Writing for the Odyssey: Experience or exploitation?

This post was inspired by a report from Backchannel: Thousands of College Kids Are Powering  A Clickbait Empire. Image CC Unsplash.


 

The Odyssey Online has been the birthplace of many a clickbait piece, but none so popular as the infamous “dadbod” fad of 2015.

The term was first coined by Mackenzie Pearson, a then sophomore attending Clemson University in South Carolina, after an inside joke formed with her and another friend. Her story on the Odyssey went viral overnight, but as a mere cog in the contributor wheel, she watched the success of her piece mainly from afar.

At the time, Odyssey didn’t have a a structured reward system in place for writers. The most read story of the week would get a bonus of $10 or so. Now, they have a reward scale based on number of views, starting at $20 for +15,000 views a month up to $1,500 for over a million views.

Pearson’s next pitch was a different, more poignant take on the new term. Her next article would describe the “mombod” and how women face pressures from society to look a certain way after having children. But her Odyssey community editor told her to go for something more lighthearted.

In an article published in Backchannel, Pearson said of the experience:

“I was kept very much out of the loop. I was told what I needed to be told, when I needed to be told it…I started realizing that what they were doing was exploitation.”

Founder of the Odyssey – Evan Burns and Adrian France – would disagree: experience is what Odyssey is really about, not exploitation. Young college students with large social networks produce content for the Odyssey willingly. And in return, they get the experience of what it’s like to be an online writer.

I’ve had friends write for the Odyssey before. I’ve seen hamsters spinning in the wheels of a clickbait empire. They all gain an experience in a way; but not the kind the Odyssey is hoping for.

The amount of time it takes varies, but eventually these people all find their way to one conclusion: my work is worth something.

Not all writers for the Odyssey have a future in writing or publishing, by any means. That’s why the Odyssey needs a small army of community editors to keep articles readable. But as a result, the Odyssey has constructed an intricate web in which to capture the internet savvy, share-craving college student.

Create shareable content and we will edit and publish it on a well-known platform. Get more shares and we’ll ask you to write some more.

The pushing of quantity over quality has been a rising trend in other parts of media as well. “Churnalism” has conquered many struggling news sites and clickbait headlines are no longer found on just Buzzfeed. But the Odyssey does something few others have been able to by playing the odds of sourcing user-generated content: find enough users to contribute to the site, and a handful of stories are bound to go viral.

Another student who has contributed to the Odyssey said: “You don’t always have the time to make something that’s good. You just have to make something.”

Make something – two words that are beginning to capture an entire industry, and swallow it whole. But plenty of companies want people to make something for them too. With the rise of ad-blockers more and more companies are investing in content marketing plans, the kind that include writing blog posts, emails and other copy. A survey of marketing in 2016 showed that 88% of B2B companies use some form of content marketing. And though not always, many of them will pay.

As a journalist, I know firsthand what it’s like to balance experience and exploitation. I’ve had to wrestle with when it’s worth my time to write an article for free, and when I should hold out for a paying publisher. But churning out articles every week for a site like the Odyssey doesn’t sound like experience to me; it sounds like online slave labor.


Have you written for the Odyssey? Or do you know someone who does? I’d love to hear your experience. Maybe I’m wrong and the Odyssey has changed your life. Or maybe I’m right and you have the anecdote to prove it. Either way, drop me a message in the form below. Follow-up piece in the works.

 

 

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