The Oatmeal: Why the BuzzFeed Story About Matt Inman Got It Wrong

Published: December 10, 2012 / No Comments

By now Jack Stuef’s inflammatory post on BuzzFeed attacking Matt Inman, the creator of the stupendously successful website, The Oatmeal, has made the full rounds. I wasn’t even going to dignify it with a response until I saw that Inman himself published a reply. So here’s why you should ignore the BuzzFeed piece and go right back to enjoying the Oatmeal:

1. It’s written in attack mode

You can always tell when someone is out to slash and burn when they use loaded language to take someone down. Here’s the very first paragraph in the Buzzfeed piece: (Note: all emphases are the author’s, not mine.)

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.

Notice the terms “boastful” and “unapologetic online operator”? These are labels designed to instantly brand Matt as unlikeable. And that’s just in the first paragraph.

2. The logic isn’t sound

In the very first sentence, Jack Stuef accuses Inman of bragging about a having huge audience, and in the next sentence, he accuses him of pretending to be an everyman. Which is it Jack? Is Inman a boastful jerk or an everyman pretender? If you’re going to accuse him of both, you might want to at least separate the claims by a few sentences, so we won’t notice.

The logic in the section about Matt’s history with SEO and Reddit is tricky at best. According to Stuef, Redditors were pissed at Inman for his tactics, but in the end he concedes that

…Reddit, apparently unable to resist a webcomic from a sharp traffic guru aimed squarely at them, resumed serving as a major source of traffic.

What did he do, hypnotize them? No. He created irresistibly GOOD CONTENT. The poor suckers.

3. Stuef is flogging a dead horse

Everyone agrees that Inman’s rape joke was a mistake, and his defensiveness about it compounded the error. But who among us has not made a mistake, been called on it, and then backed ourselves into an even worse corner as a result?

In the end, Inman apologized. And when someone has as much good karma as Inman does buzzing about the internet, he more than deserves that we accept his apology and move on.  Maybe he’ll screw up again later and then it’ll be strike two. But for now, enough is enough.

4. It reeks of jealousy

No one doubts that Inman has been enormously successful. Stuef seems to be angered by this. He writes:

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.

Again, watch the language. Since when are SEO experts “reviled”? Last I checked, they are well-paid professionals, who are an integral part of any smart digital marketing campaign. And as for “lining his pockets”, how is this different from “getting paid”? It’s not.

As a copywriter, I gotta hand it to Stuef; he did a great job of leading you down the path of doubt in this piece. It’s a well-executed hatchet job if I ever saw one. Stuef has a real future in politics.

5. He never bothered to interview Inman

Any good journalist – at the very least – owed him a call and a chance to tell his side of the story.  The fact that he didn’t bother to get Inman’s input is an inexcusable journalistic oversight.

6. It’s picking on the admirable

Stuef appears to complain that Inman (who has some very successful comics about grammar) uses an editor to make sure his grammar is correct.

Why is this bad? If ONLY everyone on the internet who passed himself off as a writer bothered with an editor! Stuef also says,

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.

Yes, unbelievably enough Stuef is upset that Inman had the nerve to try to make money for his clients and – gasp – for himself. Oh, the horror!

Then he goes on to say,

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

Wow Jack, first Matt is a “mastermind”, but then a “panderer”? Which is it?

I actually attended the Gnomedex conference in 201o that Stuef cites, and Inman’s presentation was the best one of the day. (I bet you can already tell that by the bullet points from Inman’s presentation that Stuel so helpfully included in his excerpt. I left them in there so you can borrow them too, because they are all great tips.)

After Inman spoke, I got a chance to chat with him briefly (no he doesn’t remember me, and we’re not friends on Facebook, although that would be pretty cool). The “mastermind” turned out to be a totally genuine guy, who had absolutely no way of knowing that his interaction with me that day would one day be reflected in this post.

7. The logic isn’t sound, redux

Stuef accuses Inman of owning a “sprawling retail business” in the same paragraph in which he reveals that Inman employs family members. Yes, that’s right, family members. Last time I checked, Wal-Mart is a sprawling retail business, and a mom and pop is a shop where you employ your family members.

Oh, and by the way, anyone who gets along with, let alone EMPLOYS their family members, gets good guy kudos in my book.

8. It takes issue with Matt’s exercise routine

Wait, what? That’s right Stuef is actually annoyed that Inman is a marathon runner while his main character is drawn as a couch potato. What’s he supposed to do? Draw his cartoon with a six pack and smirk? I’m betting Inman uses all that time running to develop his ideas, honing them and whittling them down to their very best before he ever puts pen to paper. (Yeah, I know it’s a computer, but work with me here.) If only everyone online spent that much time thinking through their posts.

9. More picking on the admirable

Stuef concedes that Inman gives to charity, but sneers even at that effort, because Inman was publicly gleeful about beating back a ridiculous lawsuit earlier this year. At least Stuef had the decency to concede that the lawsuit against Inman was baseless.

That’s great use of another persuasive copywriting trick, by the way. Always concede something to the competition so as to bolster the reader’s trust in your argument. I told you Stuef had a future in politics.

10. It leaves out critical detail

And what of Inman’s spectacular fundraising effort on behalf of the Tesla Museum? About this, Stuef is mum. Apparently, he couldn’t think of anything bad to say about Inman’s rescue of Nikola Tesla’s memory for the non-techie public. So he just didn’t mention it at all.

So, let’s recap. The real reason Stuef is pissed is because Matt Inman is young, smart, funny, fit, (somewhat) rich, famous-ish, and exceedingly successful in his chosen field. Hmmm, come to think of it, if I wasn’t so busy lining my office walls with Inman’s hilarious comics, I’d probably hate him too.