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Bitstrips comics explode onto Facebook

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Facebook may have a lot of uses for social networking and time-wasting, but lately it's been offering a creative outlet, too.

A new comic-making application called Bitstrips is popping up more and more on Facebook updates. And after just a few months, Bitstrips has turned into something that everyone seems to be talking about.

"Basically, it's an app that turns you and your friends into a cast of cartoon characters," explains Jacob Blackstock, Bitstrips' chief executive and creative director. "Then you can take those characters and put them into crazy scenes."

It really is as simple as that. First you create an avatar of yourself with customizable hair, clothes and facial features. Then you can pick from hundreds of pre-made scenes to put your character in. You can also make avatars for your friends, or use their own avatars if they also use the app.

From there, you can add captions and dialogue before sharing the cartoons with your social circle. In a way, Bitstrips are almost like a visual status update — users can depict how they're feeling or send messages to other friends. According to Blackstock, the flexibility of the app is what makes it so attractive to its users, most of whom are in the 18-24 age range.

Blackstock believes that the creative freedom within the app sets it apart from so many other Facebook applications.

"Bitstrips is hard to categorize because it's not a game," he says. "It's a new way to express yourself and interact with your friends. Instead of posting the same things as everyone else, you can create something that relates to your life."

For Greg Klock, 20, this is the reason Bitstrips have become his go-to activity online.

"I can play off inside jokes with my friends, re-create situations from my life or just have nonsensical fun," he says.

The Bel Air resident first heard about Bitstrips when a friend included him in a cartoon he had made. Klock started making his own comics, and now a quick scan of his Facebook page shows countless brightly colored scenes featuring himself, his circle of friends and even his girlfriend. Klock doesn't consider himself an artist, but that's why he likes the application so much.

"I was never good at drawing," he says. "But Bitstrips allows non-artistic people like myself to dabble in something that we couldn't before."

The friend who started it all, Joel Huna, 21, agrees that it's the way the application requires creativity without the need for technical skill that makes Bitstrips so appealing.

"It makes up for a lack of artistic ability," he says. "There are so many situations — like fighting leprechauns for their pot of gold — and you can manipulate your avatar's facial expressions and such that the possibilities are limitless."

Bitstrips users such as Klock and Huna, who try to put a personal spin on the comics, are exactly who Blackstock likes to see. After spending five years on the project, he says, it's fun to see the reactions to comics that were originally just shared in his own group of friends.

"This is a Tumblr generation, so there's an interesting sense of humor that Bitstrips caters to," says the 37-year-old. "This group has grown up in creative environment, and the ability to entertain online is an extension of that."

The inspiration behind Bitstrips came from interactions between Blackstock and his friends. He says that they used to make comics for each other all the time, and eventually they decided that they wanted to make it something that everyone could do.

"It's about giving other people the power to create social comics about the people you know, for the people you know," he says.

But when Bitstrips was first launched as a website in 2008, it wasn't just teenagers and young adults who saw the appeal — Blackstock soon learned that teachers were also using the cartoons as an educational tool. In 2009 he launched Bitstrips for Schools, a special version of the comics geared toward younger audiences.

"With Bitstrips, kids can do their homework in comic form," explains Blackstock. "It's a medium that they love and it puts them into their work. That's a really valuable thing."

After the initial success of Bitstrips, the comics were launched on Facebook at the end of last year to reach even more users. And judging by the numbers, it seems that the creative team behind Bitstrips may be on to something.

Since January, the Toronto-based app has acquired 7.5 million Facebook users with 300,000 new comics being shared every day. As Bitstrips continue to grow, Blackstock plans to launch mobile versions of the application and add sharing options for other social media websites.

Jason Corace, a professor in MICA's interaction design and art department, said he's seen the cartoons pop up here and there — and he's not particularly wowed.

"My first impression is that I would have little interest in creating a poorly drawn animation to communicate with friends," he said in an email. "That said, I don't think that I am in their market demographic and I can imagine my nieces playing with it, though I think that it will largely be vaporware and at best have a limited appeal of something like elf yourself and all the avatar generators out there (Simpsonize Me, South Park Studio, Mad Men YourSelf )."

But even though the popularity of the app may die down like other fads, Blackstock believes the journey has been more than worth it.

"Right now we're able to make a comic and the next day get to see 20,000 different versions of it online," he says. "It's like a creative collaboration with millions of different people, and that's exactly what makes Bitstrips so exciting."

Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun
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