Why Are Upworthy Headlines Suddenly Everywhere?

Their success isn't just about click bait. It goes to the heart of our largest tech companies.

These hip young people are probably looking at Upworthy content. (Shutterstock/Halfpoint)

I haven’t seen anything like it in a long time. On Facebook, on Twitter, and even sometimes in my email inbox, there are these headlines.

“We Don’t Hear Enough From Native American Voices. Here’s An Inspiring Message From One.”

“An Auto Executive Talks Up Gas. The Guy Next To Him Who Builds Space Rockets Puts Him In His Place.”

“We May Tell Our Kids That Life Isn't Fair, But We Should Actually Listen To Them Talk About Fairness”

They make an emotional promise. They usually have two phrases. They paint their political proposition as obvious, as beyond debate.

They’re headlines in the Upworthy style, and they seem to have colonized every news source. Upworthy the company has done well by them, too: On Thursday, it announced it had 87 million unique visitors in November. (For context: That’s more than the New York Times. A lot more.)

Upworthy’s new, but it’s not startlingly new. Founded in March of last year, its headline style was so obvious that the New York Times could parody it by July.

So, why did it explode now?

There’s a short answer and there’s a long answer—and the long answer has very little to do with the upstart publisher, and very much to do with the long history of Silicon Valley’s most famous companies.

The short answer is: People click on them.

Clickbait has been around for years. Through ridiculousness, sexiness, or just by withholding critical information from a reader, it tantalizes people in such a way that they can’t help but see what’s on the other side—tallying, crucially, a page view (and then maybe a Facebook like) for the clickbaiteer.

Clickbait—old clickbait—makes Twitter accounts like @HuffPoSpoilers possible:

Upworthy plays the same game, in a different key. There’s something about the Upworthy headline idiom—confident, in the first or second person, saccharine to the point of grossness (maybe ... smarmy?) —that seems to work right now, that seems to get people to click while they are browsing Facebook. And, most importantly, gets people to share the story.

The Upworthy vocabulary works so well that it has spawned clonesChristian clones upon conservative clones upon just plain traffic-mongering clones—which also work well. And news organizations see their success, and their use of the Upworthy idiom, and copy its techniques.

And that’s why you see Upworthy-style headlines everywhere.

Or: That’s one reason. It’s not quite true, though. For there are larger forces at work in the explosion of Upworthiness, forces that tug at the question of what the Silicon Valley-maintained Internet has become and what Wall Street might do to it. If you want to understand why the Upworthy style is suddenly everywhere, you start with a program that controls what millions of people see and read everyday—and which very few people understand.

The mysterious algorithm

About the middle of October, a number of news organization websites started to see huge numbers of visitors flowing from Facebook. Buzzfeed’s Charlie Warzel reported that Buzzfeed and its partner sites had seen traffic from Facebook surge 69 percent between August and October.

The change wasn’t out of nowhere. In August, a Facebook corporate blog post hinted that the algorithm that controlled the site’s News Feed was changing slightly, such that “stories that people did not scroll down far enough to see can reappear near the top […] if the stories are still getting lots of likes and comments.”

It sounds like a little change, but it’s hard to overstate the importance of the News Feed. The feed is what you see when you log into Facebook.com; it’s essentially the homepage of the site, and it changes for every user. What dictates how it looks is the elusive News Feed algorithm, a program that decides not only which statuses, photos, and news stories should display, but how many of each there will be. And a traffic jump of the size Warzel reported could only come with a change in the News Feed algorithm.

In August, too, Facebook rolled out new features to publishers’s Facebook pages. The blog post that announced them, bylined by the company’s vice president of media partnerships, bragged about the same jump in referrals:

[W]e've found that on average referral traffic from Facebook to media sites has increased by over 170% throughout the past year. In fact, from September 2012 to September 2013, TIME's referral traffic has increased 208%. BuzzFeed is up 855%. And Bleacher Report has increased 1081%.

Impressive numbers. Facebook wants journalists to like it. But it felt like something else was going on.

A month later, something else strange began to happen. Traffic from Facebook to old posts—years-old posts—exploded. On the gadget blog Gizmodo, a 2010 post called “IKEA Let Loose a Herd of 100 Cats Into Store to ‘See What Happens’” became the most popular article on the site. Here at Atlantic Media, a post on our social news site The Wire from September called “Zach Galifianakis Says Everything You Want to Say to Justin Bieber Right to His Face,” started crushing too. As of today, it’s been shared on Facebook some 523,000 times.

Numbers like that don’t just happen. Something was going on.

We learned more about it last Tuesday. Facebook announced that it would start highlighting “high-quality” content (which explains the jump in traffic to publishers), and start promoting less often externally hosted image macros and “meme photos.” It touted these changes by showing what an article from The Atlantic looks like in a user’s News Feed. (Which, by the way, is great! This writer, at least, is excited at the prospect of more Facebook visitors.)

So hold all that in your head. For the past two months, traffic has been surging to news publishers. Facebook dwarfs Twitter—and every other social network—such that an algorithmic change like this quickly makes it the largest referrer to most news sites. A programming change is all it takes to remind publishers who’s boss.

And maybe that’s the point.

Now, to be clear, we don't know exactly why Facebook does these things. But we can look at the structural dynamics of the industry and hazard what they're really up to.

Because: In the middle of this Facebook surge, Twitter made much larger news. It had its initial public offering. The company’s executives sold Twitter to investors as the home of the real-time web, the place people turned to learn about the world and the culture around them. Watching the Oscars, a big football game, or just this week’s episode of Scandal? You hang out on Twitter while you watch.

Twitter’s comfortable with media companies, popular with journalists, and ceaselessly now. People go there even if they don’t want to see photos of their friends. Twitter makes a good home for socially-targeted, time-aware ads.

Facebook isn’t where you go for now, so Facebook isn’t as good a home for socially-targeted, time-aware ads—but it wants to be. So it had to remind media companies who actually commands the reading hordes.

Maybe that reminder looked like a 69 percent jump in traffic.

It sure felt that way to publishers, to whom the sudden increase was startling. Their—our—initial response was something like: Huh. And then: Wow. Until, finally: How do we make this even bigger?

Enter Upworthy. Simultaneous to this traffic upheaval, an entire vocabulary and syntax for headlines that people click and share—and oh, boy, do they click and share—had presented itself on the social web. For publishers trying to grab more traffic from Facebook, the path became clear. Borrow, adapt, employ the Upworthy style post haste. Assure readers your content was nothing but wondtacular. And so began the wondtacularization.

Our mature social world

What does this mean if you’re a standard web news reader? No one really knows. A Facebook-friendlier news ecosystem might lead to headlines that promise more emotional return. But how sustainable is this? Can news organizations keep promising you that their content is not only wondtacular but also, actually, wondtacular-er? Does adjective creep in headlines exist—and, if so, how can it be fought?

And regardless of those large, ecosystem questions: Is this explosion of traffic good for news organizations? We can again only say: Maybe. It’s good for them as long as they’re able to sell ads against it. But they shouldn’t become dependent on it.

Facebook has toyed with its algorithm before. In the fall of 2011, for example, it encouraged news organizations to build “social readers” for their content. Those went great—news organizations like the Washington Post raked in traffic—until, on one day, the engineers adjusted the News Feed algorithm again, and the application’s daily active users plunged from over four million to just about zero.

Here’s what that looked like in a chart:

AppData.com, via Poynter

This also happened with Facebook apps. For a year or so, Facebook apps were what you did on Facebook. Companies sprung up around the geyser of free user attention. Facebook has such a massive user base that its can create independent companies that depend on it just by giving traffic away. The company Zynga went public on the strength of those free users, until it crashed on their disappearance.

It will be up to news organizations not to make the same mistake.

In the past year, Facebook’s anti-Twitter tactics have reverberated across the site. Its “subscribers” feature was renamed “followers”; it added a verified checkmark next to its celebrity users; it adopted a way of displaying related news stories that mirrors Twitter’s. Facebook is even experimenting with a trending topics section. The larger social network seems to be altering the entire fabric of its site to fight the newer, smaller one.

Meanwhile, Twitter seems to change itself—adding in-line images to its feed, for example—to try and become more like Facebook.

Two social networks, trying to become more like the other. It is, as Buzzfeed’s John Herrman has written, “the fight for the ultimate feed.”

And this, this phenomenon, which starts with strategic interface changes and works its way up to how editors think about headlines at the most important newspaper in the world’s most powerful capital city—this is what that fight looks like.

And this, too, is what a mature social ecosystem looks like—or, at least, a stagnant one. These big networks aren’t fighting over how to be the best darling for journalists for the sake of journalists. They’re doing it for the sake of user engagement numbers, advertisers, and investors. All the basic functionality of these networks has been monetized already, and the only place to go is at each others’s throats.