In the spring of 2015, the internet briefly became obsessed with the virility of the “dadbod.” For a moment, the merits of the pudgy-middled male physique seemed to outweigh a six pack or chiseled biceps. That year, the Collins English Dictionary added the term “dadbod” to its list of new words. “Hail to the average man,” the fad seemed to suggest. Like all short-lived, much-loved internet phenomenon, the dadbod had to start somewhere, and in this case, it started as a story published by a 19-year-old college student, posted to an online platform called Odyssey.
Odyssey began as a 16-page tabloid-sized weekly, distributed at fraternities and sororities—first at Indiana State University, then at a handful of Greek houses across college campuses. It was first conceived in 2010 by Evan Burns and Adrian France—then Indiana State seniors—as a newspaper covering Greek life. By 2014, Burns was at the helm as CEO and Odyssey’s ambitions had shifted: It was now a sprawling online repository of writing. Today, Odyssey is an expansive platform with 15,000 creators, most of them college students across US campuses. Since its launch, it’s raised $32 million of backing by investors. Burns believes Odyssey could become the Facebook or Instagram of user-generated stories. “We’ve thought about our growth strategy as creating communities rather than building a blog platform,” he says.
For a website most people have never heard of, Odyssey has managed to rank up a substantial following, averaging 30 million unique views a month. More impressively, those views result from people—many of them Odyssey contributors—posting and sharing Odyssey stories across social media, unprompted by the site. That traffic is fueled by a massive amount of content. According to Odyssey, most stories average between 1,750 and 2,500 reads per month, a figure that lumps together those few pieces that go viral with the majority, which sometimes get only a handful of shares.
Of the half dozen former and current Odyssey contributors Backchannelspoke with, perceptions of the site’s reputation varied. “Some people feel it’s all clickbait and copy-paste articles, and others feel they can really express themselves there,” says Tyler Hoskins, a sophomore at Providence College who has been writing for Odyssey since the start of the school year.
Yet when Burns and France launched Odyssey as a newspaper back in 2010, they had big ideas. They wanted to scale what they were doing into a social network for “fully formed ideas.” Those ideas would be written by contributors and curated on a grand scale. For three years, the small team they’d assembled tried to build an algorithm that would streamline the workflow of such an undertaking. By 2014, they’d launched one and given it the Orwellian name of the “Invisible Hand.” Odyssey was counting on the Invisible Hand to allow it to succeed where others like it had failed. By passing pieces seamlessly through an edit desk, they hoped to create a sustainable business model that would churn out high-volume content for free.
Step into Odyssey’s brand new, sprawling office in Manhattan’s NoHo neighborhood, and you feel a college-chic vibe. Metal lockers line the wall from floor to ceiling. A bar adorned in silver cushions and topped with a faux crystal chandelier stands in one corner, waiting to be stocked and put to use by the decidedly young, bearded bunch of employees. Every two weeks as part of a “hot-desk plan,” employees swap desks, wheeling their individual metal filing cabinets to a new spot in the high-ceilinged workspace. That includes Burns, now a thin, fast-talking 29-year-old. It also includes a cadre of more than 60 content strategists, busy editing the 15,000 writers who each contribute at least one story per week — a task that would be dizzying for even the most prolific of newsrooms.
Handling this kind of volume has tripped up companies like Odyssey in the past. User-generated content sites, like Odyssey, rely mostly on unpaid users to fill their coffers of material—which is a boom for volume, but tends to mean the quality is lacking. Finding a way to stay relevant, keep users engaged, and scale a business model has proven to be a real challenge for UGC platforms over the years. AOL’s attempt, a hyper-local vertical of platforms called Patch that was edited by professional writers, fizzled out of existence — advertisers weren’t willing to pay for ad space, and traffic was abysmal. Turner media’s sports platform, Bleacher Report, lost credibility because of shoddy writing. Eventually, the site hired professional writers. Other sites—such as the Huffington Post, which launched with unpaid contributors and now employs a full staff of reporters—have followed suit. “These types of networks have petered out because it is resource intensive to work with contributors,” says Claire Wardle, research director at Columbia University’s Tow Center for Digital Journalism.
That’s where Odyssey believes it has developed a secret sauce with its Invisible Hand. Despite the ominous name, it’s a workflow tool that organizes stories by subject matter and content, ranking their newsworthiness, topic, and popularity. Stories that come in are ordered and organized from most relevant to least depending on a range of factors, and then funneled to the editor focused on the pertinent topic, such as sports or politics.
First, the algorithm feeds stories to community editors—locally based individuals who are not paid for their job—to be edited. Then they’re sent off to content strategists — the company’s name for its in-house editors, who are all responsible for managing 20 communities each comprised of around 12 to 25 writers. That means a content strategist is editing anywhere between 240 to 500 stories per week. The Invisible Hand is what keeps these editors from losing their minds, managing their workflow so they don’t waste time sifting through stories to determine what their priority should be.
Emi Gutgold, a recent graduate from Penn State who majored in advertising, served as editor-in-chief of Penn State’s Odyssey community for the past year. Odyssey is particularly robust on her campus, with what Gutgold calls “a powerhouse community” of 60 writers. Gutgold first heard about Odyssey two years ago in an email from her sorority, Kappa Delta, describing the chance to write about Greek life on campus for a new publication. At the time, Odyssey was still a tabloid-style print newspaper delivered weekly to fraternity and sorority houses at a handful of schools. As far as Gutgold knew, it was the first publication targeted to the Greek community, which intrigued her. She started writing a story a week, and “it snowballed from there,” she says. “I grew a name for myself at Penn State as the cool girl who writes about Greek life.”
But though there’s no shortage of stories on the Greek scene, Gutgold—who interned at the company’s New York office last summer and is starting a paid job as a content strategist this month—also insists that the platform creates space for perspectives that might otherwise get overlooked by mainstream media. Take for example the Jerry Sandusky Penn State child sex abuse scandal. “A lot of the media outlets were really missing the opinion of students and how they felt,” Gutgold says. On Odyssey you could find those stories. But scan down a sampling of her story headlines — ”Everything You Need to Know to Hack The HUB Salad Line,” “The Only Outfit You Need For The Rose Bowl,” “Make Up Tips For A Flawless Sorority Recruitment” — and there seems to be far more puffery than hard-hitting ideas.
You can read the other half of this full article on CNBC here: http://cnb.cx/2kLlPpd