Tuesday, August 25, 2009

Comics Journalism Is Social Media

There were a couple of Twitter discussions that popped up this weekend that I haven't seen anyone tie together just yet:
  1. If McCluhan is right and the medium is the message, what is the message of Twitter?
  2. Here is my serious question to everyone who reads or makes comics. Do we need tabloid and gossip comics journalism?

The first reference is of course speaking to Marshall McCluhan's 1964 book Understanding Media in which the author contended that the medium in which a message is delivered is as powerful and impactful as the message itself. "The medium is the message."

The first question, then, asks, "What does the existence/use of Twitter say about us, both as creators and recipients of content via that outlet?"

Henry Jenkins ably responds with an extended answer on his blog, but the short answer is: "Here it is. Here I am."

Seemingly unaware of that specific discussion, yesterday morning John Jantsch posted 5 Tips for Getting More From Social Media Marketing over at his Duct Tape Marketing blog. He focuses on somewhat more practical applications, but comes up with essentially the same answers: "Use your social media activity to create awareness for and amplify your content housed in other places," and "Taking content that appears in one form and twisting it in ways that make it more available in a another, or to another audience, is one of the secrets to success in our hyperinfo driven marketing world we find ourselves" to pull out just a couple quotes.

What both men are getting to is that social media like Twitter and blogs are the drivers of capturing people's attention in the 21st century. Traditional advertising essentially doesn't work because there's simply too much competing for our time and attention. It's become white noise. We have, as consumers, learned to filter out much of what does not interest us, so we're not apt to pay attention to, for example, traditional car commercials unless we have an immediate interest in car commercials -- perhaps because our car got hit by lightning and we suddenly find ourselves in the market for a new car and need to get up to speed quickly on what's currently available. This means anyone trying to market a product or service needs to quickly and fairly efficiently target people who are already pre-disposed to hearing what they have to say. I've spoken to this topic before.

The question about "gossip comics journalism" led quickly to the state of comics journalism in general, and I saw a number of responses that were generally disappointed with how the "main" comic news outlets were little more outlets for publishers press releases....
Comics Gossip Sites are as close as the industry gets to journalism.

Since there is no REAL journalism in comics, gossip columns are all we really have.

i'm sure has been noted already but comics (& every medium) needs better journalists.

depends what you term gossip. all other comics news sites are intermediaries for soft interviews & press releases
It's essentially the same debate that's being held about journalism at large. Bill Wyman focused on newspapers in particular a couple weeks ago, but his assertions wouldn't take much tweaking to apply to journalism in general or any other narrowly defined segment of reporting.

But, as if in answer to all this, Jim Shelly stepped forward on Friday with this interview with Brian Altounian that's gotten a fair amount of coverage, since it was revealed that Platinum no longer owns Wowio. What struck me as interesting about this wasn't so much in the revelation itself, but in the fact that this, like almost EVERY news blurb about Wowio from the past year or two has come from social media. I've "broken" a few Wowio stories here, a lot has come through various Tweets, Shelly's interview came out in a blog... There's been almost no "mainstream" comic journalistic coverage about them at all, and the Wowio story is being told through other outlets, which is then propagated through further Tweeting and link-blogging. It really is a fascinating case study, especially since Wowio and Platinum have contributed so little to whatever "official" channels they could use.

Wowio is being defined by what might be termed the "new journalists" -- independent, motivated individuals who are breaking these stories for their own interests. These "new journalists" aren't beholden to anyone (or, if they are, it becomes public knowledge fairly quickly) and focus on whatever investigations interest them. Whether or not they uncover anything depends, of course, on their skill and their connections, but since the number of "new journalists" so drastically outweighs the number of traditional ones, it's almost inevitable that someone will get something more worthwhile than a more traditional outlet would.

What motivation might these "new journalists" have? Well, there are any number of things, I'm sure, depending on the individual, but I think Jenkins' idea about "Here I am" almost definitely comes into play for the vast majority of them. Part of the reason I, and many others, write these kinds of things is simply to keep my name and identity in your conscisousness on an ongoing basis. Years ago, while I was still running my Fantastic Four fan site, I made a point of making regular, weekly updates so that there was always something there for people to check in on. The same holds true for my daily blogging today. Part of it is an exercise in writing regularly as a form of practice, but part of it is to keep my name out there. I make a point of trying to write posts in advance of every day that I know I won't be at a computer and able to blog, precisely so that the stream of information coming from this location is continual. (I'm not always successful, admittedly, but I do try.) I'm deliberately trying to build cultural capital within the comics community by standing up every day to say, "Here I am."

Of course, just saying "Here I am" would get repetitive quickly and people would pay it little heed. It would be more white noise to ignore. But if I said something different each day, something interesting, THAT might provide enough incentive for people to return. Think about it in terms of the funny pages from the newspaper...

People came back to read Calvin & Hobbes each and every day because they enjoyed it. Some jokes were funnier than others, some strips were drawn better than others, but there was a more than good chance that creator Bill Watterson did something entertaining on any given day. Other strips (which I'll leave nameless, but you know which ones I'm talking about) are trite, repetitive, uninspired and generally boring. A strip created yesterday doesn't look all that different from one created 20 years ago and, because of that, a lot of people don't bother keeping up with them. (Unless it happened to be physically wedged between Calvin & Hobbes and Far Side and you couldn't help but follow it.)

The same idea holds for me. If I don't at least try to come up with something clever and original on a regular basis, I'm going to fall off your radar. So guys like myself are out here trying to generate NEW content all the time. That includes interviews, reviews, anecdotes, photos, videos, and a whole host of other options. There's absolutely nothing wrong with Newsarama or CBR or The Beat or Bleeding Cool or anyone else who's provided some information about the comics industry. Not all of it is useful or pertinent to me, just like not all of it is useful or pertinent to you. You, as an individual, are going to pick out the sources of the information you like, the information you want, and you'll follow that. Maybe that information will be nothing more than official press releases, maybe it will be news peppered with a heavy dose of personal bias, maybe it will be little more than snark, but there's an audience out there for all of it.

And the things that matter, the things that people respond to en masse, will arise from whatever corner it happens to stem from and spread out accordingly. Maybe it comes from a publisher's web site, maybe it comes from a creator's Facebook page, maybe it comes from an interested, but decidedly third party's blog. And maybe it comes from a video taken with a cell phone camera by an otherwise anonymous individual who happened to be in the right place at the right time. Regardless of where it comes from, though, it will be passed along through other blogs and emails; it will be reTweeted and Dugg; it will be the inspiration for message board discussions and vlogs.

Comics journalism is not really any different than comics gossip columns, then, as both are essentially just an ad hoc group of individuals all trying to say, "Here I am." And while that could be read to have negative implications, it's actually intended to have positive ones. Information about comics -- whether it's considered "journalistic" or "voyeuristic" is irrelevant as someone will take interest in it -- is being disseminated through a vast network of people, largely unhindered by any interests but their own. This sort of approach brings more information to light more quickly, and allows the individual consumer to determine for themselves what is important and/or relevant in a more honest fashion. And, further, it allows -- even encourages -- greater discussion about the events in question.

Here in the 21st century, we have an overwhelming surplus of things to hold our attention. We're not limited by whatever filters "traditional" channels historically held (and continue to hold) up. We're consumers of information, just as we're consumers of food, clothing, and shelter. We can shop around for the sources and types of information we want to receive, and filter out the everything else. Don't like what I have to say? Go read Tom Spurgeon. Don't like what he has to say? Go read Dirk Deppey. Don't like what he has to say? Go read Johanna Draper Carlson. The list goes on and on. There is an audience for everything, and everyone can find an audience. Comics journalism does NOT rely on the narrowly-defined model of journalism that's been taught in schools for generations; it's every discussion you have and every post you make. Every time you log in and say, "Here I am," you have joined the ranks of comics journalists whether you know it or not, whether you intend to or not. Just because you don't have a business card that says you work for Wizard doesn't mean you're not as much of a news/information/gossip source as they are. You are seeing comics journalism here, on Facebook, on Twitter, on YouTube, on every other social media outlet available. Comics journalism isn't just a handful of websites; it's everywhere.

Welcome to the 21st century.

1 comment:

Jeff said...

I think you can lump "comics journalism" in with journalism relating to other forms of entertainment. We're dealing with mostly fictional subject matter, so how to actually cover it is a sticking point for a lot of people, I think. It's one thing to cover Ted Kennedy's death, it's another to cover the Green Goblin's death, because in the latter we're relating the events of a story that was planned and plotted. Aren't we just recapping someone else's ideas?

Of course, there are angles you can take to circumvent this, but I'd say that most of them fall into the category of human interest stories. If we're not talking about the comics themselves, we're talking about the creators, their processes, their inspirations, their general lives. Whether you consider this to be journalism depends on how you define the term.

Overall, comic book journalism is centered around a product - something you can buy - so the line between discussion and a thinly-veiled sales pitch is sometimes a little blurred, though I think the same can be said about journalism that covers any entertainment medium.