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You won’t believe how these guys redefined viral content on the Web.
February 18, 2014

Upworthy is one of the fastest-growing websites ever, despite producing only minimal original material. Instead, Upworthy highlights videos that people have posted online about gay marriage, health care reform, racial prejudice, gender equality, and other subjects that interest the site’s liberal curators. The founders—Eli Pariser, who had led the left-wing political group MoveOn, and Peter Koechley, former managing editor of the satirical publication the Onion—started the site to help progressive-friendly content spread virally online, even if that means coöpting some sensational tactics from sites that propagate videos of cute cats. They spoke to MIT Technology Review’s deputy editor, Brian Bergstein.

Peter Koechley, 33 and Eli Pariser, 33
co-CEOs, Upworthy

Were you surprised at how quickly Upworthy got this big?

Pariser: We were blown away. We honestly never would have dreamed that the site would be as big as it is.

Koechley: A lot of people thought it was unlikely that there were 50 or 60 or 70 million people out there who wanted to watch videos about meaningful social issues.

Describe Upworthy’s system for making things go viral.

Pariser: There are hundreds of millions, if not billions, of videos posted every month, and our curators are looking for the several hundred that are very meaningful about some important topic and very, very compelling. We have various tools that our curators use, but ultimately it comes down to human judgment and their ability to find videos or charts or graphics that just blow them away.

Then they write headlines that have become an Upworthy signature. Your headlines are filled with superlatives—”the biggest,” “the worst,” “the most horrifying”—and tell readers that clicking the link will change their lives. 

Pariser: Generally [the curators] write 25 or so headlines and then pick four to try out. And then sometimes they’ll take a couple rounds of that. We think of it kind of like a comedian playing Duluth before you go to New York, working out the material and what people are laughing at.

Koechley: Headlines are a way to get somebody to watch a seven-minute video about depression or a 12–minute video about climate change. If you said “This is a 12–minute video about climate change,” you just know that people won’t click through. But if you actually bring out the stuff that speaks to their curiosity and their interest, you can connect people with ideas that they really love and enjoy.

You’ll have to vary the tone if you want to keep standing out, though. Upworthy–style headlines are everywhere on the Web now.

Koechley: Totally. The number of new directions and formats and ideas that we’re testing every day are legion.

There have been hardly any ads on the site. How will you make money?

Pariser: We’ve mostly been focused on building our community so far. We’re testing a number of revenue options now, and we’re liking the underwriting model, where a foundation or similar group funds our editorial work in a specific topic.

Given that Eli wrote a book called The Filter Bubble, which decries how the Internet often limits people to information they agree with, it’s disappointing that Upworthy repeatedly covers the same topics and doesn’t seem to challenge liberal assumptions. You guys are playing it safe.

Koechley: I think the first problem we were trying to solve is: how can we go from people spending zero minutes a day thinking about important societal issues to spending 10 minutes, or 20 minutes, or five minutes? That said, one of the things we’re planning for this year is we’re choosing topics that we haven’t gone all that deeply into. So we have a partnership with the Gates Foundation to go a lot deeper on global health and poverty.

We’ve now built a platform that is going to allow us to take on lot of really interesting [opportunities]. Challenging the audience to think in different ways or challenging their currently held beliefs is certainly one of those that we think is interesting.

“If you said ‘This is a 12-minute video about climate change,’ you just know that people won’t click through. But if you actually bring out the stuff that speaks to their curiosity and their interest, you can connect people with ideas that they really love and enjoy.”—Peter Koechley

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