The Age of Good Enough

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…

  • http://beirutista.blogspot.com Danielle

    Brilliant article, Mustapha. Our preference for efficient rather than unwieldy hardly means we’re not moving forward. Everyone always idolizes the “past,” but let us not forget that our perception of the past is extremely narrow and selective: we’ve discarded the rubbish and preserved the glamorous. What remains is what we chose to capture in history books and only a keyhole of what really existed.

    • Mustapha

      Thanks Danielle, Selective memory indeed…

  • http://mayazankoul.com Maya

    Thank you for writing this post Mustapha. This is exactly how I feel about all this.

    Back in the days, people’s whole lifestyle was different: from health, to food, to social relationships… and also, unsurprisingly, art.

    I believe that the works the internet has created reflect our modern life: it’s faster, it’s simpler, there’s more information sharing and that’s why information/visuals got shorter and sweeter.

    • Mustapha

      Keep doing what you’re doing Maya :)

    • Georgina

      Excellent.

      The problem is that they don’t realize that these types don’t necessarily cancel each other. Theres an audience for everything, just not with equal volume.

      Oh and having an economics background, the choice of comic is hilarious! :)

  • Saeed Abu Hajali

    It’s not a matter that Maya’s work is bad because it’s new or different. It’s bad cause it’s.. well, bad. All in all it shows a lack of talent and creativity in both illustration and comic content. I also read that article as and thought they did Maya fairness, she needs to grow and develop her talents and develop. Also Maya is one of the most reached out cartoonists in Lebanon, and she often steals the thunder. Therefore a lot lays on her shoulders to develop and provide intriguing content. But seriously Mustapha, comparing her to xkcd? If someone doesn’t know who xkcd is and go off by your explanation they might swallow it, but I just sprayed my coffee on my keyboard when I read that.

    • Mustapha

      I think I owe you a new keyboard… May I recommend a das clicky keyboard? It was by far the best thing I bought this year…

  • Craig

    If you’re standing in line to buy coffee, you’d rather read tweets than read the latest IMF report.

    I’d rather do neither. In fact, I spent most of the 1990s not watching television, and I stopped wearing a watch in the 1980s. I was working as a programmer and my mind was so cluttered 24/7 that I was busy tuning out as much of what I considered to be background noise as I possibly could.

    But they fail to grasp that these changes are also reflections of changes in the way people live.

    The way some people live, at any rate. Has tech really changed people’s personalities, though? Or has it just given them new outlets to express themselves? I was watching a show the other day that was discussing, amongst other things, how so many kids are texting eachother all the time during class. When I was a kid, there were always a fair number of students who spent all their time whispering to eachother, and in the case of the more obnoxious ones they didn’t even bother whispering. Not much difference other than the noise level, is there?

    I like Maya’s stuff, by the way. Her artwork has a certain charm that’s hard to quantify. And same with xkcd :)

  • http://bit.ly/13J9Nfc Abaretruth

    Great post Mustapha! You captured the issue in a brilliant way.

    • Mustapha

      Thanks :)

  • http://hishamad.wordpress.com HishamAD

    There is no one style that defines ART.
    This is considered art –> http://paintingdb.com/art/l/10/9019.jpg
    This as well –> http://www.nga.gov/feature/pollock/lm1024.jpg
    And this –> http://upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/a/a1/Marcel_Duchamp_Fountain_at_Tate_Modern_by_David_Shankbone.jpg

    and not just The Mona Lisa and naturalistic paintings.

    What’s annoying about having a wide spectrum of illustration styles, from doodling to more details illustrations?

    Just choose the ones that appeal to you.

    To name other illustrators from Lebanon that are active as well on the internet: Sareen (inkontheside) and Joumana Medlej (@joumajnouna)
    and feel free to inform me about others.

    • Mustapha

      Yup, add also the brilliant Zina Mufarrij..

      • http://hishamad.wordpress.com HishamAD

        And Viola

  • http://www.facebook.com/eliaskai Elias Kai

    DISRUPT GO GO GO #MayaZankoul

  • http://flickr.com/antoinesalloum Antoine

    Yes, we’re just looking for simple (yet smart) material!