February 11, 2014

RITHOLTZ | A Liberal Person Takes Issue With Liberal Site; Read to Find Out Why

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I have a confession. A confession that may surprise those who know me: I am not the biggest fan of the website Upworthy. Yes, as an unabashedly liberal person, I recognize that I should rejoice at the creation of a website that agrees with my political stance on most issues, brings to light many issues that are left out of the media and promotes my agenda with its viral videos that reach over 50 million people.

Upworthy’s mission is “to make important stuff as viral as a video of some idiot surfing off his roof.” The website is clear in its distinction that it’s “not a newspaper” and acknowledges its bias when it chooses “to speak truth rather than appear unbiased.” The “truth” they promote is in line with liberal beliefs and is explicitly stated on their “About” page:

“We’re pro-gay-marriage, and we’re anti-child-poverty. We think the media is horrible to women, we think climate change is real, and we think the government has a lot to learn from the Internet about efficiency, disruption and effectiveness.”

To be fair, there is not much (if anything) there that I disagree with, but there is something about this website that disconcerts me. Many people have criticized the websites ruthless use of click-bait techniques to get people to look at its content. And while these aggressively tempting and non-descript titles are annoying when they take up your entire newsfeed, there’s a deeper underlying issue here.

When I first tried to figure out the specific qualms I had with the website, I found myself thinking that my issue takes root with its self-righteous nature. It bothered me to see that so many decisive, complicated issues were portrayed as black and white and framed in such a biased context.

For example, there is a featured video today that decries all development work as white men with hidden agendas and highlights the need to protect tribal populations. Whether or not I agree with that statement, I believe the issue is more complex than what is presented in that 2-minute video, and it deserves a fair presentation. I realized, however, that I was still displeased with the even less polarizing videos, such as the video that demonstrates a magazine’s photoshopping of Jennifer Lawrence (an outrage, I say! She’s perfect!). So, if none of the videos on the website were agreeing with me — even though I agreed with (most) of their content — then there must be something else going on.

And then it hit me. I fundamentally disagree with the fact that Upworthy does not designate a space for comments on any of its pages. Videos must be taken for what they are and then distributed to the millions who see them without any ability to question their content, their argument, or their message. This self-righteous air to the website’s videos stems from the lack of discussion surrounding them. When there are no comments on the page, the video can only be taken at face value, accepted as true, and then shared with friends. It’s impossible to gauge how others absorbed or reacted to it, which is such an integral part of the learning and processing process. In our classes on campus, we discuss our readings as a group in order to digest them and understand them better. With these videos, this option is not present. The content of these videos almost appears like an indisputable fact because there are no visible naysayers to question their sources, provide more context, or to call out any disagreements.

The Upworthy website acknowledges their lack of comments and cites their reasoning on their website:

“Our goal is to foster a community of people who are focused on spreading ideas within their existing groups of friends on Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, Pinterest, and wherever else. So if you’ve got something burning to say about one of the videos or graphics you see on Upworthy, share it on social media and start the conversation there.”

I find this explanation to be an absolute cop-out. Upworthy is essentially deferring any debate of its articles to … friend groups? What is the power behind that? One of the most incredible, and powerful, aspects of the Internet is that it connects people all over the world and sites like Upworthy that produce this thought-provoking content are the perfect forums for these important discussions. Upworthy cheapens itself by shirking that responsibility and focusing all their energy on getting people to share their videos. Many people are not as comfortable engaging in these conversations with their friends on facebook or do not wish to be limited to 140 words on Twitter, but would willingly comment on the videos directly. If the purpose of Upworthy is to promote these important discourses, then why does the website deprive us of these powerful opportunities to engage with each other?

Sam Ritholtz is a senior in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences. He may be reached at [email protected]. Sans Pants appears alternate Wednesdays this semester.