The existential question at the heart of Upworthy: Is viral clickbait okay if it brings attention to something worthwhile?

If you asked someone who spends a lot of time on the web to make a list of sites that specialize in cheap “viral” content or clickbait, they’d probably suggest BuzzFeed and ViralNova, but they’d almost certainly throw in Upworthy as well — and they might even make a crack about its infamous “This Just Happened, and You Won’t Believe How It Makes You Feel” headlines. For many, calling something an Upworthy-style post means it is a kind of social parlor trick, designed to fool people into clicking on something in order to goose pageviews.

This perception is not only unfair but untrue, Upworthy editorial director Sara Critchfield said in an interview: for one thing, she says the site doesn’t even use those kinds of headlines any more — other sites copied this early style, but continued to use it until it became annoying. Upworthy has since moved on to different methods, to the point where a “Downworthy” browser extension designed to short-circuit such headlines doesn’t even work on the site’s content.

It’s about the cause, not the content

The other flaw in the popular conception of the site, Critchfield says, is that unlike ViralNova and its ilk, Upworthy doesn’t want to just find whatever low-quality content is already going viral and ride that wave for monetization purposes. It wants to find overlooked content that has a message about important issues — the same kind of content that “serious” journalism sites care about — and then use whatever social tools it can to help it reach as many people as possible:

“Our goal isn’t to find things that are already going viral, but to make things go viral, like rising water levels or climate change — to draw attention to the topics that matter most. We consider ourselves to be part of this category called mission-driven media. People thought it was just the headlines, so they tried to copy those, but if you look at the content, there are no cute GIFs of puppies or celebrity breakups or stuff you would see on ViralNova.”

Upworthy topics

That mission, says Critchfield, is why Upworthy has formed partnerships with organizations like ProPublica and Human Rights Watch (whose content it optimizes and runs on the site) and it’s also why the company has been expanding its team of curators and is doing more training, fuelled in part by its recent $8-million financing round. The company told me its curation staff has almost doubled to 26 full and part-time in 19 different cities across the U.S. and in Europe — and Critchfield says the company got a staggering 2,000 applications for 10 open positions.

Driven by curiosity, not clicks

Critchfield — who started at Upworthy co-founder Eli Pariser’s social-change organization MoveOn and then became a curator for the site, before becoming its first editorial director — said that while the site uses analytics of all kinds to track the performance of its posts, curators aren’t paid based on traffic (athough freelance or part-time curators can earn performance bonuses), and they are given a wide degree of latitude to find content that they believe is worth publicizing, even if it involves a topic that doesn’t drive a lot of clicks.

“We give curators credit for doing those topics, even if their numbers are lower because they’re experimenting with drone warfare or whatever. We’ve also diversified our staff geographically, which has made us broader and deeper in terms of content. We’re not a news site, we’re more interested in evergreen content — finding hidden gems on the web that our audience really responds to — so having different people across the country is good.”

One of the company’s new curators is a veteran, while another has an economics background, and others have degrees in sciences like biology (Critchfield has degrees in graphic design and non-profit project management). What Upworthy tries to do, she says, is give them the tools to understand why some posts do better than others, and to come up with ways to think creatively about headlines and the way posts are written. Critchfield says this is called the “Iron Man” approach, because it takes a human and then adds technology that makes it more powerful.

Upworthy social actions

Upworthy puts its potential hires through three rounds of interviews, Critchfield says, and is looking for “key traits of curiosity and passion” as well as some digital skills. They get a take-home test that requires them to find content and write headlines, and then after that the editors do final interviews with the ones who got that far. In the last round, there were 50 out of 2,000 who got as far as the last interview and of those 10 were hired.

This is how media works now

The training Upworthy has been doing in “lateral thinking” and other creativity-enhancing skills with these new recruits has reduced the amount of time the rest of the staff has to find and share content, Critchfield said, which could explain why traffic to the site saw a dip earlier this year. A number of outlets reported that this was caused by a change to Facebook’s algorithm that was meant to de-emphasize “low quality” content, but she says that isn’t the case.

“Facebook and Upworthy are completely aligned around the need for high-quality content, so that is less than a problem for us — in fact, that favors Upworthy in a way, because we focus on important content and its shareability, and overall that’s a positive thing for us and for Facebook.”

Critchfield also noted that while Upworthy gets around 50 million unique visitors — more than many other sites with a much larger staff — it only publishes a couple of hundred pieces of content a month, whereas an outlet like Huffington Post likely publishes tens of thousands. And while some critics of “viral” content assume that some or all of the most-shared content is fake in some way, the Upworthy editorial director said each post is checked by a team of fact-checkers.

Whether you appreciate the mission behind Upworthy or not, there’s no question that Pariser and co-founder Peter Koechley have figured out how content works in a social-media universe — how shares and likes have to some extent replaced satellites and trucks filled with printed newspapers, as BuzzFeed’s Jonah Peretti said in an interview this week. Traditional media outlets might not like the result, but they could afford to learn a thing or two about the process.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Thinkstock / Wavebreak Media