Ryan North is the great person behind a great number of great projects, including Dinosaur Comics, Project Wonderful (an advertising service), OhNoRobot (a comics transcription service), and RSSPECT (tools for website syndication). Although he’s better known for his comics, this interview focuses on his other projects. Ryan was interviewed by Dan Copulsky in December 2009 and January 2010.
I’m sure you get people coming up to you saying “I love your comic!” but you do ever get people coming up and saying “I love your ad-serving system!” or “Your RSS tools help so much!”? Or, on the other side of things, have you ever heard people talking about Project Wonderful ads without realizing it’s a service you built? I know that these things are pretty widely used, but how aware are people of your involvement in them?
Dinosaur Comics is has more of my personality in it day-to-day: I sometimes talk about my life in the title text, or in the blog post beneath the comic, things like that. I think it’s easy for people to draw an equals sign between “Dinosaur Comics” and “Ryan North”. For things like OhNoRobot, which is a transcription and search engine just for comics, I do sometimes get cartoonists coming up and saying “Oh man, OhNoRobot is a lifesaver – thanks!”. I believe the connection between myself and the service is known there. For things like RSSPECT and Project Wonderful, which do help webcartoonists but also help regular dudes too – it happens, but more rarely. I think it’s just because I don’t put my name all over them! I’m sure if it was called Ryan North Presents: A Ryan North Production: Ryan North’s Project Wonderful, By Ryan North” – well, I was going to say I’d get more people saying they love it, but I think I’d get more people saying they wonder what the deal is with the name.
Your own use of Project Wonderful ads is kind of mellow. The ad on your Dinosaur Comics site is low on the page, and you don’t have any ads on some of your other sites. Is it weird that other people are using something you’ve created a lot more aggressively than you do? Does it make an odd kind of sense that you’re less eager to push ads because you’re getting a cut of those other people’s revenue?
I believe that websites and their readers share a trust: you come to my site for a comic, and I’m thanking you by not treating you like a piece of meat. I try to put up the best comic I can, so you’ll come back! And if you cover your site in ads, that’s betraying that trust. That’s saying “You’re more valuable to me as a pair of eyeballs than as a person”. It’s aggressive! It’s an extreme example, but how many of us frequent sites that try to install malware on each load? Probably none of us. What about sites that have popunders? Maybe a few of us do, but I don’t know why. Popups? Maybe a few more, but it’s an annoyance. My point is that the more aggressive the advertising is, the more people you’ll get who are going to say “Man this SUCKS so HARD” and just not come back.
So here I am with this theory about advertising, and then I went and wrote my own ad network! But the idea there is that advertising online sucks, but it doesn’t have to be that way. The first line on our “about Project Wonderful” page is “Online advertising is kind of terrible.” TRUE FACTS. And I believe that a lot of what makes Project Wonderful successful is that it lets you sell ads in a way that’s not obnoxious – both publishers and advertisers appreciate that. Of course it can still be abused if you want, but I think our advertisers don’t respond to that well and you actually make less money with it than you would otherwise.
So I wouldn’t say I’m “less eager to push ads”, I’m just less eager to make Dinosaur Comics (the webpage) suck by having it covered in that way.
Kind of similarly, do you ever contribute to transcriptions for OhNoRobot? Do you think it’s strange to encourage other people to do something like that and not do it yourself, or do you think creators do their part by creating the system and the work that others’ contributions are based on? Do you think Jimmy Wales contributes regularly to Wikipedia?
Oh, I know he does! And I do some ONR transcriptions myself, but these days they’re often to test that something is working. The whole point of ONR is to spread out the difficult and boring task of transcribing comics across anyone who cares to help, so people end up with just a little manageable slice of a problem instead of this insurmountable mountain. As a cartoonist, that means that instead of having to do it all myself, an invisible army of nice people can do it for me – which is sort of starting out at the “other people will help me out here” position, so it’s not that unusual a position to be in.
It’s amazing how awesome people are: when I put it up on DC, I got all comics transcribed in 3 days. That’s incredible, and some people did way more than just one comic each. Often they had little notes included, like “thanks for making a boring shift less boring!” That’s awesome.
What sense do you have of who is using Project Wonderful? Have you noticed it being used by any particular groups other than web comics? Have you noticed any particular sites that you were amused or interested to see had Project Wonderful ads?
Quite a good sense: everyone who wants to run ads on their site is approved by hand (to keep out scammers), so we always know where the ads are going! We started out with webcomics and have a great presence there, but we’ve also got a bunch of really great crafting sites too – which initially took me by surprise! But it makes sense: webcomics and crafters have a lot of similarities, and both rely on selling merchandise directly to their audience. There’s tons of cool stuff people are making and I’ve found some great Christmas presents from the Project Wonderful crafters.
Project Wonderful tends to grow organically. People try it out and tell their friends, and hopefully eventually more are using it in a community than aren’t, and it’s working really well for them! I remember the first time we got an application from someone who wanted to be on the network, and they mentioned how they wanted it not only to put ads on their site, also for the community aspect. I think that’s awesome!
You’ve created a few services for, or particularly useful to, web comic artists. Other people have also created services that cater to web comic artists, like Jeffrey Rowland’s merchandise company Topatoco or the WordPress template for web comics ComicPress. Do you think there are more services like these waiting to be built? Do you have any ideas for what sorts of things no one’s done yet that would benefit the web comics community?
I’ve got a few about once a week, but don’t build them because they wouldn’t be THAT useful. Or at least, that’s what I convince myself. A few years ago webcomics services were pretty lacking, but now we’re in a really good place. Wordpress with ComicPress can get you a beautiful site really easily with things like RSS for free, if you build your own you can use my RSSPECT to add RSS to it, Project Wonderful can get you some nice, non-terrible ads, OhNoRobot can give you a comics search engine, and TopatoCo can ship out your merchandise for you. It’s a long way from having to do it all yourself, and I think that’s really great.
As for new services, I can’t think of any that are REALLY needed, but I’m sure as things evolve there will be new itches that need to be scratched. I’d like some free turnkey iPhone app software, you know? Something that turn your website into an iPhone app automatically and free. SOMEONE should get ON THAT.