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Facebook Posts About Puppies, Upworthy is Coming for You

BY Nick Judd | Monday, May 7 2012

Former MoveOn.org board president Eli Pariser's new social-content startup, Upworthy, had a bit of a milestone recently: It generated over 270,000 views for this Obama for America campaign video, a response to an attack ad from the Koch family-backed Americans for Prosperity, largely just by changing the headline.

In the video, Obama for America Deputy Campaign Manager Stephanie Cutter pledges that campaign staff will call pro-Romney, anti-Obama "B.S." when they see it, then urges viewers to share the video online — including a slyly self-effacing, "I keep hearing about Tumblr, and whatever that is, please use that, too."

The video bounced around the Internet for a while last week before finally making it to Upworthy, where views began to soar. This is an example of exactly what Upworthy is trying to do: Spread content that fits with a point of view that's as close to "progressive" as you can get without calling it "progressive." ("We sort of are trying not to be too dug in to partisan politics, but clearly we have a point of view," Pariser told me today. "We're for gay marriage, we believe that climate change exists, but we're trying to reach a pretty broad audience at the same time." No labels, guys.)

Pariser told me this particular video went through two headlines before getting to the winner, "This Is How You Kill An Attack Ad."

It fits the Upworthy model because it rewards a campaign for "communicating with people in such a clear adult way," Pariser said.

Go to Upworthy.com and it won't be immediately clear how the heck something that ugly can generate a quarter of a million video views inside two days. (Adam Mordecai, now of Upworthy, protests that it is effective, not ugly.) The site doesn't really expect anyone to arrive at its content from the front page anyway; its writers, if that's still the word, link back to internal Upworthy content pages from the company's Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest pages. Each of those pages is designed to be a content vector for the cross-platform web. A single large button invites users to "share" in big, friendly letters, then offers just one of three choices: Twitter, Facebook, or Pinterest. The site renders videos and text differently depending on how wide the screen is, meaning it's been built to look good on screens of iPhone, tablet or laptop size.

The screen is also devoid of ads, at least for now. Pariser said Upworthy will be experimenting with ways to connect people with organizations they might want to join based on the content they view, all of which is supposed to be without "empty calories" — that is, it's supposed to be about "stuff that matters."

So will your Facebook feed fill up with headlines like "Five Great State Health Care Policies" instead of "Five Cats Dressed as Nurses?"

"[Our core competition is the] vast ocean of random stuff that winds up in the Facebook news feed that isn't about stuff that matters," Pariser told me today. "If we can knock that down by a percentage point or two for a lot of people then we'll be really happy."

This post has been updated to include a comment.