Jan 25 2013
In case you missed it yesterday, I posted a Morning Link which surprisingly enough featured my own picture which had found its way into a Cracked gallery. I spoke a bit about how I took that photo as a joke back when I was a college blogger, and there’s a quite a bit of a story behind that.
At least a few of you seemed interested for me to tell it, so I figured I would. This naturally deviates from the site’s usual content, but it does described how I first started blogging, how I do what I do now for a living, and many, many lessons learned along the way.
This may end up proving rather lengthy, but it was sort of an epic saga at the time. The adventure begins below if you’re curious to hear more. If you couldn’t care less, I completely understand.
My junior year at college, I was a bit lost. I hadn’t gotten into business school at the University of Michigan, something I was mildly bummed about, but I wasn’t sure that’s what I wanted to do anyway. And yet, I marched toward a major in economics, something I was even less enthusiastic about, but I had already taken most of the classes I needed for the degree which seemed as good as any a reason to major in it.
I found that English classes were among my favorite instead. I’d always liked writing, but these classes made me love it. To further pursue the interest, I decided to apply for our school’s paper, The Michigan Daily.
Some of my old Arts staff.
I became a Daily Arts writer after a horrible first person review I wrote of The Fast and the Furious Tokyo Drift was enough to make the editors laugh. A few months later I was elected Film Editor, and each week sent out my staff of a dozen writers to review the weeks movies, while keeping the best ones for myself, heh. Such were the privileges of power.
My senior year, an email was forwarded to the entire paper from a new company looking for “college bloggers” to write for a new startup called “College Off the Record,” later changed to “College On the Record” due to copyright reasons, later changed to “CollegeOTR.”
This was back when blogging was first starting to become “a thing.” I’d messed around on our own Daily Arts blog a bit, and though combining pictures with text online was rather fun. I got into other blogs like Geekologie and The Superficial, and it seemed like a neat way to consume content.
CollegeOTR was looking to start up a site at each major school around the country, and after a simple application process, I was in. The University of Michigan was my turf, and they set me up with my own corner of the broader site. I chose the username “Johnny Quest,” an accidental misspelling of a childhood icon I used to love, and had a profile picture to match.
Real Adventures ONLY.
I wrote about whatever popped into my mind at first. It was usually one post a day, and started out as advice to freshman or reporting on any breaking campus news that happened. I wrote everything in my signature style of snark, and tried to make whatever I was covering as funny as possible. But still, I was more or less talking to an empty room.
That all changed when I started covering Greek life. For a bit of background, the Greek system at Michigan is enormous, and fraternities and sororities rule the social scene with iron fists. There’s fierce competition to get into the “best” houses, and all the best parties were thrown by Greeks. Only 10% or so of the student body is Greek, but it feels like 50%.
I was not Greek myself, but I had a friend or ex-girlfriend in practically every one of the big frats and sororities. So for the site, I started up a series called “Michigan Greek Mythology” that poked fun at the various houses based on their (largely true) stereotypes, many of which I’d experienced firsthand. My first target was a house called Pike (these links may or may not work anymore), which were thought of as pretty boy metro Abercrombie models, and I went from there.
I’ve no idea how the Greeks found the site, but they did, and the Mythology articles became the most popular posts on the site by far. After a few segments, I sat down and decided to compile a “The List,” which was my “official” rankings of the top ten fraternities and sororities on campus.
People went insane after that. I’ve always maintained that my site succeeded because Greeks always talked about this stuff, but no one ever bothered to write it down.
Well, I wrote it down, and somehow, it became gospel.
The site exploded after that, and at its peak probably had 5,000 students at U of M reading it a day. I wrote about the Greeks and a host of other issues on campus, and somehow, the site became a must-read. The List was taken extremely seriously and people were now pledging houses based on their placement on it.
Part of the appeal was that I was writing anonymously. No one knew who “Johnny Quest” was. I was Gossip Girl, for lack of a better analogy, and people started to get crazy trying to figure out who I was.
That was a thrilling time, and I spent equal parts of my time basking in the attention, and being extremely paranoid I would get discovered. I’d only told my close circle of friends, but a few of them were sorority girls who liked to talk.
I started getting really freaked out when I started hearing Tri Delts in class talking about Johnny Quest or SAEs in lecture discussing the latest Mythology entry. Something had to give.
Little did I know from my corner in the Arts department that the Michigan Daily that the actual news section of the site had launched an investigation to discover who Johnny Quest was. My editors read the site, thought it sounded familiar and began investigating me. I’d left several unfortunate hints in a few of my posts that did in fact point to me, and it was all they needed for a confronation. The editor-in-chief of the entire paper called me and asked me if I was Johnny Quest.
Pretty much what happened.
I suppose I could have denied it, but I didn’t. Unfortunately I was then faced with the reality that I would either have to quit the blog or quit the Daily, as some stuff I was writing was a bit too controversial for the paper to handle.
I quit the blog, as what kind of future can you have in blogging right? And they were going to out me either way. I posted a big reveal post on the site the night before a cover story ran on the Daily the next day.
The aftermath was nuts as I got about 200 new friend requests on Facebook in a 24 hour period. People were surprised I was so…normal, and many offered their best wishes as I left. A few wanted to marry me, a few wanted me dead.
My hiatus was short lived. When the Daily got a new editor who didn’t give a shit, I started writing for the blog again under my real name. In the second semester of my senior year, I still wielded a certain amount of influence and the blog was thriving. I got recognized on the street or at parties. I’d be lying if I said it didn’t go to my head just a little bit, and I remember blowing by a door bouncer at a St. Patrick’s frat party once saying “I’m Johnny Quest.” Thankfully, I mostly kept myself in check.
During my second semester writing out in the open we were voted US News and World Report’s Best College Blog in the Nation, and I hosted a “Hottest Girl on Campus” contest simply because I could. The contest got picked up by Sports Illustrated, and as an added bonus, I first saw the girl I’m now currently going to marry in a few months time. Funny how life works, isn’t it?
It was some time however, before I knew she liked cosplay.
The rest of the story isn’t as intense, though it’s what’s gotten me to where I am today.
To sum the ending up, I was hired by CollegeOTR to run their entire Midwest division after graduation, in order to spawn hundreds of more site like mine. That proved harder than anyone thought, and through poor management that was demanding 100% traffic growth a month to stay afloat with venture capital money, the site ultimately folded.
But before it did, I met Mr. Nattyb, a social media consultant with a knack for building websites. He liked my writing and together we started Unreality. Unreality got me noticed by a site called True Slant, which was eventually bought by Forbes. And that’s how I have my two major jobs today.
As fun as OTR was, in retrospect I was a bit young and foolish to write some of the stuff I did. I was pretty mean, even if I wasn’t singling people out, I was poking fun at entire houses. I was quite superficial, even I was largely trying to satirize the whole system and make them take themselves less seriously. Instead, the opposite was true, and because of posts like The List, they took themselves even MORE seriously. I also treaded into dangerous waters accusing some frats of date rape, and I learned you really have to have hard proof before you can just start saying stuff like that.
Lastly, I learned that inside jokes don’t necessarily translate to the outside world. I used to write for a major website and was being considered for a full time position there until the Orthodox Jewish ownership discovered I’d written about a sorority who happened to be full of girls who I described as “rich, Jewish and bitchy,” generally speaking. Of course I wasn’t implying those adjectives were all related, there were rich, bitchy WASP houses and nice girl Jewish houses I’d also written about, but it didn’t matter. They didn’t go to Michigan, they didn’t get it, and I was fired on the spot. That was a hard, hard lesson learned.
In short, what you write about the internet stays there forever, so you should be damn sure to be able to live with everything you’ve said, even when you were young and foolish. Suffice to say I probably won’t be running for political office any time soon.
But I wouldn’t trade that year of madness for anything, and it remains some of the most fun I’ve ever had writing. It’s ended up bringing me a great life both career and future wife-wise, and it’s almost enough to make you believe in fate.
Thus ends my Greek saga of an origin story, and if you made it this far, I salute you. If you have any further questions about any of this, ask away in the comments and I’ll do my best to answer.
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