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 – creators and publishers are finding new ways for readers to follow a webcomic without having to visit the actual webcomic’s website.

Perhaps the most simple means of "syndicating" a webcomic is through the use of email. Many webcomics are delivered via email, including Keenspot’s popular service. Other webcomic sites, such as Buzzboy and Modern Tales, have used code (such as javascript) to offer the ability to "publish" the latest installments of their webcomics on other people’s websites.

History of RSS

RSS is a dialect of XML. All RSS files must conform to the XML 1.0 specification, as published on the World Wide Web Consortium (W3C) website. A brief history of RSS, however, illustrates that the standard has splintered into multiple subdialects.

The name "RSS" is an umbrella term for a format that spans several different versions of at least two different (but parallel) formats. The original RSS, version 0.90, was designed by Netscape as a format for building portals of headlines to mainstream news sites. It was deemed overly complex for its goals; a simpler version, 0.91, was proposed and subsequently dropped when Netscape lost interest in the portal-making business. But 0.91 was picked up by another vendor, UserLand Software, which intended to use it as the basis of its weblogging products and other web-based writing software.

In the meantime, a third, non-commercial group split off and designed a new format based on what they perceived as the original guiding principles of RSS 0.90 (before it got simplified into 0.91). This format, which is based on RDF, is called RSS 1.0. But UserLand was not involved in designing this new format, and, as an advocate of simplifying 0.90, it was not happy when RSS 1.0 was announced. Instead of accepting RSS 1.0, UserLand continued to evolve the 0.9x branch, through versions 0.92, 0.93, 0.94, and finally 2.0.

However, several webcomics are now tapping into a newly emerging Internet standard popularized by blogs, called RSS (for "Really Simple Syndication") – 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 “RSS feeds”, so that both ends – the creator and the reader side – 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 – 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 “blogs” 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.

Copyright Issues?

At least one website, Tapestry, appears to be creating RSS feeds on behalf of several comics (both print and webcomics). Although this provides a valuable service to readers, the website does not make it perfectly clear as to whether of not the creator has obtained the permission of the copyright holders to create these RSS feeds.

The site itself asks “that you find your way to supporting the various comic creators however you see fit. Some of the webonly [sic] comics are only supported by merchandising or site advertising, so using the feeds removes some of their audience. Many comics have donation forms, so please support their efforts. Support those guys before you support me — although all books are read gratefully :-)”

As it turns out the creator of Tapestry, David Thomson has discussed this issue before. “So as far as I can tell,” says Thomson, “I’m not technically breaking any of the clauses in the usage terms [for Ucomics and]. However, they are most definitely unofficial feeds, so if the comic owners wanted to stop it, they could write and ask me. I’m not in this to make money, I just wanted an easier way to keep up to date with my favourite comics.” Thomson further explains his thinking in this entry to his blog, DWLT.

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 “folder” 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 “new.” 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 “top blogs” listing based on RSS traffic. It also “recommends” blogs based on a comparison of the RSS feeds you’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 “comics page” 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 members’ webcomics.). Both readers and creators can benefit from the built-in “notification” 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.

ComicsML: XML for Webcomics?

About two years ago Jason McIntosh proposed ComicsML, an XML-based markup language intended to support comics online (See Slashdot for extensive discussion thereof). Given that RSS is an XML-based markup language, we asked McIntosh about the future of ComicsML.

“The [ComicsML] project’s been stale for a couple of years,” said McIntosh, “and I’m actually looking for someone to take it over from me. I think it’s got a lot of potential, but I personally lack the time or interest to develop it further.”

Asked about the future of ComicsML vis a vis RSS, McIntosh replied, “I can definitely see documents being built that merge the RSS and ComicsML namespaces to provide both useful syndication information, and meta information about a comic.”

ComicsML is currently supported by one cross-platform creation tool called the Renoberator created by Dave Horlick. Horlick describes the Renoberator “as a desktop application that can be used to compose comics, in the same way that a word processor can be used to compose novels. It allows you to create and organize the strips, panels and character interactions that make up the story behind a comic. Renoberator isn’t a paint program like Adobe Photoshop, so it can’t help you create an actual panel image. But it can assist you in organizing those images, once generated or scanned-in.”

Xaviar Xerexes

Wandering webcomic ronin. Created Comixpedia (2002-2005) and ComixTalk (2006-2012; 2016-?). Made a lot of unfinished comics and novels.

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