I have watched my fair share of Upworthy videos. They’re generally fun to hate-watch, and they make for good Newsfeed fodder. Sharing Upworthy videos with your “Family” or “High School Friends” Facebook list can make you feel like a prime time MSNBC anchor. Each video is an opportunity to reveal something to your assumedly uninformed, selfish friends. The leading, absolutely begging to be parodied titles range from confusing (You Should Watch This Strange Man Rub A Stick Of Butter On A Tree. For A Really Good Reason) to the cloyingly heinous (Obama Takes A Second To Talk About Jews In America. It’s MEGA Inspiring). These could be dismissed as cludgy rhetorical tools for Facebook arguments, but there’s something else about these videos that is actively destructive to the American left. Upworthy packages soundbites of elite white paternalism for mass distribution and consumption through social media.
I started off by implicating myself in distributing Upworthy videos because I want to highlight that I am not immune to the allure of “Fox News Anchor Forgets He’s On Fox News, Speaks Like A Real Human Being With Feelings And Stuff” So many of the videos are fueled by sheer schadenfreude; laughing at Fox News’ anchor androids has become a veritable hobby of mine and Upworthy certainly makes it incredibly easy to do. Different kinds of videos appeal to different people, for a variety of reasons. I get that. But the recent Malala Yousafzai interview on the Daily show is just too fine a distillation of what is wrong with Upworthy to ignore.
Malala is a brilliant person and up until the point Stewart asks to adopt her, (not his finest moment) it is a powerful firsthand account of what the Taliban have done and continue to do in the Swat Valley. At the same time however, it is a perfect example of how the mainstream progressivism is shot through with an obnoxious and paternalistic brand of white supremacy and cultural ignorance. Zeynep Tufekci said it quite succinctly: “If you think Malala is rare, that is probably because you have not spent much time in such countries. Most Malala’s, however, go nameless, and are not made into Western celebrities.” Assed Baig goes further by describing how this widespread ignorance actually justifies Western aggression:
This is a story of a native girl being saved by the white man. Flown to the UK, the Western world can feel good about itself as they save the native woman from the savage men of her home nation. It is a historic racist narrative that has been institutionalised. Journalists and politicians were falling over themselves to report and comment on the case. The story of an innocent brown child that was shot by savages for demanding an education and along comes the knight in shining armour to save her.
The actions of the West, the bombings, the occupations the wars all seem justified now, “see, we told you, this is why we intervene to save the natives.”
There’s an important connection between these two quotes that I want to explore by way of a seemingly unrelated set of literature. Science studies scholars use the term “organized ignorance” to describe the systematic and institutionalized maintenance of gaps or misunderstandings of scientific facts and procedures, on the part of powerful actors. Organized ignorance can suppress activism, establish professional boundaries, and steer research trajectories. Climate change is a pretty straight-forward example of organized ignorance. A more complicated one is the consequences of widespread PCB-based plasticizers. Both are severely under-studied in relation to their potential harm.
The Daily Show has its own set of problems, as do the other corporate media outlets that provide grist for Upworthy’s soundbite mill, but the fact that Upworthy serves up content specifically for sharing on social media makes organized ignorance more resilient and more widespread. Upworthy enrolls us in the establishment of our own organized ignorance. When we (and again, I am implicating myself in this) share these videos we are reenacting the hollow and superficial conversations that, in another context, would cause us to roll our eyes and complain about the lack of critical thought in news media. We share them for all sorts of reasons, but the impact is the same: ignorance goes viral.
By organizing ignorance around race relations and international conflict, Tufekci’s observation is transmuted into the justification for violence described by Baig. Through the simplification of extremely complicated geopolitical conflicts, Upworthy makes every story into Kony 2012. As Sarah Wanenchak wrote last year,
The video presents the ignorance of the developed West as its primary sin and the primary obstacle in the way of Joseph Kony being brought to justice; it therefore implicitly offers the simple fact of “awareness” as a form of blanket solution to this problem, with the supposition that action will necessarily follow. Viewing and sharing the video therefore offer an emotionally powerful but objectively questionable experience: the sense of having taken active part in something both significantly communal and directly world-altering.
The most pernicious aspect of Upworthy is that it makes you feel as though you are changing the world through consciousness raising when what you are actually doing is replicating and enacting an organized ignorance undergirded by the banal evil of white supremacy. Instead of focusing on structural change, these videos zoom into small heroic moments that are emotionally powerful but do very little to engender a more informed debate about our shared problems, nor do they help us make smarter demands of those in power.
I don’t call myself a liberal, but I can’t say I’m outside of their political and cultural influence either. By refraining from sharing the kinds of videos Upworthy curates and disseminates I can do my part in containing this kind of thinking. But I don’t want the reaction to this essay to be an organized boycott of this site. That would be treating the symptom when the greater illness is a dearth of useful tools for generative debate and discussion. We need to aspire to a better media landscape and outspoken leftist movement that makes Upworthy obsolete.
David is on Twitter and Tumblr
David Banks — October 12, 2013
A brief update by way of comment:
A few people on social media have noted that one point doesn't make a trend and have asked (I think rightly) to bolster my claim that white supremacy is shot through the entire site.
First I'll start with something I wish I had remembered to add in the original post what Nathan Jurgenson said about the Daily Show video: the title doesn't even have her name. She is absolutely replaceable in this scenario. Jon Stewart (or at least his name) is a commodity so he is named, but she is interchangeable with any other hero of the week.
When I went to browse for some recent, obvious examples I realized that Upworthy's categories presuppose a very interesting political topography. There is no race, but there is "diversity", "international", "immigration," and (I love how awkward this one sits in the list at the bottom of the drop down list) "spanish."
Just by ordering their videos into these categories, Upworthy presupposes a sort of color-blind racism. There can only be cosmopolitan diversity in Upworthy, not a single discussion of a single race's problems. Or, and I'm sure there are videos that discuss the struggles of a particular racial formation, it assumes that the discussion of race is in the service of promoting diversity. To illustrate my point further- consider what sorts of rhetorical work would be done if you replaced diversity with segregation. That'd be a shift from an implied prescriptive solution to a description of current race relations. I think that would imply a different set of videos. It also lets you ignore race in favor of other kinds of "diversity."
But to get to specific videos, here's a quick survey of the most recent videos in the "diversity" category. Unfortunately I will be limited to analysis of the titles because I'm at a conference and don't have a convenient place or block of time to watch a bunch of videos in a timely manner:
"The Real Lesson Behind Miss America Is That We Have No Idea Where Any Countries Are On The Map" -- I think its important to ask who the "we" is there. I'm sure people from those countries that immigrated to the US would know.
"Lapsed Catholics Everywhere Are Totally Confused By This Crazy New Nonjudgmental Pope" The term "nonjudgemental pope" is a red flag. As is the ablism implied in using "crazy." Its easy to be pleasantly "totally confused" by the Catholic Church's statements when they do not have much bearing on your daily life. This is different for, say, the Ghanaians I work with in my dissertation project who can't get access to condoms and are dealing with a president that has made statements about killing gay people.
"Stephen Fry's Bone-Crushing Final Remark In A Debate Against The Catholic Church" This is an excellent example of my last comment about diversity as a stand-in for race. Stephen Fry has said some extremely Islamophobic things but can still be elevated to hero status for criticizing the institution that, in the last video, had just played the role of hero. Fun!
"A Religious Leader Tries To Tell The Wrong Woman How To Dress. Big Mistake." This is a similar move that the Daily Show clip makes: it capitalizes on the organized ignorance of feminist activism in other countries to make it seem like this is one woman set against a dangerous population of brown men, in need of a white savior.
Georgiana — October 13, 2013
It's a disgusting site with nothing but emotionally manipulative linkbait. Not only do they tell you what to watch, they tell you how to think and feel while you're watching it. I have no idea why anyone would ever click into it, much less watch one of their videos. And that's not even getting into the fact that they profit by using other people's intellectual property, instead of linking to the sites that host the videos. Super gross.
Georgiana — October 13, 2013
Also the title to this piece is terrible and reads as more linkbait. Not sure if you were trying to parody them or if this is your usual style. I hope the former.
Friday Roundup (Monday Edition): Oct. 14, 2013 » The Editors' Desk — October 14, 2013
[...] A look down at Upworthy, and a look forward at digital media and [...]
Friday Roundup: Oct. 18, 2013 » The Editors' Desk — October 18, 2013
[...] David Banks gives us the best sarcastic headline on the site this week and explains why Upworthy might just be about smug navel-gazing: “Through the simplification of extremely complicated geopolitical conflicts, Upworthy makes [...]
Linkspam, 10/18/13 Edition — Radish Reviews — October 18, 2013
[...] You Won’t Believe What This Web Site Does to The Liberal Left! Great analysis of Upworthy which, I admit, I do like on Facebook and which I do occasionally look at. [...]
In Their Words » Cyborgology — October 20, 2013
[…] “the Malala Yousafzai interview on the Daily show is just too fine a distillation of what is wrong wi…” […]
This Video Will Make You Scream and Break Dishes but at Minute 3 Your Head Will Literally Explode and You Will Die | The Tusk — January 16, 2014
[…] So why do we hate it? What’s wrong with sharing Upworthy stories? I mean, THEY ARE WORTHY, after all. They show people doing good things, things that might expand a person’s understanding of the world, maybe. It is important say, for people who don’t know any gay people or transgendered people to experience these people and if they can’t meet them in real life, watching them on TV, reading books about them, watching YouTube poetry slam videos are an okay second place. The Marriage Equality movement has basically changed public opinion completely in 10 years because of stories, movies, TV shows that introduced Americans to gay people who weren’t deviants or creeps or other caricatures but were actually real human beings. The Cosby Show showed a lot of white Americans who had never had real relationships with black Americans that they were actually a lot alike (at least in a sitcom sense). Taking cigarettes out of the mouths of every cool character in every movie and putting them in the mouths of villains and drug addicts completely changed what it meant to be a smoker in this country. So the images and stories we see and share are important and have a lot of social power. […]
cynical jo — January 23, 2014
it is such a relief to see this piece. i find these videos mind-numbing and depressing when I think about how we are sitting back watching and not actually doing anything to address the larger social/economic and political problems because they seem too overwhelming. upworthy is people magazine for those who are bored by celebrity culture but still need entertaining. you never actually have to do anything to feel like you are involved as you have clicked on 'share'.
MrFreaksworth — January 24, 2014
I knew I hated the site. But I didn't have my own words to codify my feelings. Thanks for writing this.
Megan — February 4, 2014
I feel the same way about Upworthy, but you forgot one key piece of info in your blog post - They're basically the America's Funniest Home Videos of the Liberal slacktivists. They go searching across the web for videos or blogs posted on small sites, copy the video and all the information the smaller blog posted and paste it on their site, with a small link to where they got the info from. Then they put out the ambiguous title on their post to generate the linkbait and gain the revenue from the clicks. The content posted is usually 99.999% someone else's work that they found on a small blog or site and used it to create revenue for themselves. It would be different if they posted part of the article with a "continue reading over at thepostersblog.com" but they don't. Plus you can't just share the video from Upworthy (because the right person getting the credit is not cool in their eyes), you always have to share the whole Upworthy page so again, Upworthy gets all the credit and revenue while the original poster gets little to none.
Megan — February 4, 2014
I should probably add that I am a "liberal" myself.
Toxic: on race, gender, and resilient labor on social media » Cyborgology — February 17, 2014
[…] media is, at least in part, an affective economy of upworthiness. Resilience generates both human capital and capital capital (often in the form of data that’s […]
You Won’t Believe What This Web Site Does to the Liberal Left! | David A Banks — March 6, 2014
[…] I have watched my fair share of Upworthy videos. They’re generally fun to hate-watch, and they make for good Newsfeed fodder. Sharing Upworthy videos with your “Family” or “High School Friends” Facebook list can make you feel like a prime time MSNBC anchor. Each video is an opportunity to reveal something to your assumedly uniformed, selfish friends. The leading,absolutely begging to be parodied titles range from confusing (You Should Watch This Strange Man Rub A Stick Of Butter On A Tree. For A Really Good Reason) to the cloyingly heinous (Obama Takes A Second To Talk About Jews In America. It’s MEGA Inspiring). These could be dismissed as cludgy rhetorical tools for Facebook arguments, but there’s something else about these videos that is actively destructive to the American left. Upworthy packages soundbites of elite white paternalism for mass distribution and consumption through social media. (More) […]
On Pharrell’s “Happy” » Cyborgology — April 14, 2014
[…] attempt to pull a fast one on the economy of viral “upworthiness”–an economy that, as David has shown, is really […]
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On Pharrell’s “Happy” — August 12, 2014
[…] attempt to pull a fast one on the economy of viral “upworthiness”–an economy that, as David has shown, is really racist. So, before I get into “Happy,” let me first explain what I mean by the […]
Ice bucket challenge: Why ‘charity narcissism’ is good | Mens Health Issues — September 2, 2014
[…] of this is not to say that a culture of narcissism isn’t problematic. A sense of cultural righteousness often leads to oversimplification of complex issues, for example, as noted by PhD student David Banks in a blog post about feel-good […]