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GPF, Internet, Technology, Webcomics

But we were there first. OK, maybe second.

February 25th, 2008 by Jeff | Dump Core

Anyone interested in the history of webcomics should check out this week’s episode of the This Week in Tech (TWiT) podcast. Especially since it has nothing to do with webcomics.

Here’s my line of reasoning: In this episode, Leo Laporte and his unusual round of suspects are joined by Jonathan Coulton, geek musician extraordinaire. Aside from discussing a few topics of current note (like the death of HD DVD), they discuss a recent concert by Coulton where Leo and company joined him to play Rock Band before a nerd-filled audience. They go on to talk about the “new” Internet phenomena of niche entertainment targeting–skipping the big, mass-market blitzkrieg typically used by music, TV, and movie studios and canvasing thousands or millions of potential customers, to instead go directly to your core fans, the few dedicated people who are the ones that will really appreciate what you do. Coulton talks of making a living catering to a small handful of hard-core fans and how this is much more fulfilling that the big media alternative, where both the artist and the audience are faceless statistics on the bottom line of a balance sheet. And they discuss this with such freshness and enthusiasm, as if this is were the next new thing, some epiphany that no one has yet uncovered.

What I find so funny about it is… those of us in webcomics have already been doing this… for years. 😀

I’ve noticed this a lot over the past near-decade of GPF‘s existence. Blogs, podcasts, and other forms of grass-roots media have all cropped up during that time, putting publishing power in the hands of the masses, becoming “innovative” and “groundbreaking” in bringing content production to the people. But a fair number of “new” trends (and problems) associated with these technologies are things I remember seeing crop up among webcartoonists several years before. Long before the term “blog” was coined, I remember chatting with other cartoonists on mailing lists and news groups, swapping ideas about search engine optimization (before that term was coined as well), getting and retaining readers, how to monetize your site, etc. It’s entertaining now to watch many tech headlines to see “fresh” ideas crop up that I’ve personally tried–and abandoned–a couple years before. It’s like the wheel reinventing itself every couple of years, only with different colors and/or materials.

Of course, I would never be so conceited to believe webcomics “did it first.” Webcomics themselves borrow heavily from the underground comics movement of the 1950s, 60s, and 70s, where small independent publishers ducked under government sensors to push out innovated and controversial content directly to the people who wanted them. What changed between then and now is that the interconnectivity of the Internet moved this from basements and back rooms to hidden mailing lists and chat rooms, eventually making its way to the mainstream, all while expanding the sphere of availability from isolated pockets of common interest to global reach. It would also be naive to believe this flow of “innovation” is one-way; RSS and other syndication technologies took off first in the blogosphere, and was only later ret-conned and shoe-horned into webcomic automation systems as a handy update notification system.

Perhaps one of the reasons bloggers and podcasters didn’t learn any lessons from webcartoonists is the difference between skill level–real or perceived, take your pick–required for entry. Cartooning obviously requires some level of artistic talent as cartooning, in all of its myriad of forms, is a form of art. It’s often a commercial art, intended more to generate revenue than anything else, but an art nonetheless, conveying ideas and emotions graphically. And while a well-crafted blog certainly requires a talent for writing, that is often easier to come by than the ability to both write and draw. Thus the critical mass of webcartoonists is much smaller than that of bloggers and podcasters, making it less noticeable to the mainstream. That’s also why “break-out” blogs now seem to be a dime a dozen, but it’s still major news when an online comic gets noticed by big media and gets optioned for TV/movie deals. Everyone knows about blogs and maybe even reads a few, but there are other comics on the “intraweb” besides Dilbert?

I’m not sure if there’s anything useful to these observations, other than the fact that they amuse me occasionally and it gives me something to post about. I’m not sure if anyone else has made these kinds of observations or, for that matter, anybody else cares. But I’ve often wondered if those underground cartoonists of yesteryear thought to same way about us webcartoonists as I have about bloggers. I’d like to think so, just because it creates a nice symmetry. I can’t wait for bloggers to sit around in the old bloggers’ home, thinking such thoughts about whatever comes next. “Those kids with their holocasts… if they had learned the lessons we did about AI search, they’d be raking the quatloos by now….”

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