Long ago, before you were born (and by “you” I mean “North (Kardashian) West”) there used to be a technology called “newspapers.” The basic idea was that news about the world was reported by journalists and then printed once or twice a day on paper and people sat in their living rooms and kitchens or in cafes and read this news. The technology had some issues: it wasn’t very quick—if something happened after it was printed for example, you might not know about it for 24 whole hours. Also, it was controlled by whoever was the editor and the owner, so even though the whole idea was to be “objective,” every story was picked by someone with their own history, perspective and financial interest. This is why stories about black kids getting killed got less play or stories that made the powerful people who owned the papers look bad weren’t printed. An argument could easily be made for the fact that newspapers reinforced the status quo and helped powerful people stay powerful and oppressed people stay oppressed—though also sometimes journalists uncovered things that helped oppressed people and certainly did not help powerful ones. But whatever value you put on newspapers, one major difference between them and the way we get our news now was how they were consumed. While a person might identify themselves or other by which paper they read, like say judge their neighbors who got USA Today delivered to be sort of vanilla or their teacher who left the Wall Street Journal on their desk to be a bit of pompous ass, the articles people read remained private. The consumption of the news was personal, less about identity than it was about information.
And then…Facebook and Twitter hit the news scene and nowadays, news consumption is a completely different story. In some ways, it has become democratized: the people who are curating the stories you read aren’t some old white dudes in a penthouse office, they are your friends and “friends.” This means we get to hear more about what’s really happening, from a lot of voices that used to be completely silent. We can get news directly from the source, see Edward Snowden’s interview or read tweets from the people hiding in their houses while the police staged a manhunt for the Boston Bombers. However, it also means that instead of a private act, reading the news has become extremely public—it’s been Facebook-ified, which means it has become another indicator of your social media persona. What stories do you share? Stories you actually care about or stories you want people to think you care about? And so, like anything else that’s been Facebook-ified (any other thing that could potentially be part of your persona—relationships, ceremonies, children, Halloween costumes, coffee choice), it’s been monetized.
Welcome to Upworthy.
Upworthy is poised to be the next horribly-annoying-website-that-we-all-hate-but-succeeds because its business model is kind of genius. Take the facts that Millennials are known to want to help people, care about how they are perceived (at least a little), are very busy, are generally pretty liberal and then make a website full of content that is quickly shareable, “inspirational” and with headlines that make you feel a sense of urgency and BOOM. You’ve got Buzzfeed for the Vaguely Political. It’s almost as if a computer read a market research study on Millennials and wrote the perfect website. As much as we hate it, it was created specifically for us. We aren’t reading the news anymore, we are wearing the news on our Timelines like a WWJD shirt or Power Rangers lace-biters, sharing it so people will know something about us that we want them to know. And it’s working.
So why do we hate it? What’s wrong with sharing Upworthy stories? I mean, THEY ARE WORTHY, after all. They show people doing good things, things that might expand a person’s understanding of the world, maybe. It is important say, for people who don’t know any gay people or transgendered people to experience these people and if they can’t meet them in real life, watching them on TV, reading books about them, watching YouTube poetry slam videos are an okay second place. The Marriage Equality movement has basically changed public opinion completely in 10 years because of stories, movies, TV shows that introduced Americans to gay people who weren’t deviants or creeps or other caricatures but were actually real human beings. The Cosby Show showed a lot of white Americans who had never had real relationships with black Americans that they were actually a lot alike (at least in a sitcom sense). Taking cigarettes out of the mouths of every cool character in every movie and putting them in the mouths of villains and drug addicts completely changed what it meant to be a smoker in this country. So the images and stories we see and share are important and have a lot of social power.
HOWEVER, the thing about Facebook-ification, the drum I’ve been beating for awhile, is the difference in intention. Upworthy has one goal: to get you to click. They do this by writing headlines that make you feel like you really will miss something important if you don’t click–and as we know missing out on something is the worst form of social anxiety–but their posts don’t offer much analysis or go beyond the surface level of the material at all. Instead of information, they go for gut punches, because gut punches get shared while neutral analysis, real criticism and uncomfortable engagement just don’t. And that’s what most of us want associated with our identities too: strong feelings about the right things, things that make other people know we are part of the right club, that we are good and smart. Ambivilence or complications don’t get the results we want either. The result we want? People to like us.
When a “news organization” has the goal of getting as many clicks, likes and shares as possible, not informing and serving the public, things get a little sketchy. Honestly, in the old days most news orgs didn’t really exist to just inform. They wanted to sell papers. And even today’s mostly-online news sources that purport to be more serious want viral content and lots of clicks–Upworthy is just the most obviously pandering one. Their headlines are written in such a way that there can be no mistake: they don’t care what you learn, they just want your click and fingers-crossed, your share. And when you share their stories, your goal isn’t particularly service-oriented either…you want your friends to see you for the cool, liberal person you are. So while there is a benefit to seeing positive images and hearing positive stories, when those stories are only created for the shares, they generally aren’t doing anything that has much danger of real disruption or creating real change. Upworthy’s content is all coasting on opinions people already have, reinforcing ideas that were challenging ten years ago, preaching to a very large choir. In effect they have taken Kony 2012 and made it a business model.
So here’s my idea: if you are going to be part of the social media news machine, share more complicated stories. That’s all. Don’t just share things that make you look cool, share things that are challenging. Share things that don’t have numbers in the headline. That aren’t Ted Talks, that don’t simplify everything down to the most palatable, shareable headline. Facebook is where we are getting our news, whether we like it or not. So let’s make it news that’s actually worth reading.