Really Simple Syndication for WebComics
Publishing a webcomic is simple, right? Set up a website and post webcomics via FTP, and readers come to said website to read said webcomics? Well, yes... and no.
In a world of too many webcomics to count, getting a webcomic in front of as many potential readers as possible is a good strategy for building its audience. As the Internet evolves, so do the various methods to "syndicate" webcomics â€“ creators and publishers are finding new ways for readers to follow a webcomic without having to visit the actual webcomic's website.
However, several webcomics are now tapping into a newly emerging Internet standard popularized by blogs, called RSS (for "Really Simple Syndication") â€“ a dynamic delivery method that allows for the creation of a "syndication feed", a pumping out of product from a webcomic creator to the world at large in one fell, simultaneous swoop (See sidebar for history of RSS). There is a tremendous amount of software development already revolving around RSS, something that bodes well in terms of its usefulness to both content creators and readers. Webcomics could adapt much of this to our medium.
Like html and browsers, RSS relies on a set of rules and protocols for the â€œRSS feedsâ€, so that both ends â€“ the creator and the reader side â€“ can successfully transmit the product. This is usually done through software called RSS Readers. In a nutshell, RSS feeds deliver content that the RSS reader interprets â€“ the raw RSS feed itself is no more comprehensible to human beings than raw html code.
Some RSS readers are web-based, others are stand-alone programs for your computer (or work in conjunction with an existing program such as your browser or email reader). One excellent web-based RSS reader is Bloglines, a free, online service where you can set up an account and begin reading RSS feeds almost immediately.
What any individual RSS feed delivers is up to the content provider. Many â€œblogsâ€ and other news sites deliver headlines and sometimes the first paragraph of each story through their RSS feeds. But the RSS standard itself is entirely flexible in its support for the delivery of any kind of content. Different programs support the creation of RSS feeds in different ways currently, but as with all standards, software should continue to evolve and improve their implementation of the RSS standard. For example, Postpn, the content management system used by Comixpedia, automatically creates an RSS feed distributing Comixpedia headlines, whereas Moveable Type, a blogging program, automatically creates an RSS feed distributing headlines and the initial text of a post to the site.
An RSS reader such as Bloglines also allows you to scan these updates as they happen, and to organize RSS feeds from multiple sites as each reader desires. For example, a reader could group ten (10) political blogs into one â€œfolderâ€ on Bloglines and scan headlines from all 10 RSS feeds together. It also serves as a notification service as new items from an RSS feed show up in the RSS reader as â€œnew.â€ Other tools are made possible by the data created by the RSS standard. Bloglines, for example, supports searching blogs that you receive an RSS feed from, a directory of blogs and a â€œtop blogsâ€ listing based on RSS traffic. It also â€œrecommendsâ€ blogs based on a comparison of the RSS feeds youâ€™ve subscribed to compared to the subscriptions of thousands of other Bloglines users.
There are several obvious and immediate benefits to RSS for webcomics creators and readers. Readers can create the â€œcomics pageâ€ of their dreams through RSS by mixing and matching the RSS feeds of their choice. This opportunity for readers would only increase as more creators put out RSS feeds for webcomics Creators can also leverage such packaging by offering multiple comics in one feed. (Full Tilt, for example offers a single RSS feed of all of its membersâ€™ webcomics.). Both readers and creators can benefit from the built-in â€œnotificationâ€ feature of the RSS standard. Comics that update on a less frequent or predictable basis can use RSS to ensure that readers know when such updates occur.
R Stevens, creator of Diesel Sweeties, recently created an RSS feed for his daily webcomic. "It looks to me like there are about 650-700 or so requests for it per day," said Stevens. "That could be 700 readers using it, or significantly less checking it multiple times per day. That's about 2-3% of my normal index page views for a single day."
Will the use of RSS change the nature of webcomics? Creators certainly may feel compelled to look at their webcomic independent of the website environment they have created for it if a large portion of their audience begins to read the webcomic outside of that environment. Creators will not only have to think about artistic concerns but think about how to make RSS help rather than hinder their economic concerns. Some creators may seek ways to include advertisements or donation buttons in their RSS feed. Other creators may choose to include only a portion of the webcomic in the feed, forcing interested readers to click through to the website to read the rest of the webcomic.
Readers may find it even easier to keep up with only the webcomics they already love, losing the exposure to many new webcomics readers often find simply by clicking on links or recommendations made on a webcomic website. Or perhaps the ease of adding and deleting an RSS feed for the reader will lead readers to sample even more webcomics and more effectively connect creators with an appreciative audience. If functionality like the recommendations made by Bloglines were available based solely on webcomics, a reader would be able to find new webcomics to read based on the collective preferences of readers reading webcomics through RSS.