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Upworthy audience reach and business success: Morality, clicktivism, slacktivism, and the engagement ladder.


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On clicktivism and lazy slacktivist spamming:

Upworthy’s superhero reach—which peaked at 88 million viewers in November 2013—is definitely a coup for the feels, but some think that means a lot of readers are encountering a dumbed-down, Nickelodeon version of reality. The best person I’ve read on this is Tom Hawking in Flavorwire, who worries that Upworthy reduces “confusing and contradictory” challenges to kids’ stuff—“heartwarming narratives” and “cliffhanger headlines.” (Although Upworthy has started to coast away from its signature headline style, citing fewer clicks as the novelty fades.) What about “the problems to which there aren’t startlingly simple solutions involving recycling and being mindful and nice to one another?” Hawking asks.

Furthermore, what about context? A colleague of mine believes that Upworthy trivializes issues by divorcing them from their underlying causes and holding them up as completely alien instances of greed or ignorance or bigotry. Condemning a GOP precinct chairman for gassing on about “lazy blacks” is easy. Understanding the structural forces that perpetuate racism is hard—but far more valuable.

Research shows we seek out uplifting information even if it is irrelevant to our lives. We hide from distressing information even if it’s salient. Sure, people may spend a lot of time watching Upworthy videos, but as likely as not they’re just procrastinating. Their momentary emotional investment in an Upworthy post shuts out reality rather than inviting it in.

The kind of mindless Internet advocacy Upworthy’s been accused of promoting has inspired a new word: clicktivism. Clicktivists mistake gratification for meaning. They conflate feeling good (or self-satisfied or inspired or righteously indignant) with doing good. They watch a video of a kid sharing his lunch with another kid, forward it to their social networks or sign a petition, congratulate themselves on their political involvement, close the browser window, and diminish the definition of service for everyone. 

The hazard is not merely that these superficial do-gooders are annoying (though they are) or that they turn people off to service (though they do), but that their actions warp the meaning of political engagement. They achieve a sense of philanthropic agency through the shallowest possible means. 

"Clicktivists mistake gratification for meaning."

And they just might be making Facebook and Twitter even more unpleasant through continual pumping of their political agenda.

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