Wednesday, October 28, 2009

The Math of Twitter's Fail

  Last year, News Corp. offered to buy Twitter for $500 million dollars, but was rebuffed. I think News Corp. dodged a bullet.

  I cannot figure out a way for Twitter to overcome its inherent flaws. It suffers from mathematically provable problems that make it a candidate to be the next

  A school of anthropological research concerns itself with efficient sizes of human groups. The most coherent groups, in which all members know the inter-relationships of all other members, are theoretically limited by the Dunbar Number, which equals about 150. History shows again and again that social units like agrarian villages and military units optimize near this level but not beyond it, at which point bureaucratic control impairs coherence.

  Twitter has two math problems. The first is that the incentive to gain followers pushes most players to try an gain audience share. As audience size increases, the intimacy level decreases. We have a problem of dilution. Because Twitter users do not interconnect as a unit, a user can go well beyond the Dunbar number, but ultimately the same limiting principles kick in.

  The second is that as each Twitter member receives more and more tweets, more go unread and unacknowledged. Twitter lost its usefulness to get a question answered about a year ago, and frivolity has replaced functionality. This is a problem of magnification. If everyone expands their tweet reach by a factor of ten, we are all overwhelmed by the number received. As institutions are advised by PR gurus to join Twitter and broadcast tweets, the number of mouths will exceed the number of ears. It's shouting into the darkness.

  Some Twitter members have been invited to use a new feature, called Lists, to parse people into subgroups for purposes of prioritizing. This is a red flag. It suggests that Twitter's brain trust perceives the math undermining the model. It also smells of desperation: they don't know how to blunt the math problem, so they have subdivided it into numerous math problems, or more precisely, a sociopolitical math tangle.

  Next comes the return of the anthropologists, who will observe that lists are more likely to be sorted by status than any other category. The result: hard feelings, cliques, and finding yourself on lists with titles like "kooks" or "people who talk about food too much."

  Efficiencies in social networking are illusory unless you can monopolize them. The din of everyone chatting away to hollow empires of followers is likely to yield to networks that offer precision and value over network size.

Wednesday, October 21, 2009

Questions about Webcomic Convention Economics

  It's my style to try thing personally if I can before I write about them. This makes it hard for me to learn about conventions, because I avoid crowds and have been to enough in my life (years ago).

  I am interested in accounts of how webcomic creators feel conventions help their bottom line. Sure, I've read most of what's out there, but I bet different people have different priorities when attending cons, from face time with people to selling merchandise to doing sketches.

  I'm interested in hearing what part of annual income people are drawing from conventions, for people willing to share such things. I'm not looking for dollar amounts, but rather, rough percentages. I imagine there would be a wide range of reports if lots of people answered, so if anyone answers, it would be interesting to hear their sense of why they have the results they do.

  If I was interviewing someone on the topic, a question I'd surely ask is, Webcomics are already hard work. Why pack up all your stuff and travel to some city to hang out in a stuffy hall all weekend when you could be cultivating mail order instead?

  I'm not unaware of the positives. I would like a better understanding of how they outweigh the hassle, and for everyone over 30, how you bounce back in the aftermath. :)

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Easy Answers, Easy Errors

From this recent post:

How To Make a Living With Webcomics
by Joey Manley
So this is a quick post, because the answer is far simpler than you may have heard. There are two steps, and only two steps.
1. Make a great comic.
2. Make it very popular.

That's the essence of the post. The rest is mostly about how simple it all is and how anyone who thinks otherwise doesn't get it.
I tried starting a discussion on the original thread, but it was selectively deleted and closed. An email went unanswered. I got a lecture for not being civil enough.

What do you think? Is it all so easy?

If Joey didn't excuse himself abruptly, I'd pose some questions:

Who slaves away at a comic without thinking it is great?
Who can conceive a great comic in advance of creating it?
Who can return with an improved effort if they don't subject themselves to critical analysis?
Is greatness better measured by popularity or loyalty?
How do you know it's great? Who tells you? How do I speak to this person?

As for popularity:

If the comic is great, will it become popular, or are there other things required?
Do great comics ever fail to become popular? Can we identify any?
Do any particular strategies make a great comic popular?
What role do popular comics play in deciding what other comics become popular?
Can we write a great comic for any demographic and become popular, or must we target our audience?
Does advertising work?
Is it better to dominate a niche or share a pie?
Where does the "making a living part" come in?
Are some comics more likely to make a living than others, even if they are equally popular?
Which matters more: profits, or profitability?
How's your own business coming along? And your comic -- you do have one?

Across any field, gurus who tell you how simple something is tend to outsell those who tell you how to do it. Those who tell you how to do it tend to outsell those who show you how to do it. But when it comes to outcomes, those who have been shown are the most likely to succeed.

The "easy sell" guys get most of the failures, and the mentors produce most of the successes. But people threatened with failure will open their wallets to save their prospects, while those good enough to become apprentices can often succeed on their own.

I am reminded of those ads offering to teach you French in 14 days. Yes, after two weeks you've learned some words and phrases, and technically, you are speaking French.

But you are a fool if you think you've mastered anything, except to regard oversimplifications with suspicion.

Monday, October 12, 2009

In the future...

...when people search for the definition of "The Perfect Gift," this page will be among the top results.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

I Wish I Got Better Criticism

The quality of the criticism I receive disappointments me. A lot of it, to be blunt, is shallow, ill-informed and driven by personal issues of the complainant.

These types are the weakest:

  • Dismissive know-it-alls. Don't bother them with logic or facts, they just spout.
  • Ignoramuses. They are in over their head, and blame you when they embarrass themselves.
  • Cherry pickers. They can't manage seeping overviews, so they nitpick about inconsequential items.
  • Evaders. These are the ones who dodge serious questions, to distract others, and to avoid answering.
  • Self-righteous peaceniks. They shield themselves by denouncing debate as "drama" or "arguing," and so try to raise their own self-regard. This is generally a cover for what is simply intellectual cowardice. Debate and rhetoric are art forms dating to Ancient Greece. Read up before you start squelching people.
  • Snipers. Afraid to confront me here, they blow steam about how I've ruined their lives in blog posts, most of them obscure. I find them because, ironically, they send a disproportionate amount of traffic, jumping out of analytics reports. Love it or hate it, they plunge into the blog for long periods. (There really is no reason to fear criticism, and people who over-react are probably revealing insecurities of long-standing. I do it myself from time to time.)
  • New faces that start out rude. I can handle posts from Scott Kurtz because I know he is prone to bluntness and so does everybody else. Strangers who walk in with a chip on their shoulder are not good contributors, and whining won't guarantee them a seat at the table. By contrast, Scott's made some good points here, though he's going to have to persuade me on others.
  • Delicate flowers. These are people who carry burning hatred because I am candid in saying that webcomics are not nearly of the same quality of comics historically, and that many people are engaging in life-of-luxury pipe dreams. Reality spoils their fantasies. How dare I?
  • The thin-skinned. These are people who do dodgy things and try to stay hidden. They don't respond publicly, if at all, and they bad mouth their friends in order to ingratiate themselves with you. Feeling a need to kick ass wherever it needs kicking, I pry them out. After about a year, they emerge, red-faced and furious. It's as if you could here the scream of a raw oyster.
  • The anonymous. It turns out this has mostly been one person, with a morbid preoccupation. The problem: they are not accountable, and the mischief wrought here by a sad case makes it impossible to honor.
  • Scape-goaters. Generally people with weak comics who decide they will feel better if they take me down. Like lost souls on an Outward Bound expedition, they hurl themselves forward again and again, until at last their rage begins to dissipate.
The less is at stake, the angrier people get. They provide me with lifestyle guidance: I need a hobby, I need to work on my comics (this is common from people who haven't read or understood any of my comics because they have been too busy polishing their 30-page archives over the past year), etc. Hello, we've been updating 4-6 days/week for two years, and will be updating 6 times/week in a few months. We work very hard, and we're having fun. Are you?

The smart ones have by-passed comments entirely (with some notable exceptions, whom I thank) and write me directly. I hate to lose the historical record, but I enjoy thoughtful letters.

What kind of criticism would I like? Well, anything thought-provoking is of interest, but just once I would like to hear from someone immersed in the webcomic scene who can nonetheless speak with real authority about many of the issues discussed here, with eloquence and reliability. 

I would like to see someone accept my long-standing offer to explain to the world how wrong I am, how offensive, and how irrational, by taking my offer for a page of their own here, to speak to readers without interference. I would like to see an essay by someone who has read my best contributions, understands them, and finds fault nonetheless. I could probably prepare a primer to save them wading through the archives.

Obviously, I am not holding my breath. 

Wednesday, October 7, 2009

The Sidebar That Ate Your Website?

You've just spent thousands of dollars and hundreds of hours designing a great site to host your comic.

Now, suppose I come along and insert the contents of this blog, or anything else I want, directly onto your web page, as a sidebar visible to anyone with the Google Toolbar.

Or suppose I have some grudge, and I insert offensive or mocking material. The sidebar is part of your web page. Many people won't know if you meant it to be there.

Sites optimized to fit common screen sizes would be forced to surrender real estate, and unless they knew to use the toolbar to detect the sidebar, the site owner might never know it was there. People could insert links and deface the site you have paid to build, pay to host and own. Your bandwidth use may increase, and site speed may decline.

Here's what a made-up website looks like with a version of the sidebar, which is a new Google product called "Sidewiki."

Picture your full-page comic suddenly loosing a third of its space. And unless you police it or block it, you don't even realize it's visible to some visitors.

Here's a mash-up of how the popular webcomic Penny Arcade might look with Sidewiki, as before and after pictures. It's hard to predict how Sidewiki will affect the aspect ratio, so to reduce distortion, I've posted the "before" picture at slightly different dimensions than the "after" pic:

I'm not sure Sidewiki is going to be popular. Inserting barriers to usability is contrary to what web users want. It may be spammy. Not everyone has the Google Toolbar on a browser. I do, and sure enough, Sidewiki is now there. Presumably, others will want to install it not because they want the Google Toolbar, but because they want to see if anyone has installed a Sidewiki on their site, and if so, what it says.

Google includes provisions for outwitting abuse (e.g. links to X sites), but inserting unwanted content on my site isn't among them. Neither is surrendering a third of my real estate to strangers.

I'm having a really hard time finding positives for the concept.

Notice, too, the usability issue: the upper left page corner is where most eyeballs land first, which is why many of us put logos and site names there. Sidewiki shoves our stuff to the center/right.

Just when frames seemed obsolete, they are returning in new forms. Some are mellow: the new Project Wonderful browser allows you to view an ad host site and keep some PW links on the screen, and doesn't hide its origins. But I wonder where it would stop.

Here's a long blog post by someone who takes a darker view, but explains his thinking at length. He presents plenty of nuisance scenarios. For me, having one more distraction is objectionable enough, especially if it requires active intervention to block it.

This review is much calmer, presenting a patient, wait-and-see approach. It's closer to what I feel, but I like to be ahead of the curve, if only to keep abreast of new developments. The writer mentions an opt-in process, but the only one I know is for Google Analytics, so I'm researching it. Points off the original for not telling us where the opt-in is located.

I'll be interested to see if people start putting notices in their Terms of Use saying "Users are expressly prohibited from imposing third party frames on any page of this site."

Here is a form to share your opinions of Google Toolbar items with Google. I'm not rushing to judgment; the link is a courtesy.

Already, searching "Sidewiki Blocker" brings up products and developing resistance. Try it.

Do be wary of hype and fear-mongering. Simply be aware of this emerging development, stay informed, and decide at what point, if any, it crosses the line. Exploring negative outcomes doesn't mean I expect them.

Tuesday, October 6, 2009

And our Troll is...


Just a former friend from the early days of Twitter who started weirding us out with her erratic behavior. We cut contacts when she started getting scary.

I was able to prove it unequivocally this evening. Yeah, they're all from her: dozens of missives, ranging from polite to deranged, from various genders, stolen identities, nationalities, etc.

I commented just the other day that this blog was being bombarded with troll letters. The problem with mentioning it, in retrospect, is that it points a finger at everybody, so I figured I owe it to people to resolve it.

Yeah, we know the real name, address and all the rest, but there's no axe to grind. Now others are free to comment critically without falling under a cloud of suspicion.

The problem with these people, who often turn out to be quite bright, is that they forget their fairy tales. Trolls, you see, are stupid.

Next comes the Big Tantrum, but I'll leave that to someone else to print.

Sunday, October 4, 2009

Raising Prominence of Archive Pages

  From a search engine's perspective, webcomics are often imbalanced. The homepage and a few supplemental pages get all the attention, but the huge archives receive low page ranks and perform poorly in search results.

  Wouldn't it be nice to place extra search attention on archive pages that are the start of stories, or story arcs? It's not everyone's highest priority, but it gives extra points of entry for new readers by spotlighting key pages.

  One way to do this is to design your site so that each story page links to its first page.

  WordPress users have another option, a plug-in that can be programmed to make selected keywords link to specified internal pages. Similar plug-ins exist, but this one can be over-ridden on a case-by-case basis.

  A related, general approach can help when you want to submit a page to Stumble Upon, but, being from the middle of a story, you are not sure how it will be received. You can create a duplicate of the page that features a prominent link to "jump to beginning of story" or "story arc" and leave it out of your site's table of contents. Then, submit that page to Stumble Upon or similar sites, and people who like the look of your page have easy access to jump to a good entry point.

  If you have lots of internal links pointing at specific entry point pages, it raises their PageRank and search prominence.

  It also increases the chance that they will be included with other Site Links, those internal site page links that turn up under search results for established sites.

  Help search engines understand your site, and they will help you. Internal links that flag and define your second tier pages are worth considering.

  If you want to use Oh, No, Robot! but dread the time commitment, consider just doing your key pages as a supplement to internal link-building.