Ryan North has been one of the long-term contributors to the webcomics community through Dinosaur Comics and later through the online advertising network he founded, Project Wonderful.
The latter came about when North was looking for an appropriate online ad network for his nascent website. Unhappy with the choices, he decided to make his own based on what he wanted. Frustrated with the Google Ads model (pay based on views and clicks) his idea was to essentially auction blocks of time on sites while giving publishers the right to control who is able to advertise on their site. I had a chance to speak with Ryan over the phone about PW.
We specifically spoke about the values and ethics involved in creating an online network, respecting readers and how webcomics are connected to the principles of the print comics tradition. Importantly, Ryan managed to complete this interview (posted below in abbreviated format) despite a child coming up to him and play-stabbing him in the park. That’s right, he was stabbed and he still wanted to talk about these things.

From Meme.ca
So you have certain standards for Project Wonderful, can you go through that process and reasoning?
…Well we look at a site and we tell you this is what other advertisers have been willing to pay for this in the past. You can figure out ‘is this worth it’, based on information that’s given upfront.
But we get tons of offers from people saying, ‘hey can it look like we’re paying a dollar but we’re actually paying fifty cents? That would be great for us’. And no, no, that’s toxic to the network. That’s unfair to everyone else on the network. But it’s like this culture clash in the industry, I guess. But yeah, when people are planning to join Project Wonderful we do a review of their site and we look for stuff like pop-ups, are there scamming links, are they doing sponsored content?
I discovered this thing called sponsored content, which is awful. It’s blogs posting about whatever and suddenly they’ll be posting about this great online casino they found. And every time you see ‘online casino’ you know it’s paid for. It’s weird, we get angry e-mails from people who are rejected saying ‘how can you reject me, you’re an advertising company’. We’re an advertising company, sure, but we… want to have sites that are… good.
And I see websites as having an implied contract between you and the audience. You’re saying look, you’re giving me time and I’m giving you entertainment or knowledge or something, and there’s a back and forth there. Like if you put up full screen pop-ups or obnoxious advertising you’re telling your audience ‘you’re a commodity that I’m selling’. And it feels cheap and… gross? (laugh) That doesn’t stop you from doing advertising, it just means you do it in a way that feels reasonable. So would that be part of the reason why you find the Internet to be an attractive place to build a community? Because you can filter out those unbecoming parts?
Yeah, I’ve talked about this with Dinosaur comics too. The nice thing about websites is that they tend to be self-selecting. And Dinosaur Comics would be a total failure as a newspaper strip because let’s say 1 in 10 like it online, they tell their friends  and it spreads and you get a substantial audience that loves it and that’s fantastic.
For a paper, what you wind up with is one person who loves it and 9 people who complain to the paper that Dinosaur Comics is terrible. You have to appeal to a mass audience. And I think with Project Wonderful you have a lot of sites who don’t like our model or, I don’t know, they just think it’s simple or limited or I don’t know what. I think it’s a great model (laughter).  It’s hard to criticize here.
But, there are limitations to what you do. And if you’re in a situation and you think a website is unethical or doing shitty things you lose out on some business and you don’t sell yourself out. It’s a network that we’re trying to make…. not…terrible.  A lot of advertising networks don’t seem to mind doing terrible things if they’re making money.
Ryan North is trying to stare down affiliate advertising in this photo.
To shift gears slightly, a lot of these values we’re talking about: transparency, openness, not bombarding people with ads, being true to yourself, it sounds like a lot of the ethics we see in comics, in both the underground and alternative tradition. How do you see webcomics as an extension of that, or is it separate?
I think there’s definitely a relation between the two. I mean webcomics is very much an indie phenomenon where you make your comic, you put it up and you do it all yourself and you’re in full control, it’s your creative vision. And Project Wonderful is similar. You put up the code for your site, you can choose which ads to carry, you can cancel what you want, but we go over the entire thing and you’re never locked into anything you don’t want. No ads anymore, you can take the code off your site and that’s it. We’re fine, it’s designed to be flexible.
So there’s definitely parallels in the way they work. And I think the culture, at least in terms of online comics, is very community-based. People talk to each other, link to each other, have parties and get along. I like to think that Project Wonderful has that community aspect of comics by not being a faceless network but enabling people to upload pictures, have a profile, make it more of a community too.
That’s an interesting way of framing it in terms of community and I really get that sense when you form a subreddit and it has 400 people in a couple of days. In a way, this connects to the fanzines  that comics emerged from, where people would post their addresses and communicate with those who had like-minded niche interests. With that said, what do you think of the- not hostility- but separation between print and online?
I think a lot of that is kind of built up. I think… and this is going to sound terrible, it’s a bit one-sided on the print side. I think a couple years ago, yeah, there was a schism and you were either in print or online and they’re different worlds. But so many online cartoonists reach a point where they have 400 comics and it’s super easy to just print them to make a book. So you’re moving to print so easily it’s almost funny. And if you print a book, it’s not hard to make a website and have a couple years worth of material. So it’s not really entrenched camps, I mean there are some who are vehemently anti-online or anti-print.
It’s kind of a non-issue, it’s like asking people if they’re pro painting or pro pencilling. Well, whatever gets the job done. What I think is more important is the sense of community. I link to a lot of comics on the site, and it’s basically saying ‘if you like my site and my sense of humour, well I like these comics because they make me laugh’. You’ve already crossed one hurdle.
How do you go about building a community online? What are the steps you take, what are the values you need?
I wish I had a failsafe answer for you (laughter). I used to have a forum I hosted called Truth and Beauty Bombs. That was super awesome for 2-3 years, and then kind of awesome for 1 year and then not so great anymore. And it’s weird, the culture changed as more people joined, it’s not just a group of friends it’s a group of friends and some strangers. Truth and Beauty Bombs became its own thing and I was like ‘that’s awesome, you guys can run with that’ and it’s no longer something I feel relates to the comic I guess. But the thing on Reddit, I just made a subreddit and posted the link and so far it’s been great. I think my comic attracts awesome people… (laughter) and then they can talk to each other.
Speaking of that you have your big day on Saturday, your “Look at Me I’m Wearing an Awesome T-Shirt and so are you so Let’s Be Friends” day.
The name kind of changes every time it’s mentioned. But yeah, the idea is everyone wears their Dinosaur Comics t-shirt on Saturday and if you see someone else who does, you can take that as an invitation to go say hi and talk to them. So it’s sort of translating this community out of the computer and make the world we live in kind of special. Because… it’s kind of hard to talk to strangers, but here’s a chance where if you see a stranger, you can say ‘awesome, cool shirt’ and you sort of have an in and it’s this day where they’re open to the idea. I tried this once before on one day’s notice last month and got a couple of e-mails saying that they made new friends basically and a lots of e-mails saying ‘man, I wish I had more time, give me more notice’.  And so hopefully on Saturday we’ll get some good stories out of it.
One of North's t-shirt designs
And you might sell some more t-shirts too.
That’s what I was really worried about for the first one. That’s why I gave it one day’s notice, because I didn’t want people to think I was trying to pull this transparent ploy to sell more t-shirts. But then when people got back saying they wanted more notice I was like, alright, sure. I mean you want to do something cool, but you don’t want to do something self-serving even though it necessarily is. I don’t know, I kind of struggle with that.
Right, and that gets back to the values we talked about earlier, about transparency and honesty and how you want to honour your reader’s trust.
Yeah, you can’t abuse that goodwill. It’s funny, I think I’ll pick this one day to do it annually barring any disaster Saturday. But I worry that readers who are in happy relationships can’t wear their shirts Saturday.
Well they can make new friends, right?
Yeah, I guess I’m worrying about the misanthropic readers I have (laughter).
Well, they do have the other 364 days.
Yeah, one day isn’t too much to ask.
Thanks for your time Ryan.
No problem.

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