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Mar 26 / King Kaufman

Uplifting! Research and interviews are more enlightening than assumptions

I like this New York Magazine profile of Upworthy, which writer Nitsuh Abebe describes as “one of the fastest-­growing media sites in internet history.”

What I like about it is that it’s based on solid reporting. Abebe asks a lot of good questions and clearly spent a lot of time talking to and observing Upworthy’s founders and staff. He could have used the ubiquitous criticism of Upworthy’s methods, especially its headline style, as a starting point. Instead, he seemed to go into the enterprise with an open mind, without having sketched out his story first.

Upworthy, if you’re not familiar, is a site that uses “lowest common denominator” methods to, in the words of its About page, “make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing off his roof.” While rocketing to monthly unique figures in the high eight figures, Upworthy has become a target for its sometimes cloying headlines, often spoofed with the tagline “you’ll never believe what happens next.”

Full disclosure: I’ve met one of Upworthy’s founders, Peter Koechley, and its editorial director, Sara Critchfield. I liked them both. Abebe describes Critchfield as “a firm handshake of a person,” and Critchfield’s Twitter bio includes that phrase—just what you’d expect from a firm handshake of a person.

More disclosure: I admire Upworthy’s success and like its mission, but the headline style sometimes wears on me and I’m not above lampooning it. You know, all the cool kids do it.

Abebe could have written it from that point of view, from squarely within the media world he and I both live in, which rolls its eyes at Upworthy as a matter of course.

One of the critical stories I linked to above begins:

So, most people dislike Upworthy to some extent. The aversion to it ranges from the cusp of indifference to a psychotic, visceral hatred. But no one likes Upworthy—probably not even people who work at Upworthy.

Evidence mustered for any of those assertions: None.

Abebe didn’t take that route. Here’s a key passage that fairly describes what Upworthy’s up to:

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.

The evidence for all of that appears in quotes throughout the piece—from the people who work at Upworthy, who, shockingly, seem to like Upworthy. The things you can find out by talking to people, rather than using your imagination.

A writer approaches an upstart website with an open mind rather than relying on assumptions, and you’ll never believe what happens next.

Couldn’t resist. A good piece is what happened.