Brooke Spangler of A Girl And Her Fed has some philosophical musings regarding gender and webcomic popularity up over at her LiveJournal, and it got me to thinking. Naturally, if you’re going to consider the gender of the creators of the most popular webcomics, you have to start from a basis of what the most popular webcomics are. Which, as with almost all questions of how webcomics work, isn’t an easy question.
Spangler chooses the latest iteration of an experiment to come up with something resembling a reliable set of numbers, which was compiled by Xaviar Xerexes and is to be found in the current issue of ComixTalk. As with prior attempts to run audience numbers, both by the X-Man and other commenters, we’re hamstrung by the basic … shall we say lacking? … level of confidence in Alexa data. Mr T tried to factor out Alexa flakiness by balancing it against numbers from Quantcast and Compete, but hasn’t done so for some time. This time, Xerexes brings in data from Project Wonderful as a reality check.
The PW data are accurate and from a sizeable pool, and are heavily slanted towards webcomics — that’s good. On the other hand, there are high-prominence sites that don’t use PW, and (per conversation with Ryan North and Phillip Karlsson) the PW counts are ad-box specific. Thus, a reasonably well-known webcomic (say, Gunnerkrigg Court) can run PW ads its own sites (and does), but not at the mirror on Graphic Smash (and doesn’t), and the traffic at the mirror won’t get counted.
Still, as a measure specifically for webcomics, it’s the most objective that’s available. Unless people want to start throwing out verifiable numbers of their own sites (and previous attempts have not yielded enough data to reach statistical significance), Xerexes’s best guess adjustments that produce this Final Version of the Most Read experiment are probably as good as we’re ever going to get.
So to get back to Spangler’s question (which is about the genders of the creators of the most popular webcomics … stay with me, son) I’m wondering if it’s the right one to ask. To paraphrase an observation that Dave Kellett and Howard Tayler have made in numerous places (and since these guys both spent significant time in the business-management world before quitting to do webcomics full time, I’m paying attention to them), the total audience size for a webcomic is probably less important than how many of those readers regard a webcomic as being one of their very favorites. Let’s call it the Top 3 Model — these are the people that are your most loyal fans, the ones that you cultivate and grow and rely on financially if the webcomic is your job.
This is a completely untestable hypothesis, but I think the superfans act as a sort of multiplier. In other words, considering the impact of the work on the audience, would somebody that eagerly devoured every update of Narbonic, The Devil’s Panties, or Octopus Pie have more (warning: extremely precise mathematical term coming up) oomph than somebody that reads Cyanide and Happiness and really likes one of the co-creators, but finds the others meh?1 Do ten casual fans have the same impact as one reader that looks back a decade later and says, I saw new possibilities in comics because of that strip?
Spangler touches a bit on this in her consideration of gratification as an element of which webcomics are most popular, but by my reading she’s regarding this in a (for lack of a better word) mechanical (i.e.: this strip satisfies my need for entertainment) fashion, and I’m looking at it more from an emotional (i.e.: this strip has a profound lasting impact on me) standpoint.
I realize that this is starting to sound like a “mass audience vs. high quality” argument, and that’s not quite what I’m trying to express. I don’t want anybody to think that I’m arguing David Spade movie where men get hit in the crotch:art-house movie that sweeps the Oscars::Ctrl+Alt+Del:Templar, AZ (although if anybody deserves a mantle full of the webcomics equivalent of naked gold men, it’s Spike).
Nor am I trying to say webcomics by women have smaller audiences than webcomics by men, but are more likely to impact the reader in a lasting way. I think that even with reliable numbers on things like audience size, superfan scaling factor, and lasting impact on the reader’s soul as a work of art, that the best than anybody will be able to do is say, These are my favorites; I don’t know why I like all of them, but I do.
Fundamentally, I love these questions — some day, Xerexes, Spangler, and I are going to have to hash this one out over lunch, and I doubt any of us will be satisfied with the answers, but it’ll be a terrifically fun conversation. Also, since I may be found horribly mutilated afterwards, let the record show I expect that final meal to be delicious.
Speaking of these are my favorites, I emailed back and forth with Sean Conchieri over at Bomb Shelter last night — he tells me that the prelims on this year’s Webcomics Idol are nearing completion, and the Top 10 entrants should be unveiled in the next week or so. Who will make it to the finals? The weirdly compelling Hitmen for Destiny? The chronically-underreviewed Simulated Comic Product? The rigorously structured The System? The eyebrowriffic The Book of Biff? The it’s-gotten-even-better-than-last-year Shi Long Pang? There was a hell of a lot of talent on display in the previous iterations, so be sure to check it out, jump into the conversation, and vote.
1 I chose these comics solely because the first three are all created by women, and do not crack the most popular list (although Breeden does sit in the top 20 of the PW-only list), and the last one is created by men and sits at the top of the audience list. I do not mean to imply that C&H only has casual fans or that they are less awesome that the fans of TDP, OP, or Narbonic. Although, to be fair, Shaenon Garrity’s fans on meter out as nearly 14% more rad than the statistical mean.