The curiosity gap: Going viral

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You should be studying.

You should be studying, but like most students on a slow weekday night, you’re scrolling through your Facebook newsfeed instead. You skim through the latest news, posts from friends about the parties they attended and shared BuzzFeed articles. Then you stop short at one headline.

“Bully Calls News Anchor Fat, News Anchor Destroys Him on Live TV.”

You should be studying, but the title is tantalizing. You should be studying, but you hover your cursor over the link. You should be studying, but the video seems to beckon to you. You should be studying, but you need to know what happened. You click.

You’ve just been suckered by the curiosity gap.

Curiosity killed the cat

Curiosity is a powerful thing. Authors, for example, discovered that nothing left a reader quite so hungry for a second novel as a cliffhanger ending. Filmmakers have adopted the same principle.

George Loewenstein, a professor at Carnegie Mellon University, explored the simulation of curiosity in his 1994 paper, “The Psychology of Curiosity.” In it, he explained that we become curious when “attention becomes focused on a gap in one’s knowledge.”

We have a powerful driving force to fill that mental gap, and it’s become a highly successful marketing scheme in the Internet age, where number of clicks equates to profit. Attracted by a catchy headline that promises more information in the actual post, scrollers-by are drawn to take a look. Whether they read the whole post or watch the entire video doesn’t matter; the elusive click has already been achieved.

BuzzFeed and 9gag are just two of the many sites that have gone viral by playing with this kind of marketing scheme. But the latest viral phenomenon, Upworthy, is different.

Founded in 2012 and subsequently named by Time as one of the 50 best websites of 2013, Upworthy has a commendable purpose: To share inspirational, socially relevant ideas. With bite-size, engaging content—from a video of Angelina Jolie standing up for women to the United Nations, to advice written by a columnist to a homophobic parent—Upworthy is feel-good, shareable and now rabidly popular.

“A website like Upworthy… is very concerned with spreading stuff that makes people feel good,” explained Andrew Ty, an instructor from the Communication Department. But according to him, this is not all Upworthy is meant for.

A quick scroll through their website is enough to show that their creators are very familiar with Loewenstein’s work. “Know A Hero: His Name is Mechai Viravaidya, But You Can Call Him Mr. Condom,” “A Student Explains What’s Wrong With Our School System And Why We Mistrust Teachers. Nails It,” “Stephen Fry Somehow Makes Sense of Racism.” These are all headlines from Upworthy, and they are all begging to be read.

“[It might seem] cynical,” says Ty, “but it seems to me that in many ways the goal [of Upworthy] is to get as many clicks, as many eyeballs [as possible] on the content regardless of what’s special there.”

Sharing is caring

Whatever Upworthy’s real purpose is, it is, irrefutably, a powerful phenomenon. With 38 million unique visitors a month, a fast-growing market and investors that include the Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, Upworthy’s stardom has ascended rapidly. Their success has been so swift, in fact, that they have already spawned several copycats.

Washington Post established KnowMore, their own hub for shareable, uplifting content; UpInspire professes their goal is to “make a difference and share things that help inspire others.” Even ViralNova, a site meant for sharing trending stories on the web, has been sharing more and more feel-good, socially relevant videos.

The success of Upworthy and similar sites exemplifies a growing interest in social issues and, furthermore, the commitment to sharing these issues with others.

“I visit Upworthy because the articles and videos I find on it are really interesting and are socially relevant,” explains Julian Occeña, an information design sophomore. “As much as I don't really like flooding mine or my friends’ Facebook timelines, I share posts from there anyway because I think the site has a ton of things people don't know about but should.”

Ty thinks that ease of sharing is what contributes to the popularity of this kind of content. “When we join social networks, [and our contacts] share something with a catchy headline that seems interesting and quirky and fun and quick to read, quick to consume, it’s very easy to spread around because of the trust we have or how you know those people [who shared it],” he explains.

He also elaborates that the structure of these websites, especially of social networks like Facebook and Twitter, make it very easy to like and share these articles. “If you ‘like’ these articles,” he says, “the fact that you liked them begins appearing on your friends’ timelines. They become curious and check it out to see what it is you just ‘liked.’”

The manipulation game

Upworthy is attractive—incredibly so. But with such a successful marketing scheme in place, is its noble cause put in the shadow?

“I’ve always had the impression that it was the viral aspect that was more important [to the creators of Upworthy] than the actual content,” admits Ty. Indeed, most news and media sites, now taking a closer look at the astonishing success of sites like Upworthy, take this more skeptical view.

In BetaBeat, an offshoot of The New York Observer, Ryan Holiday makes the argument that the sudden uptick of interest in socially progressive content is not a sign of a change in our collective society, but simply proof of the skillfulness of the marketing.

“The site’s editors… are filtering and exclusively delivering only a small sliver of reality–one that is all sweet and no sweat,” he writes. “By the means of our own human psychology, companies like Upworthy are exploiting the fact that we don’t like to feel cognitive dissonance or complexity. They’ve adapted by never letting us feel anything but nicely packaged happiness.”

Though questions may be raised about manipulation and the filtering of reality, it cannot be argued that these sites still share content that strikes a chord within us, if Facebook newsfeeds are anything to go by.

“Maybe learning what the curiosity gap is makes me think Upworthy just wants traffic,” says Occeña. “But I don't really mind that you want to get all this attention when your content is really important.”

And it isn’t just about the content being shared. The process of sharing is itself an integral part of this phenomenon. “It feels good to read it, it feels good to share it, it feels good when people like it, you begin to feel like you’re part of a community even if all you did is share it,” says Ty.

Inspiring, socially relevant content is sweeping the Internet. But whether you take the cynical view of manipulation or view the event through rose-tinted glasses, it pays to take a moment to understand what we’re sharing and why we do it.

With reports from Benny G. Tañedo

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