SXSWORLD November 2012


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Matthew Inman Finds Worthy Causes in Th e Oatmeal by Ethan Sherwood Strauss has quickly outgrown mere cult status. Th ough it will not appear in your daily newspaper, Th e Oatmeal's self-circulation may well surpass that of a nationally syndicated print comic. Th e site currently boasts a robust Twitter following of over 300,000 people and claims more than 740,000 "Likes" on Facebook. Th e Oatmeal thrives because a wide swath of thinking people can relate to its keenly hilarious observations about modern life. Whether the topic is dog ownership, Breaking Bad or our insecurities at the gym, the cartoons deliver insights on common experiences. Web readership does not nec- correlate T essarily he web comic world is a famously diffi cult place to make a living, but Matthew Inman is doing just fi ne. Inman is the originator of, a fervently-loved site with a following that power, but Th e Oatmeal man- ages to earn some $500,000 per year in revenues drawn mostly from merchandise and advertising. However, Inman has accomplished something beyond just being popular and earning money. He has lever- aged the site's popularity into well-funded, meaningful causes that include both large chari- table donations and a campaign to build a museum to honor a prominent engineer and inventor who has been dead for more than 50 years. If you are looking to replicate the success of Inman's site, he cannot off er you a blueprint or business plan. Th e Oatmeal is intended simply as art, the triumph of which Inman attributes to "just trying to make things that are very likable." He has similar advice to Facebook users who troll for validation, writing in one web comic that "Like" seekers should "create things that are hilarious, sad, beautiful or simply awesome." Th e Oatmeal has provided its share of all four categories, and copying its likeability formula is as futile as trying to replicate Usain Bolt's track and fi eld prowess. Someone did indeed try and co-opt Th e Oatmeal's appeal, though. to economic Th e attempt failed, but it unveiled a process that other web producers can perhaps replicate for some magnifi cent results. Back in 2009, a website called FunnyJunk hosted some Inman comics without asking for permission. Th is begat a public argument between the two parties that resulted in FunnyJunk sending Inman a letter that demanded $20,000 under threat of lawsuit. Exasperated and annoyed, Inman asked his readers to help raise that exact amount, but only for the purpose of donating it to the American Cancer Society. 20 SXSW ORLD / N OVEMBER 2012 Th e results were stunning, especially to Inman himself. "I couldn't sleep at night because I was so excited about refreshing the site," he recalls. Th e Oatmeal's adoring fans raised over $200,000 in a mere month. Half the money was pledged to the American Cancer Society and half was given to the National Wildlife Federation. Th us, a negative situation revealed an untapped bounty of Internet charity. FunnyJunk's lawyer voluntarily dismissed the suit in 2012. Th e Illustration courtesy of Matthew Inman could be the leveraging of an artist's popularity into something bigger than merely perpetuating his or her fame. In this instance, the legacy may be elevating a historical fi gure out of obscurity into a higher level of prominence. Th e Internet can feel like one big, frenetic competition for attention spans among content producers, but if a cartoonist can pen one of his- tory's later drafts, then possibilities abound. Matthew Inman's eff orts can remind content purveyors that they possess the that the State of New York would match funds. Th e readers responded en masse, forking over $1 million dollars in just nine days. Th e museum project is underway, and it helps augment the possibility that Tesla will be featured someday in children's textbooks. Th is episode may also show that the future of online fundraising power to do something better than just being seen. ■ Matthew Inman will be a keynote speaker at SXSW Interac- tive 2013. Check for more details, coming soon. further proven with Inman's campaign to fund a museum that honors electrical inventor Nikola Tesla. Inman explained the appeal of helping the inchoate Tesla Science Center at Wardenclyff e (located on New York's Long Island) get off the ground: "People who know Tesla now still see him as an unsung hero. Someone who was ignored, and someone who suff ered … Th is guy went to his grave broke, and most history books never men- tion him. So when this museum popped up, it was a chance for the Internet to cement a dif- ferent legacy." Inman directed readers to an older comic on how Tesla was "the greatest geek who ever lived," and beseeched them to donate, with the added bonus that readership is a resource that can change the world beyond providing rent payment for an author or artist. Th is charitable capacity was incident demonstrated

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