The internet, pretty much by definition, is a network. A whole bunch of computers connected together and sharing information. The challenge, though, is that if you have a network of essentially every computer on the planet, that makes it inordinately difficult to find anything. Search engines help with this, of course, but before those were very robust, people would get together and form less formal networks, linking to other sites that shared some mutual interest.
As more and more people began making webcomics, people started putting together webcomic networks. You might see messages like, “Hey, if you like my webcomic, you might also check out this other one!” But then, people started thinking that there needed to be something more, and we started seeing other more formal version pop up.
One idea was tied to monetizing webcomics. Individual webcomics, by and large, weren’t well-trafficked enough for advertisers to bother paying for ad space on those sites. But if you had a group of webcomics under a single umbrella, you could aggregate all of their individual readers and sell ad space for all of them combined. To do that, though, you needed all of these different webcomics in one central location. Some people tried a centralized hosting solution and others tried letting creators stay with their own hosts but incorporating a standardized banner of some sort.
Another idea was tied more to the technology. Writing and drawing webcomics requires a notably different skillset than setting up a webcomic site. Creators who didn’t know themselves or didn’t have friends who could help could find themselves at a loss for getting their material online. To solve for this, some people have tried joining together to create a platform which requires little-to-no development skills on the part of the creator, allowing them to just upload their comics without any concerns around navigation or visitor tracking or anything like that, acting essentially as publishers.
Both cases can work very well for largely unknown creators just getting started on webcomics. There’s a steep learning curve with the medium, and working with a network of some kind can drastically reduce the time it takes to have a functioning and functional site for a webcomic. If the comic starts to become successful, though, the network may start becoming more of a hindrance.
A larger readership may necessitate more robust servers, which may not be available within the network. Overall ad revenue for a network, too, might be primarily fed by one or two of the most popular webcomics. Which might be fantastic for the smaller guys, but those popular comics might see more income by going out on their own. Furthermore, any significant enhancements to the site might not be possible under a network’s umbrella. Perhaps they’re tied to a single layout, or maybe they don’t have certain technologies available, or something else is limiting what the creator may want to do. In those cases, it may make more sense to break away from the network; although, this brings with it more than a few challenges of its own as well.
I don’t know if it’s this concern about ultimately breaking away from a network that keeps more creators from avoiding them in the first place, or it’s simply a by-product of their already-entrepreneurial nature. There’s still several out there, many of which feature some really fantastic work, but it’s interesting that more creators opt to strike off on their own right from the start.