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Why to people share?

Explaining the Upworthy Phenomenon with Science

The last few months I’ve been a bit stumped by how popular Upworthy has become.  The site attracted 90,000,000 unique visitors in November 2013, which seems completely crazy to me.

I get that the site is really good at writing headlines that beg to be clicked and shared.  I’ve clicked on a lot of them.  The problem is that 90% of the time the best part of the story is the headline.  The actual content is usually disappointing.

This purse isn’t the “single greatest gift for a woman.”  This isn’t “the greatest anti-smoking video on the Internet.”  Neither is this. And I’m all for marriage equality, but this ad isn’t one of the greatest love stories I’ve ever seen.

For me at least, Upworthy fails to deliver on what it promises.  As a result I basically tolerate it at this point.  The headlines show up in my feed, but I rarely click and never share or like Upworthy content.  I’ve been burned too many times.  I would just block it altogether, but reading Upworthy headlines is like taking a Master class in click baiting.

I’m clearly in the minority though.  While the site has experienced some traffic loss recently, it is still doing quite well and its content is shared at a much higher rate than any other publisher.

I recently came across a New York Times study, The Psychology of Sharing, that went a long way towards explaining Upworthy to me.  The whole study is worth reviewing, but I found these stats on why people share particularly relevant:

  • 68% share to give people a better sense of who they are and what they care about.
  • 84% share because it is a way to support causes or issues they care about.
  • 73% share information because it helps them connect with others who share their interests.
  • 69% share information because it allows them to feel more involved in the world.

If you look at a typical Upworthy headline you will see it checks off nearly all of these boxes.  Take this headline from today, “Dear Advertisers: Please Stop Portraying Women Like This In Adverts. Regards, Women.”  By sharing this headline, I am:

  • Saying I’m the type of person that doesn’t approve of the way advertisers portray women.
  • Showing my support for equality for women.
  • Connecting with others who support equality for women.
  • Engaging in a dialogue and feeling connected to the world.

That’s a lot to accomplish in just a few clicks.  The fact that the video isn’t that interesting or funny really doesn’t matter.

I think the other thing that is brilliant about Upworthy is that there usually isn’t any downside to sharing their content.  While there are exceptions, Upworthy allows you to take stands on topics that generally aren’t actually controversial.  By sharing the above article,  I am taking an extremely non-controversial stand (women shouldn’t be portrayed as morons in ads!) against a nameless, faceless entity no one is going to defend (advertisers).

I’m being political without the nasty business of actually getting into politics.  It is like taking a stand against cancer.

For Upworthy the message sent by the content is so great that it doesn’t matter that the content itself rarely is.