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The Oatmeal vs. FunnyJunk: an online morality tale

Today, let's talk about spite, and how it's a great way to raise money.

One of the more entertaining stories to emerge from the Internet lately is the tale of Matthew Inman, the online cartoonist who crafted a novel response to a bogus legal threat. Presented with a bizarre legal demand that he pay $20,000 (U.S.) for complaining that another website was posting his work without consent, he set out to raise tens of thousands of dollars – not for legal defence, but to give away to charity as an elaborate means of thwarting his accuser.

He did it in minutes. Welcome to the new economy.

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Mr. Inman is the creator of The Oatmeal, a well-informed, crassly expressed comic strip that's probably traversed your Facebook feed by now. Really less a comic than a graphic harangue, The Oatmeal is given to rant in obscene, profusely annotated detail on subjects like good grammar, the frustrations of online video, and why Thomas Edison had nothing on his lesser-known rival, Nicholas Tesla. ("The only thing Edison truly pioneered was douchebaggery," Mr. Inman noted.)

The trouble this month emerged from the aptly named FunnyJunk, a site that hosts "funny pictures" from around the Internet. Now, this flotsam and jetsam is nominally uploaded by users; among them, a great many of Mr. Inman's graphics from The Oatmeal.

A year ago, Mr. Inman wrote a grumbly blog post about FunnyJunk's way of doing business. Though he didn't go through the formal process of legally demanding a takedown, FunnyJunk removed some of Mr. Inman's comics, even though hundreds remained. A year passed. Then, one evening this month, Mr. Inman received a letter: FunnyJunk's lawyer was demanding that he pay $20,000 for having complained about having his own work stolen for someone else's profit.

So Mr. Inman sent a response. Rather than send money, he wrote, he would instead raise the $20,000 from readers, give it to charity, and send the plaintiffs something else instead.

"I'm going to mail you that photo, along with this drawing of your mother seducing a Kodiak bear," he continued. (There followed an unflattering drawing of the lawyer's mother seducing a Kodiak bear.)

"I'm hoping that philanthropy trumps douchebaggery and greed," wrote Mr. Inman .

He posted his note online. It took exactly 64 minutes to raise the $20,000. He kept going. Within 24 hours, Mr. Inman raised $118,000 to wave in his accuser's face and then give away. At last count, the total had passed $166,000; proceeds are split between the American Cancer Society and the Natural Wildlife Federation, which apparently does good work with Kodiak bears.

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The ability to extract money from the Internet is a mercurial thing. Every publication on the planet is racking its brains trying to draw water from this particular rock, while media goliaths struggle by hook and by crook to turn young pirates into paying consumers. Then a young cartoonist with a dowsing stick comes along, taps the desert floor and opens up a gusher.

Once again, we're reminded that the most powerful thing on the Internet is a good yarn, especially one with a pantomime villain. Individual artists and creators make good heroes, and litigious lawyers make excellent curs. (Frivolous lawsuits and patent abuses are a particular sore spot online these days.)

The most striking thing about this story, though, was netizens' eagerness to pay good money to be a part of the drama. The cash donated to The Oatmeal's fundraiser was spent not to redress a particular wrong, but to take part in a protest. Everyone seems to know a bad guy when they see him. Down with this sort of thing!

Online culture has a great capacity for cognitive dissonance where it comes to punishing people who abuse authorship. FunnyJunk – an unappealing, unredemptive ugly duck of a website – is being roundly pilloried for profiting from others' creative efforts. But similar outfits are usually let lie. It was left to governments and industry to protest sites like Megavideo.

Similarly, online culture is highly sympathetic to individual creators – people with names, identities and followings, like comedian Louis C.K., who made a small fortune by selling an online special for $5 a pop. But once that effort becomes collective and corporatized, sympathy runs dry pretty quickly.

The challenge of the Internet's code of conduct around intellectual property is that it's both unwritten and constantly in flux. If it exists, it goes something along the lines that Google infamously sketched: "Don't be evil." Such a code is notoriously flexible – while at the same time, vigourously enforced.

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We know that online crowds have historically been willing to pile onto a villain, and the FunnyJunk people brought this upon themselves by attempting a meritless cash grab at the expense of a popular online figure.

The Oatmeal has shown us something new: Not only are online masses eager to voice displeasure, but they'll pay for the privilege, too. Bears and cures are good causes – but a good thwarting is really worth the money.

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About the Author
Technology Culture Columnist

Ivor Tossell has been writing columns about online culture for The Globe and Mail since 2005. A reformed web programmer, his writing on urban affairs, technology and culture has appeared in Canadian publications ranging from very glossy to downright inky. He lives in Toronto. More


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