The Secrets Of The Internet's Most Beloved Viral Marketer

Matthew Inman's site, The Oatmeal, is one of the biggest comics on the Web. Why the "envy of nearly every cartoonist" is suddenly under siege.

Matthew Inman boasts that his site, The Oatmeal, has received over a billion page views since he launched it in 2009, making it one of most widely read comics in the world. But Inman bears little relation to his lumpy everyman profile on the site, and the disconnect between that cheerful profile and his actual identity — an edgy comic and unapologetic online operator — collided this week after a rape joke made its way into his typically safe comic.

In this comic, Inman described the role of different keys on the keyboard. F5, he said, was the "rape victim" of the group. "I MUST VIOLATE YOU OVER AND OVER AND OVER AND OVER AGAIN!" a rapist blob monster said to the F5 key as it ran away crying.

Inman quickly found that he's now too big to jest about sexual violence in the language of Reddit. The Internet was quick to trash the comic.

His own fans quickly took him to task on The Oatmeal's Facebook page. "Really, in your awesomeness and creativity, you couldn't come up with something better than a rape 'joke'?" one asked. "I expected more from you."

At first Inman ignored the criticism, but by Tuesday, he felt enough heat to remove the panel with the rape joke. But he added a comment at the bottom complaining that comedians like himself are no longer allowed to say the word “rape.” Defensively, Inman said he’s previously “donated $1,000 of my own money to a battered women’s group.”

“To all those who complained: thank you for censoring me,” he wrote. “It worked.”

He had to walk that sneering response back, too, writing on Twitter that both the comic and the comment were “fucking stupid.” He finally said he was sorry, then quit Twitter for the day. The comic is no longer listed on his website's homepage, though it remains accessible with the last panel removed.

Inman is finding what big American businesses have known for decades: Keeping your mouth shut is generally better for business. Inman embodies a generation of online publishing entrepreneurs who came up as independent figures, with a touch of the outlaw. On one hand, Inman sees himself as a comedian, an artist who has to answer to nobody, a guy who works for himself and is thus finally free to mock people who dislike his work. But on the other hand, The Oatmeal has always been first and foremost a business, designed by a formula to be as popular and inoffensive as possible to the social-media-sharing Internet public.

And making rape jokes is bad for business.

Unlike most cartoonists, online and off, Inman, 30, came to the profession by way of one of the Internet's most-hated practices: Search engine optimization tricks.

Inman, back when The Guardian speculated in 2008 on whether he was a "genius...or a fiend," was an online marketer who made his name devising quizzes and cartoons aimed at going viral on the web. But the real purpose of this linkbait was what was hidden inside: search-engine keywords and links to his clients’ websites, an underhanded tactic meant to shoot them to the top of Google.

Inman's transformation from a reviled search-engine-optimization expert and marketer to a beloved comic artist was less dramatic than it sounds. Inman has described The Oatmeal as a kind of continuation of his Internet marketing work. He’s still making cartoons and quizzes carefully configured to go viral, but instead of doing it for clients, he’s now lining his pockets directly. And on The Oatmeal, he hosts some comics and quizzes originally created for SEO traffic right alongside work created originally for the site.

“With The Oatmeal, I wanted to create something where the viral marketing itself was the product, rather than trying to put it on something else,” he said in an interview two years ago.

Inman’s SEO work was successful, but he was always beholden to the whims of Google, which doesn’t appreciate schemers looking to game its search engine, and shut down one of his most effective tricks, hiding the term "free online dating" in unrelated quizzes.

With a webcomic, though, Inman doesn’t have to rely on outrunning the Google police. Instead, he focused from the start on the conversations on other, more human, platforms.

“At the beginning, I assumed that, to be successful, I had to sort of pander to these ideas that were coming out of Digg,” Inman told an interviewer this month. Digg, of course, is no longer the social media giant it once was, but posting his comics there was responsible for much of his early success. Inman said he regrets that blatant pandering now, but his comics still seem to be written according to that formula — simply pointed at Reddit, Digg’s bigger spiritual descendent.

But Inman has had a complicated relationship with Reddit. Two years ago, Redditors discovered he had been posting his comics to the site himself, and, in his past job as an Internet marketer, had posted his linkbait quizzes and comic infographics designed to draw traffic to his SEO clients. If there’s one thing Reddit hates, it’s spammers, and after Inman’s Reddit activity was outed in a thread for a webcomic satirizing The Oatmeal’s pandering, there was a veritable Reddit backlash against his comic.

Inman reacted by rickrolling readers who had been linked to The Oatmeal from Reddit.

Soon he stopped, and Reddit, apparently unable to resist a webcomic from a sharp traffic guru aimed squarely at them, resumed serving as a major source of traffic. But the damage was done. Inman mocked his critics, but in the end, when his bottom line was threatened, his business sense forced him to capitulate.

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A year after starting The Oatmeal, Inman said he was already making half a million dollars in profit a year annually from the site.

He’s been able to monetize that traffic by exploiting the webcomic model. Readers are willing to buy T-shirts from webcomic artists or donate to their virtual tip jars at least partly for altruistic reasons — unlike commercial creatives, they depend on the patronage of their readers to make a living with their art.

Inman plays into this myth of the solitary, struggling webcomic artist, calling The Oatmeal a “one man operation,” though he employs family members to run his sprawling retail business. When Inman declined to be interviewed for this story, the word did not come from Inman himself, but from his publicist.

Unlike that of most successful webcomic artists, Inman’s work was not originally a labor of love, a slow process of honing one’s voice, developing an original perspective and take on the art form, and eventually building an audience. It was always business, always a play to known sources of Web traffic, whether for clients or for himself.

In interviews with mainstream publications, he strongly denies this. Being perceived as part of the webcomic community is vital to his bottom line, and Inman certainly wants to be seen that way. “I’m totally opposed to making this a company. I just don’t have it in me,” the apparent millionaire told his hometown alt paper, the Seattle Weekly.

When given the opportunity to speak in front of business-minded audiences, however, the former SEO mastermind has been unable to hold himself back. Speaking before a tech conference audience at Gnomedex in Seattle in 2010, Inman delivered a 27-minute presentation explaining his process for creating a comic or quiz for his website. His comics, the slideshow says, are created according to a formula aimed at pandering to the broad tastes of the Internet and social media, based on six core principles:

- Find a common gripe
- Pick things everyone can relate to
- Create easily digestible content
- Create an infographic
- Talk about memes and current events
- Incite an emotion

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Inman’s “gripe” comics take ideas that are already being expressed by certain constituencies around the Internet and simply put them in comic form. For example, many people get irked by the incorrect use of grammar and spelling, so he writes explanatory comics on this subject to attract that traffic. Inman has admitted in multiple interviews that spelling and grammar are not actually interests of his, but the comics get traffic (and sell a lot of posters to schools, ads for which appear at the bottom of each of those comics), and he works with an editor to correct his own use of language in those comics.

For “infographics,” he gathers groups of factoids together, making readers more likely to share because they feel like they’re learning something interesting. Inman also says one of his main comedic strategies involves taking a noun and attaching funny words to it, or taking a list of nouns and drawing lines to between them. It’s not unlike a fourth grader filling out a Mad Lib, one critic observed.

By and large, Inman plays it safe. He doesn’t write comics about things he doesn’t already know are popular on the Web. Before the rape joke, there was scant evidence he held any opinion truly unpopular on the Internet.

Inman is also a fitness buff. Though he draws himself on The Oatmeal as a blob of a man, he’s actually young and attractive. Inman has said he draws himself that way because attractive, detailed characters are less “relatable” for his audience.

In an interview with Men’s Health Singapore, he detailed some of his running feats, including completing an ultra-marathon of 50 miles, and explained why he doesn’t draw comics about a subject that interests him so deeply.

“I would love to make a comic about ultra running,” Inman said. “But not many people can say, ‘Oh, yeah, I totally know what that feels like, running a hundred miles.’ Similarly, I wanted to make a comic about snowboarding because I love snowboarding. But I don’t know if enough of my readers will get it. So I try to limit my comics to the stuff on everybody’s frequency.”

Inman’s version of a creative risk came recently; instead of just pandering to the Internet’s love of cats, he made a comic about his dog. “That was in my notebook for two years,” Inman said. “I thought, this is no good, people don’t — dogs aren’t funny. You can’t make dogs funny. It’s impossible. People can’t relate.” He said he published the comic in “embarrassment,” but it turns out the Internet also likes dogs. The comic has been “liked” over 600,000 times on Facebook.

Inman has always focused on traffic, not comments or criticism. But until the rape controversy, Inman had never faced such sustained criticism from so many corners. And even if he has admitted to pandering, comic artists are an inclusive community, and nearly all I talked to said they were happy to have him part of it.

“Inman's large and loyal following (and their wallets) is the envy of nearly every cartoonist,” New York Times cartoonist Brian McFadden said in an e-mail. “Because he's a relative newcomer, some of the old farts are jealous and bitch and moan by saying ‘I could do that.’ Well, they didn't.”

That loyal following lends him a special power, one Inman has taken advantage of on a couple of occasions recently, both according to a standard Internet-attention-grabbing script. He may be able to attract criticism, but he’s also shrewd about drawing in goodwill.

In June, Inman was sued by attorney Charles Carreon as part of a dispute with FunnyJunk, an aggregating site that Inman showed to be hosting his comics without attribution. The lawsuit was clearly ridiculous, and Inman, clearly in the right, took the opportunity to attract even more positive press for The Oatmeal, leveraging his audience to accumulate over $200,000 in charity donations to the American Cancer Society and National Wildlife Federation. It’s not entirely clear what the sudden charity push had to do with the lawsuit, but after the money had been donated online, Inman withdrew a similar sum of money sitting in his own bank account and took photos of himself with it to post online (before re-depositing it) to further gloat about the annihilation of Carreon in the court of public opinion, aided by the moral authority of his large audience.

Now that he’s accumulated this mass audience, he's begun to toy with its power. He's said he wants a seven-figure income; he's talked about writing comedy or becoming an animator. And his peers are watching with a mixture of interest and fear.

“He's like Elvis right now, swinging his hips, and we're all still doing the Buddy Holly thing,” said Nicholas Gurewitch, the cartoonist behind the webcomic The Perry Bible Fellowship. “Not say we're going to die in a plane crash. We'll be just fine. Unless Inman takes over the world. Which he could do.”

Update: A previous version of this piece linked to a profile that implied Inman was married, had children, and holds certain political beliefs. The profile is a fake. Inman refused to comment for this story, but posted an extended challenge to it on his website.

Jack Stuef is, among other things, a contributor to The Onion and New York Magazine's The Cut. He tweets here.

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