New technology is having a big impact on our consumption and appreciation of art and news
Let me introduce you to xkcd, a web series of comics about stick figures being geeky (sample comic above). It’s a weird story with xkcd. The website is spartan and ugly, and if you want to be charitable, you can call the drawing style mediocre. You’d think there’s no way this thing can take off, and yet xkcd is one of the biggest things on the internet today. It won dozens of prestigious awards, and for a good reason: If you’re a geek, xkcd can make you laugh to tears.
Yet when xkcd first started getting recognition, it got howls of protests and resentment from traditional comedy artists who couldn’t believe that people are prefering doodles over their elaborate work, work like this:
And yet they did..
I was thinking of xkcd when I read an internet post criticizing the success of my friend Maya Zankoul and condescendingly judging her work as overrated and undeserving. To double down, the same people wrote a follow up post about “real” illustrators in Lebanon, naively propagating the belief that “real” art should somehow be elaborate and weighty.
Their posts reminded me of some phrases I keep hearing:
- Back in the day, people listend to “real” music, by “real” singers like Oum Kulthum who sang 70-minute songs over elaborate orchestras, unlike that crap you kids listen to nowadays
- Back in the day, people read “real” articles, unlike that twitter noise you like to indulge in
- Back in the day, people ate “real” food, unlike that bizarre raw fish and rice thingy that comes in boxes
- Back in the day, people took “real” photos with “real” cameras, what’s up with the square filtered photos and tiny camera sensors?
The list goes on and on. Critics choose to perceive these changes as a reduction in quality, a step back from the good old days, and maybe they’re right. But they fail to grasp that these changes are also reflections of changes in the way people live. If you’re standing in line to buy coffee, you’d rather read tweets than read the latest IMF report. You’d also rather take a quick photo with your iPhone and share it instantly than lug around a monstrous lense. Also if you’re an illustrator who wants to produce stuff to be shared on the internet, you’d be smart not to spend 40 hours just refining the details.
The world is busy and the distractions are endless. There is a general step away from the weighty, the elaborate and the complicated. People want to share lighthearted, casual, funny and approachable stuff. They want the stuff that is good enough to share and they want to move on. They want a quick laugh, they don’t want to think too much, they don’t want to have fine cuisine on the run, they can’t digest it. In many ways, Maya Zankoul’s illustrations capture the spirit of this age.
Blog Baladi vs the Daily Star
I was chatting with my friend Najib, author of Blog Baladi, a casual blog about lighthearted lebanese news (those words again). I half-jokingly told him that Maya Zankoul is the Blog Baladi of Illustrators. I saw that connection in my mind because I remember all the criticism that Blog Baladi got on twitter when it was nominated for (and eventually won) the “Blog of the year” award in Lebanon. Someone actually told me: “The Daily Star is free on the internet, why would anyone want to read Blog Baladi instead?”. That is very similar to the criticism leveled against Maya Zankoul: We have “real” illustrators out there, they say, why on earth would people want to use her stuff?
And yet they do. And they read Blog Baladi in their thousands, and they take instagram photos and they tweet and they enjoy eating sushi while reading xkcd. Just deal with it…