I Made Fun of Upworthy Headlines; What Happened Next was Amazing*

I like to be grumpy online about things that bug me; however, I try to be fair and limit my (usually) good-natured condemnations to an element that bugs me, rather than an entire organization or effort (an example of this ethos: think “people do stupid things” rather than “people are stupid”).

One good example of this is Upworthy. Nothing makes me crazier than the “Upworthy” style of headline, which usually goes along the lines of: “The Sun Rose Today: What Happened Next Will Amaze You.”

I guess I don’t like to be told that I will be amazed: I WILL BE THE JUDGE OF THAT.

However, what happened next shocked me; I quickly began to notice that some – perhaps many – of the stories being shared with these atrocious headlines were actually pretty interesting or moving (amazing? let’s not get carried away). How would I know that? Because friends- people I trust – said the content was worth looking at. When I bothered to click, it often was worth reading; at least, it was more often than I expected (I know, amazing, right?). That’s enough for this cynical old troll to stop crabbing.

So, no, Upworthy stories are not worthless; in fact, it’s just another lesson along the lines of “don’t judge a book by the Hello Kitty protective cover some shallow middle schooler put on it.”

I still hate the headlines- they do a disservice to the better stories out there.

And stop using the word amazing (or don’t); it has surely lost its meaning by now.


* Not really


  1. I couldn’t agree more. Their headlines suck so bad I really can’t open the link. And most are videos – which annoy those of us in corporate world because who knows what will show up or blast over the speakers :)

  2. Paul Chaney

    We could replace “Amazing” with “Awesome.” Thoughts? (Nevermind…I retract my suggestion.)

  3. Here’s a point to ponder: despite not liking the headlines, are you more likely to find the stories amazing / interesting / moving because you’ve been told to?

  4. Yes, the hyperbole is a bit much — I take even greater exception to the nonchalant manner in which Upworthy preaches at me, and uses distorted language to frame a particular worldview as though it were totally mainstream.

    I don’t like it when conservatives do it either.

  5. If any of our headlines use “What Happens/ed NExt” ever again, please let me know. (we’ve done it 5 times in our history.) The last time we used it was mid November. Also, fun fact, we’ve never uttered the phrase “You Won’t Believe What Happens/ed Next.” EVER.

    We’ve also been testing more descriptive headlines and they seem to be working. So don’t worry, we’re listening and adapting.

    Either way, thanks for the shoutout, and please let me know when you see headlines that cross the line.


    Adam Mordecai
    Editor-at-Large, Upworthy

  6. I have to respect Adam for his commitment to engaging on this topic. I recall him doing the same when it came up in a public post last year, and doing so respectfully and with great humor and humility.

    I’m glad to know that Upworthy is listening – the titles may not be EXACTLY as those Doug mentioned, but in my mind I’ve been dismissing them all the same because of the way the content is presented. I recognize that it’s a fine line – give too much away and perhaps people won’t click. But I’d argue at this point that people like me are loathe to click anyway.

    And like it or not, Upworthy was one of the sites that set this standard into motion, so it’s going to be one of the most widely linked (pun semi-intended) with this mode of operation.

    Just last week I posted a link and was forced to say, “Please ignore the ridiculous headline and awful, misleading image. This is a great story.” And it was. But more than one person said that had I not said that (and if I didn’t have a reputation for solid content) they would not have clicked.

  7. Doug Haslam

    Can I guy get a rant out without having it turn into a polite, substantive discussion? What has happened to this here Internet?

    Thanks Adam- Good to know the fact on that one particular odious headline construction.

    To the larger point- I gnash teeth when I think a headline is cheapening the content. Maybe others are more likely to click than I (that seems to be the case early on, anyway), but the kernel of this post was my discovery is that I like the content more often than not.

    I don’t really expect you to change until it stops driving traffic (and why should you?). If that excitement falls away and all you are left with is great content, there’s nothing wrong with that.

    Thanks all the rest of you for commenting as well. I expected much less of this toss-off of a post. :)

  8. Tinu

    Like you, I hate it when headlines don’t live up to hype. On the other hand, as a marketer, I have great respect for the Zegarnik effect and even more for the dollars it has put in my pocket. So I’m torn over this issue, but I would also like to be the judge over when I will be AMAZED.

  9. Now I’m giggling all over again after reading the comments and Doug’s response. Mickey? I agree, his is the best so far. Doug, settle in and accept your greatness, dude. Clearly what we have here when a simple “toss off of a post” post generates polite substantive discussion online.

    What fun.

    Oh and my two cents on the Upworthy stories? Often worth clicking past the goofy headlines.

  10. Doug, whenever I can get away with it, I try to give as much away as possible. But if it means the difference between 50k people seeing a really substantive 13 minute analysis on entitlements and welfare, and 2 million, then I’m willing to go vaguer. There’s an amazing breaking point at which a really great piece of content with just the right headline will go exponentially farther. It’s a fine line, and any headline that oversells is a disservice to the content, which we don’t like and watch out for. But we care more about the learnings that the quality of the headline.

    Pageviews are far less important to us than Attention minutes. If people don’t stick around to watch it, all the slideshows in the world won’t make your pageview count any more meaningful.

    But if its misleading or oversells, then we’ve done our job wrong.

  11. Mike

    Give me a break, Adam. The fact that your admission of rehashing the same hyperbolic phrase is meant to be some sort of testament to your diversity and creativity is AMAZING, SHOCKING, and CHANGED MY LIFE FOREVER. It’s pathetic. What’s even more pathetic is that you actually believe that following the same click-baiting formula designed to reel in uninformed readers, as long as it’s not the same phrase verbatim, is actually original. Please.

  12. moosefetcher

    The headline that irked me most (and I’m by no means certain this was an upworthy story) was for a photo story of a man who documented his wife’s life and loss to cancer. The headline featured a line along the lines ‘the last 3 photos broke my heart’. Really? They broke YOUR heart? YOUR heart was broken by seeing photos of a woman dying of cancer? The fact that this was simultaneously a ploy to get people to click the story wreaked of duplicity. Writers need to recognise that people will THINK about what they’re reading; We won’t all just respond in the impulsive, emotive manner that they presume. Needless to say – mostly because my best friend’s wife was then dying of cancer – I read the story; But the last 3 photos did not break my heart.

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