by Jack Stuef
December 7, 2012
Matthew Inman’s site, The Oatmeal, is one of the biggest comics on the Web. Why the “envy of nearly every cartoonist” is suddenly under siege.
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Matthew Inman boasts that his site, The Oatmeal, has received over a billion page views since he launched it in 2009, making it one of most widely read comics in the world. But Inman bears little relation to his lumpy everyman profile on the site, and the disconnect between that cheerful profile and his actual identity — an edgy comic and unapologetic online operator — collided this week after a rape joke made its way into his typically safe comic.
In this comic, Inman described the role of different keys on the keyboard. F5, he said, was the “rape victim” of the group. “I MUST VIOLATE YOU OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!” a rapist blob monster said to the F5 key as it ran away crying.
Inman quickly found that he’s now too big to jest about sexual violence in the language of Reddit. The Internet was quick to trash the comic.
His own fans quickly took him to task on The Oatmeal’s Facebook page. “Really, in your awesomeness and creativity, you couldn’t come up with something better than a rape ‘joke’?” one asked. “I expected more from you.”
At first Inman ignored the criticism, but by Tuesday, he felt enough heat to remove the panel with the rape joke. But he added a comment at the bottom complaining that comedians like himself are no longer allowed to say the word “rape.” Defensively, Inman said he’s previously “donated $1,000 of my own money to a battered women’s group.”
The removed panel from Inman’s comic theoatmeal.com / Via elevatorgate.wordpress.com
“To all those who complained: thank you for censoring me,” he wrote. “It worked.”
He had to walk that sneering response back, too, writing on Twitter that both the comic and the comment were “fucking stupid.” He finally said he was sorry, then quit Twitter for the day. The comic is no longer listed on his website’s homepage, though it remains accessible with the last panel removed.
Inman is finding what big American businesses have known for decades: Keeping your mouth shut is generally better for business. Inman embodies a generation of online publishing entrepreneurs who came up as independent figures, with a touch of the outlaw. On one hand, Inman sees himself as a comedian, an artist who has to answer to nobody, a guy who works for himself and is thus finally free to mock people who dislike his work. But on the other hand, The Oatmeal has always been first and foremost a business, designed by a formula to be as popular and inoffensive as possible to the social-media-sharing Internet public.
And making rape jokes is bad for business.
Unlike most cartoonists, online and off, Inman, 30, came to the profession by way of one of the Internet’s most-hated practices: Search engine optimization tricks.
Inman, back when The Guardian speculated in 2008 on whether he was a “genius…or a fiend,” was an online marketer who made his name devising quizzes and cartoons aimed at going viral on the web. But the real purpose of this linkbait was what was hidden inside: search-engine keywords and links to his clients’ websites, an underhanded tactic meant to shoot them to the top of Google.
Inman’s transformation from a reviled search-engine-optimization expert and marketer to a beloved comic artist was less dramatic than it sounds. Inman has described The Oatmeal as a kind of continuation of his Internet marketing work. He’s still making cartoons and quizzes carefully configured to go viral, but instead of doing it for clients, he’s now lining his pockets directly. And on The Oatmeal, he hosts some comics and quizzes originally created for SEO traffic right alongside work created originally for the site.
“With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else,” he said in an interview two years ago.
Inman’s SEO work was successful, but he was always beholden to the whims of Google, which doesn’t appreciate schemers looking to game its search engine, and shut down one of his most effective tricks, hiding the term “free online dating” in unrelated quizzes.
With a webcomic, though, Inman doesn’t have to rely on outrunning the Google police. Instead, he focused from the start on the conversations on other, more human, platforms.
“At the beginning, I assumed that, to be successful, I had to sort of pander to these ideas that were coming out of Digg,” Inman told an interviewer this month. Digg, of course, is no longer the social media giant it once was, but posting his comics there was responsible for much of his early success. Inman said he regrets that blatant pandering now, but his comics still seem to be written according to that formula — simply pointed at Reddit, Digg’s bigger spiritual descendent.
But Inman has had a complicated relationship with Reddit. Two years ago, Redditors discovered he had been posting his comics to the site himself, and, in his past job as an Internet marketer, had posted his linkbait quizzes and comic infographics designed to draw traffic to his SEO clients. If there’s one thing Reddit hates, it’s spammers, and after Inman’s Reddit activity was outed in a thread for a webcomic satirizing The Oatmeal’s pandering, there was a veritable Reddit backlash against his comic.
Inman reacted by rickrolling readers who had been linked to The Oatmeal from Reddit.
Soon he stopped, and Reddit, apparently unable to resist a webcomic from a sharp traffic guru aimed squarely at them, resumed serving as a major source of traffic. But the damage was done. Inman mocked his critics, but in the end, when his bottom line was threatened, his business sense forced him to capitulate.
A year after starting The Oatmeal, Inman said he was already making half a million dollars in profit a year annually from the site.
He’s been able to monetize that traffic by exploiting the webcomic model. Readers are willing to buy T-shirts from webcomic artists or donate to their virtual tip jars at least partly for altruistic reasons — unlike commercial creatives, they depend on the patronage of their readers to make a living with their art.
Inman plays into this myth of the solitary, struggling webcomic artist, calling The Oatmeal a “one man operation,” though he employs family members to run his sprawling retail business. When Inman declined to be interviewed for this story, the word did not come from Inman himself, but from his publicist.
Unlike that of most successful webcomic artists, Inman’s work was not originally a labor of love, a slow process of honing one’s voice, developing an original perspective and take on the art form, and eventually building an audience. It was always business, always a play to known sources of Web traffic, whether for clients or for himself.
In interviews with mainstream publications, he strongly denies this. Being perceived as part of the webcomic community is vital to his bottom line, and Inman certainly wants to be seen that way. “I’m totally opposed to making this a company. I just don’t have it in me,” the apparent millionaire told his hometown alt paper, the Seattle Weekly.
When given the opportunity to speak in front of business-minded audiences, however, the former SEO mastermind has been unable to hold himself back. Speaking before a tech conference audience at Gnomedex in Seattle in 2010, Inman delivered a 27-minute presentation explaining his process for creating a comic or quiz for his website. His comics, the slideshow says, are created according to a formula aimed at pandering to the broad tastes of the Internet and social media, based on six core principles:
- Find a common gripe
- Pick things everyone can relate to
- Create easily digestible content
- Create an infographic
- Talk about memes and current events
- Incite an emotion
Inman’s “gripe” comics take ideas that are already being expressed by certain constituencies around the Internet and simply put them in comic form. For example, many people get irked by the incorrect use of grammar and spelling, so he writes explanatory comics on this subject to attract that traffic. Inman has admitted in multiple interviews that spelling and grammar are not actually interests of his, but the comics get traffic (and sell a lot of posters to schools, ads for which appear at the bottom of each of those comics), and he works with an editor to correct his own use of language in those comics.
For “infographics,” he gathers groups of factoids together, making readers more likely to share because they feel like they’re learning something interesting. Inman also says one of his main comedic strategies involves taking a noun and attaching funny words to it, or taking a list of nouns and drawing lines to between them. It’s not unlike a fourth grader filling out a Mad Lib, one critic observed.
By and large, Inman plays it safe. He doesn’t write comics about things he doesn’t already know are popular on the Web. Before the rape joke, there was scant evidence he held any opinion truly unpopular on the Internet.
Inman is also a fitness buff. Though he draws himself on The Oatmeal as a blob of a man, he’s actually young and attractive. Inman has said he draws himself that way because attractive, detailed characters are less “relatable” for his audience.
In an interview with Men’s Health Singapore, he detailed some of his running feats, including completing an ultra-marathon of 50 miles, and explained why he doesn’t draw comics about a subject that interests him so deeply.
“I would love to make a comic about ultra running,” Inman said. “But not many people can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I totally know what that feels like, running a hundred miles.’ Similarly, I wanted to make a comic about snowboarding because I love snowboarding. But I don’t know if enough of my readers will get it. So I try to limit my comics to the stuff on everybody’s frequency.”
Inman’s version of a creative risk came recently; instead of just pandering to the Internet’s love of cats, he made a comic about his dog. “That was in my notebook for two years,” Inman said. “I thought, this is no good, people don’t — dogs aren’t funny. You can’t make dogs funny. It’s impossible. People can’t relate.” He said he published the comic in “embarrassment,” but it turns out the Internet also likes dogs. The comic has been “liked” over 600,000 times on Facebook.
Inman has always focused on traffic, not comments or criticism. But until the rape controversy, Inman had never faced such sustained criticism from so many corners. And even if he has admitted to pandering, comic artists are an inclusive community, and nearly all I talked to said they were happy to have him part of it.
“Inman’s large and loyal following (and their wallets) is the envy of nearly every cartoonist,” New York Times cartoonist Brian McFadden said in an e-mail. “Because he’s a relative newcomer, some of the old farts are jealous and bitch and moan by saying ‘I could do that.’ Well, they didn’t.”
That loyal following lends him a special power, one Inman has taken advantage of on a couple of occasions recently, both according to a standard Internet-attention-grabbing script. He may be able to attract criticism, but he’s also shrewd about drawing in goodwill.
In June, Inman was sued by attorney Charles Carreon as part of a dispute with FunnyJunk, an aggregating site that Inman showed to be hosting his comics without attribution. The lawsuit was clearly ridiculous, and Inman, clearly in the right, took the opportunity to attract even more positive press for The Oatmeal, leveraging his audience to accumulate over $200,000 in charity donations to the American Cancer Society and National Wildlife Federation. It’s not entirely clear what the sudden charity push had to do with the lawsuit, but after the money had been donated online, Inman withdrew a similar sum of money sitting in his own bank account and took photos of himself with it to post online (before re-depositing it) to further gloat about the annihilation of Carreon in the court of public opinion, aided by the moral authority of his large audience.
In May, 2012, I had picked up a new client, the humor website, “FunnyJunk.com.” I was writing the usual website terms-of-service and related documents for a social networking website, basically emulating Facebook’s way of doing things, following the leader in terms of best practices for dealing with community conflicts, abuse, and of course the DMCA takedown policy. It had all been going quite nicely with the client being very prompt in communicating and with sending wire transfers. Who knew humor could be so profitable? It appeared it was, using my usual gauge for how much money clients made, i.e., how much they dickered about my fee. Not long after all the routine work was done, the client asked me to look at this webpage on TheOatmeal.com, slagging FunnyJunk. Excellent. More work. Happy to do it.
What follows is a retrospective diary of the consequences of me doing that work, that I hope gives the flavor of the raw immediacy with which the recorded events proceeded. By retrospective, I mean that this diary wasn’t really written contemporaneously with the events, but is an effort to recreate the feel of the moment by using the diary format. (Occasional references to the events that have occurred since the “date” of the diary entry give this away.) Accordingly, this “diary” is not a reliable reference for exactly what I did and thought on any given day, and is just intended to try to recreate for the reader the first-person experience of a person suffering a DIRA against themselves.
May 30, 2012
Today I will make a major change in my life, but I don’t know I’m doing it. It feels like any other day. I sit in the cantina next to the pool and work on my laptop. Every now and then I take a dip to cool off. I check tasks off the list. I get to this one: “Check out The Oatmeal’s post about FunnyJunk.” I check it out. The post is literally inaccurate in asserting that FJ is engaging in copyright infringement at a whole list of links, because all the links go straight to 404 not found. I ask the client if they took all the infringing content down once they saw the post, about a year ago, and the answer is “yes, we took it down, but he never complained to us, never sent a DMCA notice.”
May 31, 2012
I dig into the Oatmeal project with more focus, screencapping source-code, and drafting a cease and desist letter. I do background research on Matt Inman, who seems like any of many people who have learned to scam traffic with hidden codes and links. His humor is not to my taste, although it turns the corners of my mouth. I can see why the users posting at FunnyJunk would post copies of it and make comments about them. I get that Inman has a mob of followers who are still impressed with the fact that they can manipulate their own joystick. I consider, but not deeply enough, the possibility that Inman’s army of pizza-and-soda-smeared console-humpers could pose some kind of threat.
June 1, 2012
I assemble all the screencaps into exhibits. I finalize the draft into a decent C & D for this insolent fellow. I decide to include a screencap of the pterodactyl in the source code of Inman’s webpage and its weird, coded-in threat to “ptero you a new asshole.” That sort of defines weird, hidden aggression, and has overtones of conjuration and magic that are rather sinister. Hidden texts with secret meanings?
Inman seems like a guy who got shorted on parental affection. At this point, I don’t realize that Inman’s mom is a New Age right-wing-white-lighter, but it wouldn’t have affected me much. After all, people so reared can be delightful. But not in this case.
It takes a wee bit of detective work to find Inman’s street address, decide it’s a residence, and arrange for personal delivery of the C & D. I find a process server in Seattle and call him up, get his price for service, and the arrow is nocked in the string. Tomorrow I play Cupid.
June 2, 2012
I get a voice mail from the process server. He served Inman at his home at 10 p.m. on a Sunday night. I didn’t ask for that type of extra-annoying intrusion. Some process servers just like to twist the knife, or maybe he was busy earlier that night having a good time. Whatever, Inman got served with a nice, fat C & D, over a hundred pages of screencaps attached, with the now-infamous $20,000 demand. I figure Inman will send this all to a lawyer, and I’ll have a chat with a fellow-professional who’ll tell me there’s no $20,000 for me, but the accusations of copyright infringement and the dead links purporting to be links to infringing content will be removed. It’s always amazing to see how some people, like Inman, know all these dandy tricks for fucking with their adversaries while pasting themselves on the top of a Google search page. I, of course, assume that I am immune to his methods. Why I so assume is the mystery.
June 11, 2012 7:13 p.m.
This is like watching a hurricane blowing in from the coast. FunnyJunk’s management told me the trolling had started, a mass run at the website by hordes of pizza-and-soda-smeared zombies incited into a frenzy of console-humping by Inman’s cartoon of my mom “seducing a Kodiak bear,” the visual motif of the “Bear Love Campaign” that Inman had started to raise $20K in spite donations to the NWF and ACS, because like cancer, nasty lawyers suck, and like bears, that are good, Inman is entitled to eat his enemies for breakfast. I go to the Oatmeal and see the picture of “my mom” — 800 lbs. in a red bikini, making crazy goo goo eyes at a bear that’s probably gonna eat her for breakfast. My mom didn’t have a bikini. She died in her navy blue one-piece swimsuit right before my eyes.
There is a red film spreading over my entire mind. Something has unfortunately totally blown loose in my psyche. I cannot hear my superego wailing like a lost soul left behind by the fast-departing troop train of my id, with my ego in the engineer’s cabin, calling for every bit of steam he can get.
June 11, 2012 11:10 p.m.
Speech emerged from our need to articulate grievances. At some point, yelling and pushing was no longer enough, and smacking on the head with stones just hurt too damn much, and we had to find a way to talk about it. It began with grunts and growls. Or maybe pleas for mercy. Maybe the first time a voice kept a stone from breaking a head, that was speech. Yes, I think that would be.
But I can’t speak a word that will stop anonymous cybervandals from posting phony Amazon reviews panning my book, giving my girls shit on Twitter, trying to take down my websites, sending me hatemail, signing me up for free email offers, ordering me pizza, sending me bags of poop, certificates of jerkdom, and really, the kindest one, a free package of Attends. It’s at times like these that having a deep understanding of the universe and an abiding trust in the universe’s merciful nature comes in really handy.
But eventually, sanctity wears thin and you start to seethe.
June 11, 2012
I look at the Bear Love campaign on Indiegogo.com and it makes me gag. What the fuck ever happened to people that a guy with a website and a sick sense of humor can say “Gimme $20 grand to teach this asshole a lesson,” and they say, “Oh, yeah, we’ll do that, and 10X besides!” There is, of course, something wrong here. People may be that stupid, but the law isn’t. Inman and Indiegogo are breaking the law.
It is getting on towards late afternoon, and my head is pounding. I get in the Prius and start driving West, towards the setting sun. I almost let the car drive itself, just drifting west on Speedway, listening to Frank Black. I keep replaying, “White Noisemaker.”
“I heard a lotta talk
So I’m goin’ to the stereo store,
And get a white noisemaker
Turn it up to 10.
Yakkety-yak is back
Gradually, working my way through the post-rush-hour traffic, letting everything in my head subside, the pounding stops. I’m breathing now, watching the reds and oranges and blues of the spreading dusk.
Now I know where I’m going. I’m going to Gates Pass on the other side of Tucson, headed towards Mexico, in the light and radio shadow of Tucson, on the far side of a big, sculpted rock that has a road running down its western slope, steep as a stairway in places. As you wind down the slope, halfway down this big rock, there’s a pullout and trails lead up the rock. It’s a popular place to watch the sunset. Probably a popular place to do drug deals, too. The setup looks perfect, with lots of visibility coming and going, especially to the west. I could imagine one of my old Federal defender clients being popped here. Ah, would that I were still engaged in such unpretentious pursuits as representing real criminals. Instead, I’ve devolved to this level of policing Internet speech of various types. The pure commerciality of it does appeal to me, of course. And actually, visiting prisons, jails, and seeing your clients in green pajamas or orange jumpsuits, with their hands cuffed to their bellies, is a pretty big downer.
I park the Prius and walk up the hill a ways, just to get away from the other people and their voices. It’s gorgeous, and I keep thinking about how as soon as I get back to the office, I’m going to research California law on charitable fundraising. Inman can’t just grab the names of the NWF and the American Cancer Society and start raising money in their name. I’ll call NWF and ACS and find out. I text a couple of notes to my email to remind myself of these ideas, and put them aside for the moment.
I’m here to exert control over this compulsive thinking and rethinking of the situation. I’m leaving behind that useless process of reliving emotions that I’ve already experienced dozens of times. I’m doing something useful. I’m putting myself together from the inside out. I’m not going to use my awareness to listen to words that are intended to anger me. If I’m going to be angry, I’ll be angry for my own reasons. And maybe I’m not going to be angry at all.
In each battle, Clausewitz says, the entire weight of the battle settles on the general. The general’s ability to bear that weight is the difference between victory and a rout. In my own wars, I’m everyone from the pawn to the King, so I always bear the burden of the entire conflict. Some may not see how being engaged in constant warfare could leave you feeling any way but massively insecure, but eventually, if you take to the lifestyle, living in conflict is much more comfortable than constantly eating shit. Shit tastes bad, but once you get used to eating it, everyone will assume you like it, and they’ll just feed you more.
But how do we fight tirelessly? How do we get the energy to declare and fight wars, i.e., to file lawsuits and invest all the scores of hours of difficult brain-work that carrying off litigation requires? How do we deal with the scary work of facing off against intelligent adversaries, being paid nicely, who desire only our legal demise at the earliest possible date? We adopt warrior ethics.
Of course, few people know what ethics are, and they probably think warrior ethics are terribly fierce and semi-barbaric. Not so. Warrior ethics are about preserving the prize while fighting the battle for possession. And the foremost prize, the one you already possess and never want to lose, is basic human decency. That is what I take from the lesson of the enlightenment experience of Morhei Uyeshiba, the founder of Aikido, of whom I’ve been a student for 44 years, since I first saw his face at the age of 13, on the altar of Sensei Takagi’s dojo, two blocks from my house.
Uyeshiba was a very accomplished martial arts master, who transformed the dignified, expansive movements of samurai fencing into a way to dance your adversary to defeat. In Aikido, punches and kicks are thrown, but only to teach students how to defend against them. All Aikido victories are gained by deflecting or evading the attack, leading the adversary along the line of force established by their attack, and either tossing them a safe distance away or sweeping them to the floor, and immobilizing them with a jiu-jitsu-style wrist or elbow lock. Aikido’s been good to me in a couple of motorcycle accidents, when knowing how to fly and land without injury comes in handy. Once your body absorbs the lessons of Aikido, the logic of nonresistance becomes quite compelling.
So I’m thinking about Clausewitz and the weight of the battle falling on me. And I’m thinking about Uyeshiba, and how he got enlightened, not like the Buddha, sitting under a tree, but like a warrior, after a battle in which he most notably didn’t abuse his superior martial arts abilities, and instead, faced the danger of a naked sword without unsheathing his own. As the story goes, Uyeshiba was at his dojo when an angry young man arrived with his sword and challenged him to duel, claiming that Uyeshiba had insulted him in some way. Uyeshiba simply evaded the young man’s attacks until at last, exhausted and unable to continue, he gave up the fight. Uyeshiba walked outside and stood under a fruit tree in bloom. A light descended from heaven suffusing the tree and passing through Uyeshiba’s entire body, filling him with the knowledge that “the Spirit of the Universe is the spirit of love and protection of all beings.”
Uyeshiba walked the walk, so I listen when he talks. Not to strike a blow. Yes, I love the story. But it’s not the way I operate. I’m gonna sue that bastard.
-- The Real Diary of Charles Carreon, by Charles Carreon
Now that he’s accumulated this mass audience, he’s begun to toy with its power. He’s said he wants a seven-figure income; he’s talked about writing comedy or becoming an animator. And his peers are watching with a mixture of interest and fear.
“He’s like Elvis right now, swinging his hips, and we’re all still doing the Buddy Holly thing,” said Nicholas Gurewitch, the cartoonist behind the webcomic The Perry Bible Fellowship. “Not say we’re going to die in a plane crash. We’ll be just fine. Unless Inman takes over the world. Which he could do.”
Update: A previous version of this piece linked to a profile that implied Inman was married, had children, and holds certain political beliefs. The profile is a fake. Inman refused to comment for this story, but posted an extended challenge to it on his website.
Jack Stuef is, among other things, a contributor to The Onion and New York Magazine’s The Cut. He tweets here.