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Upworthy cracks code for getting progressive values to go viral

NEW YORK — There is conventional wisdom about what kind of material will go viral on the Internet: celebrity slide shows, lists like 10 tips for losing belly fat, and quirky kitten antics.

And then there is the path of Upworthy.com, whose goal is to make more serious content as fun to share as a “video of some idiot surfing off his roof.”

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Surfing idiots are tough to beat, of course, but Upworthy has shown that by selecting emotional material and then promoting it with catchy, pretested headlines, it can fulfill its mission: to direct Internet audiences to what it deems socially worthwhile subjects.

Already, the site has drawn millions of people to share videos about sober topics like income inequality and human trafficking. A video featuring Patrick Stewart discussing domestic violence was uploaded more than 6 million times after it was posted in May.

Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, Upworthy’s 32-year old founders, say the effects have gone beyond simply tugging at the conscience of viewers to inciting them to action.

The two point, for example, to a 20-minute biography of a young musician dying of a rare bone cancer that persuaded Upworthy viewers to donate about $100,000. A video by the founder of GoldieBlox, a company aspiring to make toys that will encourage young girls to be interested in engineering, was also a hit; Upworthy viewers bought enough toys for a first production run.

Allison Fine, coauthor of “The Networked Nonprofit,” which advocates for harnessing social media to enact progressive change, said most charities had not yet mastered how to use video to their advantage and need all the help they can get. Whether Upworthy will be that aid, she said, is unclear.

“If this is going to be a series of one-offs, then skepticism is warranted,” she said. “But if this is going to be strategically planned as part of a larger effort of grass-roots fund-raising and organizing, then that will be their long tail of success.”

Only 18 months old, the site has experienced explosive growth; it is 40th on Quantcast’s rankings of most popular US Internet sites, above both Fox News and Yellow Pages, and attracted more than 38 million unique visitors in September, according to its own Google analytics report.

One goal remains elusive, however: profitability.

As the company lives on $12 million in venture capital from, among others, Chris Hughes, an early founder of Facebook, it is testing strategies to make money. The primary revenue stream to date — charging nonprofits for each potential donor sent their way — has been fruitful. But even richer opportunities are now seen in having foundations and corporations pay a fee to be recognized as a sponsor of content related to a specific topic, like global health. They are also testing a model called “ads we like,” under which they would recommend video created by advertisers.

The Upworthy concept began when Koechley and Pariser were running MoveOn.org, a nonprofit that uses digital media to aid liberal causes and politicians. Late in the 2008 presidential campaign, Pariser created a video of a postelection newscast contending Barack Obama had lost by one vote because you, the viewer, failed to show up. Filled with humorous touches, it was viewed by 23 million people.

Still, the two were generally not happy with the Internet’s direction. When they started at MoveOn, both believed the Web would usher in an era of citizen democracy; instead, it came to seem more like a circus.

They began thinking about a site focused on what they considered noble causes, but it took until 2011, when Hughes gave them $500,000 in seed capital, for both to start working on it full time.

In a recent interview, Koechley said that “our generation wants to know what is going on, but we want it to be fun.”

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