Changes in the “Piled Higher and Deeper Community”

There’s been a fair amount of discussion about this:
Cliffhanger for the “Piled Higher and Deeper” comic strip

[Disclaimer: Been reading PhDcomics for about a year, will submit my dissertation draft soon, haven’t bought anything from Jorge Cham (the comic strip author) yet, am a musician, and have no training in advertising.]

Some really good points were made on the forum. For those who don’t get it: no, it’s not about having to cough up money for something we take for granted. Most of us aren’t angry, in fact. Just taken aback and maybe slightly disappointed. Not by Jorge’s choice of strategy. But by the loss of something else.

Of course, it’s not a new strategy to change a freely accessible site into something from which people can make money. Many online “venues” have gone through something similar. Some of them were in fact based on voluntary contributions and were eventually transformed in commercial products, often relying on exclusive rights or paid accounts (iMDb.com, CDDB.com…). They may all work out fine. But the change implies a cut, a loss.

Thing is, we don’t know what’ll happen with the readership for Piled higher and Deeper. It may in fact go up if the comic books get distributed widely and shipping charges go down. But it’ll certainly change. A community was being built and those who have been part of that community are “being reminded that it was all about an artist’s desire to get paid for specific work.” Part of the magic that tied people together is gone. Yeah, sure, it’s the fault of those in the community to believe that fans mattered in the grand scheme of things. It was all an illusion and we got a glimpse behind the curtain.

Now, many signs were already there that PhDcomics.com would change. Jorge got his degree. He started this JennyJetpack.com thing which doesn’t have a forum yet and is likely to attract a completely different audience. Strips were increasingly plot-driven. And, for some reason, it seems to me personally that the site in general featured more “money-related” links. Well, maybe the Google ads, the Amazon links, and the “What’s New” section were always there but they seem more prominent now. Maybe because the site hasn’t changed much apart from that (and the strips themselves, of course).
Even the strips themselves may have lost part of their edge. Not that Piled higher and Deeper has jumped the shark, but…

With an enthusiastic fanbase made of people who are going to graduate and have money soon, with some neat gear that people can buy a little bit more easily (I hope!), and with new books being published by the author, one would think that readers didn’t need to be baited more.

Many other things could have been done.
Stopping the strip after graduating characters and going on to some other endeavors (maybe Jenny Jetpack) would have generated even more goodwill for Jorge on the part of fans. Writing a completely new comic book, distributing it widely, and announcing it on PhDcomics.com would have been a good strategy. Adding new “features” to the book (colour strips, added artwork, commentaries, games, foreword…) may all help. Getting shipping costs down. Getting wider distribution. Creating new merchandise (“gear”) to go with the second book. Warning people that Mike’s defense would be a bait. Asking people for donations. All of these would have been ways for Jorge to financially benefit from PhDcomics.com without alienating anyone.
Well, I might be completely off. But Ubik, Iambicity, n3wb, Nia, Rachel, and others all have great points that seem to relate to similar issues with Jorge’s strategy.
Some others are very dismissive, which doesn’t help. As graduate students (and friends of graduate students), we can (and probably should) have honest discussions without name-calling. No, it’s not about complaining. No, it’s not about free or non-free. No, it’s not about corporate greed. It might be about commodification.
But it’s mostly about changes in a community model that was based on people’s sense of belonging.

Ah, well…

About enkerli

French-speaking ethnographer, homeroaster, anthropologist, musician, coffee enthusiast. View all posts by enkerli

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