After You Read This Eye-Opening Inside Story, You’ll Never Think About Social Media the Same Way Again


In the little corner of the blogosphere that I read regularly, one of the recent hot topics has been viral news sites. I’m not quite sure why Upworthy and its brethren have suddenly become such an object of obsession (and scorn and envy), but they have. So what’s their secret?

Well, they’ve cracked the Facebook code, for one thing, and Facebook is the biggest traffic driver on the web these days. They spend a lot of time scouring the internet for content that people might find intriguing. They keep things simple. They concentrate mostly on videos.

Mostly, though, everyone agrees that they’ve perfected the science of irresistible headline writing. Upworthy is dedicated to promoting progressive narratives, for example, and one of their typical current offerings is a video that’s teased by this headline: “A Surprisingly Simple Way To Know Which Companies Are Cool And Which Are Sorta ‘Meh’.”

Awesome! But it’s also a lie. It’s a video about Wagemark, a foundation that wants every company to maintain an 8:1 ratio between its highest- and lowest-paid employees. It’s a worthy, progressive topic, I suppose, but certainly not a way to tell if a company is cool or not. Nor is it very interesting. A headline that told the truth about the video probably would have gotten a couple hundred pageviews.

Upworthy’s headline-writing black magic has become endlessly talked about as the apotheosis of our modern, millennial, warp-speed, social-media-driven culture. But you know what it reminds me of? Supermarket tabloids.

The supermarket tabs aren’t what they used to be, but back in their heyday this was their meat and drink. Every issue featured half a dozen titillating headlines on the cover that sucked you into a story on page 24 that was….usually kind of meh. They did their best to hide this, of course, but most of the time their headlines turned out to be come-ons that ultimately ended in disappointment. Still, you never knew if the next one might be the real deal. Hope springs eternal, so you kept coming back for more.

Other things in the same category: The New York Post. Modern movie trailers. Ron Popeil infomercials. British tabloids. Porn spam. TED talks.

So will it keep working? Or will people eventually catch on to the scam? Both, of course. People will get bored with Upworthy and BuzzFeed one of these days, but a new generation will glom onto whatever the next slick purveyor of teasers turns out to be. This is not something new. In fact, it’s the oldest profession in the world. Only the details change from century to century.

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. It's our first time asking for an outpouring of support since screams of FAKE NEWS and so much of what Trump stood for made everything we do so visceral. Like most newsrooms, we face incredibly hard budget realities, and it's unnerving needing to raise big money when traffic is down.

So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

IT'S NOT THAT WE'RE SCREWED WITHOUT TRUMP:

"It's that we're screwed with or without him if we can't show the public that what we do matters for the long term," writes Mother Jones CEO Monika Bauerlein as she kicks off our drive to raise $350,000 in donations from readers by July 17.

This is a big one for us. So, as we ask you to consider supporting our team's journalism, we thought we'd slow down and check in about where Mother Jones is and where we're going after the chaotic last several years. This comparatively slow moment is also an urgent one for Mother Jones: You can read more in "Slow News Is Good News," and if you're able to, please support our team's hard-hitting journalism and help us reach our big $350,000 goal with a donation today.

payment methods

We Recommend

Latest

Sign up for our free newsletter

Subscribe to the Mother Jones Daily to have our top stories delivered directly to your inbox.

Get our award-winning magazine

Save big on a full year of investigations, ideas, and insights.

Subscribe

Support our journalism

Help Mother Jones' reporters dig deep with a tax-deductible donation.

Donate