Occasionally I become concerned for the future. The hairs on the back of my neck stand up, I break a sweat, and my face twists into an appalling rictus. Tearing up floorboards, earth and finally the living rock itself, I attempt to bore into the earth's molten core until the local council or a concerned family member intervenes.
For the last ten years, I've made my living through a bizarre system. I put my work up for free, and through a combination of merchandise sales, advertising, freelance work (that I only get because I'm known through my free work), I've been able to sustain myself at a modest level. Through my own hard work and the efforts of a few others before and after me, I've existed within an ecosystem which can support someone with a decent readership.
In the last few years, the Internet has begun to change fundamentally. For a lot of people, social media ARE the internet. Comics like mine used to build followings through a system of patronage and word of mouth via links from other comics, popular blogs - in essence, journalistic models. The barrier to entry, pathetically low compared to the agonies of making one's niche work known pre-Internet, still required a certain amount of negotiation. You had to be able to make a website. You had to do a bit of networking. You had to be able to FTP something. You had to put in a modest amount of effort.
A few years later, we have Tumblr. There are people who put all their work up on Tumblr, and don't put it anywhere else. It's so easy! Drag and drop! Their comics exist, contextless, in a stream of other people's work. They're measured by a meritocracy of Notes, Re-blogs and hearts. They have little control over the environment in which their work is displayed. Pageviews on a website are how you make money. A website is a venue to curate your work. It's how you get someone to PAY ATTENTION TO YOU AND ONLY YOU.
Art isn't democratic. It doesn't take place in a caring, sharing environment. It is a huge "look at me". We are the pre-schoolers who can still point at what we've done and get a sticker, and we want to keep getting those stickers forever.
I would never decry any service as worthless. There are people who have caught mass attention via Tumblr, and sold great piles of things as a result. There's a use for everything, and an exception to every rule. The exceptions are the reasons that others try. But Tumblr sets the bar of success incredibly low. The payout will almost always be zero. Not beer money, nothing.
When I exhibited at San Diego Comicon, the main sellers were t-shirts. Most of the people at SDCC don't really care about your comic. They're there for some fun, they couldn't give two toots about your comic. A fun tshirt hit the spot in the way that a 200-page book you spent a year working on wouldn't. And fair enough. But the pattern of the day was exhausting. Every two minutes or so, someone would walk past your table, point at something you'd made and say "that's funny," before walking on.
Funny... but not funny enough to buy. Which is fair enough!
Tumblr is the "that's funny" archetype writ large. A million bells and whistles going off at once. To attempt to "win" on Tumblr, you have to drive your work down to the lowest common denominator, collect your "that's funny", and then, that's it! It's the equivalent of pasting your work up on bus shelter glass in a rainstorm. The sun comes out, your work is gone, no matter how many people laughed at it.
The arguments for loss of "ownership" of intellectual property when people reblog your work are something else altogether. In the end, once you put something where you can get it, someone will have their fun with it if they want to. My great fear is that, in throwing work up into the air with a thousand other things, rather than nailing it down, what makes something special is gone.
Maybe Tumblr isn't the issue, maybe the world is changing. Why should it stop now? But I know that the reason I have a living at all is because I was able to build a relationship with my readers through my work. The less tangible that relationship is, the less special what you are doing seems, the less likely you are to be able to go from a hobbyist to a professional. My job is one of my greatest joys and there should be room for plenty of others to feel that way. I could never have got into the industry pre-webcomics. I don't want there to be a post-webcomics.