TiVO Is The Opiate of the Masses

And if I needed any additional convincing to put my video stuff into an RSS feed, news from the Consumer Electronics Show says that TiVO will soon support RSS-based video via its set-top boxes. Mmm…okay: it turns out that you can’t simply tap in a URL and download content directly. You have to set it up via desktop software.

…Which costs $25.

…And which only runs on Windows.


But it sure serves as a reminder that most decisions about publishing content electronically come down to the simple question “Do you want people to be able to read/hear/view this, or don’t you?” If that really is your goal, then any tech that gives people more options without putting any more stress on your workday is an easy Yes.

Of course, it’d be different if steering traffic to a specific website were part of my business plan. Or if I had, you know, a business plan. Still, blocking off most of those big, brightly-lit four-lane blacktops to your creations has to be a tough choice.

I get a dose of this reality every morning when I read my daily comics. There’s a terrific little app called Comictastic. All you need to do is give it the RSS feeds of all of your favorite online comics and hey-presto, it’ll download them every morning and combine them together into a single, easy-to-read window. If the strip doesn’t have a feed, no problem…probably. It can apply a bunch of different recipes to a webpage’s HTML content to “scrape” the strip’s JPEG and add it to your library.

You’ll note that the app’s webpage boasts a rather glowing review from yours truly. When I published that column (along with recommendations of similar apps for Windows) boy did I get it from artists. I can understand why. If I view a strip via Comictastic, the person paying for the web hosting gets to foot the bill for the delivery without getting credit for any ad views, or getting a chance to advertise a tee shirt or a trade paperback at me.

“It’s like stealing!” they said, along with certain disparaging remarks about the number and arrangement of chromosomes in my DNA.

Understandable…but wrong. When you publish something on the Web, you’ve made an implied license to the user that they’re free to use any app they wish to view the content. Republishing that content is completely verboten — IE, you can’t establish a webservice that does the exact same thing as Comictastic, slaps the strips onto a new page, and embroiders it with new ads — but at its heart, Comictastic is nothing more than a specialized browser.

(That’s not just my opinion; it’s also the legal opinion of intellectual-property attorneys I consulted.)

But that’s not the larger point. The real matter at hand is that same simple question: “As a creator, should I make my strip easier for people to read, or should I make it harder?”

Artists who felt seriously minused by Comictastic (and its ilk) went and did something about it, as was their right. Some of them added a new script to their webserver that effectively hid the strip from any “rule”-based retrieval tool. Others simply shrugged and embedded ads under the artwork, or they went all-out and added an RSS feed.

It’s kind of interesting that this most freewheeling community of creative people reacted to Comictastic the same way as the music industry has been reacting to digital downloads. Many circled the wagons and tried to reduce the number of options available to the consumer. Others acknowledged that the world is not a made-to-order affair, and that if the new rules are “embrace and extend” then sometimes the right thing to do is to hold your nose and start selling your music without DRM.

I have dozens and dozens of strips bookmarked, ranging from hugely-successful syndicated daily newspaper strips to crude but funny strips created with some free graphics app that came preinstalled on the artist’s PC. In recent months, more and more of those strips have dropped off of Comictastic’s radar. Instead of the cozy domestic hijinx of Hi and Lois, I am presented with a black triangle with an exclamation mark inside it: for whatever reason, Comictastic was unable to retrieve today’s strip.

What do I do when another strip joins the Dead Pool? I look for another source. Some of these strips were bookmarked back during the Bush Adminstration, if you can imagine. Maybe the creator has moved to a blog-style site with an RSS feed. If I discover a feed for the strip, I subscribe to it in Google Reader. Which is a big upgrade…that way, I can read it on my iPhone, too. It’s a big win for the creator, too, because I’m perfectly content to view all of the content in the feed. Go ahead and stick in an ad for your new propellor beanie I shan’t avert my eyes.

But what happens if everything craps out and I find that the only way to keep reading this strip is to visit the creator’s website?

Well, I stop reading the strip. Simple as that.

And I’m not making any sort of a Statement by doing so. It’s just a simple cop to reality: I cannot train myself to open fifty bookmarks every morning to get my daily comics. I’m not even particularly motivated in throwing together an AppleScript or an Automator action that would do that for me automagically.

If the strip is one one of the great online newspaper comix pags (such as the Seattle Post-Intelligencer or Yahoo! News, which pay the fees for the commercially-syndicated strips), its in there with a chance, at least. Two URLs? Okay, I can handle that. But though creators of all kinds of web content can have all kinds of truly sensible reasons for not syndicating, they ultimately have to be okay with the idea of losing a regular reader…who stops tuning in for reasons that are just as sensible.

“Get it for free” will trump “You gotta pay for it” nearly every time. That’s been well-documented. But the strength of “Reliable and effortless” over “Fiddly and complicated” is also pretty damned clear.

3 thoughts on “TiVO Is The Opiate of the Masses

  1. Scott

    “I’m not even particularly motivated in throwing together an AppleScript or an Automator action that would do that for me automagically.”

    Andy, in case you or your readers are truly interested in this and are unaware… Safari will do this for you IF you have a folder in the bookmarks bar and mark the check box in the Auto-Click column. For me, this opens my comics up in tabs and I just CMD+W them away until the job’s done. iPhone says “NO!” to this compatibility. Such is life. Some comics though, I just won’t give up on no matter what their creators do.

  2. KD

    I agree, Andy. When content creators put up roadblocks, even the tiny but annoying kind, the road to their content is BLOCKED. And I am not up to building a four-wheel drive Jeep to get to it. I am especially not interested in buying a Windoze machine to view/read/listen to it either. Content creators can read the hype by Microsoft about all the Windoze machines out there, but actually, there are more and more smartphone/Kindle/Nokia tablets out there accessing the web and less and less desktops accessing the web, especially corporate Windows desktops with tough firewalls. I hope those content providers (like broadcast television channels) are happy with their aging and dwindling market. The young and nimble are elsewhere amusing themselves.

  3. ShameyReed

    Sorry to get all Huckabee on you but election years inspire me to at least try and understand how folks in the big flat part of the country think– so lets look for the evangelical pov on this issue of disseminating to the masses.

    Now I believe that Sister Mary Catherine told us wee sunday schoolers that when the disciples of JC were filled with the holy spirit- that they began to speak-with-other-tongues, ie. they were instantly understood by total foreigners.

    Hmm….now I wonder how successful that nascent religious movement would have been if the holy spirit had manifested itself in the disciples as a badassed, brimstone backed DRM instead?

    Ok, so that’s as far as I am going to go to understand red state logic.

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