Add Upworthy to the list of amazing websites that I’d never heard of. Today, I heard about them because there is a bit of a dust up about them, Upworthy’s Lefty Owners Scared Employees Out of Unionization. The company was founded by Eli Pariser, the former director of MoveOn. It is supposed to provide an outlet for “meaningful” content with a progressive edge to it. But like with most companies, when the employees wanted to organize, the owners freaked out. Labor unions might be fine for General Motors, but not for an internet company!
But don’t think too poorly of Upworthy. They aren’t ogres. The company does have a very good reason for resisting unionization: it is dying. Most of the traffic that Upworthy gets is via Facebook. And last December, Facebook changed the way it calculated its page rankings, and Upworthy saw its traffic cut in half. So the company is struggling. And management is afraid that if the workers unionize, it will scare off its already weak interest from venture capitalists.
According to Eli Pariser, the company did not say no to the workers. It just encouraged them to hold off because, “Doing this now at Upworthy could come at a cost to the company in terms of our ability to raise capital.” It’s not a totally unreasonable argument. Just the same, I know businesses. It is never a good time for anything — especially for unions. So I have a hard time taking this too seriously. I have to wonder why the company didn’t start off unionized. For a company pushing its liberalism as a brand, that might have been helpful. Regardless, I don’t see this story are a fight between good and evil. Upworthy is in a bad place, and it makes sense for workers to be understanding of that.
What I find much more concerning here is the way that an interesting company has to depend upon establishment companies for its fortune. There can be all the brilliant entrepreneurs in the world, but if the existing economic structure stifles them, what does it matter? And that’s clearly what’s going on with the venture capitalists. A liberal company isn’t allowed to be liberal, because the capitalists don’t think they will make as much money. And then, there is the whole issue of Facebook being so large that it can pick winners and losers. This is interesting because conservatives are forever talking about the grave threat of the government picking winners and losers. But we have an economy where major corporations pick winners and losers and they just don’t care.
The why I increasingly see things is that we need to get past the idea that our problems are do to individuals or companies or even industries. The problem is the system itself. And before we can even get to that, we need to see the problem. I don’t necessarily think that socialism is the solution, although clearly a social democratic system with a mixed economy is far better than what we have. But we live in a world in which people take capitalism as a matter of faith — as though no better system is possible. And the people who think this are as blind as those who thought feudalism was the best possible system.
The case of Upworthy is interesting, because it shows that even when people start companies with the best of intentions, they are constrained by the flaws in the wider economy. We need to start thinking about that, and working toward a better system for replacing it.