Monday, 28 March 2016

Three Benefits of Obscurity

I spent the majority of my Easter long weekend writing the usual 2,000 words for my Sunday serial, followed by writing, drawing, inking, scanning and lettering for four new math comics for Mondays stretching into April. Why? Because April sucks for productivity time. More to the point, why bother?

That’s a good question. Since I don’t think anyone would notice a missed update. Oh, someone might wonder about the absence after a week. Maybe. But my serial is currently interactive, and it’s all I can do to scrape together 5 votes. (After updating for 88 consecutive weeks.) Meanwhile, my webcomic Facebook page is still limping along at 26 likes. (Began 2012, presently at 35 straight weeks.) Why not skip updates?

Nothing to see here, move right along...

I won’t address the question of regular scheduling here - but it did make me think that more flexible updating is a benefit to being obscure. Obscure as in, the opposite of popular, in that both popular and unpopular things tend to garner lots of attention. I’m talking about the usefulness of being lost in the crowd.

This post is more regarding fiction updates, but I think it can also apply to a non-fiction column (I did write one of those for over a year too). Will you agree with my choices? If you’re in a similar situation, can you take some solace in these benefits to obscurity? Consider, it could always be worse, right?


As I said above, if you have to miss an update, so what? No one will be sending you emails saying “hey, where’s the 7am update!”. You can publish late. (I did on Feb 22nd.) You can take a week off. (I don't.) Heck, you can publish whenever you like. If you don’t, you’ll only be disappointing yourself.

Pictured: Crowd scene! Because my sanity.
And if you don’t want to disappoint yourself? To avoid missing a scheduled update, perhaps your art has to suffer a bit. Again, there will be no complaints from viewers saying “why didn’t you draw backgrounds today?” or “this isn’t advancing the plot at all!”. Because when you’re obscure, you don’t tend to draw in ANY comments, let alone complaints.

I rank this third because, as a white cis male, maybe there’s a privilege element to this that I’m missing. Perhaps lower quality scheduling or art isn’t as tolerable (personally or otherwise?) when you’re fighting as much to be seen as equal, as you are to be seen at all.


In a similar vein, obscurity allows a person to play around more freely. Possibly even with touchier issues, such as race or sexuality. My quartic and parabola (both female) have been dating for quite a while, and trigonometry is now black. No one has ever remarked on those facts, aside from me.

When I started online stories in 2011, I shied away from such topics, things I felt I didn’t know enough about. But after years of public disinterest, I decided to toy around with it. Because why not? Most don’t know I’m doing it, and those who do, don’t seem to care. (And I’m pretty sure someone would tell me if something came across as deliberately offensive.) As Shakira sings in “Zootopia”, “Try Everything”.

Related, as one gets popular, there’s more of a tendency to pigeonhole. (Or so I imagine, anyway.) Conversely, while you’re obscure, you can play around more in a variety of genres. People won’t demand more of the same. Do you fear losing half your audience by trying out urban fantasy, instead of the usual science fiction? Hey, that’s only 10 people. You can probably build that up again.

And now my number one benefit to obscurity...


I see two possible outcomes from achieving sudden fame. The first is that you get one entry/comic/video with a couple dozen (hundred?) comments, followed by months and months of silence. Leading the creator to wonder if they’ll ever recapture that lightning in the bottle, worrying that they’re now “doing it wrong”.

Something I said? Or didn't say?
One can still experience this on a micro scale. There’s usually a bump to start a project; my webcomic started with 100 views per update, now I’m lucky to get half that. Similarly, a year ago, my fiction blog got 58 views in a single day! A record for 50 WEEKS, until week, March 21st, when it got 78 views in one day. (Someone binge read, thanks to a review by Maddirose at Web Fiction Guide.) It’s worth reminding yourself that a rise to fame isn’t immediately exponential, but more sinusoidal. Obscurity avoids this roller coaster.

That said, I see the second possible outcome from fame is that you stay popular, and start being regarded as knowledgeable in your genre. Then, as more people come, you’ll reach that tipping point where a percent of your audience is trolls and people baiting, rather than giving than constructive criticism. And your opinion on things outside your field suddenly matters to people too, individuals that you don’t even know!

Now, I don’t mind if I’m being approached about art technique, or in a professional capacity. I even volunteered to be an MTBoS mentor last January. I like helping people! But if the questions turn to my personal feelings about the refugee crisis? Or how I feel about the touchier issues I mention above? That’s problematic.

Because I don’t want my personal opinion to matter any more than someone else’s. I’ve always preferred to observe from the side, rather than become a talking point myself. Heck, as a teacher, any personal opinion can be problematic, as there are people out there who can believe you will push an “agenda” while on the job. Talk about my work, not me personally.

I saw a tweet the other day saying “celebrity status negates anonymity” - seemingly, once you’re enough in the spotlight, you need to consider the impact of everything you say before you say it. That’s what really strikes me as exhausting. Actually, I should probably do a column on “decision fatigue”. It shouldn't be normal to attack individuals, unless there's some connection to their creative output. Which is not a problem for me right now.


So my point is, so long as I am (we are?) obscure, there's no need to worry about schedules, pigeonholing or personal attacks. Sure, sometimes it’s lonely instead. But other times I can get two comments on a post - from different people - and it feels like my birthday!

Plus, perspective - I’m sure there are others out there in my position too. Right? So we’re all being lonely together. Not to mention flexible, experimental and troll-free.

Thanks for reading! Feel free to leave a comment. I should go, these papers won’t grade themselves.