xkcd: Embodying Nerd Culture to Rule the Web Comics Universe

Geek humor and the web go together like airline jokes and comedy clubs. One of the first tech-themed comics, NetBoy, debuted in 1994 and featured stick figures commenting on Internet culture. Nineteen years and countless binary jokes later, the most popular comic on the web is xkcd, a strip featuring … stick figures commenting on Internet culture.
In a web where Justin Bieber is the king of Twitter and YouTube’s comedy section is dominated by babies—human and panda—it’s hard to argue that nerds still rule the conversation. But with his steady regimen of math jokes, physics jokes, and antisocial optimism, xkcd creator Randall Munroe, a former NASA roboticist, scores traffic numbers in NBC.com or Oprah.com territory.
One key to the strip’s success may be that it doesn’t just comment on nerd culture, it embodies nerd culture. To begin with, it’s covered by a Creative Commons license that encourages redistribution and remixing. As a result, many xkcd strips have been transformed. A 2010 comic called “Hell” inspired an actual videogame that’s both playable and infuriating.
Munroe also embraces the geek aesthetic by doing novel, weird stuff for the sake of novelty and weirdness. His 2008 strip “Geohashing” initially appears to be of interest only to fans of both cryptography and orienteering, but it’s really the key to a series of fan meetups that continue to this day. Last year he published “Click and Drag,” which at first glance seems to be just a bit of wistful philosophy. But the final panel is a window onto a massive image, 46 feet wide at 300 dpi, that can be explored by … clicking and dragging. One reader remixed it into a zoomable version, while someone else published code to navigate it via keyboard. Meanwhile, the Explain xkcd wiki has an exhaustive walkthrough.
By commenting on the web, xkcd becomes a part of it in a way that most web comics don’t even approach. Munroe’s work triggers significant spikes in Google search trends, and Wikipedia even has a special guide for adding xkcd refs to articles. The relationship between the strip and the web has become symbiotic, with each feeding and enriching the other. Which explains all the jokes about recursion.

By Lore Sjöberg

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