In Defense of Upworthy


Every good debate requires empathy and a valid argument from both sides. You might not think that one of the guys behind Headlines Against Humanity would be someone arguing FOR Upworthy, but anyone who pokes fun must also be willing to poke holes in their own position.

With that said, let’s look at why the Upworthy critics are being unfair:

  1. Upworthy has proven copywriting can be a huge business driver. While most content companies prioritize UX, distribution partnerships, and fresh content, Upworthy clearly places copywriting at the top. By optimizing headlines through formulas and human testing, they’ve mastered the art of the “curiosity gap.” Whether or not the copy is “good” is a separate debate. There’s no question that it’s effective. David Ogilvy would be proud…
  2. They celebrate the old web. Unlike in the 1950s, news does not get read and then thrown away. It sits on the internet forever. While most news sites ignore old content and try to produce something fresh each day (or repackage an old story to look new) Upworthy dives into the vast stockpile of content that exists and unearths gems that are interesting to many people.
  3. They are a social impact business. Unlike their clones (Distractify, Viralnova, etc) OR most other news organizations, Upworthy does not earn revenue from advertising. Their income comes from generating leads for non-profit organizations. In other words, you watch a video about Cause X, and likely a non-profit that supports that cause is recruiting new potential donors via Upworthy. This isn’t blatantly stated anywhere, but it’s what is happening. They’re a for-profit business with non-profit customers. This fact alone should probably diminish some of the negative attention that the established news community is giving them. Unless generating ad revenue is somehow a more righteous business model.
  4. They were first (to go big). As mentioned above, a lot of clones have shown up and taken the viral publishing tactics made popular by Upworthy, and used them for far more “evil” purposes. To some degree, Upworthy is taking the blame for creating a super effective weapon. They arguably used it for good, but others aren’t. It’s really not fair to lump them all together because as mentioned in point 3, they have different business goals.
  5. Guns don’t kill people. When I see a post from a friend in my Facebook feed from Viralnova, etc., I don’t get mad at the publisher, I get mad at my friend. Sure Upworthy content is engineered to compel, but much like McDonald’s or Marlboro, consumers have a choice. Upworthy is fulfilling demand, not creating it. Sounds like they’re doing what any good business person would. If you don’t like the news you’re seeing on Facebook and Twitter maybe the issue is your own network?
  6. Vetting Data. Although Upworthy isn’t a news source, they spend time fact-checking the videos they share by looking at research papers, government sites, and major media sources. It would be so easy just to post highly emotional content and not worry about facts (which is basically what every aggregator does) but Upworthy acts like a true curator and filters content before it goes viral. That’s being mindful of consumers and the non-profit customers they support.

Is Upworthy a product I’m personally interested in today? Not really. Frankly, I’ve gotten burned-out from it despite being a huge fan initially. That said, I don’t believe they deserve the massive criticism (i’m guilty of fueling that fire) they’ve receiving.

Much like the art world spurned Banksy for a very long time, the established media has been quick to dismiss Upworthy’s approach to the content business. At the same time, you see hundred-year-old newspapers starting to copy their tactics (and benefit greatly).

Upworthy pissed off the world of journalism because it crisply pointed out how relatively ineffective old business models have become. We’ve all had the opportunity to discredit and poke fun, but I hope that now the smart news organizations stop to analyze themselves and take the risks required to find their own success (or stay alive).


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