Ryan O’Connell never set out to be notorious. The 26-year-old creative director of Thought Catalog — the online publication dedicated to posting hyper-personal non-fiction works — has swiftly emerged as one of the most popular contributors of a website that’s incited both the awe and the ire of the Internet. Simultaneously hailed by devotees as a new force in millennial journalism and decried by critics as an unending library of narcissism, Thought Catalog has thrust O’Connell into an unlikely position of scrutiny. He says he’s learned quickly how to deal with the criticism: “That’s how the Internet works. I didn’t understand it at first, blogging behind people’s backs…[but] snarkyness has a cool factor and it’s not cool to be sentimental,” O’Connell told TIME. But he says he doesn’t plan on swapping his trademark emotional prose for something “cooler” anytime soon. “Even the most jaded, cynical people feel things intensely. I just choose to write about them.”
Since its launch in February of 2010 thoughtcatalog.com has enjoyed a meteoric rise in popularity, now registering more than 20 million page views and 2.5 million readers a month. The site also hosts an active and engaged community, with one of their most popular 2011 posts generating more than 900 comments (it’s not uncommon to also see stories inspire hundreds of reactions on Facebook). The source of the buzz: An intimate, earnest and confessional writing style that has inspired as many fans as critics. Popular websites like Gawker have dismissed O’Connell’s approach as self-indulgent while other critics berate Thought Catalog as a vacuous outlet designed solely to aid 20-somethings in hearing themselves speak. The site’s headlines tell the tale. Publishing such items as “Why Being in Your 20s is Awesome,” “10 Things 90s Kids Will Have To Explain To Their Children” and “Love in the Time of Tumblr,” Thought Catalog is awash in the sort of sentimentality and nostalgia that is rarely seen anymore in an era of gossip sites fueled by wit and snark. O’Connell proudly pushes back against the tide: If you don’t balance snark with earnestness, he says, you run the risk of seeming hollow.
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In his posts, O’Connell openly ruminates on his emotions with heartfelt prose. Which seems about right for a man who says he watches My So-Called Life every year for nostalgic introspection and who views livejournal as a form of “performance art.” His writing approach is intertwined with his personal history. O’Connell grew up in Ventura, California. After being hit by a car and losing function in his writing hand (he now types his articles with only two fingers), he transferred from San Francisco State to Eugene Lang, the New School’s liberal arts college, graduating in 2009. He describes himself as having a split East Coast-West Coast personality, vacillating between a “Woody Allen misanthrope” and a “ray of goddamn sunshine.”
His writing, though, trends towards the upbeat, and aspires to be inspirational. O’Connell’s Thought Catalog posts, which now number at more than 800, focus chiefly on the promise and joys of young adulthood, with soaring lines like: “As twentysomethings, we’re constantly moving — apartments, relationships, cities, jobs. Anything is possible. People are ready for you. They want to hear what you have to say.” And though there’s a hint of contrivance in some of his excerpts, it only takes a brief survey of the O’Connell library to recognize that he means every word he writes. His arguments, his demeanor, his life story, all evoke the aesthetic of “The Perks of Being a Wallflower,” or perhaps a Wes Anderson film.
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O’Connell says he stumbled across Thought Catalog quite accidentally. After graduating from college and becoming “an intern queen,” he walked out of an internship the day before his 24th birthday and woke up the following morning with no job and no prospects. He gave himself a few months to forge a career in writing, and it was through his initial submissions to Thought Catalog that he quickly gained a loyal following of like-minded readers. It didn’t take long for him to join the staff as a full-time editor, and the further his “me-centric” meditations spread across the Internet, the more critical backlash erupted. “Just about everything Ryan O’Connell writes is very stereotypical, self-focused and cliché,” says Gawker editor Hamilton Nolan, one of Thought Catalog’s most passionate critics. “Writing about something that 10 million other people have experienced isn’t just irritating but dangerous, because it promotes the idea for young writers that the only way to build a career is to write about yourself.”
But O’Connell says he uses his own life stories not in a bid for attention, but rather as familiar reference points for his readers, who can connect with the shared experiences. “When I started writing for Thought Catalog my editorial rule for myself was: Keep it personal but universal,” he says. “People always feel like what they are thinking is crazy. What I try to do is make people feel better about themselves.” Furthermore, he shrugs off his critics’ claims that his writing, specifically his more controversial pieces that deal with drugs and sex, is too intrusive or self-focused. “I know there is this idea of our generation being narcissistic and people feel that TC feeds into that,” he says. “But things that people consider really personal I don’t. Writing about sex is something that everyone experiences. It’s universal, so why not write about it?”
When others argue about whether the site is inspirational or naïve, O’Connell responds that Thought Catalog is filling an editorial void in the journalism world, and that the site’s popularity is proof of that. The pieces he posts, he says, really wouldn’t fit the editorial focus of any other site; before Thought Catalog, “the Internet was turning into one, big, giant jerk and people were just getting tired of it.”
While O’Connell is paid a salary by the site, most Thought Catalog contributors – a mix of professional journalists and college students (including one piece penned by yours truly) — are unpaid. And as the site has evolved, shifting its focus to more personal and sentimental confessions, more prominent contributors have joined the conversation. Dunn, an editor of Thought Catalog and a prominent New York Times columnist, began writing for Thought Catalog in 2011.
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Still, the more sincere Thought Catalog has skewed, the more exasperated its critics have become. Nolan says the backlash has been a product of both subject matter and tone: “It is confessional, but it’s more than that. I think it goes back to the fact that it’s not self-aware: They think they are great but they are not in on the joke – that they are the joke,” he says. “All of their posts about feelings just make them into a caricature of themselves.”
“I’m really not afraid of being uncool,” responds O’Connell, who has maintained a prolific Thought Catalog pace even after inking a deal with Simon & Schuster to write his memoir I’m Special and Other Lies 20-Somethings Tell Themselves. “At first it did hurt me —I am human. I respect a lot of the writers and readers who bashed me, and you obviously want to get validated by your peers. But then I had a moment of realization — that I can’t let those voices get into my head. I have to do me.”