Critiquing free content

January 29, 2010 § 4 Comments

I read a number of online comics.  I enjoy them quite a bit, especially the ones that manage to update a lot.  It never ceases to amaze me that some of these artists are able to get a comic out every single day.  One such comic that I read (Schlock Mercenary) has been putting out one comic every single day since June 12, 2000.  That is just unheard of in the world of webcomics, even among the ones that sell books and other merchandise.  But it’s not just the ever consistent update schedule that keeps me interested.  It’s a well drawn, well thought out, and well written comic.  And even though sometimes the story lines have a tendency to meander a little, or take some time to get going (in fact some of the story lines take months to pick up speed), it remains one of my favorite comics.

There is another webcomic (that shall remain nameless for now–all I will say is that it was about a certain MMO we all enjoy) that I tried reading, but had to give up on.  I got tired of the artist going through phases of never updating, and then complaining that it was so hard to update and whining about how it wasn’t fair that his fans were giving up on him.  Eventually he decided to have a guest writer and he would just draw the strips, but he still didn’t update with any sense of regularity.  This wouldn’t really have bothered me except that a) he repeatedly promised he would update every day, and b) he constantly complained that it was unfair that his fans were getting tired of broken promises.  He kept saying that since he was giving us these comics for free, we had no right to complain about the sporadic and broken update schedule.  I don’t know if the guest author backed out or what, but he started asking people to send him in stories and he would draw them.  Still, day after day, week after week, new comics failed to appear although plenty of people commented and claimed to have sent him ideas.  I honestly expected that his next step would be to ask people to send in fully written, drawn, and colored comics that he would just post on his site.  But that never happened.

If you go through the comment section on that particular webcomic’s site, you will notice a war going on between two groups I will call, ‘the hyper-critics’ and ‘the super-fanboys’.

The ‘hyper-critics’ spent all their time criticizing every aspect of the comic, from it’s art and writing, to the author’s broken promises and lack of commitment.  Nothing the author did was good enough for them.  Most of the time they complained about the lack of updates, but then even when there were new comics, they called the art hackneyed and the writing trite.

The ‘super-fanboys’ on the other hand blindly defended everything the artist did no matter what.  The artist was above reproach.  No-one had a right to complain that the comic never got updated because it was free content.  Nobody could call the art or writing bad because they aren’t artists–they can’t create anything so they don’t know how hard it is.

To be honest both sides ended up sounding foolish and childish.  All their arguments, even the most intelligent ones, eventually devolved into bitter name calling.

It got me wondering–to what extent can free content like a webcomic be criticized?  How much does the audience have a right to expect from the artist, and when do they cross that line?

Here’s my opinion on the matter.  If an artist (or author or musician) puts out free content, then the public that consumes said content has a right to express their opinions about that content.  I personally think that if they don’t like the content that they should offer up constructive criticism, rather than just saying, “this seriously sucks hard core”, but they still have a right to their opinion.  They do not however have a right to demand that the artist change their content to fit their desires.  They are certainly welcome to ask, and they are certainly welcome to go elsewhere if their requests are ignored, but demanding is right out.

The artist is never above criticism though.  Just because the content is free doesn’t mean they are exempt from being critiqued.  I really don’t like it when someone makes a critical comment (nice or not) and someone responds with, “you aren’t paying for this, so don’t complain” or “I don’t see you doing any better, therefor you can’t complain.”

I also think it’s a mistake for the artist to ignore all critical comments just because what they are putting out is free.  Maybe it’s completely legitimate criticism.  Maybe their art really does suck, or maybe their story line is really dragging and slightly boring.  But if they ignore criticism across the board then they won’t improve in any way.  Then they just end up living in denial.

It’s like those people who audition for American Idol who are completely convinced that they are God’s gift to music, but actually wouldn’t be able to carry a tune in a wheelbarrow.  Often times I wonder, are the people in their lives equally delusional, or are they just cruel, cruel people?  Honestly.  If your brother or sister or best friend or whatever wanted to audition for American Idol but you *knew* they couldn’t sing their way out of a paper bag, and you let them go anyway, that’s on you.  Any embarrassment or hurt feelings or rejection they go through is on you, because you should have had the guts to be honest with them, instead of leading them on with false encouragement.  Yes, it’s true that we are free to try whatever we want and to pursue our dreams as we see fit, but we do a disservice to those around us if we allow them to delude themselves.  If they can’t sing, tell them.  If they still want to pursue music as a life choice, that’s fine, and by all means support them.  But get them vocal lessons.  Hire a vocal coach.  Encourage them to practice, and to learn, and to improve.  But don’t lead them on with false hopes and false encouragement.

Wow that was quite the tangent.

Anyway, my point is, I think that just because you’re putting out free content, that doesn’t mean you are exempt from criticism.  It doesn’t mean that your audience has to accept and love your work and think it’s awesome all the time.  However, those of you doing the criticism need to remember that after all, you aren’t paying for the content.  You can’t demand this that or the other.  You can’t really vote with your dollars, or even with your internet traffic, because the artist may only be putting out said content to share it with people, not because they care if anyone buys it or sees it.  Feel free to comment and share your criticisms, but don’t be a jerk about it.  If you don’t like it, but don’t have any constructive suggestions on how to improve, keep your damn mouth shut.  But if you do have helpful things to say, say them, and don’t be afraid to say them.

And finally, to the fans out there, stop blindly defending the artist.  If someone makes a negative comment about their work, it’s not the end all be all of comments, nor will the world come to an end.  And stop telling people they have no right to criticize since the content is free, because the artist may need the critical comments.  But if you keep blindly defending them in every situation, the artist may begin to believe they are above reproach.  And then their work won’t ever get any better because they will already believe that they are at the top of their game.  In fact, I’d be willing to wager that the quality of their work will go down.

I’m curious what other people think about this, especially anyone that puts out free content themselves.  How much can free content be criticized?

“[Insert clever sign off phrase here]”

~Fizz

§ 4 Responses to Critiquing free content

  • […] Something’s bugging Fizz over at The Cranky Old Gnome. And it’s webcomic fans who are too critical, and webcomic fans who can’t stand criticism. And its sounds like something I might say: The ‘hyper-critics’ spent all their time criticizing every aspect of the comic, from it’s art and writing, to the author’s broken promises and lack of commitment. Nothing the author did was good enough for them. Most of the time they complained about the lack of updates, but then even when there were new comics, they called the art hackneyed and the writing trite. […]

  • […] ranting in comments to a comic that doesn’t update often enough and is moved to offer his thoughts on webcomics criticism. (Via The Webcomic […]

  • I completely agree that any artist who publishes has no right not to expect critcism. No one is obligated to like anything you do, and they’re also not obligated to care. If you put yourself out there, open yourself up, someone is going to take a swing and you have to suck it up and take it.

    That said, NO artist, whether they’re doing it for free or money, is OBLIGATED to actually take the criticism offered, even if the criticism is 100% legitimate. Maybe they should, maybe it will legitimately make the work better, but at the end of the day the artist is perfectly within his/her rights to say “up yours” and move on.

    • thistlefizz says:

      Well said sir, I have to agree. No artist is obligated to take the criticism offered.

      However, I feel they do a disservice to themselves if they ignore it. First of all, those who do their work for money may soon find that if they ignore all criticism that comes their way that they will soon find that the money is no longer coming their way ether. I’m not saying they should compromise their integrity or vision or anything, but closing their eyes, plugging their ears and going “lalalalala” is not helpful either.

      Those that don’t do it for money are a little bit freer to say “up yours” and move on, but there is still a certain amount of criticism that really does help a person grow and develop as an artist. Even if all they are doing it for is ‘the love of the art’, when you operate in a sealed environment, you may soon find yourself running out of oxygen.

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