Off the Media

Dishing Out Insulin: How Feel-Good Viral Machines like Upworthy and BuzzFeed Filter Reality

“Our generation wants to know what is going on, but we want it to be fun.”

 Dishing Out Insulin: How Feel Good Viral Machines like Upworthy and BuzzFeed Filter RealityIn 2011, Eli Pariser’s excellent book The Filter Bubble complained that the increasingly personalized web was giving people facts that confirmed their pre-existing viewpoints while hiding the information that didn’t. (His partial responsibility for creating this phenomenon with went mostly unsaid, but whatever, it was a good book).

The problem is that Mr. Pariser moved on to create another filter bubble. This time not a political or ideological filter, but a filter on reality itself., the site that Mr. Pariser and cofounder Peter Koechley launched in March 2012, specializes not in politics but in the heartwarming, inspiring and socially progressive videos that now dominate our Facebook feeds. Indeed, they dominate the web itself, with 38 million unique visitors in September alone and a total subscriber base of two million people. And SimpleReach found that 20 percent of the social interaction it records comes from Upworthy.

Someone checking out the “most popular” lists on Upworthy might be forgiven for thinking that the world is doing awesome. Headlines beckon us with saccharine thoughts like modern-day sirens:

“Watch A Preacher Attack Gay Marriage And Totally Change His Mind On The Spot.”

“A Message To Everyone Out There Who Thinks They Aren’t Beautiful In Pictures.”

“She Tried To Kill Herself And It Didn’t Work. See How She Made All That Into Something Beautiful.”

“She Didn’t Think The Love Of Her Life Was Romantic Enough. Then She Looked Out Her Office Window.”

“Move Over, Barbie — You’re Obsolete”

If only the world were actually this way…

Indeed, the site’s editors know that it is not. But they are filtering and exclusively delivering only a small sliver of reality–one that is all sweet and no sweat. The bubble begins from the second that first users to the site hit with a popup window that asks whether you agree or disagree with this statement: “It’s nice to be reminded of the good in the world. And it should happen more often.” Then you give them your email address and they bombard you with “reminders.”

Upworthy’s stated mission is to promote meaningful stories by using social media to reach as many people as possible. “People get viral content wrong,” Mr. Pariser told BusinessWeek. “They imagine that the reason people share stuff is to have a laugh. But a huge part of sharing is being passionate about something, about shedding light on what really matters.”

But I suspect that the founders’ interpretation of their site might be colored by Upworthy’s trademarked optimism (see: delusion). Upworthy’s external messaging to the press that they are curating content that is meaningful and authentic is obscuring the fact that they are really good at optimizing content that makes people feel good about themselves by sharing it.

By the means of our own human psychology, companies like Upworthy are exploiting the fact that we don’t like to feel cognitive dissonance or complexity. They’ve adapted by never letting us feel anything but nicely packaged happiness.

Must it be this way?

I of all people understand the reaction that led to Upworthy. The web is, in many ways, a manifestation of the human id. It’s gossip and sex and jealousy and the tribal mindset. Everyone is free to say what they truly think and want–and in the comments sections of the Huffington Post and YouTube we use that freedom to ominous ends.

The social scientist Jonah Berger’s research has been clear in this regard. The web is actually fairly agnostic about whether it spreads positive or negative stories. What matters is the valence of these stories. An article that is disgustingly upsetting will do better than one that is mildly pleasing. An article that makes us joyously happy or overwhelmingly smug and superior will do better than ones that are moderately frustrating or a minor disappointment.

As Jonah Peretti, the virality expert behind both the Huffington Post and Buzzfeed, believes, “If something is a total bummer, people don’t share it.” Hopelessness, despair—these drive us to do nothing. But anger, fear, excitement, or laughter—these drive us to tweet and like. Heartbreaking sadness does not spread well. Through the selective mechanism of what spreads—and gets traffic and page views—the web has been defined not by omission but by transmission.

Blogs are happy to take advantage of this because it turns out that primal, unadulterated state generates obscene amounts of traffic. And they exploit this to great success so that, in the words of William Hazlitt, “the wild beast resumes its sway within us.” Anger is a powerful, powerful emotion–in fact, it powers much of the Internet sharing that drives pageviews. “If it doesn’t spread, it’s dead,” MIT Media Professor Henry Jenkins put it.  And Upworthy is no different. As BusinessWeek put it, “The team at Upworthy is obsessed with sharing content that roils emotions, and equally fixated on the data it collects along the way.”

The strings that Upworthy plucks are certainly more difficult to play. They are not Gawker, taking aim at obnoxious people; Perez Hilton, knocking celebrities down a peg; or the Huffington Post, attacking politicians on both sides. They are not I Can Haz Cheezburger, making us smile with lolcats and otters. Making a heartwarming video blow up–especially about hot button issues like gay marriage or homelessness or racism–is not necessarily easy.

Call it the MSNBC dilemma. Is the proper response to the distortions and partisan leanings of Fox News to move in a similar fashion toward the opposite end of the spectrum? Or does this in fact just escalate the conflict and make things generally worse? Combating inaccurately negative news with filtered positive news has the same troubled logic.

If one sets out deliberately with that end in mind, aren’t they guilty of the same pandering, manipulative cynicism? Do they really care about the topics or are they simply aware that you care? But all of this may be unavoidable when your job description is “covering what’s happening on the internet” instead of reporting on what’s true or real.

For example, in August Upworthy participated in the same tricks that a site like Gawker perpetrates when they posted a video that “exposed” McDonald’s Chicken Nuggets, claiming to find hairs and other contaminants in the food. When there was an outcry from viewers pointing out the lack of…ahem, scientific rigor in the video, Upworthy withdrew the video and apologized.

If blogs like Gawker generally have their head up their ass about most issues then Upworthy responds by sticking their head in the sand. One looks at the worst of humanity, the other tries to look only at the best. Both clearly miss the point.

I’ll grant that Upworthy is a little more pleasant but it is still defined by its profound ignorance. Upworthy’s cofounder, as would be expected, puts it sweetly but naively:  “Our generation wants to know what is going on, but we want it to be fun.”

Not everything is fun, least of all the news, least of all politics. There must be room for stories that we don’t like–stories like the news last week that a father who was walking across the country in honor of a son killed by gay bullying had himself been killed by a truck. These stories, as a friend remarked, would only be fit for “Downworthy”–the hypothetical home of sad, unviral news.

So I ask, can’t things just be as they are? Sometimes good. Sometimes bad.

Most often they will be complicated, frustrating, sad, difficult, disappointing or a mix of all of that. We need to admit that our situation is bad, economically, politically, socially. The response should not be to stick our fingers in other people’s eyes for catharsis (the snark/gossip blog model). The response should also not be to focus exclusively on the positive and pretend that all is well in the world (the Upworthy model).

The solution is to be honest and aware, to be critical and tolerant. That is the mindset that will allow us to do something about it all.

Because that’s the real trouble. Whatever the intentions of the Upworthy and Buzzfeed creators, the consequences for real, honest and complex ideas, causes and people are the same: they get ignored or drowned out in a sea of bullshit. The only difference is the flavor: sour and bitter or artificially sweet.

Ryan Holiday is a bestselling author of Trust Me I’m Lying: Confessions of a Media Manipulator and Growth Hacker Marketing and is an adviser to many brands and authors.