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Why you always see Upworthy’s articles on Facebook

Upworthy’s articles are shared far more frequently than those of any other publication, according to data from NewsWhip, a firm that analyzes the relationship between social media and the news.

The data shown in the chart above is from November, and it shows that Facebook users will share an Upworthy article, on average, more than 70,000 times. That number exceeds the corresponding figures for the other most successful publications on the social network by a factor of 20 or so.

Felix Salmon offers a simple formula to estimate the number of readers who will find an article through Facebook. It is the product of the number of friends each reader has, the likelihood that a reader will share the article, and the likelihood that a reader will click on the article, all multiplied by the publisher’s overall popularity and, crucially, by whether Facebook’s algorithms are programmed to display the article in users’ news feeds. That last factor is very important but poorly understood: Facebook is more selective than, for example, Twitter, which displays everything, but just how Facebook selects articles is somewhat mysterious.

Historically, one of the variables that determines whether articles are displayed on Facebook has been how frequently users click on the headlines. Facebook has used that frequency to estimate the relevance or the importance of a piece of news to readers.

People click on Upworthy headlines in droves, but not because the site’s articles are particularly important or relevant. They click because Upworthy’s editors are especially good at writing headlines that draw clicks. The headlines typically provide just enough information to heighten the reader’s curiosity, but not so much that the actual content of the article (which might be more or less mundane and barely even newsworthy) is revealed. At the same time, they are headlines that encourage people to feel positively about themselves and the world, while also providing a kind of channel for readers’ frustration and anger at a political and economic system that seems increasingly unresponsive to their very real needs and demands.

For Salmon, Upworthy’s approach to social media is abusive. “Facebook assumes that people click on exactly the material that they want to click on, and that if it serves up a lot of clickbaity curiosity-gap headlines, then it’s giving its users what they want. Whereas in reality, those headlines are annoying,” he writes. Upworthy, in other words, is exploiting a weakness in Facebook’s algorithm: machines are incapable of truly knowing what matters to readers and must rely instead on imperfect proxies, such as the number of clicks.

Millions of Facebook users would presumably disagree. If they didn’t like the articles, they might click on the headlines, but they wouldn’t share them. Complaints about the quality of a publication such as Upworthy could well be limited to that small group of people who are genuine connoisseurs of the news and social media, who use them all the time — professional journalists, in other words.

Facebook, however, is evidently concerned about the quality of the news on its site. Today, the network made available a piece of software called Paper, which shows users news articles partly selected by human editors rather than an algorithm. In December, Facebook announced that its algorithms would be programmed to prefer “high quality content”, which, one imagines, might exclude Upworthy.

Know More views all charts with interest but found the chart above especially fascinating. Upworthy is a direct competitor of Know More, which similarly attracts most of its readers through Facebook and relies heavily on witty and seductive headlines. Know More is worried by prognostications to the effect that this business model is unsustainable.

That said, there are a couple of principles that Know More follows to be sure of deserving its readers’ attention. First, if something isn’t newsworthy, it won’t be posted on Know More. Know More does not use interesting headlines to confuse its readers into reading stories that aren’t interesting. Second, Know More will always try to leave readers with a substantively better understanding of a subject, and a way of continuing to learn about it if they want. The curiosity gap in this case is not the gap between the headline and the article, but between the article and the world, a gap which can never be fully closed.

Click below for more data on which news organizations use social media with the most success.

Max Ehrenfreund | February 3, 2014 at 6:08 pm
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