The More I Learn, the Less I Broadcast
Submitted by pclips on April 24, 2006 - 20:44
The More I Learn, the Less I Broadcast
This is an official rant. It's very long.
An incident today really threw a spotlight on a major attitude change of mine, which has happened within the last six months to a year. I no longer look to any public webcomics blog or forum to productively share and receive information about webcomics. I barely participate. I'm genuinely disgusted with the state of webcomics discussion, and it's not worth my time either to wade in and try to raise the level of debate, or to keep sifting for signal in all the noise.
As has been mentioned in the Comixpedia News section, I was on a webcomics panel this weekend at PenguiCon. The other panelists were Howard Tayler of Schlock Mercenary, Eric Millikin of Fetus-X, and The_Ferrett of Home on the Strange. The topic was one I came up with in email discussions with Howard and Eric before the con (I wasn't aware that The_Ferrett was going to be joining us, or he would have been included.). "Webcomics Haves and Have Nots: As webcomics begins its second decade as a medium, the vast majority of web traffic still is directed toward a tiny fraction of all titles. What do the disparities in traffic numbers indicate about art, society, entertainment, and free choice?"
So it was a panel about traffic. And in preparation, I did some research.
Actually, a LOT of research. I am a data analyst in my day job, with coming up on 10 years' professional experience in Oracle, Access, FileMaker, etc. I went out and gathered data to fill a spreadsheet with all available statistics for something like the top 150 webcomics titles as of Summer 2005, and their corresponding data for Spring 2006. I was hunting for trends, oddities, general rules...anything the data might show me.
I learned a lot. Some of my firmest beliefs and predictions were proven untrue ("proven" and "untrue" being two words I do not use carelessly). I shared the spreadsheets with Howard and Eric. They agreed that what I had there was damned eye-opening. Howard said every webcomics person who was serious about growing their traffic ought to see those numbers. This was literally a large set of data which had never been put together before, and what we had learned from it was valuable information that we alone possessed.
Eighteen months ago, I would have taken Howard's remark to heart, written an analysis of that data, and published it on Comixpedia with the actual spreadsheets and some graphs. Instead, I showed the spreadsheets to only two other creators. Both of them were blown away by the quality of the data and the things it showed. One of them radically re-evaluated his idea of his own comic's place in the bigger picture, as had Eric and Howard and I.
The panel didn't quite go in the direction I had hoped. There was a lot of apologizing for the focus on traffic numbers, which I saw as the point of the panel. Everyone was quick to point out we weren't equating traffic numbers with success, that there were other metrics, dimensions, limits, factors, yadda yadda yadda. Yes. Fine. Points conceded. Can we talk about traffic, though?
I tried to make some points that were dry and had math and numbers in them, but were exciting to me because they answered questions I had wondered about. I threw a lot of numbers out there.
Today, I learned that the numbers probably didn't stick.
The_Ferrett is a nice guy and was an exemplary panelist. But although he's an extremely popular blogger, and makes a very good comic, that comic is 4 months old. He was a 101 student in a 425 seminar, acquitting himself well but out of his depth. I know because I have been in his shoes. On my first webcomics panel in 2002 I had a 45-day-old clip-art comic I was then making in MS Word, and I was dropped in among the likes of Pete Abrams, Jon Rosenberg, and Peter David.
Anyway, he assumed it was fine to blog about the panel. I can see why he would assume that. He'd be within his rights to repeat anything that was said in public.
But I don't do that. I don't actually know anyone who does. I've been known to repeat something said on a panel at one con, when I was at a later con. Question: "Did anyone ever try doing [IDEA]?" Me: "Well, I know Bill Holbrook said he tried [IDEA] and got good results..." But I don't discuss panels the next day in my con report, except for the best one-liners.
The_Ferrett blogged the numbers I was throwing out at the panel, to support the concepts I was explaining. On top of that, he got most of them wrong.
I posted to his blog that I was unhappy, and he pulled the post immediately. As I say, he's a nice guy. But I had to explain why I was upset. And to do that, I had to explain to myself why I was upset.
There is a reason I have not made these data points public. It's because I don't want or need an argument.
The state of webcomics dialogue is abysmal. The public discussions are dominated by loud, petty, self-deluded asshats who aren't remotely interested in learning anything by analysis. Half of them are arguing about their wounded feelings, and half of them will viciously argue that the sky is green, if they think it'll make them seem like bigger men on campus. (And next month they'll be arguing "blue" for the same reason.)
The way I look at this, I went and found some things out on my own, from publicly available and a few private sources of data. I did that because I wanted to know. There are things that only hard data and math can show you, and you don't know the answer until you crunch the numbers.
You can't learn everything from raw data, of course. Not even from experimentation. But if all you do is sit around and chew the fat and try to deduce truth from anecdotes, you don't get any closer to the truth; you just get big huge empty philosophy books.
What you get, really, is Aristotle telling everyone that the Earth is the center of everything, and objects fall because they're seeking their natural resting place. In other words, total bullshit that sounds reasonable and wonderful. If it's a really BEAUTIFUL bad idea, people will believe it for thousands of years, until someone finally looks at hard facts and says, "This is not the case. It has never been the case."
I learned from what happened after Jon Rosenberg played Copernicus to Scott McCloud's Aristotle last year. The micropayments experiment proved (again, a word I am extremely cautious about) that the BitPass model is woefully inferior to Goats' existing revenue model, and probably to every other working model there is.
I watched some people attack the experiment and the experimenter, rather than assimilate the new available data and change their worldview to cope. McCloud himself fired shots at Jon over it.
I then saw Jon shrug his shoulders and essentially say, "I learned what I needed to know, I shared it with the community, I got pissed on for it, but whatever. I'm now moving on, with more answers than I had before." And then he proceeded intelligently toward more success.
Well, I am in a real fuck-the-community mood lately. I don't see why I shouldn't just skip the "getting pissed on" step and move right to the "proceed intelligently" step.
I do put a lot of value on my personal relationships with other creators. But these days, if I have something important to say that Creator A will want to know, I will email it or call him or her. I will not put it out there where Creator (oh, let's pick an initial at random) G, can use it as a soapbox to stand up on and sell bottles of Insanity Tonic.
I don't care to argue. Defending your data may be valuable when the challenger is knowledgeable and rational. But I don't need to defend it to anyone who'd see it as a threat to the self-aggrandizing bullshit in their head and heart. It taught me what I needed to know, and I'll share it with people I have a personal connection with. My friends tend to be courteous, curious, and sane.
I'll even talk about it on panels, so people will know what I think and why. They don't get to see the spreadsheets, though. I no longer feel the responsibility to put good, helpful information out into the public view.
I feel that I have all but exhausted public discussion as a way to learn anything meaningful about webcomics. The people who write the biggest volume of words in webcomics blogs seem mostly to be the ones with illusions to protect or self-esteem problems to shore up, or the ones who see drama as a form of entertainment, or the ones who think their social status among creators is more important than the success of their comic.
But whatever troll species they are, they're saying very little that matters to a struggling webcomics creator who just wants to know the truth.
So. I stay away. As do a lot of the other creators with a degree of professionalism, at least most of the time. We find each other, and then talk about real stuff.