If you ask people what their overarching desire for humanity is, most would say world peace. Upworthy founder Eli Pariser has more or less spent his career trying to make it happen – or at least, to help make the world a better place.
Pariser grew up in a small town (pop. 900) with one mission in life: “to make the world better in some way,” he said at New York’s January StartupGrind. “We live in an amazing time. We got to see the whole emergence of a new way of thinking and acting.”
He grew up reading Wired magazine, working on his first computer – a TRS80 – and thinking about the Internet. In fact, when he was 16, he had a conversation with his mom, telling her that he wanted to do a ‘dot com,’ which is what startups were called, back in the day. “I knew I wanted to do something with tech to make the world better.”
That might make him something of a digital native, but “I’m not a hardcore coder,” he admits. “I write PHP that makes real engineers wince. I can do just enough to be dangerous.”
The motivation to do something first hit him when 9/11 happened.
“I was horrified by it. It was a big moment in history, and I wanted to do something.”
What he did was put up an online petition with the idea of bringing people together, as a world. He sent it to 30 friends the next day – and it went viral.
“I kept checking my computer. 500 messages to download, then 2000 messages to download.”
The message reached half a million people, who were signing up and causing the site to crash.
Then the BBC called.
“They wanted to talk to the person in charge of the website. I was a 20 year old, sitting in my pajamas, with no money and no connections, and I’d gathered this community in just a few days. It got scary when people asked what we were going to do next. They wanted to make phone calls write letters.”
What he did was join – and lead – moveon.org, and helped to provide a set of tools to help mobilize people on line.
Seemed like the next logical progression, but remember: this is StartupGrind, so it’s never as easy as it looks.
“It’s easy to look back,” said Pariser. “But there were also 15 mediocre failed projects.”
Like the idea for nonlinear documentaries.
“It was a disaster,” he admitted.
By 2009, it was time to move on from moveon.
“Work is something you that you do every day. Having passion is one piece of it. For Pariser, constantly learning and trying new things are equally important.
“I looked at the way the media landscape was changing and I knew the Internet will change media and the internet will change politics.”
He also looked at how Facebook had become a major place where people make decisions and reshapes how people learn.
“That’s where I got interested. It was a real pivot point.”
What he did next was take a sabbatical and wrote the New York Times best-seller, “The Filter Bubble: What the Internet Is Hiding from You.”
Pariser had always thought that tech, in and of itself, would make life better for everyone.
“Ordering a cab is easier than ever before,” he noted. But when you use Facebook, you see what Facebook decides you should see, he added. While editors and producers might have been disintermediated, “Amazon and Netflix are the new video middlemen.”
Upworthy was born out of a video he’d seen of a guy testifying in Iowa about his two moms and why they should be to get married.
“It looked like it was done with a security camera, but 17 million people came to the site in a few days, and that’s how we got (Upworthy) going. I’m that guy who doesn’t have a plan or solution to correct what’s going wrong,” he explained
But he was happy to show it.
With Upworthy, he has also stepped out of the not-for-profit world.
“Non-profit versus for profit – people make too much of it,” he said
Pariser’s focus: what do you want to do in the world to change it for the better?
Of course, the key is also to find the right team and the right strategy, he added.
Upworthy started with Pariser and longtime collaborator Peter Koechley. They raised a seed round, then quickly expanded the ranks.
“We want smart, passionate people who are generalists, who don’t have preconceived notions.”
Some things worked, and some, not so much.
“But that’s part of the fun – having a lot of room to experiment with,” Pariser advised the room of startup entrepreneurs. “Media consumption is a tug of war between… being informed about the world, and knowing who won the Oscars.”
People are people and that’s the way it is.
“Our main job is to get the facts out about various topics, that help people see the world from other people’s points of view…so they can see the world from a different perspective.”
And how do you make it so that it doesn’t feel like work.
Since he is something of a digital native and something of a storyteller from way back, will computers disintermediate actual human storytellers one day?
“Until computers get a sense of humor and can genuinely cry at things – and I mean, real tears – they can’t tell a compelling story. I’m a strong believer in humans vs algorithms. Algorithms can be helpful, but the more data you collect, the more you really you don’t know.”