The Webcomic Overlook #156: The Oatmeal
Oatmeal has been in the news a lot lately. Much has been made of its incredible cholesterol-lowering powers and its high fiber. Recently, you’ve got the debate between rolled oats and steel cut oats, with some health nuts going, “Rolled oats? Aw hell nah! You gotta get steel cut oats up in the heezy!” But as it turns out, they’ve got nearly the same nutritional value, so either is a good addition to your guilt-free breakfast.
The jury’s still out on McDonald’s oatmeal, though. The Golden Arches bills it as a healthy addition to their breakfast menu. The very minute it came out, though, several nutritionists have weighed in on how the oatmeal isn’t very nutritious, specifically citing how there’s almost as much sugar content as a Snicker’s bar.
Also making the news, to a lesser extent, is Matthew Inman’s webcomic titled The Oatmeal. It debuted in 2009, and it’s apparently one of the most read webcomics today… nearly 5 million unique readers as of September 2010, if you want to get into the brass tacks.
Matthew Inman, a fellow Seattle resident, once worked at a search engine optimization firm, where he learned the tricks of the trade in how to get people to come to your site. According to an article in local alt mag Seattle Weekly, one of the best ways to game Google was to run quizzes with the express purpose of directing people to an online dating site.
But how to get more web pages to link to yours? And how to have those links anchored to the desired search term? Inman fastened on the idea of quizzes. You’ve certainly seen them on Facebook, though Inman was working this technique before Facebook became popular. When you’re done taking a quiz, you get a piece of code, called a widget or badge, to post on your blog or profile. Generally, these widgets have a link embedded in them. But Inman decided to insert a little keyword or phrase too.
So let’s say you take the quiz “How Many People Have You Slept With? Too many? Too few?” and you get a pretty badge that says “You have slept with 4 less people than the average 23-year-old male.” You’re a virtuous sort of fellow and love that result, so you post it on your blog or (five years ago) your MySpace page. All your friends love the quiz and take it too, and suddenly hundreds of thousands of people have taken the quiz and gotten this badge.
But what you don’t see—and Google does—is the keyword or phrase that’s embedded in your badge, along with a link. And when Google sees hundreds of thousands of pages linking to, say, Mingle2.com, on the keywords “free online dating,” Mingle2.com is more likely to be ranked in Google’s first page of results.
He eventually got good at getting the top hits directed toward his site… so much so that Google had to step in and actually put a stop to his shenanigans. They could not, though, bring a stop to Inman’s incredible knack at search engine optimization. His skills would come into play when he’d try his hand at another field: webcomics.
Seattle Weekly reveals the numbers behind The Oatmeal‘s success: as of September 2010, The Oatmeal was “shared by 62,000 Facebook users, retweeted 10,000 times, and enjoyably stumbled upon more than 100,000 times.” Now, from my perspective as a person with a Masters in Business, I have to say that those are pretty big numbers.
Another thing? It’s also profitable. Like, extremely profitable. The same article mentions that Inman “estimates his take-home pay for 2010 will be just over a half-million dollars.” How? Mainly by radically adding “dorm room posters” as a new revenue stream to webcomic monetization.
Apologies in advance, by the way, if this comes off as sounding overly cynical. In a way, I actually find it to be incredibly heartening. From time to time, I get requests from minor webcomics here and there hoping to get extra publicity if they were reviewed on this site. I’m flattered that webcomic creators think that this site may significantly bring in readers. But, to quote a cheeseburger-lovin’ cat, “U R Doin it wrong.” You could probably learn a lot more about bringing in people to your site by following Mr. Inman’s lead than by being featured on my blog, which only gets a paltry 2000 pageviews a day.
So, in all seriousness, congratulations to Mr. Inman for creating one of the few truly profitable webcomics. Hopefully you will one day achieve your dream of moving to Thailand (if you’re not there already).
Unfortunately, I feel that reading up on Mr. Inman has very much tainted my view of The Oatmeal. Could it be that the strips are calculated for the maximum distribution possible? There are several strips, for example, which revolve around cats. Now, for all I know, Mr. Inman has a cat, and, like a cat owner, he’s constantly fascinated by it and wants to put their adventures in comic form. It happens. Still… how can I not see this as some part of a strategy to be forwarded furiously by cat people? You know, the same people who made “I Can Has Cheeseburger” one of the top destinations on the internet?
Or how he seems to focus on geek-approved memes like bacon, bears, and zombies with almost clinical precision? And, hey, wouldn’t you like to have a nice poster to show your dormmates how much of an individual you are? Not to mention that his quizzes are back, our golden egg of search engine optimization.
The thing is, I don’t know how much of it is cynically intentional… thus it falls to me to focus on The Oatmeal from the standpoint of content. I have to say, The Oatmeal is not bad. It’s quite funny in spots. The jokes rely on absurd premises (“Party Gorilla!“), simple illustrations, and violent punchlines. (Why does this feel like I’ve used the same description for at least three or four webcomics reviewed on this site already.
A typical The Oatmeal comic combines Inman’s drawings with long, journal-like passages of text. (Not always, though. The format is a bit flexible, and some are short, nearly dialogue free pieces.) Take one of Inman’s most popular strips: “How to Use A Semi-Colon.” It’s one of several grammar-and-punctuation-themed strips. It’s very light on artwork, and the art that it does feature is rather rough. Its humor relies on the absurdity of its written passages, like its example of two independent clauses:
“My aunt also had hairy knuckles; she liked to wash and comb them.”
It’s really not that far off from the goofball sensibilities of notable American humorist Dave Barry. As the comic progresses, Inman tries to top the absurdity with sillier and sillier examples (“I gnaw on old car tires; it strengthens my jaw so I’ll be better conditioned for bear combat”) until, at the end, there’s a violent punchline about how Godzilla is misunderstood.
OK, so the “random” elements at the end (and, indeed, interspersed throughout the whole comic) is kinda tiresome. However, I do appreciate that Inman did devote an entire comic to the semicolon, which inherently such a dry subject matter that it would be a big blind spot for most people writing a humor comic. The fact that he managed to stay on topic for so long earns my respect.
I actually do like a fair amount of the comics. I even liked the Angry Birds comic. Sure, it’s the dreaded video game comic, but in my experience most of the gaming cartoonists wouldn’t deign to comment on something as mainstream as an iPhone app game. I generally liked his insights into new media. It seems like he’s beating a lot of people to the punch with some of the jokes, such as the uselessness of Follow Friday, the awfulness of online shopping carts and why some e-mails go unanswered. Here, Inman’s life experiences at tech firms go a long way to mining new, untapped sources of comedy.
There are times, though, when I feel The Oatmeal sorta goes long and tends to beat the joke into the ground. Maybe the fact that the joke goes on so long is the joke? I don’t know. I just didn’t find them that funny.
There are times, too, when the punchline smacks of desperation. I generally enjoyed “The Crap We Put Up Getting On and Off and Airplane.” It comes off a little as something stand-up comedians would rehearse, but, you know, it is funny. Well, that is until we get to the final panel, which is a “fart cloud” joke. Wow. I didn’t know that The Oatmeal was for six year olds. If not fart jokes, then it’s “hilarious” outbursts. If not that, it’s disproportionately emotional reactions. If it’s not that, it’s something cute and “totally random” like an oversized chinchilla on a jet ski.
All the same, it all feels very tame. For a comic that basically announces how “edgy” it is with a strip called “How to Name an Abortion Clinic,” The Oatmeal feels as if its taking the most conservative road possible to humor. Buttersafe (reviewed here) is more spontaneous and has better comic timing, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal (reviewed here) is better at handling cynicism, and Cyanide & Happiness has better stick figures and is knows how to write a violent punchline. While these webcomics are popular, they don’t have the combined readership numbers of The Oatmeal. I guess there’s a lesson in all this: to be consumed by a large number of people, you have to be a little bland.
Not unlike oatmeal, the flavorless breakfast of champions.
Tune in next time, friends, when The Webcomic Overlook runs an online quiz on how reading webcomic reviews can make you a better lover.
Rating: 3 stars (out of 5)