Web Comics and Network Culture

I am participating in a very interesting conversation about digital storytelling, visual culture, and web 2.0 over at Morph, the blog of the Media Center, which describes itself as "a provocative, future-oriented, nonprofit think tank. In the dawning Digital Age, as media, technology and society converge at an accelerating pace in overlapping cycles of disruption, transition and change, and in all areas of human endeavor, The Media Center facilitates the process by gathering information and insights and conceiving context and meaning. We identify opportunity, provide narrative, stimulate new thinking and innovation, and agitate for dialog and action towards the creation of a better-informed society." The Media Center has asked a fairly diverse group of media makers and thinkers to participate in a "slow conversation" to be conducted over the next month or so about creativity in the new media age. So far, the most interesting post has come from Daniel Meadows, currently a lecturer at Cardiff University in Wales, about work he has done with the British Broadcasting System to get digital stories by everyday people onto the air. He provides links to a great array of amateur media projects. I haven't spent as much time following these links as I would like but it's a great snapshot of the work being done in digital storytelling.

What follows are some excerpts from my own first post in the exchange which uses webcomics to explore some of the ideas in Yochai Benkler's The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, a book I referenced here the other day.

I have been reading a new book by Yale Law Professor Yochai Benkler, The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, which offers a pretty compelling account of the ways that the technological and social shifts wrought by the so-called digital revolution are generating new models of cultural expression and civic engagement. In the book's introduction, he writes:

These changes have increased the role of nonmarket and nonproprietary production, both by individuals alone and by cooperative efforts in a wide range of loosely or tightly woven collaborations. These newly emerging practices have seen remarkable success in areas as diverse as software development and investigative reporting, avant-garde video and multiplayer online games. Together, they hint at the emergence of a new information environment, one in which individuals are free to take a more active role than was possible in the industrial information economy of the twentieth century.

Benkler is describing a mediascape which is profoundly hybrid -- that is, communication occurs on multiple levels (some motivated by economic gain, some by a gift economy, some by a notion of reputation building or education or public service or civic engagement or fan appreciation). People create culture for many different reasons with different expectations in terms of rewards on their investment.

I am also reading alongside Benkler another new book, T. Campbell's A History of Web Comics, which describes the gradual emergence of the Web as a platform for graphic expression. At first, webcomics seemed largely fringe to the commercial mainstream of newspaper comic strips and printed comic books, a place for gifted amateurs and art school dropouts with much of the content focused on digital culture itself.

Scott McCloud's groundbreaking manifesto, Reinventing Comics (2000) made the case for the Web as an "expanded canvas" that might allow new modes of graphic expression, as a more open space for newcomers to prove their worth as artists, and as a technology which might broaden the potential public for comics by allowing writers and artists to explore themes that would never make it into mainstream publications.

All of this has proven true - at least to some degree. Today, webcomics thrive across many different communities. People are creating webcomics for very different reasons - some are trying to hone their skills, demonstrate market potential, or build a reputation before going pro. Some are moving into print once they've found their niche and others are choosing to remain digital despite offers from print-based publishers. Some have developed political communities around their web comics which take on a life of their own and, in some cases, overwhelm the comics themselves. Some have created virtual artists colonies where amateurs and commercial artists share work and give each other feedback. And a small number are generating at least modest revenues online through subscriptions, micropayments, or the sale of merchandise.

Campbell describes a moment early in the history of webcomics when Fred Gallagher, the co-creator of MegaTokyo, a man who thought he was doing amateur work on the way to turning pro, finds himself swamped at conventions by his intense fan following and realized "he had no control - no one had control -- over whether online readers labeled them 'professional,' 'amateur', 'true artist' or 'rock star.'"

The book similarly qoutes publisher Joey Manley's comments about Modern Tales, an important example of the "artist colony" model I referenced earlier: "We've got manga-styled werewolf/cop dramas butting heads (or, um, maybe some other body part) with Fancy Froglin, medieval fantasy side-by-side with 'straight' autobiography, space-opera-charged science fiction right next door to Borgesian metafiction. And we like it all (as do our thousands of subscribers.)"

Both of these comments suggest the instability which occurs when you bring together diverse kinds of media stakers working with different goals and interests for different communities but all available through the same communications platform...

These shifts in the nature of our media landscape have the potential to transform how we understand ourselves and our place in the world. Benkler writes,

They enable anyone, anywhere, to go through his or her practical life, observing the social environment through new eyes -- the eyes of someone who could actually interject a thought, a criticism, or a concern into the public debate. Individuals become less passive and thus more engaged observers of social spaces....The various formats of the networked public sphere provide anyone with an outlet to speak, to inquire, to investigate, without need to access the resources of a major media organization.

Benkler argues that the threat of fragmentation and babel on the Web has best been dealt with by harnessing the collective intelligence of Web communities -- through efforts at tagging, filtering, and blogging, which help us weigh the value of different contributions and direct them towards the most appropriate audience. At the same time, we are developing new modes of expression which do use images to encapsulate more complex bodies of knowledge.

There's more on this topic at Morph -- but I figured I'd port over the part that was most relevent to our focus here.