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Upworthy pivoted, and you’ll never guess what happened next

Office worker using mouse & computer at work,, UKOffice worker using mouse & computer at work,, UK

Upworthy rose to fame—or infamy, depending on how you look at it—by using “curiosity gap” headlines to drive massive amounts of social traffic to content that it found on the web. Other viral outlets quickly imitated that approach, however, and Facebook dialed back the promotion of such stories in its news-feed algorithm. So Upworthy has pivoted away from that strategy and is now focused on creating its own content, according to editorial director Amy O’Leary, who released a presentation on Wednesday detailing the new approach.

O’Leary, who left the New York Times to join Upworthy earlier this year, said in an interview that the headlines the startup came up with were just an experiment in using different tools to attract social attention to important social issues, but they became synonymous with a form of shallow content known as “clickbait.” At a recent conference, co-founder Peter Koechley actually apologized for creating this phenomenon, saying: “We sort of unleashed a monster.”

Upworthy actually stopped using those kinds of headlines once other sites and copycats such as ViralNova started flooding the social web with them, but rightly or wrongly the company has been associated with that approach ever since. One thing that hasn’t changed, O’Leary said, is that Upworthy’s central mission is still to bring attention to important social issues.

“It’s really more of an expansion of the original mission,” O’Leary said. “We have this expertise, in the sense that we know how to get people’s attention focused on difficult issues like climate change and racism. So then the question became, what would it look like if we did that with our own original stories?”

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Earlier this year, Upworthy let go a number of its writing staff, who O’Leary said weren’t a good fit with the company’s new direction, and it has retired the term “curator”—although she said the site will continue to curate or license content if it is exceptional enough. The company has since hired about five new writers and the editorial staff now numbers around 30, including writers, editors, data analysts and fact-checkers. Upworthy as a whole has about 100 employees.

After Facebook (FB) changed its algorithm last year, to focus on what it called “high quality” content, a number of viral publishers such as Upworthy saw their traffic decline, although O’Leary wouldn’t say how much of a drop the site saw. “We’ve certainly experienced changes that have affected traffic, both in bad ways and in good ways,” she said. “I don’t know if you could say it was because Facebook made this one change.” In any case, she said that the company’s view is that “you can go crazy trying to game an algorithm. My vision is to build quality content.”

In order to do that, the Upworthy editorial director says her editorial team works closely with data analysts to look at every conceivable metric that might indicate a reader’s level of interest in a post. And it goes beyond just looking at metrics like time spent, she says: “It’s about trying to figure out what’s going on in that little window of time where they’ve clicked on a story and are trying to decide whether to read it; is this something I want to read, is this something that will surprise or delight me?”

In a nutshell, O’Leary said Upworthy’s goal is to take the kinds of viral tools and knowledge about online attention and social sharing that it has built up over the past several years and apply that to serious social issues, not to buzz-worthy entertainment items or celebrity gossip (the company provided this list-style article about fast-food restaurants as an example of what it is trying to encourage). The challenge is what convinced her to leave the New York Times, she says.

“The question is, how do we use the same kinds of techniques that drove a story like The Dress for stories that matter? That’s a really interesting problem,” O’Leary said. “I feel like if we can’t solve this problem, then democracy will be harmed. If we can’t figure out how to get people interested in and talking about these important issues using these kinds of techniques then I feel like civilization will have failed.”