Downtime

Is the Hate-Readable Millennial Publication Odyssey the New Thought Catalog?

Wedding and quinceañera gowns on mannequins.
This week, the internet hate-read a college confessional, and the prom dress vs. wedding dress outrage cycle was born.

This week, a confessional from a betrothed college student captured the attention of the adult internet. In a spellbinding, roundly mocked piece titled “You May Have Worn the Prom Dress With Him, but I Get to Wear the Wedding Dress,” a student at Missouri State University talks herself through the jealousy she feels when she thinks of her fiancé’s former love. “You got to go to games and support him. It kills me that I couldn’t be there for him because I know I would have actually been there wholeheartedly,” she writes, before turning spiteful: “I would have done it out of love, not as a popularity appearance.”

The blog post is a tidy package of the pettiest things many of us might have thought and felt in the throes of our first cosmos-shifting romances but were probably too self-aware to say aloud. “I wish I could say that I am sorry it didn’t work out for you, but I can’t,” the author writes. “I can’t because he is mine now, and I get to cherish him forever. You didn’t do that right, and you were not meant to be together.” Her preoccupation with her fiancé’s past is on one hand understandable (prom might have been just a year or two ago) and on the other hand, the hand that realizes that this person is about to legally hitch her entire life and financial assets to another person’s, deeply unsettling. Whatever perverse joy we get out of this piece derives from the juxtaposition of material adulthood and profound immaturity: The writer is old enough to marry and potentially raise a child but still sees herself in competition with the teenage girlfriend that came before her, so much so that she taunts, “You had your time, and now I get the wedding.”

On Twitter, readers opined that the post is evidence that “premarital sex should be required and nobody should be allowed to get married until they are 30” and “people in their 20s should not be allowed online.” One man predicted that “this chick is going to be wearing someone’s skin in a few years”; someone else tracked down the writer, the fiancé, and the prom date in question. The general consensus has been that, as one Twitter user put it, “this should have been a diary entry and not something you put on the Internet under your real name.”

The author, who I’m electing not to name here as a courtesy to her surely abominable mentions, has mused on the record about her future husband’s exes before. In “A Thank You to the Girls Who Didn’t Love Him Right,” she writes that she has heard “a lot of the negatives about those relationships,” and concludes that “He didn’t love them. Not really anyway.” (One wonders why this guy talks so much about his prom dates and bad high-school relationships.) As the prom dress/wedding dress piece went viral, the author’s entire oeuvre ascended to the “popular” list on the home page of the Odyssey, the digital outlet for millennials and Gen Zers where she publishes her work. Among her other recent hits are “Yes I Can Be Feminine And Not A Feminist In 2017”—“Men and women can’t do all of the same jobs. We just aren’t wired that way, but that’s what makes things unique.”—and “Why I Will Tell My Children to Wait Until Marriage,” in which she writes that having sex while dating “hurts the ones they end up marrying.”

The Odyssey is brimming with pieces like these, which some might find hate-readable. The site’s content about relationships, housed in a subdomain called Swoon, seems tailored to the perspective of someone who marries young, feels invested in the concept of a “forever person,” and is thinking about children while still in college. One of the most popular formats is the open letter—recipients are diverse as “my wedding dress,” a long-distance boyfriend, Shondaland, “Mom,” and the Cleveland Cavaliers—which gives the site a breathy, voyeuristic intimacy and renders its sporadic political content (such as “Our Right to Bear Arms Should Be Kept That Way” or “How Tillerson’s Ousting Affects Mattis,” written by what I can only imagine is a wannabe Politico intern) insipid by comparison. The site, whose co-founder and CEO is a man named Evan Burns, isn’t explicitly targeted at women, but almost every post, save the Tillerson update, is written by one.

It all recalls another youth-targeted site (you might call this genre “emo-llennial”), one whose cultural heyday is now behind it: Thought Catalog, described by the Washington Post in 2014 as “one of the internet’s most reviled sites.” With confessionals like “Why Does Graduating From College Suck So Hard?” and “Why Insecure Girls Feel Like They Are Difficult to Love,” Thought Catalog felt like the first entrepreneurial attempt to bottle the spirit of LiveJournal—where young-person navel-gazing was cloistered in a diary-esque context with no incentive to shock the reader—and turn it into clickbait . On Thought Catalog, it often felt like young contributors were pouring their hearts out for posterity without full editorial protection. Employees at the site, the Post reported, would often “pull blindly from the submissions inbox,” only screening for “illegal content and visual pornography” before building a post.

On the Odyssey, the heavy focus on the men girls love, date, and marry feels, at first glance, cloyingly heterosexual and, honestly, a bit sad. Writers are identified by the universities they attend; the anxious feminist in me loathes to imagine the Odyssey’s more than 15,000 writers applying their energies to the whims of objectively crap college guys instead of their own personal and professional development. The site’s store sells a shirt that reads, “majoring in Mrs. & that’s OK,” an apparent effort to shift the Overton window in the discourse on why women should seek higher education. In an email, I asked Swoon editor Emi Gutgold if the writers on the Odyssey get paid. “Our users on our site … are not ‘writers,’ ” she responded, “but considered creators and they are eligible to earn monetary incentives based on a revenue-sharing model.” A creator’s pay is some fraction of the income generated from the traffic her posts get each month, starting once she hits 15,000 “organic” monthly views.

But the more I scrolled through pieces like “11 Ways My Boyfriend Proves That ‘Decent Guys’ Still Exist,” “A Healthy Relationship Doesn’t Need to Be Validated by Time,” and “Yes, I’m a Christian, but I Can’t Help but Love Hot Guys,” the better I felt. Men came and went, usually faceless, always nameless. On the Odyssey, they are mere objects upon which young women project and enact visions of their futures. Their identities only matter insofar as they serve as narrative devices, and their foibles are merely prompts for women practicing their writing skills.

Some pieces on the Odyssey feel like longform subtweeting as self-affirmation. “If You Always Expect My Forgiveness, You Do Not Deserve to Be in My Life” and “I Don’t Know What I Want in a Relationship, but I Know I Can’t Be With You” serve that worthy purpose. Meanwhile, “16 Relationship Clichés That Single People Just Can’t Get, Won’t Get,” possibly the best post on the entire site, side-eyes all the other pieces of content surrounding it.

Yet it’s hard to shake the feeling that many of these young people don’t quite know what they are getting into. The site’s promotional copy sounds like populist propaganda: “The monopoly on minds is over,” it reads. “The status quo of publishing and social media makes it hard for [some] voices to be heard. Odyssey democratizes content. ” “Are stories in your community not being told? Is traditional news media coverage shying away from issues that need to be brought to light?” the site asks prospective creators.

The author of the prom dress/wedding dress piece certainly made her voice heard this week, but it doesn’t appear that she wanted the entire world to hear it. On the Odyssey’s Facebook page, she burst into the comments on a post of the link to her piece, where she was getting savaged. “This was a word limited article written specially to people who knew the situation.
It was not supposed to reach this,” she wrote. “You don’t know my life nor the situation that inspired this article. That’s why sometimes when odyssey shares articles, it’s not a great thing because a bunch of strangers get to judge and bully someone when they know nothing about them personally.”

It bills itself as a corrective to the mainstream news media, but the Odyssey claims a bloodline that streams more from the first-person industrial complex, the exploitative internet economy in which many aspiring writers—mostly young, mostly women—feel incentivized to publish raw, raw, often outrageous personal narratives, then face online blowback and a Google results page that never goes away. The Odyssey’s store already has a new featured item at the top of the list: a shirt that reads, “Becky with the good prom dress.” It’s called the “You May Have Worn the Prom Dress T-Shirt.” Prices start at $35.