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This Headline Pulled You In. What Happens Next is Viral Content Magic.

Chief Executive and co-founder of Upworthy, Eli Pariser. jurvetson/Flicker

Maybe you've noticed a new trend on Facebook and Twitter. Suddenly, a bunch of your friends are sharing links like CRAZY. And you can't quite put your finger on it, but all these headlines have a certain tone ...


9 Out Of 10 Americans Are Completely Wrong About This Mind-Blowing Fact

or ...

He Was Found Freezing And Dying. Yet Somehow The Last Photo Made My Entire Year.

or ...

The 35 Naughtiest Dogs On The Planet. You'll Laugh So Hard When You See What They Did!

And we're pretty sure you've seen this one:

This Kid Just Died. What He Left Behind Is Wondtacular.

You just can't not click ... right? And millions of other people are clicking, too, making Upworthy one of the most popular sites of 2013 - and allowing its newer imitators to get really popular really fast.

But there's more to these sites than just their clickable headlines.

What Happens Next is Unbelievable.

OK, not really, but it is pretty interesting to know why you see the things you see in your news feed. And yeah, we want you to keep scrolling.

It all started with Upworthy

Upworthy was founded by Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, two former employees of MoveOn.org. Both are relatively young (32) and unapologetically liberal.

The site's tagline is "Things That Matter. Pass 'em on." and has the content to match -- bubbly, inspirational stories with heart.

This isn't new territory for the founders - MoveOn posted content with similar messages. In a TED Talk two years ago, Pariser explained the dangers of staying in a "filter bubble," or only clicking on the familiar:

Upworthy launched in the spring of 2012, getting 2.5 million views in just its third month. And the site just keeps getting more popular, with over 50 million unique visitors per month (at least). Many of the more popular posts have millions of shares -- and those numbers just keep on rising.

Why am I seeing these clicky headlines EVERYWHERE all of a sudden?

It's all about going viral.

A look at some Upworthy headlines.

A look at some Upworthy headlines.

There's no exact recipe, but there are two key ingredients.

1. It starts with the headline. The writers and editors at Upworthy, ViralNova, Distractify, Gawker, Huffington Post, BuzzFeed, and so on put a lot of time into crafting their headlines.

Generally, the way it goes is this: they write several possible headlines for each post, test them out with an audience, and then eventually choose the best one for the final product. These headlines are carefully crafted to stimulate curiosity.

2. Headlines make you click, but content makes you share. And that's the key - after all, to go viral in the true sense means the content has to pass from person to person, largely through social media. And the content on these viral content sites is all carefully chosen to intentionally evoke an emotional response - amazement, shock, disbelief, solidarity, relief. Of course you're going to cry after looking at these photos a husband took of his wife dying from cancer. You're only human.

You may want to keep tissues handy. Anti-viral tissues.

You may want to keep tissues handy. Anti-viral tissues. fsse8info / Flickr

It works because emotional content really affects you.

But there's also another side to all of this, and it has everything to do with technology.

The tech component of viral content

Sean MacEntee/Flickr

Just a few months ago, Facebook quietly changed the algorithm that controls what pops up on our news feeds. The social network, in a blog post, promised a news feed that would deliver more of what users want-- "stories they want to see, even if they missed them the first time."

Viral content sharing lends itself really well to this new Facebook algorithm. Upworthy got a bump in traffic from the new algorithm, as did other sites, many of which noticed years-old posts suddenly getting thousands of clicks.

And there's probably a feedback loop at work there: it seems likely that the more something gets shared, the more likely Facebook will be to show it to more people.

Other social media sites have different ways of surfacing content that you may want to see. Twitter, for example, seems to be experimenting with figuring out what tweets are going viral. Tumblr is improving its search function.

So, this Upworthy thing is really catching on, eh?

Yup. And you may have noticed similar headlines popping up all over social media - even The Washington Post launched their own version, KnowMore. And new ones are appearing all the time, like Independent Journal Review (for conservatives) and FaithIt (for Christians).

Does this mean that all media is going this way?

Will viral stories really 'restore my faith in humanity'?

Maybe not. And it might be time to learn the definition of the word "clickbait," which basically means headlines written for the purpose of making you click. The key is creating the so-called curiosity gap - a headline intriguing enough to get you interested yet vague enough to get you to want to know more. *click*

Upworthy doesn't like the term "clickbait," and they posted a defense of their success:

"'Clickbait' — overselling content with outrageous headlines in order to get people onto a website — is a totally viable (if totally annoying) way to get a bunch of initial views. But it doesn’t create viral content. By far the most important factor in getting people to share a post is the actual quality of the content in the eyes of the community. To share, they have to love what they see."

When viral content goes wrong

Now that you have a better idea of why you see what you see, click what you click, and share what you share online, there's just one more thing - a word of caution: The next time you're scrolling through your favorite site or your Facebook feed, you might notice a few clickbait headlines here and there ... But don't believe everything you read or watch.

Be skeptical. Be VERY skeptical.

Just because something is going viral doesn't mean it's true.

It's really easy to get duped (for individuals as well as respected news organizations) and really hard to check the facts.

So while the story you just clicked on is heartwarming or helpful or hilarious, keep in mind that it might be a hoax.


Advocate for responsible media >>

Familiarize yourself with the Society of Professional Journalists' Code of Ethics >>

Create your own Upworthy-style headlines with the Upworthy Generator >>

Images used under Creative Commons licensing.

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This Headline Pulled You In. What Happens Next is Viral Content Magic.

Lily Altavena

Lily is currently a TV news producer in Dallas, Texas. Previously, she was a production assistant at MSNBC. She is also a recent NYU grad. She interned for Ann Curry’s team at NBC News, The New York Times, The Village Voice, and the education nonprofit She’s the First. Her interests range from politics to education to comedy. She is not actually a dinosaur. Follow: @lilyalta.

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