Comics are truly entering the mainstream: They've become an annoying Facebook app.
Bitstrips allows its 20 million users to create comic strips of themselves as status updates, with a friend or as a greeting car; they can then be shared via the Facebook app or the new mobile app. And no, "20 million" is not a typo. Potentially some 20 million people are interacting with the language of comics in a way most never do - trying to create and clearly tell a story. Sure, that story is usually the equivalent of an inane status update, and "creating" is used very liberally here, as users choose from a finite number of backgrounds and settings that they customize.
Despite looking like a cross between Bratz dolls and Wii avatars (ie, bright and garish, squarely aimed at pre-teens), Bitstrips sprung forth from a comic artist. According to Know Your Memes, the mysterious Ba (surname unknown) was tired of re-drawing characters for a comics project, so he created a system where he could re-use customized characters and settings instead of drawing them from scratch every time. He teamed up with four other guys -- graphic designers and comic fans -- and launched Bitstrips at the 2008 South By Southwest in Austin. Bitstrips for Schools launched soon after as an educational tool, but things didn't start to take off until 2011, when they caught the attention of Cartoon Network.
That resulted in the partnership Stop Bullying Comics, which allowed kids to use customized comics to speak out against bullying. Of course, this being the Internet, this led to a series of satires on Reddit and elsewhere, which sort of undermined the point of the anti-bullying campaign, but highlighted the viral potential of the Bitstrips software. In less than a year, Bitstrips launched an app on Facebook, which helped increase usage considerably. Then earlier this month, they launched mobile apps for the iOS and Android, which brought in new users by the droves. Bitstrips is currently the No. 1 app for iPhone, iPad and Google Play. All week their servers have been struggling to keep up due to the overwhelming adoption.
What's remarkable is that despite it feeling like it could be the next Angry Birds in terms of success, Bitstrips isn't a game. And yet, people are flooding Facebook news feeds with them. So much so, mainstream news sites are starting to report backlash and providing instructions about how to block Bitstrip posts. Of course, that isn't stopping executives from the Toronto-based start-up from trumpeting it as the "next step in the evolution of social media." (Ba and the original designers seem to be long gone.)
Conceptually, there are a few factors at play, possibly intentional but ultimately kind of brilliant. For one, it's piggybacking on the frequent sharing of webcomics: People pass them around because they relate to them. Now instead of happening upon a webcomic that says what they want to say, readers can create their own visuals and text. Or, rather, "create."
There's no doubt they're eye-catching. In fact, the very reason they're hard to miss is another factor influencing their current popularity: Social media generally favors visuals over simple text. Facebook's algorithms are even said to favor image sharing in what it shows in Top Story feeds, which might explain why people feel like they're seeing the Bistrips comics so much.
Of course, that doesn't mean they're good comics. Cartoonists probably feel as if they're being stabbed in the eyes and then stabbed in the back. After all, if you want a good comic, why not hire a real comic artist? It's not much different from how talent and crew probably feel watching one of those painful GoAnimate videos with the Speak 'n' Spell voices and vaguely Family Guy designs. As with many things on the Internet, free usually wins out, especially for something so casual and ultimately inconsequential.
Maybe Bitstrips is the next GoAnimate, which coincidentally also has an educational arm, GoAnimate for Schools. Despite being created for different purposes, they saw their videos popping up on YouTube for silly sketches and satire last year. Perhaps the frenzy will pass for Bitstrips as well.
For now, it still seems like a novelty. My own attempt at making a Bitstrip (above) took more time than it was worth. There's a lot of customization, but the click-and-drag posing was frustrating for a simple throwaway comment that I could've typed out in a fraction of the time. Of course, a silly image does tend to make it more entertaining. And I'm probably not the target user demographic of 18-24. Teenagers supposedly want instant gratification, so conventional wisdom would say this isn't the app for them. And yet people that are using this are putting in the time to set up their avatar to look like themselves (or an idealized version), pick a background template, edit the caption, maybe add some dialogue and pose their avatar or add their friend. Crude they may be, it is a populist tool. A lot of people are devoting time to get their comics to look how they want them. It's entirely possible that some of those users will really become enamored with communicating through comics. Could we see new comics creators spring forth from Bitstrips 5 to 10 years from now? If it lasts longer than being a mere novelty, I think that's a distinct possibility.
In a way, this is a step toward achieving what many have been striving for: getting comics back to the mainstream again. It's not how a lot of us imagined it, but there's nothing more mainstream right now than Facebook and popular mobile apps. It's probably more ubiquitous than having a comic adapted to TV or movies. And it's actually in the proper comics form instead of simply transplanting story elements and framing to another medium.
This might be a bittersweet victory, but it is a victory for comics.