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Is It Good To Be the King? Top Voting Lists Examined

The drill is pretty simple. Here's a comic, here's a rant, here's a button, and here's a plea: "Vote for my comic on such-and-such a top list!" Little context is provided, but one is bound and determined to show support as requested. One clicks, one votes. Then, one is confronted by a list of other comics which have all, presumably, asked for the same thing.

Many webcomics with small to mid-sized readerships have taken to the shiny button of top lists as a means of bolstering traffic, amusing their fanbase, and sharing the joy. The lists exist in several forms. buzzComix, who recently joined together with Drunkduck, use multiple toplists as the core of a large webcomics community. TopWebcomics, meanwhile, grew large and complex, only to simplify greatly when relaunched under new ownership.

Others have remained relatively uncomplicated affairs (eg. Rocketbox Comics, whose list is run by the new TopWebcomics owner). The Funny Papers use their top list as part of a games and comics portal. OnlineComics.net use an interesting members- only, "favorites"-oriented system where users vote once apiece for multiple webcomics. It emphasizes easy sorting and classification over raw popularity rankings, so doesn't resemble the usual top list. They're not within the scope of this article, but are well worth a look.

The Model

The top list -- at its core, a voter-ranked list or directory of sites -- is nothing new. You'll find more of these geared towards pornographic content than anything else (adult webmasters may have been among the first to implement the idea), but there is probably at least one such list for any imaginable subject. The idea is to share traffic in a more engaging, dynamic fashion than a simple directory or webring.

The more popular sites (usually the top ten) earn the privilege of displaying a banner along with their text-based listing. Votes are restricted to one per person per day, typically by logging IP addresses.

Participants are likely to draw their readership to the list, seeding new eyeballs across the board. A popular site, in theory, would be more likely to bring those readers in quantity, benefiting the less popular sites, and so it goes.

The influx can be underwhelming, but useful. Josh Lesnick stuck a buzzComix button on Girly "for the hits", and slips in and out of the top ten. This "gets me about 150 [hits] a day, and while that's not a hell of a lot, it's a good amount for a free comic link site, and every little bit helps."

Flaws

No competitive environment is without glitches or hitches, particularly when the popular vote comes into play. Take Fremantle Media's international Idols family of reality-TV talent searches, whose results are based on phone votes.

The second edition of the US edition, American Idol, may have been skewed by misdialed numbers. Vote rigging accusations have come into play over busy signals for the UK's Pop Idol. That same year, South African Idol faced concerns over racism, a contestant stuffing her own votebox, and the impact of betting syndicates. Meanwhile, controversy reigns over 2003's UK winner, Michelle McManus, quite possibly winning on the grounds of talent over image. It's not desperately surprising that, to avoid phreaker vote slamming or other collapses, American Idol's staff gave themselves the ability to discard the results and choose their own winner.

When you throw yourself open to popularity contests, the bugs come crawling in. Here are some that nest in the top list model.

Vote for me on this thing you don't know about:

Webcomics link to the vote submission or voting screen URLs, not the top list. The button basically exists in a vacuum. An Idols voter might be expected to have a passing familiarity with the other contestants, and has some idea of what the contest is about to begin with. This isn't the case for a comics toplist. The casual browser or first-time voter isn't expected to do anything but click the button, although some (not all) lists provide an intermediate "exit" link on a confirmation screen. No explanations. No setup.

It could be useful -- in an adjacent text box, in a rant, in a webcomic's forum or community, what-have-you -- to encourage a voter to visit the top list prior to voting. This is not to say that the reader should look at everything there; in some cases, that'd be impossible! Something along the lines of, "read a strip each from the top ten, then look at the five comics ranked above and below me, to get an idea of the competition," would work. A couple of quick lines about the top list model could also help. Another approach might be for a top list site, itself, to throw a basic explanation of what's going on and some guidelines to a first-time voter, then serve them a cookie with their first vote so as to let them go straight to a voting screen in future.

If the idea is to choose from the available candidates and help maximize one candidate's exposure, every participant should have some concept of who the competitors are and what the goal is.

Vote if you want to see NekoPixel-chan topless:

While many creators simply fall back upon nagging, it's possible to "bribe" a potential voter, making the vote more about viewing supplemental material than supporting the comic itself.

For example, the buzzComix rules specifically allow you to do "whatever you like to exhort votes from your readers." [Emphasis added.] "Extra strips, special art, [and] bonus pages" are all permitted. To this end, their vote screen permits a custom graphic, which can be presented either before the vote (as an enticement) or after (as a reward).

The reward, in particular, could be seen as taking unfair advantage of a dedicated fanbase; voting just to get hold of extra material is not a reflection on the webcomic's quality. What if you like Those Adorable Yellow Balls better, but Really Sweet, Ball-Shaped, Green Robots offers attractive desktop wallpaper to voters? What did you really just vote for?

Voting makes us better fans!:

A loyal reader might feel they "owe" it to their favorite webcomic to vote for it, every day, if the creator or a dedicated community decide to push the matter. That reader, without the additional encouragement, might show a completely different voting pattern -- or not wish to vote at all.

This can get even worse if an atypically high-traffic webcomic joins the fray to see what happens. No one puts up rules saying that you can't join if you get so many unique hits, or what-have-you. A list's associated community might develop unspoken boundaries on the matter. Readers might get some sense of inbound and outgoing hit numbers from the list itself (top lists will monitor these alongside the votes) but the balance of power is easily tipped. This, too, can create bad blood, especially in combination with the above vehement loyalty problem. Anything from heated debate to flat-out creator harassment can take place.

When the goal is not to say, "this is my favorite comic based on a reasonable selection," but, rather, "we like this comic so much that we have to make it win" (or "how fast can we get this comic to number one?"), it stops being about the webcomic and starts being about the goal, the voters, or the creator's charisma (unwitting or otherwise).

Hello; we're mean:

Sometimes, human nature just gets in the way. Not the heartwarming, positive, happy-making part of human nature, unfortunately; this'd be the puppy-kicking, sniping, snarling, mean and petty part.

An example of this took place in the summer and autumn of 2003, when Queen of Wands creator Aeire experimented with placing her strip on buzzComix and TopWebcomics as a fun diversion for the readership. First, it was suggested to her that buzz was for smaller webcomics than QoW. (This turned out to be an unspoken rules situation, as referenced above.) On moving, QoW shot rapidly up TopWebcomics, hitting number five in the space of twenty-four hours, then hitting number one at the end of August, twenty-two days later.

Then TopWebcomics fell over for several weeks; Aeire would return to buzzComix anyhow at the beginning of October, quickly repeating QoW's prior success, then rejoin TopWebcomics when it briefly returned.

On October 21st, 2003, Aeire withdrew QoW from both lists for good. Why pull out after demonstrating ongoing success? Fans watched the post count assiduously (almost to the point of loving micromanagement), discovered and read new webcomics, and pushed the button even when it didn't work.

First came the accusations of cheating. Then came the harassing, insulting, and ultimately extremely sexist email. (more discussion)

Sometimes, you can't win even though you've won.

Merits

It's not all bad.

A creator might not have time to read and recommend many new, relatively unknown webcomics to their readership. A well-populated top list can serve to fill the gap and save time. Crosspromotion, the ostensible raison d'être of top lists, can therefore be handled with a minumum of fuss.

Competition doesn't always bring out the worst in people. Pitting oneself against others can encourage the creator to hew more closely to schedule, and/or produce higher quality work. The increased viewership might bring with it useful feedback, or exposure to how other strips handle things -- usefully, adding a cooperative element to the situation.

Those voters who do see the process through, then check out the competition, might be pleasantly surprised by what's available to them. Though a reader might never make it all the way through a well-populated list, a little dedication (and good indexing on the part of the top list) can yield pleasant results. Well-conducted, well-informed voting can help to sort wheat from chaff. Popularity might not always line up with quality or sophistication -- a webcomic with deliberately broad or base appeal, just like sitcom or a movie with similar goals, isn't typically going to be high art. But it's a good place to start.

Conclusion

Competition can be dynamic and dramatic. It can fill any number of gaps for a webcomic seeking new readership, or new allies; unfortunately, it can also take on highly unpleasant characteristics that make it difficult to work with. A creator would be well advised to consider which flaws and merits make themselves most evident with any given top list, whether the popularity contest will sit well with the existing fanbase, or whether the model could be more trouble or heartache than it's worth.