Thursday, March 26, 2009

Questionable Webcomic Features, Part 1

Hey, I'm launching a series, though rather informally. I'm going to share some occasionally strong opinions about certain web items, and invite people to weigh in and possibly enhance not just my own but everybody's understanding. You may even change my mind.

I have a long list, so this will take multiple posts, and they might not be sequential.

A few will be a bit spicy, and others more humdrum, so I'll try to mix them up.

At the end, I'll offer what, if anything, changed my perspectives on some of these, and what I learned.


A feed is a bit of code indicating where the newest updates are placed, and a button that allows people to subscribe to that content. It is delivered to a feed aggregator on their computer (or as part of an online service, like Bloglines). The contents generally looks a lot like what you posted, but it depends on the service delivering the feed, and the aggregator.

My Reasoning

Feeds are great for data, articles, and the occasional illustration. I have my doubts about its use for some webcomics.

I think the best comic websites are like portals into a universe. It's a down-the-rabbit-hole affair in which not just the comic, but also its support system enhance the feeling of being in a difference place and participating in events, almost like a massive online role playing game (which you would never play via feed).

If you view Pug's and my titles, you'll wonder what I am talking about, since our sites are serviceable but hardly universes of their own. Sure, if you get lost in the pages of Scratchin Post for an hour, you might need to snap out of it, but the sites are admittedly basic.

One of the reasons we've been so busy lately is that we have finally set aside a few months to completely redesign and and reprogram our sites. Lil Nyet will be the first, but we're also doing Scratchin Post and Psychedelic Treehouse.

The new sites will fit our vision of portals into a universe, rather than decorations and information supporting the comics on a page. The experience will be the comic plus the site plus the reader.

There is no webcomic I can point to as an example, though there are many fine sites, because many of the best focus on design and user optimization more than escapist utility. The goal is to make good use of what the internet has to offer, while skipping tired and less attractive features.

I am skeptical about offering a feed. I have listened to talk about them being the wave of the future, and how people are getting 20% of their readers by feeds, and that's impressive. Such statistics don't reassure my main concerns, however.

Not long ago people were abuzz about the internet ruining brick and mortar stores. To be sure, it's had a huge impact. It's been hell for neighborhood book shops, for example, because only strong chains like Barnes and Noble have the strength to withstand Amazon.

I view those neighborhood book shops, and the curiosities within, as being much like web portals. It was the most interesting book retailing that was destroyed.

Feeds may do to web sites what the web did to neighborhood book stores. They strip the essential content out, and dispense with design and dynamics. For news sites, this doesn't matter much, but a good webcomic site is an art form vulnerable to destruction by feeds.

For this reason, we won't be offering feeds. This is a reversal of our earlier plans.

A smart web site operator learns to sort quality from quantity in their traffic. For example, if it's an ecommerce site, and if they notice visitors from a particular site rarely buy anything, they'll stop advertising there. They might use the money saved to cut prices for the people who buy.

Feed subscribers are tough to monitor, but I've talked to some serious merchant/content sites about them. They tell me that feed readers don't bring anything to the site, they rarely buy merchandise and they do not respond to appeals, such as contests for readers. Some of them like feeds because it keeps those people at a distance, and possibly gets them a little word of mouth. Some don't want to deal with angry mail if they shut the feed off. Some people suggest putting coupons and promotional fliers in the feeds; this has been tried.

Feed traffic isn't generally counted by people who measure webcomic analytic performance, so every person who leaves with a feed instead of visiting is taking visits, page views and other statistical achievements that help advance..

If you carry ads, your feed subscribers won't see them either, unless you arrange it. If they do, they're more likely to ignore them.

Our work is meant to be viewed in context. Anyone who wants to turns a bunch of comics to sugar water for their own personal hummingbird feeder probably doesn't read with appreciation. I'll create the environment for reading in depth, and you can decide how much to exploit it, but I won't create an environment for glossing over my comic, or yours.

As I said earlier, there are ways in which feeds inflict damage on a site. If I was concerned about having maximum revenue or readers, and wanted to use feeds, I'd consider charging for each feed subscription. Somewhere between fifty cents and $5/month is probably the right price. It depends whether you want to offset the damage that feeds do, or also be reimbursed for having to administer them and make a little something. Since no one is likely to pay for feeds, I mention this to underscore that for some sites, feeds do economic damage.

There is a feed for this site, with many subscribers. As a news site, a feed is appropriate.

I see scenarios where webcomics can use feeds well. Someone doing a panel a day, with no investment in an elaborate site and no merchandise sales, might do well building an audience among feed  subscribers. When you are offering cartoons, a feed may be worth having. For long form comics, it makes it difficult for readers to flip back and refresh if they have erased, and inserts the story in an ugly frame. And who reading a feed is going to skip a single panel by a favorite cartoonist?

I have a feed reader, and I subscribe to a few blogs. Most of the time, I prefer to visit them instead. There is a coldness to feeds that turns me off.

I grew up on a farm. This is what I picture when someone says, "Feed."

I reserve the right to have my mind changed by new information, but for now, I think many webcomics are best served viewing themselves as destination sites for their audience, not as chasers of traffic at all costs.

There is my opinion, strongly stated, but I am not looking to pick a fight. I remain interested in hearing other points of view.

More of my self-righteous, know-it-all opinions about how the web should change and why will follow. I hope you find them enjoyable, or at least amusingly eccentric.