On Demand, meet On Supply (RSS)
Submitted by Aleph on March 16, 2006 - 12:30
Update or die?
When I first looked into making a webcomic, back in 2002, the one thing I heard most often was, 'Update regularly or don't bother at all.' The one canon rule I could suss out in webcomics was that you must update often, and you must hit your schedule every chance you could.
These days RSS (Really Simple Syndication) (picked the least ugly page with an explanation) has taken the thunder out of that sole commandment. In the process, it may have opened the field in a way unique to webcomics, allowing us to do more with serialization than we ever could in traditional media. On-demand was the first real revolution in online thinking-- On-supply is the next, and in terms of theoretical discussion, we're missing out on the potential. Blogs have gotten there, so have news services, but many webcomics are still stuck with outdated thinking that's inhibiting their true potential.
The changing face of webcomics
The logic behind 'Update regularly or die' was sound. People don't like browsing a comic only to find their time wasted. It was, however, sound logic for days gone by-- when readers were likely to attach to a very small group of comics and visit those pages as a part of their daily routine. Visiting a page repeatedly with no update under those circumstances is certainly frustrating. There was a time when regularity was a symbol of professionalism that stood out-- now there are plenty of daily offerings which hardly stand out at all.
Nowadays, it's not uncommon for a comic reader's bookmarks to include 40 or more comics, and it's nowhere near a sure thing that they'll make their way down that list every time they browse. It's not uncommon for people to catch up on their favourite comics 3-5 pages at a time. Readers are inundated with new offerings and new options, and their browsing habits change drastically with the amount of time consumed by juggling bookmarks.
We shouldn't fear the profound increase in webcomic titles per reader-- in fact we might do well to encourage it. The competitive/territorial ideas that seem pervasive in some webcomic creator cultures are baffling, and stems from outdated thinking from traditional media. We do not compete for print space, we do not sell issues. We have the same number of pages on our own sites regardless of whether the reader hits them as they go up or at their own convenience. The purely traffic-driven business model is collapsing, and our thinking has to change with it. Whether we're running by donations or by merchandise, or even asking them to bitpass our work, what we're really after is not JUST their clicks, but their willingness to back us with their own money. Our readers' emotional attachment is what we're competing for. A world full of massively multi-title readers enriches the pool of readers available to us all and lessens the effectiveness of efforts to be territorial about their time. It may even give us the freedom to hunt our own goals as creators-- which is much more likely to win their hearts than hitting a timecode every time.
The fight to be memorable is more important than the fight to be seen.
Exposure used to be enough. Getting mentioned, getting noticed, the drama queens ruled the day like the dinosaurs ruled the earth. Throw enough readers at a comic, you might say, and a good portion would usually stick. This worked when readers' attention spans were far less saturated than they are today.
When readers are expected to browse through a long list of favourites, however, and add them to a routine, spike traffic becomes less of a benefit and more of a detriment to any given title. Flashing through one extra offering on a tour of dozens, the reader hardly has time to give any given title consideration. Snap judgements are made based on familiarity. From fast food to webcomics the observation is the same: people in a hurry don't spare a lot of time for taste. The more we push readers towards the idea of a browsing routine, the more we push webcomics toward the fast-food model of success-- figure out how to do something quick cheap and consistant, and people will get used to coming back to you when it's time to eat. The available options get winnowed down to narrow categories, and guess what? There are already big names who are much more experienced in those categories than any newcomer will ever be. A new title has as much chance of becoming a Penny Arcade as Roy Cohn would have starting a franchise with a burger stand in California today. Some will do it, too, if they truly have managed to improve on what's around. Most of us will not.
In this environment, gimmick comics and clique comics will naturally rule the day, with a few outstanding exceptions. The alternative is to encourage a more discerning reader, and give that reader something they can really sink their teeth into. Happier artists and happier readers will hit the gourmet circuit-- and RSS makes that not only possible, but pleasurable.
RSS is a 100 percent guarantee to your readers, and an instant free advertisement.
With RSS, your readers never need hit your page and be disappointed. They can choose to visit ONLY when you have something to offer them. This takes some degree of the detriment out of taking your time.
RSS will also remind them of your existance. Even if you have worked hard to be memorable, you must take into account the fact that there are literally millions of other webpages out there, webcomic or not, competing for the reader's memory. Even tried and true titles fall through those cracks. I've heard many readers speak of drifting away from favourite titles, revisiting them only when an advertisement or a mention in the course of webdrama/critical review/conversation brings the titles back to the forefront of a reader's mind.
As bookmark files get longer and browsing gets more time-consuming, it benefits us to give the reader more at each visit. It might even benefit some of us to take the sense of routine OUT of what we do, and identify ourselves as a special treat outside the daily grind.
RSS turns your competition into your allies.
One of the main challenges facing a slow-update comic is the unpleasant prospect of an impatient reader. The move towards collectives is an acknowledgement of the need to balance quality of product with a reader's need to be entertained and engaged. As any one member of the collective is remembered and visited, the reader is reminded of all of them, thus the comics support each other rather than detracting from one another.
But a collective also represents a loss of control when it comes to any given creator's identity, and association. Even the best collectives must, by definition, ask a creator to sacrifice the identity of their own franchise in favour of a group identity which chooses their associations for them. This has led to serious problems in the past, even with collectives that have only a very loose identity, and will likely lead to further drama as time goes on.
Comic-centered RSS feeds, however, allow the reader to create their OWN collective, without any of the associations being placed on the comic creators themselves. I would never associate myself with some of the titles that show up on my 'readers also read' lists. Thanks to RSS I share readers with those titles, and gain traffic from the readers checking back for other titles as well as mine, without ever having to DEAL with their creators. No drama, no muss, no fuss, and no worries that something is going to get added which will force me to part ways from a group I would have helped to build.
Building a better audience
An RSS feed full of slow but high-quality comics becomes a far more frequent satisfaction to the reader than any of the individual titles could be on their own. This enables each individual title to spend more time delivering better material. If we encourage that, we not only take the pressure off ourselves as individual creators, we raise the bar in our readers' taste. We can spoil them toward richly rendered scenes and smartly delivered stories that can be followed over longer periods of time.
There are a lot of people out there who are simply overwhelmed by the sea of cheap and easy webcomics vying for their attention. They look for alternatives, but alternatives are hard to find, because creators push themselves to simplify and streamline for deadlines. In short, we let the demand for readers shape us. This happened in traditional comics as well, when nearly all styles began to standardize around a few popular titles and storylines-- and it wasn't until a few strange ideas hit cult status that the options really began diversifying again. Graphic novels like the Sandman series and Hellblazer shaped their own audiences. We can do the same with less risk and less personal cost involved with experimentation.
Deadlines will never go away, but...
There will always be an audience for the cheap and easy laugh, or the chi-blasting superhero arena battles-- there will always be a market for fast food. People who do well at hitting deadlines will always get some benefit from fulfilling their readers' desire for regularity. There will always be people who excel under the pressure of a deadline. There will always be a detriment to waiting too long to post an update.
Some of us were simply not ever made to work quickly, however-- we have ideas that take time to render, stories that require a longer attention span, ambitions that exceed our speed.
It's one thing to trim away excess to better serve the practicalities of publishing to the web. Let's just be clear on what those practicalities actually /are/. If more of us step away from the daily grind and truly explore the potential of what we could be doing, we'll create a field in which the truly spectacular have a chance to mature. Where artists have a chance to do what they /love/, not just what they can manage.
I'd really like to see what that would generate. Wouldn't you?