On April 9th, I read on Slate magazine about a trending article originating from a website called The Odyssey Online, which was in news headlines a few years ago for starting the “Dad Bod” trend. The current popular piece was “You May Have Worn The Prom Dress With Him, But I Get To Wear The Wedding Dress,” and it amassed over 700,000 views. A website that would post an un-ironic article with that kind of title and still get that many clicks immediately had my attention. I needed to know more. Exploring the website, I was fascinated by the hundreds upon hundred of articles, mainly from college aged women, posting Thought Catalog type articles with headlines like:
“Relationship Advice From The Girl Who Doesn’t Do Relationships”
“What If We Made Social Media Our President”
“To The Girl Who Said I Can’t Put ‘Spoiled’ On My Resume, Take ‘Bitter’ Off Yours” “Birthdays Are Insignificant?”
Breathe those titles in for a moment. Stew in them.
What is this website? How is this real, and how does it work? I wanted to know what it was like to write for this sort of website, so I applied under a fake name and with a fake email address. For school (because that information goes under the author’s name on their articles), I put my alma mater, Syracuse University, because I figured I could answer any school-specific questions if I was grilled about it later. Soon after submitting very little information, I received an email letting me know that they’d gotten my info and someone would reach out soon.
While I waited to hear from them, I looked into the origin of The Odyssey Online and found that it was started in 2009 by two dudes from Indiana University. Originally a print publication focusing on Greek life at their school. The Odyssey expanded in 2014 into The Odyssey Online, where the range of topics was expanded past Greek life. In 2017, they laid off a bunch of staff and got a new CEO. More information into the business end, including it’s rise and semi-fall can be found here.
From what I understood, The Odyssey Online is a Multi-Level Marketing company (MLM), where the (internal) goal is to produce as much content as possible, no matter the subject or...content. The website works when “writers” recruit more friends/family/peers to be “writers,” who in turn produce content on a weekly basis. The type of content itself does not matter to The Odyssey Online headquarters, as long as it looks professional. Do you ever have a conversation with someone who isn’t really saying anything at all, but merely speaking words in a manner that’s an attempt to convince you they’ve said something meaningful just by the sheer amount of words they’ve spoken? Welcome to The Odyssey Online.
The very next day, I was contacted via email by Rebecca, President of Syracuse University’s Odyssey team. “I am so excited to welcome you to Syracuse University's Odyssey team! You are going to be a great addition to our Odyssey community and I can’t wait to see what content you produce.” I still hadn’t shown them any writing samples of any kind, so if it wasn’t before, it was now abundantly clear to me that writing skills of any kind didn’t matter for this website. Telling me I was going to be “a great addition to the team” filled me with unease, as they (clearly) didn’t know anything about me, nor did they seem to be interested in whatever it was I had to say. Yet they pretended to. The email went on to explain the logistics of creating an account, logging in, and introducing me to the team’s Editor in Chief, Editorial Manager from Odyssey HQ, and Editor from Odyssey HQ. This felt deceivingly official with all their big titles and positions, as their lack of editorial investigation about me raised even more questions about the nature of the website.
Per the terms of agreement, I was expected to submit one piece of writing each Wednesday night, participate in the GroupMe team discussions (I had to download an app and was invited to join the Syracuse Odyssey chat group with all the other writers on the team), answer all texts/calls/emails Odyssey related within a timely manner, share my content on social media, and follow Odyssey’s HQ accounts on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Swoon (their branded platform for relationships). It also said to introduce myself to the group by saying my name, major, year, and a fun fact about myself. It was a lot all at once, like I received the big box of supplies from HQ and was now tasked with peddling it to my friends and family. Except this wasn’t even something useful, like the penny-slicing Cutco Knives.
I told Rebecca I was overseas and wasn’t able to chat on the phone, so we texted. In a sorority girl-meets-Office Space moment, Rebecca told me to introduce myself to the GroupeMe group, saying, “if you could just introduce yourself that would be great [smile emoji].” I responded, “will do” but did not immediately do so. I was feeling a little pressured by Rebecca and it was also almost 10pm PST. Why was it necessary for the writers to introduce themselves to each other and get along? There was a faux sense of community I started to sense they were trying to cultivate in us. I decided Kaycie didn’t like to work while on vacation and would hold off on late night introductions to over 20 random strangers. Nine hours later, Rebecca “liked” my “will do” response as a not so subtle reminder to do the forced introduction. I was a little startled by this, as I thought that kind of passive aggression only existed in movies about high school mean girls. Not wanting to stir the pot at this juncture, I introduced myself to the group.
Anytime a new writer was added to the group, Rebecca would write “Welcome @SoandSo to the team!!” usually with an emoji after. I didn’t get such a welcome introduction and felt slighted. Was Rebecca already trying to make me feel like an outsider? Was it because I didn’t introduce myself to the group immediately after she told me to? With someone who has such a nuanced texting approach, I could only assume everything Rebecca did or did not write in the group was intentional by design.
On Mondays and Tuesdays, topic submissions were due. Rebecca and Editor in Chief Mary routinely asked people for article topics and then “hearted” the suggested articles. There was never any discussion about the topics in any way, shape, or form. The entire concept of submitting topics like this felt like busywork you give a kid to make them feel like they’re a part of whatever it is you’re doing. Sure you can help make dinner, here’s a bowl of water.
One day, Rebecca messaged the group, saying “if I message you about sending me a pic and a little blurb about yourself it’s because I’m doing instagram features so please please respond!! [emoji]” This made me (and I’m sure other writers in the group) feel not good enough to be included, because I had not received a message. After only being in the GroupeMe chat for a few days, the level of passive aggression being dealt around like a power hungry croupier made me feel paranoid and unworthy.
On Wednesday deadlines, Rebecca could be ruthless. “Way too many articles missing consider [sic] none of you guys reached out for extensions!!” She’d also call out those who were not submitting on time and those who needed revisions by name in front of everyone. This is a good time to be reminded that no one is getting paid, including Rebecca. Her Linkedin looks like this:
I’m not writing this to solely blast Rebecca, but her LinkedIn page shows she’s a willing participant in this charade. You can break down each one of her bullet points to reveal that (in true Odyssey fashion) she’s simply written words put in front of other words that make sentences that reveal absolutely nothing about what The Odyssey Online is or what she really does there. She’s either a fucking idiot, or she’s in on it.
Truly, The Odyssey Online is a total scam. They market themselves as a platform to get your voice heard, and, while that’s true, the problem with it is that they make the aspiring writers feel like they are special by getting to use this platform, while in reality they’re nothing more than a better advertised Facebook rant with a view count. They don’t even need to do advertising, since they force their writers to post their own work and flood social media with articles. It is required per The Odyssey’s Creator Page that writers publish Odyssey content on no less than three different social media accounts multiple times per week. As an Odyssey Online writer, you can now squeeze your article links between your other friends’ posts about their Arbonne cosmetics and becoming a Beachbody trainer.
The defense of The Odyssey Online is that they provide a service to their writers, which is getting them published. So in a way, they work hand-in-hand with someone incredibly desperate to be validated for their writing, no matter the cost to their personal or professional life. They get “published” somewhere as a “writer”, and The Odyssey Online gets the free marketing, all the traffic, and paid advertisers.
The Odyssey Online is like a cult leader, bringing in followers who’re told they’re special as long as they continue doing the bidding of their superiors, which is to perform free labor and bring in more followers.
When it came time to submit my article, I decided to write about something topical, but also something I knew would upset a lot of people and get them talking. I adopted the persona of an entitled, rich, white girl and wrote the most tone-deaf piece I could imagine, titled “Sorry Not Sorry, My Parents Paid For My Coachella Trip.” You can read the original article on this website, which spoke about Kaycie not wanting to apologize for her parents providing nice things (including an Escalade for her 16th birthday, which she crashed) and riding her personally owned dolphin in Turks and Caicos. On any other website, this article clearly comes across as fiction, but to The Odyssey Online staff, editors, and readers...well, somehow it didn’t. It fit right in.
In order to get published, I had to give up control of whatever social media presence I had linked to my Odyssey account, as they dictated through their terms and policies. They have control of what gets posted and when on their writer’s personal social media, so I created a fake twitter account and linked that to my Odyssey profile.
For the article’s cover photo, I originally took a random photo off of Instagram, but was told they have to be horizontal instead of vertical. I guess I should have listened to this dick insertion from Dillon in the GroupMe chat:
This was the first addition to the GroupMe (and any contact at all) we’d gotten from a male, and his condescending tone was downright offensive. I mustered all the power I could to not respond back with a simple “Hey, fuck you.” I wanted to create an uproar in the GroupMe about this, but looking back at all the “I’m a woman and I’ll never be a feminist” type articles I found on The Odyssey Online, I chose to stay quiet about this particularly irksome moment.
I finally found a photo that fit the technical requirements for publishing and took it from a random blog, which I found through Google images. This becomes more important down the road.
After submitting, I had nothing to do but wait a few days while the article went through the proper channels, which included three different editors. Three editors, and none noticed (or at least changed) anything in the article that read as fake or grammatically incorrect. No one reached out to me with a “hey, are you sure?” However, someone did highlight a few sentences and make the font bigger.
On Sunday morning, the article was published.
Throughout the first day, not much happened. The article received a couple thousand views on The Odyssey’s website and had some strong reactions on their Facebook page, including, “This seriously makes me sick,” and “This is the worst thing I’ve ever read, privilege doesn’t even surmise this.” I began planning Kaycie’s next article, which was her take on the recent Starbucks racial tension as seen from someone who once dated an African-American male.
On Monday, Ash Crossan, a producer and host of Entertainment Tonight, tweeted the article, with the line “Hey Siri, are we in Hell?” An Internet snowball effect began, way faster than I’d expected. People began tweeting at Kaycie, and I tweeted back, antagonizing everyone in the way I felt that Kaycie would. She was unapologetic and reacting with gut instincts to people being mean. The article’s views continued to grow, pushing past 15,000. The actress who played Barb on Stranger Things commented on it. This raised the great hypothetical of the Internet: if a D-list celeb doesn’t comment on your article, does it even really exist?
The article’s views continued to grow and Kaycie’s Twitter presence became more public on Tuesday. Ben Collins, a reporter for NBC News, tweeted about it. Other reporters joined in, some lambasting Kaycie, others trying to figure out if the article was real or fake. I was contacted by a reported from Insider, who pretty much immediately figured out I was fake. He was professional, Kaycie was not. Then twitter gold happened: Chrissy Teigen tweeted about the article.
At this point, I was in a little over my head. Gaining this much attention was not the purpose of the article, so I decided the only way to continue was to remain in character as Kaycie and react to all the growing fame in the way that fit her character: a scared (but still entitled) woman who is being called out for her unapologetic way of life. An actor from The Tick tweeted multiple times about Kaycie and seemed to put in a lot of work to bring her down a few notches, so Kaycie reminded him that he was “a little bitch baby” about working with Woody Allen.
Some Twitter users made it their personal mission to figure out just who Kaycie Allen was and discredit her. They reverse Google imaged the article’s photo and found the original blog. It wasn’t hard to sniff out Kaycie, as her bio was seriously lacking and the profile itself was less than a week old. I tried covering her tracks, explaining that Kaycie created this account for her Odyssey article and she stayed off of social media “because I respect my boyfriend.” Some people bought it, others didn’t, and many were confused. Two reporters from NPR reached out and it hit me that this was indeed something that was happening and now completely out of my control.
A few Syracuse students were appalled about the article coming from someone at their school, while another said that it seemed right on track with their experience at SU. In my personal experience at Syracuse, I once heard a frat guy tell an incoming pledge that “when we’re not fucking bitches, we’re bro-ing out.” I don’t have proof, but I’m pretty sure if you say that three times fast while looking in a mirror, your penis will disintegrate.
Some of Twitter really honed in on the paragraph about Kaycie owning and riding a dolphin. A debate about the animal rights of dolphins began, seriously.
Late Tuesday afternoon someone from The Odyssey finally reached out to me. Rebecca messaged me privately, asking for my Syracuse email address, in what I knew to be a thinly veiled attempt to discover my real identity. I gave her a fake email and she (expectedly) came back saying that it didn’t work. I told her I’d graduated in 2015 and hadn’t used the email in years. In classic Rebecca form, she simply “liked” that comment, and never spoke to me again.
Then The Odyssey Online made their move and edited the article, adding a disclaimer, “This piece is intended to be a satire of an experience at Coachella.” This was done without contacting me in any way other than Rebecca’s attempt at finding my school email. Who made that judgment call?
Twitter really responded to the new change and now had a huge debate going about whether the article was real or not. Kaycie took to Twitter, vehemently denying that it was satire and then accused The Odyssey Online of throwing her under the bus. Now reporters (and Chrissy Teigen) were tweeting about the new update to the article.
I figured Kaycie’s sanity would be crumbling at this point, so she went off in the GroupMe chat, calling out Rebecca and stating she felt stabbed in the back for adding the disclaimer. It was aggressive and over the top and one girl responded, “I’m confused.” Shelly, our teams Editorial Manager from HQ, joined in and told me to get out of the GroupMe chat and email. One girl jumped to Rebecca’s defense (she was then removed from the group a few days later, I’m not sure why).
By the end of Tuesday, things seemed to have quieted down, as a majority of people decided that either Kaycie was fake or they just didn’t care enough to continue talking about it.
By Wednesday, the views reached past 100,000. Shelly emailed me in the morning, asking for a 15-minute video chat to discuss how to move forward. Again, I criticized them for changing my article and making me a laughing stock of the Internet. I also mentioned that I’m not comfortable video chatting because “of my features,” attempting to add some more mystery to Kaycie and her now potentially disfigured face. Shelly responded, asking to set up a video chat at a specific time, because “for everyone’s best interests, most importantly yours, I believe dealing with this sooner rather than later is better.” She also added, “We are more than willing to work with you to come to a solution but we must also verify that all information is factual and true. Until we speak, your article will remain as is on the site, per our terms and conditions.” She then included a picture of their terms and conditions. Simply put, I wasn’t getting out of it.
As far as I could tell, my jig with The Odyssey Online was up. Could I have gotten my girlfriend to pretend to be Kaycie on a video chat? Yes. But the damage was already done and I knew that anything else I wrote for them would now be under scrutiny. I didn’t respond to the email, and a few hours later, Rebecca removed me from the GroupMe. I got an email saying I was no longer a writer for The Odyssey Online.
This entire thing was both a success and a failure. I honestly didn’t think my first article would generate this kind of buzz, but I did know it would upset some people and draw attention to the website. That was the original goal. To create a character completely unlikeable in just about every way and slowly, over the course of one article per week, build a strong character arc that in the end, was possibly redeeming. I wanted people to look at The Odyssey Online and call it out for its bullshit, publishing naïve writer’s articles without any sort of editing for the entire world to see, forever. These writers don’t know what they’re involved in, and I hope through this process at least one of them understands that they’re a part of a scam and leaves before their dignity and reputation is damaged. I didn’t do this to be a troll.
I also didn’t learn anything new from Twitter or the Internet. I experienced hatred and anger from a lot of people, who went out of their way to make Kaycie feel like a terrible human being. And maybe she deserved it, the article is really bad. But I think this also says a lot about where we are in 2018, in the land of “fake news” and actual fake news. That an article so clearly bizarre and fictional could “trigger” so many people, nothing seems out of range anymore and everyone is looking for something to upset them. Some tweeted that the world doesn’t need any more satire in 2018, which I can’t disagree with more. Some loved the confusion and made it a game; others were simply annoyed by the whole thing. A lot of people loved it. None of it matters. These were just words on a website full of other words.
As for all those getting hot and bothered about Kaycie, I really have been wondering, “why?” All these mean comments directed her way, all of these scolding’s and admonishments, none of them mean anything at all. Were these people really that upset, or did they feign it for their social media presence. Did Chrissy Teigen really get up and pace around her house, frustrated about Kaycie, blowing off steam with loud sighs? Did anyone who took the time to criticize Kaycie literally do anything other than type a few words directly aimed to hurt her and/or feel better about themselves? A bunch of people, through their safe space of internet anonymity (because how truthful really are people’s social media, with their perfectly filtered meals and grammatically correct quips) wrote a few “angered” words at another fake personality, who was secretly laughing from their desk the whole time. It was very weird.
Who actually gained something from this article and the shit storm that happened from it? Someone at the The Odyssey Online, who rakes in the money based on all the clicks we gave them by reacting to this stupid, pointless article. They are the only ones who come out ahead here and that should really stop.
As of this posting, the original article has over 240,000 views, even though the only thing on the original page is an explanation from The Odyssey Online as to why they removed it from their site. Kaycie continues to argue with people on Twitter about her money, Syracuse status, and her ownership of dolphins.
Note: Names have been changed because everyone involved should be embarrassed. Except for Dillon, that’s really his name. Fuck Dillon.