AUDIE CORNISH, HOST:
At one point a few years ago, the left-leaning feel-good website Upworthy was the fastest growing website of all time. And then Facebook changed the algorithm that controlled its news feed. Way fewer people clicked on Upworthy post. NPR's Sam Sanders looks at what happened after Upworthy went downhill and what that says about the power of Facebook.
SAM SANDERS, BYLINE: You know the Upworthy headline. Here's one.
UNIDENTIFIED WOMAN: "The Things This 4-Year-Old Is Doing Are Cute. The Reason He's Doing Them Is Heartbreaking."
SANDERS: By 2013, Upworthy and those kind of headlines - it was all reaching about 90 million people per month. But this content, especially the headlines - people called it click-bait, low-quality stuff just meant to grab eyeballs for the ad revenue.
Has Upworthy ever made click-bait?
ELI PARISER: Sure. I mean I think...
SANDERS: That's Eli Pariser. He is the co-founder and chief executive of Upworthy. Even he admits some of the headlines were off. I asked him to give me an example of Upworthy click-bait.
PARISER: Yeah, let me Google for a minute 'cause...
He found one from September 2013.
PARISER: And here's the headline. "His First Four Sentences Are Amazing. The Fifth Blew My Mind And Made Me A Little Sick." So the annoying thing about this headline is...
SANDERS: Wait. That's the headline?
PARISER: ...There's not a lot of - that's the headline.
SANDERS: Wait. Say it again, slower - the headline.
PARISER: "His First Four Sentences Are Interesting. The Fifth..."
SANDERS: "The Fifth Blew My Mind And Made Me A Little Sick." This was an article about the American health care system.
PARISER: I think it's, like, a three. Like...
SANDERS: (Laughter) OK.
PARISER: It's not, you know - or a two, you know?
SANDERS: The CEO of Upworthy gave that headline a 2 out of 10. Around the end of 2013, traffic to Upworthy started to plummet. Ultimately Upworthy traffic declined by about two-thirds mostly because of Facebook. Engineers at Facebook told the New York Times recently that content like Upworthy's was just not valuable to Facebook users. Jen Golbeck agrees.
JEN GOLBECK: They really optimized this technique of manipulating people through headlines to coming to see content that they might not want to see otherwise.
SANDERS: Golbeck studies computer science and social networks at the University of Maryland, and she says sometimes websites like Upworthy leave telltale signs for Facebook.
GOLBECK: They can see that you leave and then come back right away, that you're not really visiting the site to engage with what's there, which means you didn't like the thing you clicked on.
SANDERS: Or Facebook and see when lots of people click on an article but don't share it with their friends. Those engineers at Facebook can tell when the content is clicky (ph) but not sticky. Upworthy pushed back and said Facebook changed their algorithm to promote Facebook content over Upworthy's. Whatever the case, there's a connection between the story of Upworthy and the rise of fake news even though Upworthy is not fake news. They mostly post inspirational content. That's actually their mission.
GOLBECK: You can blame them for opening that Pandora's box but still feel bad that they've lost a lot of their ability to do something that I think is a positive contribution to what we see on the web and social media.
SANDERS: Upworthy and fake news have or had one big thing in common - sensational headlines. And how Facebook dealt with Upworthy might show us how they'll deal with fake news.
KURT WAGNER: For the longest time, Facebook has wanted to avoid any connection with being editorial.
SANDERS: This is Kurt Wagner. He's a senior editor at Recode. That's a tech blog.
WAGNER: And what I mean by that is they did not want users to think that Facebook is deciding what you read and what you don't read.
SANDERS: Which means maybe the only way you're going to see less fake news in spaces like Facebook is if you and everybody else just consumes it less. As for Upworthy, they're still here. Amy O'Leary is the editorial director of Upworthy now. She says the company's focused on original reporting, more writers. And they've turned down the headlines.
AMY O'LEARY: If a headline maybe is saying, this story will definitely make you cry, one of the rules I have is I go back to the writer every time and say, well, did this story definitely make you cry? Like, did you actually shed tears at your desk when you were working on this?
SANDERS: And strangely enough, Upworthy recently partnered with Facebook to make them videos, which maybe makes sense when you consider what Upworthy's CEO, Eli Pariser, told me. He said being mad at Facebook about all of this would be like being mad at the weather. Sam Sanders, NPR News.
KELLY MCEVERS, HOST:
Sam Sanders hosts NPR's newest podcast, "It's Been A Minute," a talk show about the news and culture of the week. The first episode is out on Friday.
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