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Friday, February 13, 2009

Webcomics’ Identity Crisis, Part IV: Rethinking Reinventing Comics, Part Two: The Problem with Micropayments (And the Place of Scott McCloud in Webcomics)


(Note from the author: I suspect this post is going to receive incoming links from well outside the webcomics community. If you've come here from one of them, you can get pretty well caught up by reading Part III of this series from yesterday. That post will lead you to Parts I and II if you need to know more.)


I think that both sides in the "war" between blogs and the "mainstream media" have a lot to learn from webcomics.

Sluggy Freelance and User Friendly launched in 1997. Penny Arcade launched a year later, and hired a business manager in 2002. Blogger launched in 1999 (the word "blog" hadn't even been coined until 1997), same as LiveJournal, but wasn't bought by Google until 2003, the same year the modern WordPress launched. In some sense, blogs and webcomics have developed along much the same lines at the same time – but to some extent or another, webcomics artists have settled on a number of principles and lessons learned that both blogs and the "MSM" could stand to learn from. (In part, this stems from a strong community of webcomics commentary partly founded by Websnark that blogs mostly lack. I believe I've mentioned that just as there are multiple blogs keeping watch over the mainstream media, I'd like a few that "watches the watchmen" and monitors the happenings of what could become the new mainstream media. On the flip side, the MSM should study the most popular webcomics when trying to come up with a web strategy that works.)

To take one example, webcomics ended up greatly benefiting from Scott McCloud's advocacy of micropayments.

This came into focus for me Wednesday night, when I read a response to micropayment pusher Walter Isaacson on a techie site that basically said, "we don't live in your ideal world", but didn't do much to explain the reasons why he was wrong... linked to from this Comixtalk article that did, if only in brief form. McCloud was an advocate of micropayments and webcomics since at least 1994, and in Reinventing Comics in 2000, he advocated both with as much fervor as he could muster, seeing the former as the ticket to fortune for the latter. For years webcomic artists toiled with the holy grail of micropayments just over the horizon, having to endure a long string of broken promises along the way. As they fell, and as those broken promises ran out of excuses, we became rather familiar with where the economics of micropayments was going wrong. We already know what the newspaper industry is only now considering getting into.

McCloud proposed four reasons why people in 2000 tended to flee at the sight of anyone asking them to pay for content: "[they] will never pay for web content as long as they still feel like they're paying with their time; they won't pay as long as the quality of that content is low; they won't pay as long as paying is a hassle; and they won't pay unless the price is right". The first two (with "quality" here referring to "technical quality", not aesthetic) are explicitly based on bandwidth concerns and we may consider, or at least assume, them solved. Even as McCloud wrote, the third was at least becoming less hasslesome as people developed means for you to enter personal information once and then forget it without having to worry about it being stolen.

The point of micropayments was to solve that niggling last problem. McCloud predicted the price of a webcomic falling to just a few cents, because creators could keep 90% of that price instead of 10%. And in issue #6 of his online followup to Reinventing, I Can't Stop Thinking!, McCloud calculated that if Scott Kurtz - at the level of popularity he had in 2001, when he moaned about not being able to pay the bills! - had charged his readers only 25 cents a month for PVP, he would have made a profit of $73,000! (Assuming, of course, such a charge didn't take readers away, which would never happen... and see below.) It's not like there are any issues specific to webcomics that would delay the implementation - webcomics are far less bandwidth-intensive than music, and it's not like it's more important for a webcomic creator to know your phone number than it is for a music site to know it. So what is it that makes micropayments ready for music but not ready for comics?

Again, part of the answer lies in the fact that McCloud was coming from a comic book model. McCloud envisioned a world in which the multitude of middlemen infecting comic books - publishers, distributors, retailers - would simply be wiped away, and an artist would be able to provide their stories without having to go through any barriers to entry and with the ability to keep 90% of the purchase price. McCloud was mostly concerned about a one-time charge, as I distinguished micropayments from subscriptions in Part IV.

(In Reinventing, McCloud noted that while digital information took a convoluted path from the creator's computer to the reader's, none of the steps in that path took any of the money... ignoring, as Sean Barrett points out in a 2001 response to ICST! #6, the fact that all those steps are still run by companies and processing such transactions puts some strain on their networks as well. Barrett's response in general elucidates the issues surrounding micropayments - and several I won't get to - far more clearly and completely than I ever could, although I'd like to see an update to it considering I have much lesser doubts about his most serious point than I might have had at the time. I'm fairly confident it shouldn't be too much of a problem getting a simple cross-platform plug-in running with features fairly close to what McCloud advocated in Reinventing without modifying the browser itself, and if you've visited Wikipedia or Google with the StumbleUpon toolbar running, you know why.)

Due to its periodical nature, where one strip is released per day on a fairly regular basis, the comic strip model webcomics have evolved under is generally more suited to a subscription model than the exact sort of micropayments McCloud has in mind. Obviously in comics with a lot of continuity, the larger body of work could fall under McCloud's model, and there have been some comics, like Narbonic, that have experimented with a subscription model and charging for archive viewing, but I suspect they have been running into something more fundamental, something more pertinent to newspapers now considering micropayments, something McCloud touched on but never quite grasped, and underestimated at best:

The psychological barrier against paying for something at all.

If you so much as charge half a cent for something, you'll lose such a proportion of readers that if you want to lose that same proportion again, you'll need to charge significantly more than a full cent, maybe something like a dollar.

The Internet is an amazing place. (One of my long-term goals is to write a book on just how amazing - which ideally I'd start writing by the end of this year, with how fast things are changing even now.) Almost anywhere you look, you can find anything from the latest news, to graduate dissertations, to the local weather, to book recommendations, to people's opinions on the latest happenings, to comics, to history, to funny cat images, to videos, to friends - all for free.

In an environment where just about anything you want is available for free, why would you want to pay one iota for, essentially, the same content? There needs to be a very good reason if you're going to do so, and among those reasons needs to be the idea that it comes in a form that isn't easily transferable. If all you're getting is GIF or even PDF images, what's stopping you from saving it to your hard drive and making it available yourself for free? (McCloud argues in ICST! #6 that at very low prices the inconvenience incurred isn't worth the savings, but while it may seem inherently ridiculous at one or two cents, at even five cents human nature can create enough of a disconnect between the thought processes of the pirate uploader, pirate downloader, and creator that people will upload out of pure principle, and penny-pinching surfers will take the bait. Remember, the "altruistic" motivation of saving strangers money isn't the only reason people pirate; among other things, there's the thrill of getting away with something.) Even beyond that, given a choice between a certain piece of content that's charging you for the privilege and gazillions of other similar pieces of content that aren't, where are you going to take your eyeballs, regardless of how good the pay content may be?

(Important note: This is based on my own experience. I don't have a real job, so I'm very miserly with every last cent. For all I know most people can and will throw pennies around like candy.)

In his 2003 essay "Misunderstanding Micropayments", McCloud argues that, while certain types of content like news and sports scores could be gotten from anywhere, and therefore no one would pay for something that someone somewhere could readily offer for free, art offers a unique experience you can't get anywhere else - as the person the essay was responding to put it, "only Scott McCloud can produce [a] Scott McCloud work" - and therefore, the artist has a sort of monopoly he can use to put micropayments on his work, even if they have to be just a couple of cents to render pirating inconvenient. But this is not a true monopoly; it is what economists call "monopolistic competition", which basically means the creator has a monopoly over the specific content, but is still in competition with gazillions of other creators. If readers hear of a work, and find out they have to pay for it, they will look elsewhere for their entertainment; that whatever they find probably won't be exactly the same as what they passed up matters little to them, because how much of a big loss is it, anyway?

And a comparison to the most famous examples of monopolistic competition - brand wars like Coke v. Pepsi - isn't entirely appropriate either, because those brands have plenty of people who exercise brand loyalty, who will pay Coke or Pepsi for their product no matter what the price is. The equivalent in art would be a creator that had attracted such rock-star status and such brand loyalty that there are people who will do anything to get every single thing that creator puts out. Unless such a creator had attained that status in the "real world" of print, that probably means building a reputation for free first - and such "rock star" creators are, as you may guess, very, very rare, if existent at all, in the world of comics (or at least print comics).

(This is the answer to the question, "what makes micropayments work in music but not in comics?" - music has literal rockstars!)

Strangely, the information now held in books and comic books are, in a weird way, theoretically ready for the environment of the Web. For centuries people have been able to go to their local library and check out a book to read one time for free; even in bookstores people can at least try to breeze through a book in one visit, though some places look more fondly on the practice than others. (I initially did this with Understanding Comics.) It's only for especially long books, or books you want to be able to read again and again, that you actually buy them. But the Internet seems to imply an all-or-nothing paradigm; either you have to pay in order to read one word, or you shouldn't have to pay for any of it no matter how much of it you want. (I brought this up recently in the Order of the Stick forums in a discussion spinning from a question regarding the online-centric distribution of OOTS books.) Places like Amazon institute the ability to "look" or "search inside" certain books, but I don't think there's any real consensus on the best way to simulate it, and the Narbonic approach of only opening the latest page to anyone and forcing you to pay to read the very beginning seems like the reverse of the norm, and not as effective. (Since the free portion is knee-deep in continuity already.)

With the ability to sample something without buying it taken away, you suddenly have a paradox. If you're just getting started putting, say, a webcomic together, and you impose a cost on it, no one will want to pay for it without knowing going in whether or not it's good - even if you advertise its existence. You need to spend some time building a big enough brand so that people will pay for it no matter what because they need to know what happens next. But if you leave it free, you can't impose a paywall on it once it gets bigger, because people will revolt at the idea of paying for something that had been free - even a couple of cents, because of that psychological barrier - and will leave en masse, moaning about a creator that betrayed their trust and tried to take advantage of them.

A rockstar work is easier to achieve than a rockstar creator, but only the latter can impose a paywall and only on new work, and that presumably means having made plenty of money on the old work. In ICST! #6, McCloud suggests that people would be more likely to try out an unknown quantity if it cost them five cents as opposed to five dollars, but that comes across to me as a hand-wave to brush off the question. (Elsewhere in the same comic, he does suggest that comic creators would experiment with various pricing schemes, including the Narbonic approach of making bits and pieces of the comic available for free.)

By an accidental twist of fate, the Internet could threaten the very foundation of capitalism. Micropayments aren't only the answer to webcomics' woes, or even the savior of traditional journalism, but could get rid of all the problems that crop up anywhere one is caused by the fact that you do not directly pay to visit a website. Had they been ready to do so before the Internet began its rise to the incredible position it holds today, they might have become the norm almost instantly, and the Internet - and the world - would be a very different place. They're probably pretty close to being able to do so as it is, but because of the prisoner's dilemma, anyone would be insane to institute it - even in some brand new field that didn't exist before, lest that field continue not to exist.

(But if they were the norm, wouldn't that allow more gatekeepers to spring up, not only from big companies that have already built a presence or can wait out a period of low viewership, but from the micropayment agencies themselves?)

This is why I think McCloud, in all his debates with naysayers trying to paint him as killing the free internet, missed the point when he constantly claimed that micropayments didn't need to wipe out free content - because it kinda does. (Barrett said much the same thing by suggesting that if all the good free content on the Internet died off with "the success tax", as it was called in 2001 when getting a lot of readers mostly meant increased bandwidth costs, that might allow micropayments to take its place. But no one even talks about the "success tax" now - it has no Wikipedia article and the phrase doesn't even seem to appear anywhere in its 2.7 million articles - so that's out the window by now, although McCloud was still talking about it in "Misunderstanding Micropayments".) It's kind of sad, because in ICST #5 McCloud made the case that micropayments could allow for a greater quality of work if creators had to worry less about their money. Naturally, that could extend far beyond webcomics as well.

(Note: This post gets far more webcomic-specific from here.)

ICST! #5-6 (especially the latter) touched off a minor backlash, deservedly or undeservedly, in what amounted to the webcomics community in 2001, from people who accused McCloud of being overly idealistic and ignoring the issue of why micropayments have failed in the past, and also (because of other simultaneous events) supposedly ignoring the people already putting out webcomics - including what Goats' Jon Rosenberg called, paradoxically, "micropayments, in the form of voluntary donations like PayPal and the Amazon Honor System [that] help keep our sites running without restricting content." How can micropayments be unworkable and simultaneously the way you already keep your site running?

And Rosenberg wasn't alone; Jerry "Tycho" Holkins wrote a parody strip and angry rant (consisting of one massive paragraph) on the Penny Arcade site. The rant is no longer in PA's news post archives, but is reproduced in full in McCloud's response to it. McCloud saw both responses as stemming from frustration over something McCloud himself suffered: the inability for any of them to make a living off their online comics in 2001, despite the revenue streams they nonetheless had in donations and other things. McCloud had personal conversations with both creators, and both wrote later news posts clarifying and backing off from their positions. (Tycho's, once again, is out of the present archives but can be found here. The whole controversy also produced the Barrett response.)

Reading the controversy now, I'm struck by the fact that both Rosenberg and Holkins basically accused McCloud of ignoring their own efforts in the online marketplace, yet not only did McCloud do nothing of the sort (as he himself pointed out), they (especially Rosenberg) were the ones doing the ignoring - of the idea of one-shot long-form comics in the comic book mold that McCloud had in mind. Tycho's response post mentioned them, but Rosenberg encouraged McCloud to look into the then-extant webcomic funding schemes - "network subscription models, voluntary donations, and advertising" - without considering their salience to McCloud's topic.

A lot has changed since 2001. First, of course, Penny Arcade and PVP have both long since managed to find ways to not only make money, but become their creators' livelihoods. (It's worth noting that the country was in the last recession when all this controversy broke, making it far more difficult for everyone to make a living.) But secondly and more to the point, as I mentioned earlier, micropayments have come a lot closer to reality - if not even actually arrived. In 2003, McCloud learned about the impending launch of BitPass, and finding it "the first micropayments system I ever liked enough to want to use it", joined its board of advisors, picked up the first stock he ever owned, and put one of his own comics behind a BitPass paywall as one of three starting vendors. McCloud had felt that the main obstacles behind getting a micropayment system off the ground were mostly bandwidth-related. By 2003, and even more so as the years progressed, that was no longer an excuse, and McCloud even wrote "Misunderstanding Micropayments" as a response to naysayers claiming that despite the failure of micropayment systems in the past, they were here for real this time.

On January 19, 2007, BitPass announced they were ceasing operations.

(In some sense, this post, and series, is two years too late. Of course, then it wouldn't be topical outside webcomics now...)

They didn't give any reasons for the shutdown other than "circumstances beyond our control". I wonder if McCloud was still on the board of directors for the company at the time, or otherwise would have an insider perspective on why BitPass failed. (McCloud proceeded to make that original launch comic available for free, but that's hardly an "abandonment" of micropayments as his foil, Clay Shirky, claims. If you're wondering, I think I've encapsulated the core of Shirky's argument in this discussion.) Without the excuse of bad bandwidth, does McCloud still see micropayments as the wave of the future, or did the failure of BitPass shake his confidence?

And if it did, considering so much else about McCloud's vision for comics on the web is reliant on micropayments, or some form of payment system, how does that affect McCloud's vision for webcomics?

The mere fact that webcomics.com felt the need to ask the question about the infinite canvas that started Part III – that anyone would pay renewed attention to McCloud's address to TED here in 2009 – suggests to me that the webcomics community is still too obsessed with Scott McCloud. Even more so the fact that someone at Comixtalk still felt the need to debate micropayments rather than spread the word outside the webcomic community to the people who could best learn our lessons. Webcomics owes a lot to McCloud for sticking up for it in Reinventing Comics, not to mention for the medium of comics in general in Understanding Comics, but has yet to really realize that his theories have little relevance to webcomics today. Webcomics have moved on; the comic book format has adapted itself for webcomics and doesn't need the infinite canvas to do so. McCloud focused on infinite canvas, infinite canvas, infinite canvas and ignored, lightly touched on, or even disdained so much else that could be done with the medium on the Web. Even hypertext can open the floodgates for whole new frontiers of webcomics (admittedly in ways that could conceivably be done in Flash as well) rooted in the very same things McCloud hated about it. Yet in many ways, webcomics still defines itself in McCloud's terms and has yet to grow up and move on.

McCloud was surprised that Understanding spent several years in honeymoon rather than touching off the debate he had hoped; I wonder if the reason is because comics had been so completely disrespected, so completely ignored by potential critics, that what McCloud actually talked about, by accident, was the baseline of comics criticism, the part that's almost completely indisputable, the part that's taken as given and which all else is built on. Perhaps comics needed someone with as radical a vision of comics as McCloud to bring that into the open, but for anyone to focus on his later words (critically or uncritically) without offering their own independent opinions is hardly justified. Because of the fame he attained from Understanding Comics, McCloud remains webcomics' most famous defender, and he was a great one and brought a lot of benefits to webcomics for a while, but it's time to find a new one. Why didn't someone other than McCloud ever put out a book like Reinventing defending webcomics as perhaps even potentially artistically superior to print comics in some way, without wallowing in the infinite canvas? Where's Gabe and Tycho extolling the virtues of webcomics? Where's Scott Kurtz? Where's Ryan North? Where's David Morgan-Mar? Where's Eric Burns(-White), for crying out loud?

In some sense, very little of webcomics has really tried to test the domains of the medium, and has been more concerned about telling neat little stories for the masses, without so much of the trappings of great literature - even Order of the Stick, which I have called the greatest webcomic on the Internet, doesn't really aspire to much more than a neat story for the masses, with plenty of plot upon subplot but not much in the way of subtext or meaning. This is why people hate Ctrl+Alt+Del: because they don't want one of the most popular webcomics to be a bunch of popcorn, they want people to aspire higher than Tim Buckley, or else it's a waste of the medium. I can't help but wonder if Scott McCloud's myopic focus on the infinite canvas is part of the problem here, obscuring the view to a far broader idea of webcomics and allowing webcomics to wallow in the lack of imagination from whence it came.

Scott McCloud did a lot for webcomics, but now he is weighing webcomics down, a spectre that haunts the form and its conception of itself. It's time for webcomics to escape his cave, spread its wings, and fly – and discover its own new worlds in the process.

1 comment:

David Morgan-Mar said...

This is a very interesting series of posts.

But you know what I need to write a book about the state of webcomics? About 6 months of free time. :-)

My way of extolling the virtues of webcomics is to make them. I have fun making them, I hope readers have fun reading them. From where I sit, there's not much more to be said. Actions speak louder than words and all. It's clich├ęd, but that's how I feel. At least until I get that mythical spare time.