Two years ago, Upworthy didn't exist. Today, it gets more than 80 million unique visitors every month. That dwarfs traditional media outlets like The Washington Post and The New York Times.
Upworthy isn't the first newcomer to post impressive traffic numbers. Yahoo, Buzzfeed and the Huffington Post all rack up eye-popping totals. Business Insider, the Gawker network, the Vox Media network and Mashable also managed to build huge audiences from a standing start. But Upworthy is different. You can see why on this graph (data via Newswhip):
In November 2013, the Huffington Post published more than 18,000 articles. The Washington Post published almost 7,000. Buzzfeed and Business Insider both posted more than 3,000. Gawker put up more than 1,000.
Upworthy posted 250 pieces of content. That's fewer than Wonkblog. And they didn't even create any of that content. They found all of it elsewhere on the Web. But, to use an Upworthy-ism, what happened to it next will blow your mind:
Prior to Upworthy the model for success online was to use fewer people than traditional news outlets do to create and curate much more content. Upworthy is using very few people to create no content and to curate very little.
"Our top curators comb through hundreds of videos and graphics a week, looking for the 5-7 that they’re confident are super-shareable," Upworthy explains. "That’s not a typo: We pay people full-time to curate 5-7 things a week."
One reason Upworthy limits the content it unleashes is that they're focused on traffic from Facebook, and Facebook limits the amount of content a publisher can profitably post. Outlets on Facebook get punished if they're posting too much content to the site. So a Facebook-focused publisher like Upworthy has far sharper diminishing marginal returns than a traditional publisher who's extremely interested in, say, repeat viewers of their homepage. (This is one way in which Facebook's (evolving) rules might effect how outlets publish in the future.)
That said, we're in an era when repeat viewing of the homepage is a lot less important than virality on Facebook. So it's not clear that should hold much weight. The lesson of the social Web is that in terms of traffic -- and traffic is not the only metric publishers should worry about, but it's important -- one piece of content that goes viral is worth hundreds of pieces of content that don't.
Publishers have long wondered about the diminishing returns of posting so much content. The question Upworthy's success raises is whether there are negative returns to posting so much content. Perhaps the time spent producing thousands of articles, most of which have very slight readership, would be better spent producing hundreds of articles more thoughtfully because more will go wildly viral. Lower content expectations give writers more time to find amazing stories, to get amazing quotes, to come up with amazing headlines.
Or so goes the theory. Certainly a lot of writers would like to believe that. But what Upworthy is doing isn't giving writers a lot of time to create content that may or may not cohere into something that could go viral. They're giving writers a lot of time to find content that they're pretty sure will go viral. If you want to find something that will go nuts on Facebook, time spent sorting through what already exists is likely a lot more efficient than time spent creating something from scratch. It's entirely possible that if a place like The Post attempted to ratchet back on content expectations they would end up both with less content and less virality.
I'd like to to have an answer to these questions. I don't. Upworthy's success proves that if you can build a process that reliably produces viral hits, frequency is a whole lot less important than the rest of the media thinks it is. The question is whether more traditional publishers that are creating more original content can actually engineer such a process -- and, given the trade-offs it might entail, if they actually should.