Homestuck in review: The Internet’s first masterpiece
Ben Tolkin
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Oh damn, people have actually read this! Hello to all visiting from BoingBoing (which really means a lot to me, as I’ve been following that since I was twelve) and Hacker News (which means… slightly less, but my dad is a regular there.) I uploaded this without editing the last section, so apologies for how incoherent that is. Here, at least, are answers to some of the most common questions.

It’s pretty damn pretentious to call this “the Internet’s first masterpiece,” right? That’s clickbait at best: there have been a ton of better and more interesting things on the Internet.

That’s fair enough. I would agree that it isn’t the best thing on the Internet, and it might not even be the best webcomic on the Internet! (Evan Dahm’s Rice Boy can make a good case.) But I’ve been online for a long time, and I really do think Homestuck’s particular way of engaging its community was unique, and important. That’s the main takeaway: the prediction. Future masterpieces will look like Homestuck.

Fan communities are already understood as an important part of art, especially online art, but both the scale of Homestuck (its narrative scale inherently intertwined with the community that was needed to understand that narrative) and its complicated, adversarial relationship between author and reader are new. I predict they will be repeated and improved upon.

Dude, did you really say that if you didn’t read Homestuck while it was updating, you can never fully understand Homestuck? What kind of nerd-gatekeeper bullshit is that? Why are you telling people what they can and can’t be a part of?

So this was by far the most controversial bit, and I definitely should have been more precise about what I mean. I really don’t mean to imply that only some people can be allowed into the inner sanctum of True Homestucks. As I mentioned, I wasn’t reading Homestuck from the beginning; I also wasn’t ever more than a lurker on the MSPA forums, and not nearly as active in other fan communities. A more nuanced discussion would have gone like this:

A work of art that is depends on its online context has no canonical version, because it can only be experienced by supplementing the main work with whatever specific sources, wikis, blogs, forums you were reading at the time. Despite our shared sense of community, everyone’s experience of Homestuck was different, because almost no one (including the author) was only reading the comic! This is another interesting aspect to online, community-dependent art, and I’m curious to see how it’s developed in the future.

That said: while my wording may have been harsh in dividing “Homestuck” and “not Homestuck,” I stand by the idea that there’s a really sharp divide between seeing the comic unfold in real time and reading it later. I won’t tell you you can’t be a fan of Homestuck, but I hope you understand just how different those two experiences are, especially in the context of what I think is important about Homestuck: the active role of fans as a force in tension with the author generating the story. To paraphrase how Rob Beschizza paraphrased me: if you weren’t at Woodstock, it doesn’t mean you aren’t a true music fan, or a real hippy, but it does mean that you weren’t at Woodstock.

Is Homestuck really not a work of hypertext fiction, just because it doesn’t rely on “choose your own adventure” gimmicks? It may not look like previous works of hypertext fiction, but it’s fiction, and it relies on hypertext.

This was only really raised by Storming the Ivory Tower, but I wanted to respond because 1. I think it’s really cool that someone can actually respond to what I said about them on the Internet, but like in a civil and understanding way, and 2. I feel bad that in characterizing other views of Homestuck, I leaned a little on the straw man pedal when citing outside sources. I agree that not all hypertext fiction needs to follow branching narratives. However, I do still think that “hypertext fiction” depends on the specific idea of hypertext, as in the link from one piece of information to another. I don’t think Homestuck depends on this concept of the singular link from one discrete entity direct to another.

I can envision a system that supplies information and context in a manner similar to the Internet that isn’t built on hypertext (it’s implausible, but I don’t think it’s impossible.) Homestuck could still exist without links, as long as people had some other way to communicate and see background information. Hypertext brought about the Internet, but the Internet is not experienced as a series of links by most, and Homestuck is a work of Internet fiction.

Who are you, though?

I was an honorable mention in the 2007 Lyttle Lytton “bad opening sentences for a novel” contest and there’s a video of me on the Internet having a conversation with my penis. Stuff like that.