From Carrie Bradshaw to Content Mill Martha… Looking Back at a Life Online

Let’s talk about the internet.

I’ve been thinking a lot about the evolution it’s had as someone whose work in recent years has been measured by pageviews and social analytics.

In June 2015, I left an entry-level role at one of my favorite organizations to pursue a career in media. My jobs in the non-profit world up to this point had varying communications tasks to them and having filled twenty journals with personal words over the span of ten years, I had very romantic ideas about what a career as a writer or editor would actually mean.

By December, I was hired at a media start-up in New York City to work as an Assistant Managing Editor. This start-up did little to shake my fanciful notions because it was led by peers with similar delusions. We weren’t just publishing, we were “democratizing content.” I didn’t know it at the time but I was being indoctrinated into a kool-aid-drinking culture and everyone was in deep. Odyssey rented offices in WeWork buildings across Manhattan where each floor had free beer on taps you could help yourself to at leisure, employees were given shiny new MacBook Pros and yes—the ping-pong tables annoyed anyone trying to work within a 50-foot range of them.

I can still remember when a colleague came into work in overalls and a crop top underneath because it was such a departure from the buttoned-up environments I’d known. I walked into the lobby of the WeWork NoMad building one Monday morning to find a complimentary Bloody Mary bar and that was probably a bit much. Ja Rule rented an office a floor below us where he was organizing the failed Fyre Festival. I once sat in a conference room for five minutes listening to the man’s laugh echo in the hallway because it sounded exactly like his intro in “Mesmerize” and my Ashanti-CD-loving-middle-school-self needed a moment.

Within a week of starting, I was flown out to headquarters in Indiana along with another 20 or so newbies to attend their yearly off-site strategy meeting that had a buzzy name like “Breakers” or “Regenerate.” Staff was required to organize into cross-departmental teams and come up with solutions for company-wide challenges. Everything was expensed, our days were 12-hours long, and I recall bathroom breaks being seen as inconveniences. The trip ended with a Christmas party hosted in a warehouse with an open-bar and gourmet food. It was indulgent and I was sitting down for a full-course meal. I realize now this entire experience was an unusually flashy introduction to the industry, particularly at my pay grade. And this was months before any of us would see our logo carved into ice at a company cocktail party.

I now look back and think about how unique this time in my life was. It’s one that I treasure the most because it taught me how to work harder than I ever have before and it cut my teeth in a management position. I also met and worked among brilliant people who continue to inspire me through their work at the Washington Post, the Philly Inquirer, CNN, Bustle, VICE, and Condé Nast. The shame is so few of these individuals were given the means to run with their editorial expertise at Odyssey because we were a content farm.

Over and over again, leadership stressed quantity over quality. The metrics we were held to as editors pushed conversations about quality (and diversity for that matter) into the margins, turning them into pet-projects taken on by small groups. Securing Odyssey’s credibility was an aspiration gripped on to by those in the company who wouldn’t shut up about it, myself included. But none of it mattered much as long as the content mill kept working.

In the Spring of 2016 that changed for Odyssey when Facebook, our primary source of distribution, buried our links. Their algorithm changed to prioritize organic user-created content over publishers. It didn’t matter how much we produced, posted or tweeted, pageviews dove and they never recovered. Once the lights turned off on our audience, revenue dried, the bubble burst. I resigned that summer before things got to their worst. Editors were laid off in droves in the months following. It was awful but as we’ve seen in news announcing the cuts made at Buzzfeed this month, the layoffs at Mic, the layoffs at Time, and recent cuts at The Outline–it was not unusual.

Since leaving Odyssey, I’ve freelanced, worked briefly for a print magazine that covered faith by marketing its cultural relevance and taken on minor client projects. Most recently I worked full-time as a Managing Editor publishing three B2B magazines covering the print industry.

Following a promotion and thousands of miles on the road as a vendor, my career was upended when the company was purchased by a new publisher. Our team was downsized and I was offered to stay on as a contractor if I was willing to absorb the responsibilities of two jobs outside of my own. I declined and although it took me a month to find peace with my decision, I was relieved. It has taken too long for me to admit the last three years have made me Tired. Between Trump’s election turning the internet into a slimy soundbyte-slinging playground, the audience monopolies social media platforms have over publishers and the words “pivot to video,” these years have felt more like twenty.

After my departure from the whole full-time with benefits thing, I freaked. Then I wondered if I should have settled for burnt-out and underpaid.

Finally, I slept. A lot.

And read books like, real books and I repainted the front door, and sent mail to distant friends, and began cooking again for the first time in years between feeling bad about luxuriating over Chrissy Teigen’s cookbook and grocery lists in the middle of a Wednesday afternoon.

Although this isn’t sustainable, I’m finally allowing myself to enjoy it. I am not going anywhere and just the same, work will be there waiting when I get back but I’ve decided that whatever I take on next has to be fully my own. I’ve effectively stopped emailing and doing and editing long enough to dream about what I actually want to do again, a privilege I don’t take for granted.

It seems what I enjoy doing most at the moment is writing. So, I think between attempting Teigen’s Thai Pork and Rice Porridge and reorganizing the closet–I’ll do that.

Author: rebecca marie jo

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