones that arose last night during a debate at the National Press Club — a debate sponsored by UVA’s Miller Center for Public Affairs, and centered on another question: Is democracy threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet?

Taking the “no” position in the debate were the Personal Democracy Forum’s Micah Sifry and Wikipedia founder Jimmy Wales. Taking the “yes” were Farhad Manjoo, the Slate technology columnist (and author of the homophily-focused True Enough: Learning to Live in a Post-Fact Society), and Andrew Keen, author of The Cult of the Amateur.

Unsurprisingly, given the topic, much of the discussion tread ground whose trail is, at this point, well defined. (As Sifry noted, “When I was asked to participate in this, I was astounded that there would be anybody who would defend the notion that democracy is threatened by the unchecked nature of information on the Internet.”) Also unsurprisingly, while the participants’ contributions were uniformly smart, the most provocative comments came courtesy of Keen — gadfly, polemicist, “antichrist of Silicon Valley,” and, in this case, the debater who questioned the premise of the debate in the first place. (“I think the resolution is a little dodgy,” the Brit put it, British-ly.)

In that, Keen transformed what could have been an eloquent-but-musty debate — echo chambers, but, then again, diversity! homophily, but, then again, intensity! — into a lively exchange. And whether you agree with his perspective or (vehemently) oppose it, the ideas Keen discussed last night are worth consideration, as a countervailing presence if nothing else, as we navigate between the mass democratization of the web and the insistent particularities of American democracy. With that in mind, here’s a sampling of his commentary.

On the notion that the web can harm democracy:

It depends, of course, what you mean by democracy. Jimmy [Wales]’s definition of democracy was an anti-federalist position, a sort of an idealized, direct-democracy rhetoric which suggests (and I’m quoting him now) that “It’s all about the people deciding.” But of course at the foundation this country is a representative democracy, not a direct democracy, in which the federalists won over the anti-federalists.

The premise of democracy is not about the people deciding; it’s about finding educated, high-quality political figures who will make wise decisions about the community. So I think Jimmy is falling into the old trap of appropriating democracy for his own ends.

On the notion that the Internet is, fundamentally, technology:

One of the mistakes we make about the Internet is that it’s technology. It isn’t; it’s ideology. The Internet was built by people who questioned authority. The Internet is bound up in a fundamental assault on the notion of expertise, on what Jimmy calls “the mainstream media,” which includes shows like this, The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal. And the idea that representative democracy, experts — whether in media, in politics, in the arts, in legal affairs, in intellectual affairs — are unreliable and need to be replaced by what Jimmy calls “the people” is deeply dangerous.

What I most fear about the Internet — which…we all use; I’m as addicted as everybody else — is the way we take this technology, which has no center, is flattened, has done away with authority and expertise — we take this technology to prove the ideological, idealized theories of Jimmy Wales. The truth is, we need expertise, we need authority, we need to remind ourselves of the foundations of representative democracy.

On the web’s facilitation of a mass meritocracy:

I think it’s one of the fundamental illusions — or delusions — about this critique of mainstream media: that somehow, before the Internet, it was just the rich, the privileged, who controlled the media — that it was a racket. And then the Internet came along, and suddenly the people had a voice. And that’s simply nonsense. I mean, we’re all — the four of us are all — part of an Internet elite, which is no more or less of an elite than in traditional media. But I am very troubled with this idea of the Internet replacing a flawed meritocracy. It’s simply wrong.

On the Internet’s need of a new social contract:

Many people see the Internet as a right and not a responsibility. Jeff Jarvis, who I think we’re all friendly with, said the Internet is the next society. And he may be right. In the 18th century, when we were figuring out modern industrial society, we came up with social contract theory about rights and responsibilities. I think the same is true of the Internet. It’s a reality, for better or for worse. It is perhaps the central fact of social and political life in the 21st century. And it needs to be understood not only in terms of rights — of taking, of stealing, of getting it for free, and all the other problems associated with the Internet — but also one of responsibility.

On the distinction between democracy and an informed citizenry:

The core question, in my mind, about democracy is whether the Internet culture, this highly democratized media where everyone becomes and author, where we do away with the old structures of power, where we undermine the 20th century meritocracy and we replace it with this 21st century — what I would call, perhaps mob rule, and what you could call democracy — whether that would actually lend itself to the production of a better-informed citizen.

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