Of the 396 videos uploaded to YouTube by political magazine The Nation, the vast majority have between a few hundred and a few thousand views. But one of them, a 13-minute video about the NYPD's controversial stop-and-frisk policy, now has almost 750,000.
So what happened? The video is quite similar in content to the rest of The Nation's videos. It's also long -- very long by Internet standards -- and deals with an issue seldom covered in the mainstream media. As it turns out, the only reason it has been viewed so many times is because it was featured on the 6-month-old video-sharing website Upworthy, under a catchier title: "Meet The 17-Year-Old Who Blew The Lid Off Racial Profiling With His iPod."
And that's the secret, really, to Upworthy's success. According to the site's founders Eli Pariser and Peter Koechley, their goal is to uncover videos that they think are important -- more important, anyway, than another cat clawing its way out of a cardboard box or a dude surfing on a rooftop -- and then package those videos with titles that resonate.
The founders' hope is that they can saturate the viral video market with content that they deem substantive, videos they believe deserve a wider audience. Though, as they told The Huffington Post last week, the process is still largely mysterious.
"It's always amazing and interesting what goes viral," Koechley said. "Sometimes the stuff that does really well is the most wonderful, obviously viral stuff, and sometimes it's really substantive, almost a little boring, but really interesting and emotionally powerful. We wake up and wonder, and more days we're wrong than right."
Pariser and Koechley had the idea for Upworthy during the 2008 election, when they both worked on a video for MoveOn.org, where Pariser was executive director. That particular project produced one of the most memorable videos of that season, a customizable, fake newscast that accused each particular viewer (by name, no less) of ruining America for not having voted in the presidential election.
The video was viewed 23 million times in 2 weeks, Koechley said.
"And that's when we started talking about how do we spread actually meaningful content over social media?" he recalled.
Since Upworthy's launch in late March of this year, the site has already amassed almost half a million Facebook followers and 265,000 daily email subscribers, and its monthly views have grown by a million each month this summer, topping off at 6 million by the end of September. Early investors include higher-ups at such social networking powerhouses as Buzzfeed, Reddit and Facebook.
Though Upworthy's videos generally focus on progressive topics, Pariser said that specifically "political" videos have been surprisingly few and far between.
"One of our assumptions going into this year was it was going to be a high-intensity, fast-growth year because of the election," Pariser said. "It has been a high-intensity year, but the election has played a surprisingly small role in it."
Indeed, Upworthy's most-viewed video, of a local Wisconsin news anchor defending her weight to an online bully, is not remotely partisan. Other top performers include an ad from an Australian organization defending gay marriage, which an Upworthy curator titled, "If This Video Makes You Uncomfortable, Then You Make Me Uncomfortable."
The founders have already learned that "cheesy" content, or content "clearly optimized for traffic," doesn't cut it.
"To the audience's credit," Koechley said, "when we try and do cheesy stuff, it mostly doesn't work."
Generally, the founders have been able to have their cake and eat it, too, by proving that they can supply "meaningful" content that also draws hundreds of thousands of hits. Their key barometer for deciding what to feature on the site is whether the video "will make the world a better place," Pariser and Koechley explained, and their team of "curators" often argue about what that exactly entails. That video of President Barack Obama singing Al Green at the Apollo, for example, was fun, but wouldn't pass the Upworthy litmus test.
"I think we're one of the few startups that hopes to become an adjective," Koechley said. "Is this 'upworthy' or is that 'upworthy?' We kind of made up the word, but now it's something we take seriously."
Watch Upworthy's biggest video to date below:
CORRECTION: A previous version of this post identified the local news anchor as being from Washington state; she is located in Wisconsin.