Jen Aggleton is working on her PhD in Education at the University of Cambridge, and is completing a work placement at the British Library on the subject of digital comics. The degree she’s working on is actually illustrated novels, a close cousin of comics but not precisely comics per se. But the opportunity arose where the British Library was looking for PhD students to help in archiving digital comics (not unlike like the Library of Congress effort I mentioned here a while back) and she jumped at the opportunity.

Aggleton relayed all this on a British Library blog post earlier this month. What struck me in reading about her efforts, though, was that prior to her work for the British Library, she didn’t consider herself an avid comics reader.

The reason I hadn’t noticed was because I hadn’t specifically picked up a printed comic or gone to a dedicated webcomic site every day (many days, sure, but not every day). I was however reading comics every day on Facebook, slipped in alongside dubiously targeted ads and cat videos.

What strikes me about this isn’t so much that someone didn’t realize they were reading comics in their social media streams, but that someone like Aggleton didn’t realize that either. She already notes being a comics fan to some degree, so she clearly likes comics. And she’s working on her PhD, so she’s clearly pretty intelligent. Despite these factors, though, she still didn’t realize how often she was reading comics.

Aggleton goes on to note:

This is because the ways in which we interact with comics have been vastly expanded by digital technology. Comics are now produced and circulated through a number of different platforms, including apps, websites and social media, allowing them to reach further than their traditional audience.

All of this is true, of course, and something which comic creators were quick to take advantage of. But again, it surprises me that this isn’t more well-known. At least when it comes to conscious acknowledgement.

This leads me to two conclusions. First, that webcomics are something of a stealth medium. Whereas people are conscious of watching video online (even if they can’t cite the source) and will note they’ve spent time watching videos on Facebook or YouTube or whatever, they rarely acknowledge they’ve been reading webcomics unless they go to a dedicated site that specifically cites the content as webcomics.

Second, because they can be stealthier than videos or written essays, they can be used to greater persuasive effect. Whether that’s explaining the different faces of terrorism or how to give yourself a breast exam, they do an effective job at providing a persuasive argument for their message precisely because readers are lulled into just seeing it as “some content” and not a political statement or a public service announcement.

Webcomics: the stealth weapon of edification!