... the SECOND thing we do is kill all the mime artists ...
Digital Media as Street Performance
Short version: Too many people creating content, too few ways to find the content you want and too little willingness to pay out cash leads to a devaluing of content. Webcomic artists can be compared to sidewalk chalk pushers.
Long Version Begins here.
This is all based upon webcomics - but treat that as an example for all digital media. Comics are simply exploring the possibility space first. Which is probably good news for amatuer vid-casts, which will know the 'right' route to take right from the start.
As you drive along the information superhighway - you chance to spot a sidestreet. Perhaps it is named "Webcomic row" or "Flash alley" or "Rant road" You turn down it, and going slowly you notice the pavements are filled with all manner of street performers - all showing off their skills in the hopes that someone will buy some of their merchandising, or take pity on them and throw a few pennies into their hat - or even turn out to be a hollywood movie producer and sweep them away from all this...
A Penny For Your Thoughts
The current, succesful, model for running a webcomic is this. You push out content to a rough schedule, and ask for donations from your regular viewers. You also sell merchandising and try to minimise hosting costs by affiliating yourself with some form of advertising host. (Keenspace being the major example)
A big alternative path is to do it as a hobby - never expect to make any money, and content yourself with ten viewers a day.
The strange thing is that some few webcomics artists make it big - getting snapped up for syndicated publication; or making an actual living on the web - whilst others languish unable to pay their hosting bills and having to, effectively, keep two full time jobs. This, naturally, raises some tensions.
The How and Wai of Success
No one (except maybe doubleclick.com) knows how many unique web users there are who read webcomics. But anecdotal evidence shows that the community is fairly close knit. People who read webcomics show particularly funny ones to their friends; who then get hooked and so forth. But most people only have time to read a few (one, three, ten) webcomics regularly.
Which means that if you want to make money you have only a limited number of potential customers - and you are in direct competition for both their time and their funds with several other well established comics.
The 'critical mass' theories have been well expounded elsewhere - basically until you have a certain number of viewers, each viewer costs you more time and money; and above a certain level the more viewers you have, the more viewers you get.
It should also be noted that readers tend to be loyal once they have been readers for a long time.
Forget it. Big media doesn't need to employ many people a year. Weeble and Bob made it, you won't. (Ye gods, weeble and bob made it. Yeesh.)
Claiming to be doing it "For practice" and "For Fun" ring more true - but neither will make a living. Again, I'm ignoring 'hobbyist' here.
Spare a Copper, Guv'nor?
I was highly skeptical of the emerging 'donations' model when it first emerged. But now it's six months later, and 8bit theatre, player2player and so on are all still alive and going strong. So whaddya know - enough people really are honest enough for a compensation model to work. Or at least NEARLY work. It won't make you rich, and the figures are slightly distorted since keenspace is subsidising its members by paying the hosting - but it seems to work.
I'd like to have paypal's figures on this. Since they are the people who are really profiting from this. They take a large minimum cut from every transaction (flattenning micropayments as a model until someone comes along with a different way of taking a cut) - and could give definitive numbers on how much money is currently in the webcomics 'industry'
Here is an estimate.
Every two months, each of about ten webcomics has a 'pledge drive' - which usually hits about $500. About another ten have continual drives, bringing in $150 a month. Even assuming that the vast majority which don't exhibit their costs so publically make about $50 a year, we are hardly talking a billion dollar industry here.
So. You can beg for pennies - and get them - but you can't be gainfully employed.
How much fame does it take to keep you warm and fuzzy? The continual accolades of a small group might well be worth quite a lot to you. You can earn that, fair enough.
Of course, the average person in the street won't know your name - and heck, I wouldn't know (picks name out of hat) Miss Mab or Piro if I met them on the street; even though both appear in their own comics.
Still - fame is some recompense for the work. And who wants to be a 'real' celebrity anyway? An online persona you can discard if the groupies begin to get too scary :)
Glut and Request
What happens when you have vast mountains of supply, and only a tiny trickle of demand? The unit price heads straight for Australia. Worst of all, this hits all 'digital artists' equally - the common view that "Digital is virtual, virtual means fake, fake is worthless" is re-enforced.
So, what are the solutions here? Either increase demand, or decrease supply.
Supply should be decreasing - hosting is vanishing; but for the time being it is being propped up by sufficient hosts - and enough new artists are jumping into the game - that overall supplies are increasing if anything.
Meanwhile, demand seems to be decreasing. New users of the net have many more shiny things to distract them; and can't see the appeal in most of the 'old and forever popular' comics. (I won't get into the 'has it gone downhill' arguments - but it is easy to see that the originality of the first webcomics is much diluted by the many copy-cats, and thus the reasons to build loyalty are harder for new readers to percieve)
How Can Demand be Increased?
Evil question. I wish I knew. I can suggest that continuing crossover and in-jokes can help - if webcomics can become a sufficiently badly understood culture then you may find people joining just to find out what it is (and to 'fit in' with others)
Another option might be to link with other services. Webcomics in online games? Webcomics that tell the daily news? Webcomics that are also webmail portals? Warezcomics - Put a webcomic in every zipfile you serve?
And finally - adapt. If the majority of online use moves to a new media (audio right now, video soon) then move with it. Which could be painful - since the tools to support it aren't there yet. (How long will it be, though, until it is as easy to hack together a video as it is to photoshop an image?)
Paragraph dind't fit anywhere else.
(Donations seem to come in fits and starts as and when begged for. Player2Player publishes its figures monthly, and is coming close to paying its hosting bills; which is particularly impressive since the active membership is so low now - it looks like an active community of 15-20 people is all that is actually needed to break even.)
Keenspace / spot / troll / etc.
I have to mention this. It hopes to cash in on brand loyalty when a viable method of funding becomes available. In the meantime, it is making incremental changes to try and break even. (Selling comics online, offerring a 'pay us money and we ditch the adverts' service, charging artists small amounts for hosting on a 'less buggy' server...)
They miss the point that people associate 'good' with small products - an individual comic; and 'bad' with brands. Keenspace will be remembered for its bad days when it scrambles the archives, and updates the morning comics late - not for the good days when nothing exceptional happens.
It also does a woefully small amount of quality control - which is good for the reader; any and every type of comic can be found there - but is the kiss of death for a corporation - one day it WILL be attacked for hosting something controversial, or just plain crappy.
My webcomic did its thing and died. It was fun, a hobby and clearly didn't deserve to make money. What about catnews? If I could be paid ~12k then I could move somewhere cheap that has broadband (parts of the pennines seem nice) and do this full time. But could I earn that with catnews? Even with a catnews that was worked on 8hrs a day?
Can I earn it with ANY online enterprise?
Hi shp and everyone else who skipped straight down here to read my closing remarks and then slowly read upwards in the hopes that I make some semblance of sense in reverse order that I never bother to make in forward ordering...
My conclusion is that this devaluing of online time (Which I shall call the 'virtual hour' to compete with 'man hour') seems to make online endeavours impossible at the current time.
In a way this is good. Hobby sites are a wonderful thing.
But it does shoot the 'go wholly virtual' thing in the foot for a while.
We need a vastly larger number of consumers. Yick, a thing I never wanted to think. But if you want to support a large number of creators, then you need more people willing to be consumers - and pay for it. And we need a way to pry them loose from the jaws of pigopolists who want to provide everything in one place.
The technologies are there (peer to peer directory services) but the will is not.
The only remaining option seems to be to find a different street. This one is overcrowded. Perhaps you'd be better off hawking your news and comics on a real shopping street? You'd be no less begging - and the printing costs wouldn't be much higher.
Of course, you'd have to compete with scotsmen with bagpipes and mimes...
Edited by Vitenka at 2002-08-28 13:35:37