Prelude: At one point, when I was very young, before I had an e-mail address, I would occasionally use my mom’s e-mail account to give certain people a piece of my mind. Hey, I didn’t have anything else to work with. I would end up lectured as much for their content as for the act of using her e-mail address to do it, and sometimes Mom would discover the message before I even sent it and dissuaded me from it, like the time, shortly after the TV rating system was introduced, when I started writing an e-mail to some random web site as a starting point for starting to assign a Web site rating system, but Mom found it and dissuaded me from it. Keep in mind, I WAS, LIKE, TEN YEARS OLD! And I’m acting like huge committees all by my lonesome.
Anyway, as this behavior progressed I started including entreaties not to reply to my e-mails, lest my mom found out about them. And lo and behold, they DID reply, and my mom DID find out about them, and I DID get lectured. Such as the time (bringing this to the topic for the rest of this post, which has nothing to do with the “about me” tag) when I made some comments about how some guy could improve his web site, complete with entreaty not to reply, and I got a Notepad file on the desktop saying, among other things, something like “PLEASE don’t make comments on other people’s sites, or you will have to be chaperoned while using the Internet!!!”
(Since 2000, I haven’t had to share a computer with Mom while using the Internet, and I got my own e-mail address in 2002, minimizing the problem. And I finally started getting the hint as well.)
Anyway, the point of all this rambling is, I don’t like making critical comments on another web site.
But this is a blog, not an e-mail. And a blog is different from a web site as well. And I do feel I should probably explain this strip, because to this point I haven’t really done much to connect to the broader “webcomic community”, and I may as well make some comment on the site of which I speak.
And it helps that I’ve met several blogs that precisely do make critical comments on other websites, including, especially, the one of which we speak today. (Nonetheless, I still feel somewhat queasy about the enterprise…)
Websnark was originally the final evolution of a series of blogs by Eric Burns (as I’ll explain later, that’s not quite accurate); in fact, before the blog’s “official” birth date of August 20, 2004, one will find a number of posts dating back to January of that year, only much further spaced apart, longer form, and about more random topics – the remnants of Burns’ attempt to revive his “online journal”, ported to Websnark.
Specifically, Websnark was Burns’ plan to clear the junk out of his still-running Livejournal and allow it to be refocused. I’m going to make a metaphor using the structures in place at this site: Burns wanted his Livejournal account to be composed mostly of the sort of posts I would tag “about me”, but instead it was mostly the sorts of things I would tag “internet adventures”. In his case, “internet adventures” usually meant whatever random memes were criscrossing the Internet and “pictures of dogs”, which basically meant whatever webcomics struck his fancy, but in theory, Websnark was going to be specifically devoted to neither, just shuttling between the two. In practice, after the first post it would be another 11 posts until the next non-webcomic post. Websnark has had its fair share of non-webcomic posts – in fact, I would estimate that as it became more popular as many posts were not about webcomics as were (especially, circa early 2005, posts about itself) – but webcomics would be its bread and butter, the ticket that took it to the dance.
And as it turned out, it would deliver Eric Burns fame, fortune, and even, as made official just this past weekend, a wife.
The Internet has redefined the phrase “overnight sensation” but even by its standards Burns’ ascent seems amazingly literal, both for the speed from which he went from being maybe as famous as me to one of the biggest names in webcomics, and how quickly that ascent came after his blog’s foundation. No less than four days after starting Websnark, Burns wrote an unusually sarcastic and, well, snarky post (despite the name, Websnark does not particularly make fun of its subjects as it does neutrally, or even positively, comment on them with a funny tone) that started a chain of events that netted his little corner of the ‘net thousands of readers. He ragged on popular webcomic PVP for how unpredictably it might update each day, his ragging was brought to the attention of PVP’s creator, Burns was rapped by the PVP forum regulars, and went on his merry way.
Just two days after that, Burns returned to the topic of PVP, for substantive reasons this time, PVP’s creator liked it enough to link to it on his front page, and the floodgates were opened.
There are a few more stops along the way, and Burns himself goes into plenty more detail on the rapid rise of Websnark here. Long story short, Websnark became as much of a go-to place as some of the webcomics it remarked upon, including with webcartoonists themselves. This despite the fact that Burns engaged in a form of advertising known as “none whatsoever”.
Maybe it was the smartness of the criticism. Maybe it was the respect Burns paid to the medium. Maybe it was how constructive and neutral he could be with the criticism, coming from the perspective of a reader without a horse in the race. Or maybe it was that he was doing it at all.
…But a surprisingly large number of webcartoonists started regularly reading.
This surprised me. This surprised me a lot. And it made me realize that there
weren’t that many people out there doing what I was doing — offering up
critiques of the medium and discussions of the individual executions. […]
The dialogue is all important in art. It’s criticism — in the truest sense of the word. The understanding and analysis of what is there. The placing of art within the cosm of its fellows. The distillation and discovery of new truths from interpretation. I’m not going to claim to be the first webcomics critic, nor anywhere near the best, but through luck and timing I managed to become one of the better known. It got me two gigs that mean the world to me — writing for Comixpedia, and contributing to the Webcomics Examiner — and it’s spawned others trying to do the same thing. Tangents, by Robert Howard. I’m Just Saying, by Phil Khan. Journey Into History (and the HB Comic Blog) by Bob Stevenson. Webcomic Finds by Ping Teo. The Digital Strips Blog and Podcast, by Zampson and Daku. And many, many others.
I’m not saying I’m the reason those guys are doing what they’re doing. I’m not saying Websnark by Burns and White was necessary for all those other voices. But we clearly had an impact. We clearly caused some folks to read what we wrote and say “wait a second — I can do that!” And that’s monumental. That’s massive. That is good for comics in general. That is good for webcomics in particular. The dialogue improves everything. And if my making this blog a year ago helped that… well, that’s about as fine a thing as I could hope for.
I advise you to read that whole post, if only to marvel at how prominent Burns became after only a year of posts. There are blogs that become insanely popular for a time, there are blogs that develop devoted followings for a time, but in all likelihood Burns and Websnark takes the cake.
And there are good reasons for that. By no means was Websnark the first place that commented on webcomics, nor am I in any place to say whether it’s the best. But I can say with some degree of confidence that Websnark was probably the first place to treat webcomics like War and Peace, and certainly the first to do it in a humorous tone. And Websnark – this is important – could take webcomics seriously when webcomics didn’t take themselves seriously.
At right is a 2005 strip from semi-popular webcomic Casey and Andy. Click on the thumbnail to see it in all its glory.
Probably the majority of webcomics fall into two categories: the video game comic, in which a cast of nerds sit around all day being nerds, including playing video games and making commentary about the world of video games. Sandsday falls into this category.
The comics that aren’t video game comics tend to be strips where wacky adventures happen to ordinary people. Alien abduction? Getting turned into Bigfoot? Being made the bride of Satan? All par for the course, and in fact, child’s play for some strips. Casey and Andy falls into this category, and this strip captures the mood perfectly. (And it’s arguably tame compared to, say, Sluggy Freelance.) If a webcomic doesn’t fall into one of those two categories it’s probably some combination of the two, at times simultaneously. There are exceptions, but even the exceptions tend to be nerdy in some way.
That, by the way, is the sort of analysis Websnark foisted upon the world, and which is now far from unique to Websnark. And I haven’t even gotten into the effect created by the way Andy Weir draws eyes. But I digress.
This strip was unleashed to the world during the closing stages of Websnark’s golden age. You probably see a funny strip where wacky hijinks happen. I mean, she gets yoinked away, then returns after a few weeks of adventure and picks up the conversation as if nothing happened! And she’s wearing a bikini warrior outfit! It’s madness! MADNESS I TELL YOU!
Well, Eric Burns sees this:
Some time ago, in the course of snarking Casey and Andy, I mentioned that Jenn Brozek had become the strip’s protagonist. My thesis was simple enough: Casey, Andy, Mary, Satan, Quantum Cop and all the rest were funny characters that funny things happened to, but Jenn was the strip’s Mary Richards — she was the (relatively) normal character who had insanity surround her. As a result, her reactions echoed the reactions of the reader. She might be Queen of the Hunkinites, but her reactions are those of a normal person. More or less.
And, as a result, the major plot arcs seem to center on her. Jenn gets kidnapped transdimensionally or temporally. Things happen. Other things result. Her air of normalcy lends itself to weird situations.
However, part of character development is growth. If Jenn remained aggressively normal, she’d become a one-note joke character, existing only to not be quite as weird as everyone else. Sooner or later, she has to take weirdness in stride.
Today’s strip makes it official. Jenn getting kidnapped and going off on a several week jaunt which leads to her coming back in significantly different clothing doesn’t make her bat an eye. She’s ready to pick up her conversation.
Not to mention that even before she was kidnapped, she was casually burying a satchel in the yard.
Jenn may still be the protagonist of the strip, but she’s not Mary Richards any more. She’s gone full on Phyllis on us.
(Does anyone even remember Phyllis? I always liked her character.)
It’s a psychoanalysis of Jenn’s whole character spun out of a single strip! I haven’t even chose a particularly representative example of the sort of madness Burns brought to his craft at his height. This is a fairly good example. I think.
But I have a few more thoughts on this. (Pardon me if this post sounds really random right now. I’m really tired and I spent way too long reading Websnark posts instead of writing about it. And now I’m aping parts of its style. I really need sleep.)
I’ve talked about the rise of Websnark. Now I want to talk about its fall. Which Burns totally saw coming. “I’ve maintained for a while that we’ve found the audience we’re going to find, and readership is only going to decline from here,” he writes in that first anniversary post. By 2007, he was barely posting at all, as he recognized in one of the rare actual posts:
[I]n 2006, Websnark was running somewhere close to the height of its popularity. I think the “glory year” was probably 2005, but 2006 was still doing darn nicely. At the same time, I was at that point a creature of habit. There are things that I did, and things I didn’t do, and very little breaking up of them.
Which is the nature of a thing like Websnark. When you begin, you’re throwing everything against the wall and seeing what sticks. Sooner or later, you get a sense of what sticks and then… well, you stick with it. You become formalized. You become ritualized. You become expected and perhaps complacent. And for a while, you run high on that formula, because it really is what people want to see, and you really are pretty good at it, and it’s all pretty fun.
Eventually, of course, things run their course. There is shift, and breakdown. You lose your enthusiasm. Daily posting becomes weekly posting, and then monthly posting. People might still read, but things shift from water cooler talk to “oh yeah, he’s on X again,” to nodding and moving on. You become part of the landscape, and eventually you become yesterday.
That is not a complaint, mind. It’s what we predicted from day one — there is a life cycle to these kinds of things. And no, Websnark isn’t going away. Er, more than it already has, what since it’s at best getting handfuls of posts. Regardless, I’m always happy when people come back to see what’s going on.
I honestly don’t know what to make of this. Burns portrayed his decline as inevitable, as some sort of natural law of the Internet. Until I re-read this, I was going to talk about how Websnark is not a good test case. For one thing, it dropped down to posting on certain rare occasions; for upwards of a year, Burns posted every single day. I wrote before that when you update your site every day, people forgive missed updates easier than when you update less often but still consistently. Miss a heck of a lot of updates, however, and you can see the holy fury coming down on your ass. Actually, check that. You can see people acting as if you never even existed.
Had Websnark kept updating every single day, or even a few times a week, perhaps it could have stayed popular indefinitely. Certainly there are plenty of sites on the Internet that have maintained the same level of popularity for ages. But perhaps that’s Eric’s point: he didn’t maintain the same level of enthusiasm for Websnark. Things change. Tastes change. What may seem like the thing you’re intensely, obsessively proud of today may be something you go “meh” at tomorrow. Why, just earlier this year, I fancied myself a philosopher, making pithy, insightful comments on human nature. Now? Political activist. But more on that later in the summer and into the fall. And back in high school I fancied myself a novelist, and before that a famous musician, the MTV kind (you know, if MTV still did music videos and all)…
But there are other reasons for Websnark’s decline. Nearly a full year ago, Burns explained how he was burning out on webcomics. But even at the height of Websnark’s popularity, in 2005, Websnark was starting to drift away from webcomics and into other topics. A signifcant number of posts were about Websnark itself and its growing popularity.
Anyway, the point is: Did the people burn out on Websnark, or did Eric? And if it was Eric that burned out on Websnark, does that really give us any real insight into the working of the Internet, or just into the mind of one Eric Burns?
Well, Websnark may be on the rise again. Back in February it got back into hardcore webcomic commentary with “State of the Web(cartoonist)“. Or maybe “State of the (Web)cartoonist” depending on the week. Anyway, each day Burns would take a look at one person with a webcomic and take a look at that webcartoonist’s strengths and weaknesses and what Burns thought of that cartoonist’s strip. And he posted every single day! For two weeks. Then his schedule started slipping and eventually posts became just as nonexistent as before. Recently it returned for a spell, remarked on three comics, and disappeared again.
He was going to do sixty-five webcomics. By my count, he’s done fifteen cartoonists. And I was counting on getting this strip up the instant he was done with those sixty-five comics, dammit!
Well, it’s not like he’s going to notice it in time anyway.
Dear God I need to get to bed. It’s one in the freaking morning as I finish this. It’s taken me several days to write it.
And I’m probably going to regret every word of it.