Upworthy gets $8 million, and what's wrong with that?

September 19, 2013: 12:41 PM ET

The increasingly popular Upworthy offers a counterweight to the all the Internet's silliness and bile.

130919120445-upworthy-614xa-1FORTUNE -- Could it be that the continuous ire directed at BuzzFeed is based more on its shallowness and vapidity than on the fact that it tends to nab a lot of its content (mostly photos) from other sites? Probably. Consider the fact that Upworthy, the viral-video site that tends to focus on positive, inspiring content, (as opposed to inane or horrifying listicles) is only rarely criticized for reusing material created by others. The less mercenary a site is, perhaps, the more forgiving we are toward it.

And it would appear that being unabashedly mercenary isn't necessarily a requirement for online success. Fast Company in June dubbed the more-bashedly mercenary Upworthy "the fastest-growing media site in history" and reported that within six months of its March 2012 launch, it was getting 8.7 million unique monthly visitors. It reportedly now gets more than 22 million.

That performance no doubt is a big part of the reason for the $8 million venture capital round the company announced this week, bringing its total financing (after an earlier round of seed funding) to $12 million. The site's founders are Peter Koechley, a former managing editor of The Onion, and Eli Pariser, onetime managing director of MoveOn.org. They plan to expand the site's coverage areas to include things like global health and parenting, with an eye toward getting sponsorships for such topics. The site does not accept advertising.

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The critical coverage of the new financing round has ranged from the vaguely skeptical to the acidly contemptuous.

All Things D's Peter Kafka characterized the site's founders as being mainly motivated by politics and as aiming to "raise awareness about the things Koechley and Parser think are important." Which is true to a point, though the site, like BuzzFeed, makes use of data analysis that identifies trending content. And Upworthy is hardly limited to political content. Many of the videos promote concepts like self-esteem and the virtues of working hard. A recent popular one features comedian Patton Oswalt relating the story of his worst set ever, and how it helped him learn to take criticism and deal with failure.

Which is not to say the site is apolitical, or that it doesn't sometimes evince a rather treacly quality. On those occasions where it touches on issue politics, it often takes a strong leftward bent -- extolling the benefits of Obamacare, for example. But many of the issues it addresses are -- or at least should be -- non-partisan, if sometimes bordering on simplistic and obvious: why it's bad to be racist or sexist, for example.

Anecdotally, most of the stuff that shows up in my Facebook feed tends to be the least partisan -- life-affirming and funny material seems to get much more traction than explicitly political fare. At best, the site can brighten someone's day. At worst, it can be a bit too on-the-nose. Hardcore conservatives might not like the more-political content, but of course they are under no obligation to partake of it, and it's not like there isn't all kinds of political content floating around on social media, some of it quite nasty or disturbing.

Nonetheless, P.J. Vogt, a producer for NPR's On The Mediawriting on that show's new TL;DR blog, appears to be downright enraged by the site, calling it "square, sad, and hopeless," "deeply naive," "annoying," and filled with "sanctimony." He likens it to "the jerks with clipboards" in the street, who he also seems to find intolerable. "Politics for the very lazy," he concludes.

So, that's one against.

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On the "for" side are Upworthy's investors, which include Spark Capital, Catamount Ventures, the Knight Foundation, Chris Hughes (formerly of Facebook and now owner of the New Republic), Alexis Ohanian of Reddit, and ... BuzzFeed's John Johnson (and what better endorsement for the concept than that?).

Also in favor of the site: the increasingly huge number of people who share its content on social media. One bit of analysis concluded that the average Upworthy post is about 50% more likely to be shared than an average BuzzFeed post. BuzzFeed, of course, posts a lot more stuff -- and is increasingly creating original content, including actual reportage. Upworthy's "curators" create nothing except headlines -- their job is simply to find content online that fits the site's mission and is likely to be passed around.

In its mission statement, Upworthy says it aims to provide content that is "as fun to share as a FAIL video of some idiot surfing off his roof" but that is also substantive or "important." Which doesn't seem like such a bad thing, really, especially when you consider that FAIL videos are far from the worst kinds of things people tend to share on the Internet.

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