Why I Hate Clickbait (That Means You, Upworthy)

Image: Upworthy

I am so sick of Clickbait.

Don’t know what it is?

Just peruse Facebook for thirty seconds and you’ll find some … like the title of this post.

Clickbait is a headline that stirs up shock and awe and lures readers in order to crank up web traffic.

It’s rampant sensationalism.

And the worst thing about Clickbait is that it discourages healthy dialogue and learning, and promotes raw emotion and outrage through manipulation.

Yeah…I’m talking about you, Upworthy

If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Upworthy is a website. Its goal is to make things that are “meaningful” and “awesome” go viral on the internet. Upworthy is wildly popular on social media and it has (as if this writing) almost six-and-a-half million Facebook “Likes”.

It’s kind of a big deal.

Here is the first video headline from Upworthy‘s “About and FAQ” page, called:

If This Video Makes You Uncomfortable, Then You Make Me Uncomfortable.”

Photo: Businessweek
Photo: Businessweek

Spoiler alert: It concerns gay marriage.

Go ahead and click the title to watch it yourself. Pay attention to how it uses point of view and audience expectations to make its anti-discrimination point. Quite artful, in fact.

I have no problem with the video or its message. One may disagree with the film-maker’s position, but most viewers can probably agree that the video is tasteful while making a statement that supports legalized gay marriage.

But the title?

Give us a break, Upworthy.

If this video makes you uncomfortable, then you make me uncomfortable. 

Notice the “If _____, then _____” structure of the title. This creates a conditional, absolutist tone prior to viewing the video. Any objectivity or open-mindedness that existed before has been marred by this threatening statement.

And then there’s the presence of these loose pronouns. Obviously the “you” is intended to be the viewer, but who is “me”?

Reread it. It’s not hard to figure out.

The use of this diction is emotionally manipulative and creates an immediate “us vs. them” dichotomy, or more specifically, an “us vs. you” conflict between the viewer and, presumably, the rest of the world. If you view this video and have any opposition to it, Upworthy has declared that you are discomforting to all of Internet Land, and probably not a very good person.

And you haven’t even clicked “Play” yet.

Ironically, the video itself is hardly so abusive. The video is a warm and welcoming statement about gay marriage, one that was so vanilla that Upworthy probably had to “up” the shock value in the title to get more clicks, more shares, and more views.

And that’s the point.

The title is a manipulative lasso wielded by Upworthy to push its content by shocking viewers and sparking a “viral” sharing wildfire.

There are a lot of reasons someone might be uncomfortable with the video but be eager to discuss their feelings further in a healthy environment. Yet Upworthy‘s title does not allow for uncomfortable viewers to grow  towards comfort. Any dissension by a viewer whatsoever will be vilified by the absolutist tone of the posting.

“You” make “us” uncomfortable. Period.

I struggle to believe that Upworthy is truly interested in its viewers growing in authentic and meaningful ways. There’s no invitation to discuss, explore, question, or even disagree. Instead, it feels like back-slapping between people who feel like they’re already good, open-minded members of civilized society.

So just hit that “Share” button on Facebook. Twitter. And click to “Follow.”

That’s all.

Because you’re one of “us”.


The second headline on Upworthy‘s “About and FAQ” page is more political:

A Tea Partier Decided to Pick a Fight With a Foreign President. It Didn’t Go So Well.”

Curious that Upworthy 's founder claims to promote listening, given the site's propensity to promote shouting. Image: Upworthy
Curious that Upworthy ‘s founder claims to promote listening, given the site’s propensity to promote shouting.
Image: Upworthy

This one’s a doozy. Spoiler Alert: Irishman Michael Higgens, a professor who has lived and taught in America, goes off on a Tea Party guy.

Goes off.

Regardless of your political stance, it’s clear upon viewing (really, listening) to the discussion, that it’s not a conversation. It’s a rant by Higgens. The loathed Tea Party guy hardly gets a word in.

Even better, the Tea Party guy doesn’t seem to be “Picking a Fight” as the title claims, nor is he picking a fight with an actual “Foreign President”. Higgens wasn’t the Irish president at the time of recording. But the title says so, just to make sure the Tea Partier’s ignorance and apparent disrespect is epic enough to get a click from thousands of hungry Liberals.

Picky, am I?

Of course Upworthy wants to promote its content and ideas, so it’s going to sell the video with the best verbiage available.

But why, and what for? Is growth a goal whatsoever? Is the purpose really to learn about the Tea Party and what truly makes it good or evil, and then plot a corrective course that will help America?

Or is it a monologue, shouted by the one person in the video Upworthy agrees with?

I’m not joking. Listen to it. Perhaps the video is edited to sound so one-sided, but Higgens doesn’t shut up.

At all.

The Tea Party guy hardly gets a word in edgewise.

And in the end, what did we learn from it? How did we grow? How are we equipped to reenter the world, armed with new knowledge and skills to bring an end to injustice?


Instead, we get more back-slapping, more laughing at those stupid Tea Party fools who aren’t as enlightened as us.

That’s right. “Us.” 

This Upworthy video reminds us to talk loud and talk fast. Why? Because on the internet, as in life, the loudest and most emotional is usually right.

So just shout the bastards down.

The final headline on Upworthy‘s “About and FAQ” page is, honestly, a hopeful one:

Internet Calls Fat Girl ‘Fat’ And Her Response Is … Perfect.”

Feel free to create your own sensationalist, click-baiting headlines with this free generator! Image: Upworthy Generator
Feel free to create your own sensationalist, click-baiting headlines with a generator!
Image: Upworthy Generator

Spoiler Alert: Haters be gettin’ hated on, yo!

Upworthy‘s saving grace is this kind of video, the uplifting, empowering kind.

You know: the kind that banishes trolls to the under-bridge where they belong.

And I really don’t have an issue with this title, though the word “Perfect” borders on Clickbait tactics.

Sadly, these uplifting videos are hard to tell apart from the politically charged ones that treat divisive and difficult issues as if everything is cut and dry.

By watching this video about a woman’s self-image and confidence, I can grow and change the way I treat people. There’s not much to argue about here, which is probably why the title isn’t so manipulative.

Yet there are a lot of issues today that are challenging for a lot of people, and Upworthy doesn’t shy away from them. But instead of educating its audience and creating empathy within it, Upworthy elects to shock those viewers into two distinct groups: the guilty follower, or the branded bigot.

Us, and Them.

Think back to that first headline: “If This Video Makes You Uncomfortable, Then You Make Me Uncomfortable.”

For a lot of people, and I mean a lot of people, legally and religiously recognizing a homosexual marriage is very challenging. This does not mean that the civil rights of gay men and women should be denied. But it does mean that many people will need time to grow as society, the law, and even rules within various religions, all change.

A good (but not ideal) comparison is interracial marriage, an increasingly common reality which most of us don’t blink at. Rewind 20 or 30 years, and the story is different. It was uncommon and scandalous. So in the 1970s or 80s, if someone opposed interracial marriage, should he or she be  considered a bigot?

The answer is complicated.

It’s not complicated because racism is okay, but because growing is a complicated and messy process. Growing takes time and trust. And it’s in the tough center of these complication matters that reconciliation happens.

But Upworthy doesn’t seem interested in reconciliation. If it were, why are its headlines so polarizing and absolutist?

When we promote content that banishes dissenters without any discussion, growth and reconciliation cannot happen. If everyone who disagrees or encounters discomfort is immediately homophobic, bigoted, racist, or sexist, how can we begin to forgive and understand one another?

I respect and appreciate that Upworthy wants to spread good stuff around the internet. And on its “About and F.A.Q.” page, Upworthy is transparent about the issues it discusses and the positions it supports.

But there are better ways to serve this mission than one-sided manipulation.

Why not ask more questions, rather than loading content titles with absolutist and hyperbolic language?

Why not encourage dialogue and discussion with prompts or open-ended content, rather than with so many videos that attempt to stomp out injustice and suffering with a quick, emotional fix?

And why not foster an atmosphere where outsiders are welcomed and not hunted like witches or Communists, laying foundations of bridges of reconciliation?

If Upworthy really wants to change the world and make it a better place for all people, including current non-believers, it needs to reassess its use of manipulative click-baiting titles, one-sided summaries, and a marketing strategy that alienates viewers who do not immediately conform.

After all, aren’t these the kind of tactics used by organized religion, governments, and other propaganda artists to oppress the marginalized in society?

And isn’t emotional manipulation, institutionalized prejudice, and narrow-mindedness the enemies that Upworthy claims to fight?

And aren’t these dangerous enemies, and their ultimate father, Fear, at the heart of bigotry and racism?

Aren’t they?

Never mind.

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Full disclaimer: I am not a good person. I am broken, with much to learn. I want to love people better than I do, but truly loving one another is hard. There is no quick-fix for suffering and injustice. We have a lot to learn, and it will all go better if we admit as much.


2 thoughts on “Why I Hate Clickbait (That Means You, Upworthy)”

  1. I have found an even more “clickbaity” website, it’s called GuiltyFix. Here is a headline I randomly picked: “When I saw what he did, I was drooling, but when he flipped it over, I lost my mind” I think it was like some kind of bacon pie or something a guy made. Another one was just titled simply: “OMG” Yep, that’s the whole headline.

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