At a webcomics panel at the Toronto Comic Arts Festival this past weekend, Michael DeForge noted that where he used to have a pretty straight-forward and direct communication between himself and some of his readers, it’s now considerably more complicated and involves some large corporations. (I wasn’t able to attend TCAF personally, so I’m paraphrasing from Tom Spurgeon’s paraphrasing. My apologies to DeForge if I’m too far off base on his point.) I believe what he’s discussing more specifically is that it used to be sufficient to have comments or a message board right on his own site next to his comics and he could be reached by email, but now he’s having to deal with Twitter, Facebook, Instragram, and however many other social media outlets, all of which are run by impersonal companies which essentially use their own users as their very product.
On the one hand, DeForge is right in that there are more venues for interacting with readers and those venues are owned by entities that have some measure of control over who sees what content. On the other hand, he’s wrong in suggesting there weren’t any communication middlemen previously. Unless you’re one of a very few rarified computer geeks, you didn’t actually set up your own servers. Which means that your comics, your message boards, and your email have been all hosted and maintained by a third party, most likely a corporation. Probably not one the size of Facebook, but a corporation nonetheless. And they had control over the content that passed through their system; they could define the rules for their spam filters, they could establish limits on how many people visited your site, they could enforce rules for what language was/wasn’t acceptable on those message boards.
And even if they remained completely hands-off or you set up things yourself, everyone is still using the communications lines run by (at least in the US) AT&T and Verizon. While there are currently governmental regulations declaring they can’t throttle content, that’s a fairly recent decision and one that’s currently under fire by current FCC Chairman Ajit Pai.
I suspect what DeForge is running into is the number of middlemen he’s forced to deal with, and ones that, given their size and influence, are the targets of more scrutiny. If you think about the volume of content generated on social media sites, how much has actually been curtailed in any way? As a percentage of the overall volume, it’s negligible. Indeed, both Facebook and Twitter have come under fire for allowing too much to get posted unfiltered; in Facebook’s case, the propensity of “fake news” articles and in Twitter’s case, a lot of hate speech and bullying.
The directness of communication isn’t really any more or less hampered than it was in pre-social media days of the internet. What’s changed has been the number of outlets that readers expect to engage creators on and, by extension, the number of corporations a creator has to go through to facilitate that engagement. While that can indeed be a challenge, and inherently means there are more people who could potentially interrupt that engagement, it also means that a creator is less likely to be have that communication throttled. Because with the larger number of actors involved, the larger number of options a creator has! If they’re blocked from Facebook, they can move to Twitter; if Twitter is blocked, they can move to Instagram; and so on. Before, if a company decided to block your emails, that was pretty much it; you had no recourse besides calling the email provider on the phone and personally pleading your case. Now a creator’s message can go out through any number of venues.
That’s not to say that working through the Facebooks and Twitters or the world is not without its problems; and I expect we’ll be seeing more and different issues come up in the near future. But their simply being there as large corporations isn’t a problem in and of itself. It can mean more work for the creator, depending on how engaged their audience is and on which platform(s), but the very nature of becoming more successful inherently means you’ll have more to deal with relative to that success.