Valence, Value and Virality: Why Upworthy & BuzzFeed May Be Skewing Our View of Reality

Am I the only person who gets frustrated with these viral feel-good sites?

(Forgive me in advance, as I will admit my bias first and foremost: I am a cynical person at times.)

But there is something sincerely irking about sites like Upworthy or BuzzFeed that tell me to feel things 24/7 as I’m scrolling through my Facebook newsfeed and Twitter timeline. That my faith in humanity will be restored if I just click the link. As Mary Elizabeth Williams of Salon.com jokes, “BuzzFeed, by the way, is now editorially obliged to Restore Your Faith In Humanity at least once a day. It’s the adorable Upworthy video in which a small child says something wise. And it’s usually accompanied by a dare from the person who posted it to grab your tissues, because there’s, like, no way you can get through this thing without it RAINING ALL OVER YOUR FACE.”

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While social media has become the fastest way to find out about breaking news and stay up to date on social issues, it seems like all I’m finding out is that BuzzFeed has the 25 gayest pictures of Pope Benedict XVII and Upworthy thinks I’ll NEVER believe what they have to share: “He’s Speaking. She’s Playing. And I’m Just Over Here Trying To Pick My Jaw Up Off The Floor.

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Okay.

To break out a little bit of communication theory for you, if you know anything about agenda-setting theory, it means that if an issue is covered more often and emphasized as important by the media, the audience will believe it to be more important. We’ve heard numerous times before not to believe everything you read on the Internet. These days, though, it’s less about believing everything you read and more about whether you take viral social media content at face value. If content goes viral, it’s right in your face. All the time. So do these sites mean to imply that valence is directly correlated with value?

As college students, we see Upworthy and BuzzFeed articles invading our Facebook newsfeeds and Twitter timelines on a regular basis. In my own social circles at least, these spread more frequently than legitimate news sources because these sites make the saccharine go viral. They know what it takes to get people’s attention and these articles and videos spread like wildfire across social networks. Thus, BuzzFeed’s quirky lists of GIFs and Upworthy’s videos about things that matter are what end up taking center stage on social media.

The unfortunate truth is the world is not quite what these websites make it out to be. When we take in our world through social media, we’re experiencing it through a filter.

As much as I’d like to believe so, the world cannot be summed up in a BuzzFeed listicle or an emotionally moving Upworthy video. When this is the content that’s dominating my newsfeed, am I laughing at the ever so relatable BuzzFeed articles? Probably. Am I moved by the Upworthy video that shows the good in society? Maybe. But if that’s all I’m taking in, my worldview has become quite narrow.

“She Didn’t Think The Love Of Her Life Was Romantic Enough. Then She Looked Out Her Office Window.”

These are the things that matter? The ones I should be passing on?

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What happens if these things that matter and 27 Listicles That Apply To You Regardless of Your Individual Identity become our filter? Betabeat’s Ryan Holiday says that sharing these articles is all because “we don’t like to feel cognitive dissonance or complexity. [Companies like Upworthy have] adapted by never letting us feel anything but nicely packaged happiness.”

We like to feel good. Sharing Upworthy videos makes us feel good. Reading the “news” on BuzzFeed through GIFs makes us feel good. These sites live by the theory that if it isn’t fun or meaningful, it isn’t worth consuming.

Instead of learning what’s going on in our world, we’re bombarded by content of “beautiful photos that will CHANGE YOUR LIFE” day in, day out. Yes, that’s the definition of viral content. But there’s a different between silly memes all over the place and videos and articles telling me that these are the most important things in my life today. As one of our classmates shared in the comments of another’s post, there’s a Tumblr that exists to mock Buzzfeed’s lack of content when there aren’t any GIFs. And yet it is considered a journalistic entity.

So…this is journalism?

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What it comes down to is that Upworthy and BuzzFeed operate as businesses by promoting fun, optimistic content to get clicks. “Our generation wants to know what is going on, but we want it to be fun,” Upworthy cofounder Peter Koechley said in this New York Times article. Holiday attributes this to the fact that hopelessness is just not shareable; passionate feelings, like anger and excitement, are what drive virality. Valence seems to determine value (at least on the Internet) and virality. But if this becomes society’s standard, what then?

The sad truth of the world is that not everything we experience in this lifetime will be deeply meaningful or fun or worthy enough of passion to drive action. I will be the first to admit that I don’t watch the news very often because it depresses me to see the state of the world. But we need the good AND the bad. We need the “Humanity Blows Me Away Sometimes”-type posts and the silly BuzzFeed listicles AND the honest, frank look at the world. Sometimes we need a pick-me-up. Sometimes we need to get a good hard look at the world and admit that it is really screwed up.

It ain’t all pretty, folks, but that’s the picture Upworthy and BuzzFeed seem to paint. It’s just up to us to determine whether or not we are the generation who can only consume news or other content if it’s fun.

P.S. Take what I say with a grain of salt. I’m guilty of reading many a BuzzFeed article and, clearly, I’m a big GIF fan.

10 comments

  1. Megan, this is a really well-written post and I love your incorporation of GIFs. You make a really interesting point about how our views can be warped by what we see on social media platforms. As I scroll through Facebook, the majority of the links I see shared are BuzzFeed articles (or something similar and humorous along the same lines) and articles that are meant to be motivational and uplifting. I never considered that there could be negative effects to this, but I think you make a good point. While BuzzFeed is usually funny, it can also be kind of mundane and pointless. While Upworthy shows acts of kindness and is meant to inspire us, there are many things that it doesn’t show. I think both sites serve good purposes, but you’re right – we need a bit more balance. I feel like I’m still aware of many of the bad things that happen in the news, but I’m often more inclined to read one of these funny or happy articles than I am to read a depressing news article simply because that’s what I see on Facebook. Perhaps we’re so drawn to these articles on social media because when we turn to traditional media, like the news or a newspaper, we see all of the horrible things. Maybe we expect social media to be an outlet for only the good things since we use it typically to socialize and communicate. I think this is a great topic for further discussion. Great post, Megan!

    1. Megan — I would argue that these uplifting stories are the balance to more traditional media’s real-world chaos stories. When I follow CNN, BBC, NYT, etc. on Twitter, my feed is full of stories of the horrible things that are happening in the world; traditional media is taking their newspapers and putting these same stories online and into social media.

      While I agree that seeing the listicals over and over again on FB can get a little monotonous, I don’t think that the balance between uplifting/comedic pieces and serious pieces is off. Also, Upworthy has a number of videos that focus on serious issues and are not always happy.

      Take a look these videos from Upworthy:
      https://farm.upworthy.com/a-summary-of-mcminimum-wages-and-mcwelfare-in-one-hilarious-clip?g=2
      http://www.upworthy.com/something-really-insane-just-happened-in-congress-and-you-probably-havent-heard-a-word-about-it?g=2

      Both of these videos deal with some pretty serious political issues that I am happy were brought to my attention by someone’s FB post. So perhaps (at least in Upworthy’s case) it is not that they’re only making happy videos about a cat that was saved from a tree, but that those are the posts that your friends are posting or retweeting. And if this is the case, why? Why is it more likely for these posts to be spread, and for videos about current issues to not be forwarded as often?

  2. I was going to say the exact same thing Meagan! I completely agree, I feel like traditional outlets are flooded with horribly depressing stories so Buzzfeed and Upworthy are our ways of finding that balance that you’re talking about Megan. You are totally right, Megan, Buzzworthy and Upworthy definitely show one side of the world, but I don’t know that that’s necessarily a bad thing (I know you’re not saying it is) because without it I think we would be left with almost all bad news. I think we can consume non-Buzzworthyesque news we just don’t actively seek it. I don’t know if that will change as we get older. I know my older friends on Facebook tend to share more traditional news stories more frequently than people our age so maybe we will eventually too.

  3. Hi Megan- very interesting and well-written post! First, how did you embed the GIFs? You’re way more technologically savvy than me! I’ve never been to Upworthy but lately I have become a BuzzFeed fanatic. I have downloaded the app, and whenever I need to fill my time with something entertaining or a quick laugh, I know that Buzzfeed will be there to provide relevant material. That being said, I could not agree more about your concerns. I try to avoid any opinionated piece written by authors on Buzzfeed. I am not naive enough to believe that they are not trying to push a certain political agenda when the time comes to write about breaking news. Why not use their already huge fan base to do so? All to often, I’ll hear my friends talk about Obamacare or a new Gay marriage bill being passed or rejected. And that’s great, but the problem is they will say ‘I read on Buzzfeed that…” Buzzfeed should not be a news source, and it should stick to doing what they do best- creating mindless, entertaining material. The fact that many of my peers get their news from websites like this leaves me to be a cynic like you. Not only is it an extremely skewed and biased perception of what is truly going on, but it makes us lazy. We won’t sit down to watch the news or go to an established news source, but we will read an article from Buzzfeed on the topic and accept it as the truth. Granted the media has skewed news for decades in an effort to push their own political views, but Buzzfeed is exacerbating this bias. Again, great post and very relevant right now!

  4. Hi Megan – Thanks for taking an alternative view on this, and I think you’re right in a lot of ways. To Megan Fay’s point, Buzzfeed should be remembered for what it is – an outlet for humor, or “mindless” material that’s entertaining. Sometimes it’s great to turn off our minds and focus on laughter. I think we should all encourage our friends to examine legitimate media sources, including the Wall Street Journal & New York Times, to be sure they are consuming real news. Yes, it can be depressing, and at times I just glance to be sure I know what the article is about but move on – the recent typhoon in the Philippines is a good example of this. Entertainment, joy and laughter is really important, but engaging in reality, and sometimes the mundane topics like the Fed tapering, are important for us as educated people in today’s society.

  5. First I have to point out that I love how every Megan in this thread spells their name differently! Very helpful and a weird coincidence..I wanted to say that I completely agree with Meghan. People need to recognize that Buzzfeed should not be trusted as a news source. I think that sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy are great for mindless entertainment, and I think that’s often what we need from social media. It does become a problem, however, when people turn to these sites for reliable news. I was actually surprised in class the other week when we were talking about the story of the girl who dressed as a Boston Marathon bombing victim for Halloween, because the information on that story that we had been Tweeting out was coming from Buzzfeed. This story was valid and I had checked to make sure it was discussed on sites other than Buzzfeed, but this just made it more apparent to me how we can easily read something on sites like Buzzfeed and not bother to check actual news sites for the story. I think that this is the main problem that could result from sites like this. On the other hand, I think that sharing inspirational or fun stories on social media is more often than not a good thing. I wrote a blog post 2 weeks ago on an inspirational video I had seen and asked the question why are people so eager to share inspirational things through social media? The conclusion I reached was that people like to motivate others and inspiration is a good means by which to do this. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the stories we share from Upworthy and Buzzfeed are not complete views of reality, but sharing some positivity each day doesn’t seem like such a bad thing!
    Great post!

  6. Hi Meghan- I agree with your opinion that websites such as Buzzfeed and Upworthy are definitely meant more for fun than for actual news. The stories on both (if we can really call them all stories) are light and meant for an easy read. However, I do think that they can offer some insight into the world as well. I don’t recommend people getting their news from these sources, as a few of the other people have commented above as well, but it’s a good way to drop hints of reality on people when they are on the website. I for one just went to buzzfeed and found this article about the Typhoon in the Phillipines. While the actual writing on the page is minimal, it tells the stories with pictures instead, which I think can also be just as powerful.
    http://www.buzzfeed.com/alisonvingiano/survivors-of-typhoon-haiyan-share-photos-and-videos-of-devas

  7. Nice post and I agree with everybody above. Buzzfeed and Upworthy have their niche and I think they have a good idea of what they want to provide to their readers. Most of the people I see reading and sharing Buzzfeed articles are taking study breaks and procrastinating, so they want to see some lighthearted, funny, time-wasting things to brighten their moods a little bit. We have talked in class about how the different platforms of social media have their own strengths and reasons for using them, and I think Buzzfeed knows where they stand and how people utilize it. I agree that their articles can be inane and hollow, but they have had a lot of success with their website since that is what people want to see. I agree with Kathryn that Buzzfeed is for when people want to turn off their minds and that they can use the NYT and WSJ for when they want to see real news.

  8. Very nice post. Particularly like your “dropping of communication theory.” My problem with sites like these is when things are engineered to go viral, they invariably leave out an important part of the story. Life is not always “sound biteable”

  9. Megan, awesome job taking a unique perspective on two typically very popular sites. It really is crazy how sites like Buzzfeed and Upworthy tend to publish similiar posts are create standardized ideas about “what lifes all about.” I really liked how you took an alternative approach and mentioned how we need to know the good and the bad, the silly and the honest. I definitely agree with this point; however, by no means do I think its up to these sites to keep individuals well-informed about what’s going on in the world. In fact, I think its our duty to stay in tune and up-to-date with more traditional news sources. While I do love Buzzfeed and Upworthy, it’s important to take everything with a grain of salt and to have a balance (in many aspects of life). I don’t blame these sites for perpetuating similar ideas/ posts–I blame readers who ONLY turn to “news” outlets such as these. It is absolutely important to be aware of what’s going on it the world and I think that’s left up to the individual. While I agree that we need to know both sides of reality, I feel like the sites you mentioned are, at the end of the day, businesses and concerned with publishing what’s popular. Thanks for taking a nontraditional stand and pointing out some of the flaws with social media/ our perception.

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