The Media Tried To Game The Machines And You'll Never Guess What Happened Next (Facebook Won)

Illustration: Jim Cooke

Just five years ago, not only was it possible for a reputable outlet to flatly characterise Upworthy — a website that didn't make much but a system for testing what drew clicks on Facebook — as the "fastest-growing media company of all time", but it happened more than once.

By 2013, a year after its founding, Upworthy had favourable print profiles and $US12 ($16) million in funding from people like Facebook co-founder Chris Hughes and Reddit's Alexis O'Hanian. Its founder was making the rounds advising other sites hungry for traffic to "stay away from politics" and "focus on Facebook, not Twitter". Michelle Obama guest-edited the site.

From the beginning, Upworthy's social-justice curation machine was based on a specific, paternalistic set of ideas. It proposed that the internet is inherently addictive; that young people are attracted to the shiny and uplifting; that aggregated videos play better online than original material; and that with a little massaging, all that terribly boring stuff about policy and food shortages in Africa could trap eyeballs just as well as heartwarming cats could.

Upworthy delivered what there is nothing else to call but content, which in the early days was just a repackaging of YouTube videos with enticing, emotional headlines people would be inclined to like and share so as to demonstrate that they agreed with the worthy messages.

They did this nearly exclusively through Facebook, which in itself represented the idea most important to Upworthy: Not only could Facebook be successfully gamed, but a sustainable property could be built on doing so.

Within a year of its launch, Upworthy reported 87 million unique visits in a month, more than the New York Times. Its so-called "curiosity-gap" headlines inspired copycats and parodies and the Twitter account "Saved You A Click". In 2013 it raised an additional $US8 ($11) million, on top of the $US4 ($5) million it drummed up prior to its launch.

Legacy publications dissected the site's cloying, two-sentence headlines — "This Amazing Kid Got To Enjoy 19 Awesome Years On This Planet. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular"; "Watch The First 54 Seconds, That's All I Ask. You'll Be Hooked After That I Swear" — with alarm. They poked fun at its style and lack of substance and then they invited consultants to their offices to tell them how they, too, could crack the Facebook code.

While the internet is unquestionably addictive, the rest of the ideas underlying Upworthy were less unyielding truths about the way things work than specific tics of a particular time. Young people, it turns out, are mainly attracted to what the algorithms serve them and what that is shifts over time, largely at the whims of the machines and the people who program them.

Facebook, it turned out, was happy for those algorithms to serve those young people media, until serving them media didn't align with its own bottom line. In 2013, though, it was possible to think that Upworthy had cracked a code, or at least showed that it could be cracked. The alternative — that the distribution of news and information had largely been subsumed by an arbitrary and merciless technological regime — was simply too depressing to consider.

Last week, 31 members of Upworthy's editorial staff were unceremoniously given a few weeks' severance and let go, some fired through a script read over the phone by a third party. The site's editor in chief and CEO both resigned shortly after.

Eli Pariser, Upworthy's most visible founder, a one-time clickbait apologist who has become fond of comparing Facebook to the weather (you prepare for it, but you can't change it) left the parent company's board. The layoffs, which followed a messy takeover by Good Media that had been framed as a merger, represent the end of an embarrassing moment in which the media considered social media algorithms a fixed and exploitable asset.

In the early 2010s, by far the most promising resource for publishers was Facebook, which referred so many people to struggling (or brand-new) websites that it was nearly impossible to argue for investment in anything else. "It just dominates", one long-time Upworthy editor told me. "People higher up were like, why would we spend money to bring in less traffic" on other social media sites.

Over the next years, as publications floundered, they followed Facebook's algorithmic tweaks, pivoting to viral headlines or listicles or "long-form" or video, remaking entire newsrooms to generate what the platform suggested would play well.

This game continued until Facebook didn't want any of it anymore: Earlier this year, the platform announced it would prioritise "meaningful interactions" from family and friends over the news industry and move away from pushing video it was recommending publishers produce as recently as last year.

"We are not interested in talking to you about your traffic and referrals any more", the social media company's head of news allegedly told a number of Australian media executives recently. "That is the old world and there is no going back".

Hard numbers are difficult to come by, considering how few media companies are inclined to share such bad news, but by most accounts the recent tweaks to Facebook's news feed algorithm have been disastrous.

Over the last year, Slate says it's seen traffic referrals from Facebook drop 81 per cent. Traffic to Gizmodo.com from its Facebook page dropped around 75 over roughly the same period. The solution, for many large publishers, has mostly been to pivot away again, to game other algorithms, like the one used by Google search.

What's left of Upworthy and Good insist the company hasn't changed and both websites are still up. But everyone I spoke to, from both sides of the merger, predicted the remaining brand was best poised to become a consulting agency, considering its distinct lack of editorial staff. (Good's CEO and spokespeople did not return requests for comment.)

Since 2013, the website had rebranded and changed its strategy several times, but in the end, a handful of employees speculate, Good purchased Upworthy largely for its viral audience and Facebook reach. Unfortunately, you really can't be on one platform, as one long-time Upworthy editor told me: "They're going to find a way to screw you", which is as true for a feel-good factory as for anyone else.

Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, the painfully earnest founders of Upworthy, met making viral videos for MoveOn.org during the 2008 presidential campaign. Their site, as they envisioned it, would take broadly appealing liberal positions — income equality is good, racism not so cool — and package them like memes.

As Pariser told New York at Upworthy's peak, the site's goal was to reach as many people as possible, appealing to the emotions to find consensus rather than hinging on contentious points. "You don't want to be that guy in your Facebook feed going, 'These ReTHUGlicans out there", he said. "We see Upworthy as confirmation that the potential to have a broadly well-informed public still exists", he told the magazine, which in today's internet terms is just unbearably quaint.

This particular editorial strategy, piloted by people with more experience in politics and technology than journalism, was inseparable from what that "broadly well-informed public" deemed fit to like and share online. Editors insist they had "no idea what we were about to unleash, how big the algorithm would let us be".

But there was "a maniacal focus" on gaming the Facebook system to the exclusion of all else, says Michael Wertheim, a digital strategist and consultant who helped launch the site. (Wertheim would go on to consult for dozens of businesses, including Fusion, the millennial-focused site launched by Gizmodo Media's parent company Univision.)

Upworthy encouraged its reputation for generating viral hits, producing numerous slide deck tutorials instructing others "how to win the internets".

Most famously, Upworthy popularised the "curiosity gap" headline: Basically, a headline that over-promises emotionally ("These words were meant to break these women") while revealing almost nothing about a story's content ("But the opposite happened".)

The idea here was that a person's knee-jerk desire would compel them to click headlines that were the right combination of tantalising and vague, which they pretty uniformly did. Such headlines were introduced largely through Upworthty's Facebook testing process: "Curators" wrote 25 headlines for every video they wanted to post and then deployed combinations of images and text to a small batch of test subjects before posting whichever combination they clicked and shared the most.

Within a year of its launch, using this system, the site was getting 100 million visitors a month. An editor remembers asking in an early job interview what Upworthy would do if everyone started using that style. "Like, You Won't Believe That Obama Just Did This? That's 25 stories. What will we do then?"

The model, essentially a machine-generated string of phrases, did spread: Wertheim estimates that in the years after working with Upworthy, he consulted for 20 businesses about what he'd learned there, including New York Magazine and the New York Times.

The Atlantic did a full-day seminar, all the way up to the execs. CNN had some bad Upworthy-style tweets. Time launched its viraly-focused Newsfeed, brands started using the emotional over-promise, we got Distractify and ViralNova and Elite Daily.

Then, in late 2013, shortly after Upworthy got its $US8 ($11) million series A, the algorithm changed. Facebook, in an effort to cut down on clickbait and memes and go after its competitor Twitter, altered the news feed to focus more on current events.

The drop in Upworthy's readers was swift. In November 2013, the site had 90 million visitors. By January 2014, that number was 48 million.

Adam Mordecai, one of the site's first employees and an editor until 2017, says he distinctly remembers the moment he "couldn't get into the matrix anymore. It was like night and day". The staff began to anxiously test tactics for Facebook again. The editor who'd voiced concerns about the spread of the Upworthy model remembers resizing thumbnails, scrawling arrows over images in her posts.

"We were just spinning our wheels", she says. Then, one of their data people realised Facebook was looking for, you know, actual sentences and words inside of a post. "Within 24 hours we had everyone on our staff doing long-form" she says. "It's like, we've got to pivot and we've got to do it right now, we're just dead in the water".

But those pageviews, which brought investors and stood in for a long-term business strategy, kept declining. (Upworthy's original monetisation scheme involved partnering with non-profits, later it would run sponsored content and paid ads.) It pivoted to journalism, hiring a copy chief to fact-check its stories and announced a partnership with ProPublica.

Still, by November of 2014, the site got 20 million views a month, one-fifth of the traffic it was bringing in at its peak. In January of 2015, Amy O'Leary left the New York Times to become Upworthy's editorial director.

A few months later the site laid off six people to focus on reporting and "original content", an apparent concession to the idea that aggregated hyper-shareable video was no longer a viable model. Still, the site packaged its stories in extremely Upworthy ways. ("A Dad's Letter To Himself On His Worst Day, From Himself On His Best Days".)

Only a few months later, at the beginning of 2016, Upworthy "pivoted to video," laying off 14 of its staff. As at other media companies that would make similar shifts later that winter, the change in strategy capitalised on Facebook's newfound algorithmic preference, for videos that could be shared in its feed.

"Facebook's telling us to do video, so we do video. They say live video especially. So you're just kind of chasing the carrot", says one editor. 2016 was the "moment when people had really started to build their business on this platform and they suddenly realised it could shift and change their entire operation", says another. Over the next year, MTV News, Mic, Vocativ, Mashable and Vice Media would all make similar shifts, laying off employees to make room for the same kind of production, which guarantees airtime and thus ads.

Sometimes that meant original documentaries. Often it meant glorified PowerPoint slides.

By the spring, under the direction of O'Leary, Upworthy had a handful of original video series and was licensing more from outside entities, as well as creating in-house campaigns for "socially responsible" brands. They entered a deal with Facebook Live, to put videos directly on the social media site. Largely through sharing those videos to the then-friendly algorithm, Upworthy said its videos were getting 256 million views a month.

Traffic to the site itself, however, sat under 10 million. And, as with other publications that took Facebook's advice about video, the site would find the rapid change of strategy didn't pay off: In 2016, Mark Zuckerberg was telling outlets that in five years, half of all Facebook feeds would be video. What he meant, actually, was that Facebook would soon de-prioritise publishers' videos to make more room for its own in-house work.

And in any case those video ad deals weren't enough to keep up with what Upworthy was spending. According to employees through 2016 the company was pushing for growth, getting ready for a sale.

The sale to Good, which was finalised in December 2017 for what one former Good manager close to the merger characterises as a "bargain price", came as a surprise to both staffs: "It was nobody's first choice", says one editor at Upworthy. "It was Eli's way of saving everyone's jobs", says another.

Good's official line is that it was profitable, though multiple people dispute this and was interested in filtering its "elevated prestige content" through the "Upworthy distillation machine". But more to the point, while Good appreciated Upworthy's mission, they wanted what the former employee characterised as "our message, on their microphone ... they really, truly believed they could make shit go viral".

They wanted the click-testing mechanism, the Facebook-optimised backend of the site. But with no cohesive plan for how the companies would be combined, there was a rift between the two teams. Executives at Good slashed Upworthy's budget and asked senior employees, most of whom worked remotely, to move to Los Angeles (they refused). Upworthy found Good's lack of scruples when it came to advertisers obscene, which Good considered insane given the company's financial straits.

Frustrated with their new overlords, a number of long-term employees fled Upworthy, including O'Leary.

Managers at Upworthy blame Good for the destruction of their operation, saying the rate at which ads were selling through its new revenue model simply hadn't caught up to what they were spending. It wasn't Facebook that killed them, they say: executive mishandling effectively gutted the site.

The former Good employee I spoke to, who helped oversee the merger, disagrees: "Upworthy was going to be sold no matter what", she says. "They were completely out of money and would have been sold for parts". And former Upworthy employees are clearly frustrated with Facebook's hold on the site: One asked rhetorically why the platform could act quickly to ban what she referred to as "prestige clickbait" and not get rid of "fake news".

In the few months before the merger, Good and Upworthy got into e-commerce and started selling T-shirts, of all things. Between the management exodus and the changes to Facebook's algorithm, traffic dipped again. Until a few weeks before the staff was let go at Upworthy, the editorial process still included a lengthy two-part Facebook testing phase, where writers would test headlines and thumbnail images for their "clickiness".

The process could sometimes take more than an hour for a post, one writer estimates. Shortly before the layoffs, Upworthy stopped testing its stories on Facebook, though the reason for abandoning its signature strategy was unclear.

Recently, Facebook's head of news reportedly told media executives Mark Zuckerberg doesn't care about publishers. "I'll be holding your hands with your dying ­business like in a hospice", he allegedly said.

As the reality of Facebook's position on the media set in, publishers who'd found their traffic crippled shifted to rely more on SEO, which involves stuffing posts with often-Googled keywords. Around the time Upworthy laid off its staff, Google deployed a "broad core algorithm update", which changed what web searches deliver to users across the globe, in every language. Some of the sites under Gizmodo Media Group felt an immediate hit.

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