Once upon a time, I had a thought: comics are the union of words and pictures, and Facebook is just a collection of words and pictures.
Does that mean that Facebook is “comics”?

While pursing my MFA in writing from CSULA, I took an independent study course so I could examine that question in an academic setting.

I used Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics as a starting point, and came to some interesting conclusions that I published in the paper below.

(Just a quick note, please forgive some of the strange image sizes.  They were created to be printed at 8.5×11 and thus reproduce strangely in this space.)

[A second note: unfortunately, comments are turned off due to too much spam.  But if you are interested in continuing this conversation, I’d love to hear your thoughts.  Please e-mail me at SuperSearnold@yahoo.com.]

 

The Secret Of Facebook: Is Facebook Comics?

by Searnold

 

Comics are a medium that often receive a bad reputation.  In 1954, psychiatrist Fredric Wertham published an extremely popular book titled Seduction of the Innocent which exclaimed that comics were worthless filth with bad morals that were teaching children to become homosexuals.  In the 1966 television version of “Batman,” Adam West’s portrayal of Batman as a hokey character with a cheesy outfit and lame sound effects forever tainted the popular conception of the content inside comic books.  However, in 1993, Scott McCloud published a book titled Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art which set out to define comics as a medium, ignoring the traditional stereotypes most associated with the content inside a comic book.  McCloud’s seminal work will serve as a launching point for this paper wherein I will examine whether or not the social media platform Facebook is itself actually an expansive interactive comic.

Upon initial inspection, the contention that Facebook would count as comics may seem ridiculous.  Most people would never think of the two as being related in any way.  However, I believe a closer inspection will reveal many similarities.  In fact, through the course of this paper, I will show definitively that Facebook does fit into Scott McCloud’s definition of comics as a medium.  Keep in mind that McCloud himself said, “Our attempts to define comics are an on-going process which won’t end anytime soon.  A new generation will no doubt reject whatever this one finally decides to accept and try once more to re-invent comics.  And so they should.  Here’s to the great debate!” (23).

Let’s begin with Scott McCloud’s conclusion.  He warns us that, “The first step in any such effort [to understand comics] is to clear our minds of all preconceived notions about comics.  Only by starting from scratch can we discover the full range of possibilities comics offer” (199).  With that out of the way, let’s delve in to his definition: “Juxtaposed pictorial and other images in deliberate sequence, intended to convey information and/or produce an aesthetic response in the viewer” (9).  Does Facebook qualify under this definition?  To decide, let’s take a look at the home page created by a single user’s posts.  (In this case, I shall be using myself as an example.)

FB001

FB002

FB003

FB004

FB005

FB006

The user’s profile picture and cover photo are the most obvious pictorial images.  But every post contains a pictorial image (the user’s profile picture) and other images (the letters of the text that comprise the post.)  Some posts are from the user, others are from the user’s friends.  Some posts contain no pictures; some posts contain no words.  But when all of the posts are put next to each other (or juxtaposed), the words and pictures combine to create a sense of who this person is and what they have recently been doing.  The juxtaposition creates new meaning that the individual words or pictures would not have on their own.  Thus, Facebook does indeed contain “juxtaposed pictorial and other images.”

As communicating information to one’s friends is the primary function of Facebook, Facebook clearly fits the third aspect of McCloud’s definition of comics, “intended to convey information.”  And while any individual post may or may not be intended to “produce an aesthetic response in the viewer,” the use of “and/or” in McCloud’s definition allows Facebook to fit into this last part of the definition via its intent to convey information.

It is the second part of McCloud’s definition, “in deliberate sequence,” that poses the most difficulty for defining Facebook as comics.  The posts are in a sequence, that being reverse chronological order.  However, this sequence is not defined by the user.  The user has no other choice but to keep their posts in reverse chronological order, as that is the sequence that Facebook automatically puts them in.  Does this still qualify as deliberate?  I contend that it does, for two reasons.  First, the sequence is deliberate on the part of Facebook.  They specifically chose to keep posts in reverse chronological order so that more recent stories would be easier to find, and to serve as a reference point to each other post, creating a context for readers.  Secondly, while not necessarily deliberate on the part of the user, that is to say, not chosen instead of a different sequence, each user is aware that their posts will exist in reverse chronological order before they are posted.  Thus, the sequence is part of the conscious choice they make each time they create a new post.

Other user’s posts also create a problem for use of the word “deliberate.”  However, each user has the option of deleting posts from their homepage or untagging themselves from posts they don’t wish to be associated with.  Thus, if they choose to allow another user’s post to remain on their homepage, they are making a deliberate decision.  If we are viewing a user’s Facebook homepage as a comic, a post from another user would be akin to collaboration from another artist suggesting, “Why don’t you include this?”

Therefore, it seems that a user’s homepage on Facebook does indeed fit McCloud’s definition of comics.  And if we delve deeper into further aspects of comics that McCloud explores in his book, we will find even further similarities.

To further illustrate the idea of Facebook as comics, let us examine a series of images.  The following photo comic is undeniably comics.  But, as I make small changes to it, at what point does it cease to be comics?

Clearly Comics (1)

Clearly Comics (2)

Clearly Comics (3)

Clearly Comics (4)

Clearly Comics (5)

Clearly Comics (6)

Clearly Comics (7)

clearly comics a,Statue Finger

clearly comics b,Notre Dame

clearly comics c,Eiffel

clearly comics d,Elevator

clearly comics e,Airport

I contend that these images remain comics, despite the removal of the iconic word balloons, despite putting the captions to the side rather than in front of the image, and despite being separated as distinct images rather than by panel borders on a single page.  But what might a skeptic say?

One might contend that the lack of panel separations disqualifies Facebook as being considered comics.  However, while there are not lines separating each post into its own box (or panel), each post is clearly distinct from the others, separated by blank space on the page.  Consider pages 6 and 7 from Will Eisner’s Dropsie Avenue, which also use blank space rather than black lines as panel separators (see Appendix A).  Now consider Marvel Comic’s Avengers (volume 4) #11 (May, 2011) which is comprised entirely of splash pages (see Appendix B).  In this instance, the turn of the page separates the images.  In both examples, it is clear that panels are not a necessary aspect of comics.  Scott McCloud even contends that the Bayeux Tapestry (see Appendix C) is comics, saying, “This 230 foot long tapestry details the Norman conquest of England beginning in 1066.  Reading left to right, we see the events of the conquest, in deliberate chronological order unfold before our very eyes.  There are no panel borders per se, but there are clear divisions of scene by subject matter” (12-13).

Another argument against Facebook as comics would be that Facebook doesn’t seem to tell a story, at least not in the conventional sense.  But comics as medium, while most often used to tell stories, do not have to be employed in that manner.  McCloud notes that there are many instances of comics being employed throughout history, besides the modern printed magazines we all associate with that word.  “From stained glass windows showing biblical scenes in order to Monet’s series paintings, to your car owner’s manual, comics turn up all over” (20).  He even contends that a series of photos taken in a photo booth would qualify as comics, noting that, “If we don’t exclude photography from our definition, then half of America has been in comics at one time or another” (20).

I also contend that Facebook does in fact reveal a story, just not through a method that we are used to experiencing stories.  Most narratives follow a clear path, with a clear protagonist, clear obstacles, and a clear beginning, middle, and end.  As McCloud points out, “Comics readers are also conditioned by other media and the ‘real time’ of everyday life to expect a very linear progression.  Just a straight line from point A to point B.  But is that necessary?” (106).  Imagine the story implied by a single picture such as a movie poster or the cover of a book (or comic book).  We use our imaginations to fill in a million different possible stories about what might be happening.

A similar process happens with Facebook.  When we read through Facebook, we as readers aren’t after the same information we are when we read a traditional print comic book.  Instead of looking for a narrative, we read Facebook to gather snapshots of moments from our friends’ lives.  But as we receive these tidbits of information, we automatically use our imaginations to fill in the gaps about what else might be happening.  It may not be as interesting as a comic book, but you understand from my first post at the airport that I arrived safely in France, and can imagine the plane ride that I took to get there.  However, because we consider the flight to be a mundane detail, we tend to fill in those gaps without even noticing that we are using our imaginations to create stories.

All the pieces of the story are presented to us in Facebook, they just aren’t spoon-fed to us in a traditional narrative structure.  When we read individual posts on Facebook and use our imaginations to fill in the gaps of story, we are engaging our imaginations in the same way we do when we read comics, through use of a Gestaltian psychological phenomenon called closure, which McCloud defines as “observing the parts but perceiving the whole” (63).  Look at the following image from page 68 of Understanding Comics.

Axe Murder

McCloud goes on to explain, “Nothing is seen between the two panels, but experience tells you something must be there!  Comics panels fracture both time and space offering a jagged, staccato rhythm of unconnected moments.  But closure allows us to connect these moments and mentally construct a continuous, unified reality” (67).

As demonstrated by this example, the majority of the story that a reader perceives in a comic book is not actually on the page.  The action takes place between the panels, which are frozen in time, but most readers will imagine a scene taking place in real time that lasts at least a few seconds.  Their imagination may even take the scene further, considering how the killer may have disposed of the body or how the victim may have warded off the attacker.  The same is true of the story of our lives and the few moments of it that we catalogue on Facebook.  My trip to France lasted an entire week of real time.  But in a series of only five pictures with short captions, I have laid the groundwork for the reader’s imagination to fill in the gaps of what must have happened to me between each post.  Just as in comics, the individual reader’s imagination determines what story they experience.

It is now clear that the collection of posts on a user’s homepage does indeed qualify as comics under Scott McCloud’s definition.  But Facebook is more than just a series of homepages.  In fact, the way that most people experience Facebook is through their “feed,” a collection of posts from all of their friends that are automatically gathered together through a series of complex algorithms.  Does the feed also count as comics.  Once again, the aspect of the definition that causes the most difficulty is “deliberate sequence.”  There is no conscious thought behind the sequence of images in ones’ feed.  The feed is more like what would happen if every comic artist in the world drew one panel of a comic, without knowing what any of the others were creating, and then each panel was assembled in a random order.  This would be an interesting avant-garde experience, but would it still be comics?

To answer that question, we need to decide if a “random” order can also be a “deliberate” order.  I contend that it can.  You can deliberately choose to put panels into a random order for the sake of creating a new experience.  Imagine if you cut up a comic book into individual panels and then rearranged them in a random order.  You would still have a comic.  The new juxtaposition would create a new meaning and a new context for each image, but as you read through each of the pieces, in an extremely non-linear way, you would begin to get a feeling for the story as a whole.  The following is Scott McCloud’s similar conclusion that aggregating images, even in a random order, creates comics:

“Is it possible for any sequence of panels to be totally unrelated to each other? Personally, I don’t think so.  No matter how dissimilar one image may be to another, there is a kind of — alchemy at work in the space between panels which can help us find meaning or resonance in even the most jarring of combinations.  Such transitions may not make ‘sense’ in any traditional way, but still a relationship of some sort will inevitably develop.  By creating a sequence with two or more images, we are endowing them with a single — overriding identity, and forcing the viewer to consider them as a whole.” (73)

However, let’s look at this from another perspective.  Look at what Scott McCloud says about this image on page 20 of Understanding Comics.

Single Cartoon - Not Comics

McCloud contends that a single cartoon image such as this one is not comics because it is not part of a sequence.  But wouldn’t it be comics if it were collected next to other individual “Family Circus” cartoons?  While each image may be designed to stand alone, once put together, they combine to create the story of a family.  Couldn’t the feed be considered in the same way?  We most often look at our feeds one individual picture at a time, seeing what this person said and then seeing what that person said, without taking the sequential order into consideration.  But if you look at any individual panel of a comic by itself then it is not comics.  It is only by collecting the pictures together that they become comics.  And so it is with the feed.  While each individual post may be designed to stand alone and may not be deliberately placed next to the next or previous posts, when all of the posts are taken together, they begin to create a sequence which forms a context and generates new meaning.  They tell you the sorts of people that a user is friends with.  They form a snapshot of a single day on this Earth.  Perhaps, if we could take all of the posts from all of Facebook and put them together, it would create a comic telling us the story of the entire planet.

Here’s the key – while the user may not be intending to create comics, once Facebook collects all of the individual posts together, comics exist.  Consider an artist who creates a series of individual non-sequenced cartoons about a single character, without the intent of them ever becoming comics.  But after the artist passes away, his estate decides to publish the entire collection together.  You now have a comic with two distinct creators, the original cartoonist and the estate/ publisher.  In the same manner, Facebook itself is an active creator in the comics process.  Together with Facebook, every individual is creating comics when they post.

Up to this point, I’ve been looking at Facebook as something static that you read.  But Facebook isn’t static.  It’s interactive.  Does that disqualify it from being comics.  On the contrary, I contend that it takes comics to a new level.  McCloud notes that, “Viewer participation is on the verge of becoming an enormous issue in other media.  How comics addresses this issue — or fails to — could play a crucial part in defining the role of comics in the new century” (106).  Facebook goes above and beyond standard print comics in its ability to react to, and even affect, the events you are reading about.  Facebook also has the ability to link directly to other parts of the internet and even show videos, taking it beyond just comics into the realm of multi-media.

Moving beyond the specifics of comics, and whether or not you agree with anything I’ve written thus far, I would like to try to convince you that Facebook should most certainly be studied as an artistic medium.  Most people probably do not consider Facebook to be ‘art.’  But Scott McCloud would.  He defines art as “any human activity which doesn’t grow out of either of our species’ two basic instincts: survival and reproduction” (164).  While some may exaggerate that they ‘need’ Facebook in order to survive, I think it is clear that simply isn’t true.  And while Facebook may sometimes be used as a tool leading towards reproduction, it is often employed in other manners, and thus fits McCloud’s definition of art.

While the quality can (and certainly should) be debated, as is often the case with modern art, the fact is, Facebook fits the basic definition.  And while we may not care about every single post (does the fact that Molly enjoyed her Cheerios for breakfast count as art, or is that just part of her survival?) some posts certainly do make us think in ways we never could on our own.  Is it ‘art’ anytime that a person puts pigment on paper?  Perhaps not.  But pigment and paper can undeniably be used to create art.  The same is true with Facebook.  While not every post may be worth examining, Facebook as a whole certainly should be examined for its potential as art.

Facebook endows everyone to become a content creator.  When you choose which of the three photos you took to post and what to say about them in the comments, you are performing the same creative process that writers and artists go through while creating comics.  Creating art is an essential part of being human.  One of the reasons I am so fond of Understanding Comics is because Scott McCloud does such an excellent job of explaining why the study of comics is important:

“So, why is this medium we call comics so important?  Why should we try so hard to understand comics?  I think the answer lies deep within the human condition… We all live in a state of profound isolation.  No other human being can ever know what it’s like to be you from the inside.  And no amount of reaching out to others can ever make them feel exactly what you feel.  All media of communication are a by-product of our sad inability to communicate directly from mind to mind.  Each medium (the term comes from the Latin word meaning ‘middle’) serves as a bridge between minds.  Media convert thoughts into forms that can traverse the physical world and be re-converted by one or more sense back into thoughts.” (193-195)

These same reasons apply to the study of Facebook and its potential as an artistic medium, comics or not.  Personally, understanding Facebook’s similarities to comics is important because of the bad reputation I feel most comics have in the popular zeitgeist.  I wish that comics weren’t so closely associated with Fredric Wertham and Adam West, but were understood simply as a means of expression, capable of communicating any set of ideas to the world.

In his book, McCloud praises comics for its ability to use artistic expression to help bridge the gap between people.  Comics is a medium that is easily accessible by all persons, and he believes, “We all have something to say to the world.  I’m a firm believer in the inherent worth of all inner truths.  There’s only one power that can break through the wall which separates all artists from their audience — the power of understanding” (196).  I believe Facebook has even greater potential to use artistic expression to bring people together.  I shall conclude with one final quote, with the simple replacement of “Facebook” in the stead of “comics”:

“Today the possibilities for [Facebook] are — as they always have been — endless.  [Facebook] offers tremendous resources to all writers and artists: faithfulness, control, a chance to be heard far and wide without fear of compromise… It offers range and versatility with all the potential imagery of film and painting plus the intimacy of the written word.  And all that’s needed is the desire to be heard– the will to learn– and the ability to see.” (212-213)

 

Appendix A, Eisner (6)

Appendix A, Eisner (7)

Appendix B 1

Appendix B 2

Appendix B 3

Appendix C

 

Well, if you read this far, hopefully that means you find this sort of thing fascinating (as I do.)
If that’s the case, I encourage you to read my thesis (by clicking on the link above that says “thesis”) where I examine how the development of a story is affected by the author’s choice of medium.

Have a happy day!