The first blockbuster hit came from an unlikely source: Irish talk radio.
In 2010, Michael D. Higgins, then a foreign-policy spokesperson for Ireland (and now its president), went on the radio in Galway and excoriated a conservative American talk show host for opposing President Obama's plan to enact universal health care. For a long time, the audio file of the berating lingered in Internet purgatory. Then, in August 2012, Mansur Gidfar uploaded the audio to the new, rapidly growing site Upworthy.com in August 2012. He tried the headline, "A Tea Partier Decided To Pick A Fight With A Foreign President. It Didn't Go So Well." The article went certifiably berserk, eventually becoming the site's first million-hit story.
Today, Upworthy is a million-hit machine for heartfelt, progressive content, and it is trying to use this alchemy—spinning hearty fiber into viral gold—on behalf of the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation. On Tuesday, the company announced it is launching a global health and poverty section backed with Gates money, suggesting a future for not only the site's editorial strategy but also for its business.
Upworthy has mastered the dark viral arts with a unique blend of A/B technology and lily-white earnestness. The staff scours the Web for "stuff that matters," writes multiple headlines for a test audience, selects the top-performer, and blasts it out on social media. It's a deceptively simple plan that's devouring the Internet, one Facebook Newsfeed at a time. The site nearly surpassed 50 million unique visitors in October, which suggests traffic comparable to giants like Time.com, and Fox News.