Authenticity as a barrier to success


(Added later: Inman offers a response to the article in question and it’s quite long. It’s also a pretty detailed dismantling of the article itself, in which the cartoonist points out several of the comics he’s done that on controversial topics.

All of which flies in the face of the original article and what I’ve written here. I encourage people to check it out.)

Should I have said “barrier” in the subject line? Maybe it should have been “path” with a question mark at the end.

For example: there’s this unfriendly article on Matthew Inman, the guy behind The Oatmeal. Inman started out as an SEO expert, creating quizzes, cartoons, and other sites that included links to clients’ sites, driving up their Google ranking. When he got sick of that job, he struck out on his own. A quote:

“With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else.”

Some of this most popular, most-linked comics are about grammar misuse; he basically instructs people how to use the language correctly, and makes fun of the ways people get it wrong.

Not that he particularly cares about grammar himself. The truth is, he noticed it was something people got angry about on the internet, did some research to look up the correct usages, drew the comics, then had an editor check them.

End result: profit. He even sells posters to schools, which is a nice gig if you can get it.

You can see this all through his site: Comics about how terrible it is to fly a plane. About bad customer service over the phone. About people who talk in movie theaters.

Are these things that Inman himself cares about? The question misses the point. The readers care about it. People on reddit care and once they start linking to him there it spreads all over the internet. Inman wants to make comics that reinforce the opinions you already have. His usual everyman protagonist, bald and overweight, is supposed to be “relatable” for his audience. It certainly doesn’t represent the cartoonist himself, who is a full-on fitness nut.

Sure, they’re funny. I’ve laughed more than once on his site; the guy is clever and has a way with the over-the-top joke. His drawing style is also unique and expressive, the sort of thing that make people think I could do that if I wanted to even though they couldn’t.

Then there are things that are odd or absurd, like the online quizzes. How many 5-year olds can you take in a fight? How long would you last if you were chained to a bunk bed with a velociraptor?

All that stuff is charming and linkable, but it comes from me, not from him. It’s tailored to appeal to me. If I were to guess, I’d say this comic about making things for the web is personal to him, if you forget about the fat guy gorging himself on Cheetos or whatever that’s supposed to be. The rest of it, who knows?

So I’m stuck in this weird place. You know that thing that happens when you’re all “MY GOD WHAT A GREAT MOVIE THAT WAS IT’S MY NEW FAVE I WISH I COULD DO THAT!” and your friend says “You mean the movie set in New York that didn’t have a single non-white face in it?” or “You mean the movie where the villain murders all these people to get a magic doohickey and the hero defeats him by giving him the doohickey?” or “You mean the one where the world is set right by reinstalling a king?” or “You mean the one where the cops can only stop the bad guys by ignoring all those pesky laws, regulations, and restraints on their power?”

When that happens, it’s like walking into a glass door. Boom. I am being pandered to so efficiently that I didn’t even notice. How could I not notice?

It’s like a Hollywood movie, I guess. Big summer tentpole pictures are full of characters and story choices designed to appeal to the widest possible crowd, and that’s fine. I enjoy movies like that. I enjoyed THE AVENGERS and WRECK-IT RALPH.

But I enjoy them at a remove. I know they’re designed to flatter and thrill me without being personal in a challenging way. I know they’re not going to tell me anything I’m uncomfortable with, as long as I’m in the target audience. There’s nothing wrong with that. Let me repeat, with boldface: There’s nothing wrong with that. People make work for all sorts of reasons, and the marketplace of ideas and entertainment is large enough even for the stuff aimed at SEO. And who wants to hate on a Wookie Jesus iPhone case?

One of the big changes that the internet has brought about is the idea that niche markets pay, if you keep your expenses down. If you’re good and “authentic” (by whatever definition) you can reach people.

But to reach really really large audiences? Millionaire in just a few years audiences? Best to click on through to the article above and study up on Inman’s advice.