Kleefeld On Webcomics #84: The Only Constant Is Change

By Sean Kleefeld

The web was still in its infancy when I started looking at it in earnest. I enjoyed being able to find things from all around the world without having to leave the comfort of my bedroom. After a little while, I came across a brochure that was perhaps eight pages long explaining the internet in its entirety. It had a history, some technical information about information packets and IP addresses and a reference guide to HTML. Obviously, with only eight pages, everything was a pretty high level summary. But the HTML guide took an entire two pages and covered literally every bit of code that was available at that time. I learned the basics of HTML in one weekend, and had everything pretty well mastered in a second weekend. Not that I was particularly talented with it, there simply wasn’t much to learn back then.

A visual example of that can be seen with those sites that can make any web page look like an old Geocities page. You’ve seen these, right? The reason why these are amusing is because a lot of web pages really did look like that. And the reason why they looked like that was because the tools that were available were very primitive. You had to work really, really, really hard just to make a page that didn’t look terrible. Getting one to actually look good was next to impossible. Even Michelangelo couldn’t paint the Sistine Chapel with the same tools a caveman used.

This actually made sense because the internet was designed by scientists to share information with one another. They were primarily concerned with the content they were creating, not its presentation. They only included the ability to use graphics so they could present charts and graphs and schematics. Tables were designed to show spreadsheets. It was only after artists got a hold of these tools did they try using graphics to enhance the appearance, and tables to define the layout. It was only then that the W3C (the World Wide Web Consortium) started addressing the broader scope of what the internet would become. They started looking at how presentation mattered and how the content could be separated from that presentation.

Originally, their changes were things like adding the ability to change fonts and increase margins. Later, style sheets could be defined that allowed for sweeping changes throughout an entire site. Then text and image placements could be handled through style sheets, meaning that the layout could be entirely separated from the content. Other languages like Javascript and PHP were able to make content more dynamic, either by using small sets of variables or accessing large databases behind the scenes.

I could go on, but you get the idea. The point is that the skillset needed to make a website in the mid-1990s — indeed, the sum total of HTML knowledge that would have been usable at that time — is largely inadequate to make a website today. Regardless of your opinions on the subject, how things should or could have been handled and whether the “right” choices were made, the fact remains that things are different now.

And that means that webcomic creators need to keep up with the technology. Not necessarily at the bleeding edges, of course, but enough to remain current and relevant. Back in September, I talked a bit about how webcomickers are more likely to actively seek to learn new things than their print counterparts. That comes into play here very readily. This is especially noticeable with the cartoonist who’ve been online for a decade or longer. You’ll find them periodically making substantial overhauls to their websites, not because they simply had some free time (most, I expect, do not have any) but because they are learning new tools on the back ends of their sites that require a different way of implementing the entire site. A new database structure or a better comments system or a more dynamic ad-promotion script.

The distinction here is that webcomickers have learned how to learn. Their education wasn’t just memorizing a set of facts and figures by rote, but they learned the ability to learn on their own. This is the type of thing Sir Ken Robinson has been touting for many years, of course, that in a society that is changing so rapidly, it’s paramount that a person’s basic literacy includes the ability to assimilate new information and ideas on an ongoing basis. This is an essential skill for webcartoonists, perhaps even moreso than the ability to draw as evidenced by Randall Munroe’s figures above.

Change, as they say, is the only constant. If a webcomicker isn’t willing to change with the technology, they might as well go hang out with the newspaper cartoonists.

Related Posts:
Kleefeld On Webcomics #83: Into The Third Dimension
Kleefeld On Webcomics #82: Pondering Ethics

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