Update: I've added some comments from Scott Adams that came in by email after this posted.
How does a comic strip upgrade to Web 2.0?
The answer may well be the direction that Dilbert creator Scott Adams and his distributor, United Media, have chosen with a relaunch of the iconic strip's Web site, Dilbert.com.
Adams and United Media are now inviting Dilbert fans to the site for a series of new interactive features.
The most interesting of these is a three-pronged approach to what is being called "mashups": giving readers the ability to create their own versions of Dilbert strips.
There are three ways this works. The first, known as "punch line," will allow readers to write their own ending to an original Dilbert comic, adding new words to the drawing for the last frame of the strip. This is a lot like the New Yorker magazine's cartoon caption contest, except in the case of Dilbert.com, it's not a contest but rather a way for readers to share their wit with the Internet.
A second feature coming in May will allow readers to add their own words to an entire strip. So, they'll be presented with a fully drawn Dilbert comic, but will be tasked with writing the dialogue.
And also coming in May, I'm told, will be a feature which will allow fans to write the dialogue for a single panel of a Dilbert strip and then share it with others, who will then write for the remaining panels. Adams himself is expected to randomly write dialogue for strips.
This is the bulk of the Web 2.0-ish elements of the relaunched site, according to United Media. There will also be access to animated versions of existing Dilbert strips, as well as free access to the Dilbert archives, for now just back to 2001, and later, to the cartoon's entire history. That's nice since, as I understand it, the archives have traditionally only stretched back 30 days.
I asked Adams why he and United Media are opening up the Dilbert intellectual property like this, and he sent me a response by email: "We're accepting the realities of IP on the Internet, and trying to get ahead of the curve. People already alter Dilbert strips and distribute them. If we make it easy and legal to do so, and drive more traffic to Dilbert.com in the process, everyone wins. Plus it's a lot of fun to see what people come up with in the mashups."
To me, it's great that everyone will be able to get free access to the Dilbert archives, but I have to say that the interactive part of this news is what has me more excited.
It's not like enterprising Dilbert fans--read: people who know how to use Photoshop--couldn't already effectively do what is now on offer on Dilbert.com, but for the rest of the world, it's pretty cool that the site is now going to make it fairly simple.
I do wonder, however, how users will employ the interactive features. Surely, most will do so in the most benign ways, but there are always going to be people who take advantage of such systems.
That's why I predict a lot of rather obscene or objectionable Dilbert cartoons are going to begin floating around the Web in the near future. After all, it is oh-so simple to throw in your own text and distribute it to anyone you want. That means that if you write something libelous or racist or sexist you can distribute it as a Dilbert comic, and I'm not sure what can be done to stop you.
Still, that's a danger with much of what goes on under the Web 2.0 rubric, so I suppose Adams and the suits behind Dilbert probably figured they were protected by the law and wouldn't face any recriminations if someone in, say, a presidential campaign, uses Dilbert.com to make an unauthorized strip slamming their opponent.
But we shall see, won't we?
For his part, Adams doesn't see much danger.
"Anyone can already modify a Dilbert strip to make it offensive," Adams told me by email, "and email it to friends--it happens often. Our mashup system has some profanity filters, and users can flag content they find offensive. There will be leakage, but it's not the end of the world."