XKCD: A Smart Web-comic

 

XKCD is a unique web comic created by Randal Munroe, a physicist who worked at NASA before moving to work on XKCD full time.  XKCD launched in 2005 and has had regular comics every week since then.  Due to its unique focus on science, mathematics, and other intelligent fields in addition to relationships and philosophy XKCD has an avid following amongst a number of communities.  This and the web comics significant characteristics make this comic valuable and worth preserving.

Who cares? User Community

Before getting into what makes XKCD valuable and worth preserving it is important to explain to whom the comic is important to.  Due to the comic’s nature and accessibility it is difficult to definitively define its user community.  Rather there are a number of ill-defined groups that make up XKCD’s user community. For starters there are the people who follow and read internet comics.  This is the broadest group that would be a part of XKCD’s community and be one of the vaguest.  Another broad group would be intellectuals, especially those in the sciences, who better understand the more intricate comics.  More specific groups would be the people who followed Munroe’s other works, like What If? and his books, as well as community websites, such as the XKCD Reddit page.  These people form a significant and dedicated community that value the web comic and would desire to see it preserved for the future.

Why is it special? Significant Characteristics

Now that XKCD’s community has been covered it is time to explain what makes the comic so valuable to its community and worth preserving.  There are allot of significant characteristics that makes XKCD valuable and worth preserving both for its community and for researchers.  These characteristics are important because they provide historical content and context valuable to researchers and its current community. (Microsoft pdf)  They can be divided into two categories, cultural characteristics and technical characteristics.

Cultural Characteristics

            The two significant cultural characteristics of XKCD that make it important to preserve are its content and the cultural impact it has had.  One of the most important things about the web comic is its content.  Unlike most other web comics XKCD, as stated above, features science, math, and other intelligent fields/studies in its content.  It even refers to itself as “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”.  This focus normally takes the form of either a form of smart humor related to the field, such as the comic “Universal Install Script”, or in a form that is thought provoking, such as the comic “Doomsday Clock”. This kind of content is unique to XKCD and is one of the comic’s core features that makes it so popular and is why it has acquired such a dedicated following and community. This is also why the comic should be preserved.  Because there is no other comic that has the same content as XKCD not only does it acts as a record of web comic culture but as a cultural artifact of its user community.  If XKCD was not preserved, then this information would be permanently lost.

The second significant cultural characteristic of XKCD is the cultural impact the web comic has had.  For starters the web comic has directly influenced Munroe to create other content including a number of books and “What If?” a site where Munroe answers questions like ‘what would a mole of moles be?’ in full detail, however extreme, or hilarious, that might be.  It has also resulted in the creation of an active Reddit community and thread on the web comic itself. Finally XKCD has spawned a number of cultural ‘homages’ among followers and fans.  An example of this is how a number of programs, such as Siri, call back the XKCD comic “Sandwich” by having that command and response function as they do in the comic.  Another is the game called Geohashing which was invented in the comic of the same name.  None of these things would have been made, or happened, without the original XKCD comic and that relationship should be preserved as it marks.

Technical Characteristics

In addition to its significant cultural characteristics XKCD also possesses numerous significant technical characteristics.  Because XKCD is a web comic it has access to unique tools and techniques only available on the computer that Munroe uses in making the comic.  To begin with the most common significant technical characteristic XKCD has is mouse over text, text that appears when you mouse over the comic, which gives more information about that particular comic.  This characteristic is present in almost every XKCD comic.  Another significant technical characteristic is scrolling and infinite scrolling, such as in the comic “Pixels”, where the comic can be scrolled, sometimes even infinitely.  Additionally there are also comics that have the significant characteristic of being expandable such as ‘Gravity Wells” and ‘Lakes and Oceans’.  The underlying theme of these significant characteristics is that they allow users to interact with the comic rather that only experiencing it passively.  While it is possible to do this with traditional comics it is both difficult and cumbersome.  Web comics, on the other-hand, can accomplish this with relative ease due to how their medium, i.e. computers, function. This allows web comics to explore different methods of engaging their community and increasing interactivity.  In this regard XKCD is an excellent example because practically all of its content is interactive in some form or another.  As a result XKCD encapsulates what makes a web comic unique from traditional comics.

Conclusion

In conclusion the XKCD is worth preserving for a variety of reasons.  It has a substantial community made up of a number of different groups which values and avidly supports it.  XKCD’s unique sense of humor and subject matter combined with the cultural impact it has had gives the comic valuable cultural characteristics.  In addition to its significant cultural characteristics XKCD also possesses significant technical characteristics such as mouse-over text and interactive comics. Together these significant characteristics makes XKCD valuable culturally and technically and make it worth preserving for posterity and future research.

2 Replies to “XKCD: A Smart Web-comic”

  1. You make a solid case for the significance of XKCD. It started out as a web comic and has gone on to become a cultural phenomena and basis for a variety of other kinds of publications and works. I think you are right to note the range of current users and stakeholders interested in the work. With that noted, I think there are also other potential users in the future who will likely be interested in situating XKCD as part of pop culture, the history of comics and the history of the web more generally. For each of those different cases there would likely be different aspects of it that matter more.

    The distinction between cultural and technical characteristics seems fruitful. From my read, the cultural components are largely part of justifying collecting the work and would likely have implications for how one would go about describing it so that others can find it. In contrast, the technical characteristics are key issues for thinking through how to make sure you capture those aspects in what is preserved.

    As a next step, before working on your preservation intent statement, I think it would likely be a good idea to go look at what the Internet Archive’s Wayback Machine has for XKCD to get a sense of what may be some of the most challenging aspects of this to capture. That would further help to justify and round out your approach to collecting and preserving it.

  2. Are there any interviews with the creator? I know you mentioned various community forums but perhaps you can look into what he finds important too and try to balance the two perspectives in how you preserve the comic (or use both if they align). Journalists and/or current scholars might be have published things as well.

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