The webcomics blog about webcomics

Warning: Navel Gazing Ahead

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.

I think five years from now this conversation will be moot. The first webcomics folks were mostly men (boys, really) but almost all of the great new work that I’ve seen in the last couple of years has come from women. Give them some time to build their audiences and I doubt you’ll see much difference in average traffic.

I agree with Jon that in another five years women cartoonists will be much more visible / popular than they are now, but there’s a lot of power in being the first to market. Unless you’re counting on several of these currently popular comics to stop within the next five years, it’ll take a bit more than just time to unseat the top 25, regardless of gender.

I wish there was an accurate way to measure “readers” as opposed to just “visitors”. I was really shocked to see my personal favorites (done by women, incidentally) not cracking the top 25 while they tower as the measure of success to me. As most of the really popular comics leave me wanting, I’d like to see a list of the definitive top 25 in quality.

Project Wonderful is actually spectacularly inaccurate.

For Sunday, for instance, Multiplex clocked 22.6k visitors and 30.6k pageviews according PW — but according to Google Analytics, those numbers were 10.4k (9.3k unique) and 45.7k respectively.

They’re — presumably — similarly inaccurate with all the other sites on the network, so it’s still useful if you’re a prospective advertiser, but compared to real-world metric, no. Not really accurate.

Gordon

That’s interesting… and perplexing.

Crossposted from Comixtalk (though Gordon may have beaten me to the punch):

Some problems with PW data:

Sites like mine use one PW ad for multiple domains, but only as a default; therefore, our PW score is much lower than it was when we used it as our sole advertising network.

Sites like QC use one ad format for their main page and another for their archives.

Some sites put PW on their forums, greatly increasing the total number of ad views, and some do not.

To my knowledge, no one has independently tested the data’s accuracy against something like Google Analytics, even allowing for the problems cited above. I never used PW in a straightforward way with one PW ad on every single page, so I couldn’t test for a pageview-to-pageview match. Ryan North is a great guy, and I have no doubt he’s proud of his system, but if you’re going to state that the PW data is superior, you really want to be able to back that up.

T’s absolutely right: if you step back and look at what PW does, it tracks hits that the ad box receives, because that’s what a potential advertiser cares about. Whether this is on the forums or on the comic page or wherever can be estimated from looking at the referrer list, but if you’re looking for raw “Comic X gets this many hits”, you’re going to have to make sure that the comics you’re comparing are being used in the same way. Like T says, I’ve got the same ad box on my landing page and on my archives, while Jeph has one for each – that’ll lead to different data!

You can end up in situations like Gordon in a variety of ways. For one, Google massages their data in a way we don’t: we just record hits and uniques for the day and display that. If their code is on more pages, or ours is on different pages, you’ll get different results. To further muddy the waters, Google’s JavaScript doesn’t detect hits if the viewer has JavaScript disabled, while Project Wonderful still loads an image that we can track – but then, if they’re running adblock software, they may not see it even IF they’re running JavaScript. But again, PW wants to show you how many viewers your ad will get, so the smaller number that ignores people running adblock software is what we want.

I get a few emails at Project Wonderful occasionally asking about this discrepancy between Google and PW stats (sometimes one’s bigger, sometimes it’s the other) and generally it’s often the case that each of us are tracking different things on different pages. The bottom line is that, in all cases, the most reliable data you’re going to have is your own log files: they can record things like direct image access (ie: someone inlining your comic on a forum) that neither PW or Google are aware of.

But I think here we’re more concerned with estimating audience size, which is always going to be fuzzy. I think Project Wonderful does make that more open than it was in the past, but you still need to take into account the forum / archive / “hosted on multiple domains with ad boxes only on one” issues when you’re looking at them. Unfortunately PW is designed to show you what exposure an ad will get, not how much traffic a given comic receives – though in some cases they should be the same.

Does that help?

I think it does.

A couple of e-mailers have confided in me that they have done private page-to-page tests, and, at least in their isolated cases, PW did a better job than Alexa in representing the shape of their traffic.

[...] Gary Tyrrell tackles a loaded question: How do you gauge the popularity of a webcomic? [...]

Webcomics have a major visibility problem, I am into webcomics and even then I don’t recognize 90% of the names mentioned here.

RSS feed for comments on this post.