Randall Munroe, writer of xkcd, talks about the comic, politics and the internet

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Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Randall Munroe in 2007
Image: Petehume.

Randall Munroe is the writer of the popular webcomic xkcd. The comic is known for its geeky humor and minimalist drawing style that generally uses stick figures. Munroe worked as a contractor for NASA before writing xkcd full time in 2006.

Wikinews reporter Joshua Zelinsky interviewed Munroe at Vericon, Harvard's annual science fiction convention.

Interview with Randall Munroe

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngSo could you tell us a little about yourself and xkcd?

RM: xkcd is a webcomic that I started while I was in the middle of more productive things, school and work, that sort of by accident turned into a big thing and eventually became what I did professionally. I quit my job and got out of school and started drawing pictures on the internet. A lot of math and computer people like it, science people. It's sort of nerdy in general.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngSo, you have a somewhat non-standard style rule for typing out "xkcd" which I know has caused great consternation on Wikipedia and elsewhere.

RM: Well, the first thing is, it started off as a screename and an irc nick, where I’m very used to seeing it all lowercase. There are a lot of trendy things, from e.e. cummings, the poet, up through businesses that take that sort of thing. It is a big problem for starting sentences. If you want to start a sentence with “xkcd” it seems very wrong not to capitalize it. But I really grew to dislike capital X, lower case “kcd” because that made it seem like a word or a name more than a string of letters. The whole purpose is that it is a really abstract string. Capitalizing it is sort of saying something about it. If you’re used to treating abstract strings in programming, changing case is not a trivial thing. It's changing what the string is. So when it is in its canonical form, that’s the real xkcd, the other forms look wrong to me. So but on the other hand, I try not to make things too hard on people so I say “ok, all lower case is preferred if you want to capitalize, I prefer all caps. Mixed case is my third and least favorite choice” But to some extent that’s just style. Not for any particularly important reason.


The comic

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngWhen did you realize you had a genuinely successful webcomic?

RM: When it first started out there was a brief flurry of people when Cory Doctorow linked to me with Boing Boing and it had only been up for a couple of weeks then, but “whoa there are lot of people reading this. This is a cool feeling. I like. It's neat seeing so many people respond and laughing and it makes me want to write more”. That was really the turning point so then I did it for a little while. I stopped for that winter, 2005-2006, and then started doing it again, and at that point I was picking up readers gradually. It was continual slow, sort of exponential climb. And from then on, it was just a matter of ok, we’ve hit a hundred readers a day, ok we’ve hit 500. and then a thousand. And at some I, you know, realized “whoa this is a lot of people.” But it sort of sneaks up on you.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngI should actually apologize slightly if there’s much overlap between these questions and questions you got during the panel.

R. When I’ve done this so much I have no memory of past questions. You can ask me the same thing three or four times.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngMaybe I should and then go back to the same question later and see. So if you had to give advice to someone starting a webcomic what would you say?

R. Don’t look at xkcd and think that it means that you don’t have to take care with what you do. There are a lot of comics that have the same general idea, good writers, but they don’t realize that presentation is important. Just because a comic is successful with stick figures doesn’t mean you can make it hard to read; that you should scan it sloppily. It's important to think about it from the readers looking at it, and see from their point of view, like are they going to get it. Another big tumbling block is do not comment on your jokes after you make them, do not write “this is how I feel about this comic” because then they won't form their own opinions and they won’t believe the ones they’ve formed. Pay a lot of attention to the experience of someone reading it, and keep that in mind.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngI know just from reading the forums on xkcd that some people have been critical as it’s become more of a standardized joke-a-day webcomic instead of a personalized more or less scans of your old pages and artwork. How would you respond to that?

RM. I guess only about 2% of the population is going to like the strip in the first place so I always expected that there are a lot of people who don’t like the strip and aren’t going to read it. Frequently people started reading for the more artistic stuff and then now want more of that. I don’t really know what to say to that other than that what I’m doing is what I feel like I have to contribute more of. I feel like there are a lot of people who are good at the kind of art they are doing and you know, have better messages there. Whereas when I’m telling a joke and I get it just right that’s what I’m doing well. I’m just just doing whatever I think I can do well and will be proud of and so if that wanders from one thing to another over time, that’s not something I can control.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngThat’s related actually to the next question. You have a separate forum for discussion. And the forum not only has discussion on the comic but has, ah serious business and news and sections for math and science and pretty much a lot different things. So how is that? Whats your experience with the forums fora, and related to that what made you decide to add the additional, you know, topical to xkcd but more tangential. If you could comment more directly on what the thought process is there?

RM: I’m less involved in the forums than some other people. Davean is in the business with me is running the forums with me, and my old roommate Belial.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngI hadn’t thought of the IRC readers as potentially different from the forum readers so I’m wondering if other than the obvious connection, aside from the obvious correlation you’re going to get from IRC being more technical, a little more difficult to use obviously. Have you noticed any other differences in the types of people on IRC as opposed to the forum users.

RM: Really I feel they’re pretty similar. I wouldn’t say that it's more difficult or that there is a higher barrier of entry. We get just as many dumb people on IRC as we get on the forums. Just as many trolls or people wandering in. Every community has its trouble causers and the really good people and everyone sort of mixing. I don’t think that the demographics are all that different really. It's just a matter of which medium you’ve had more experience with and are more comfortable in.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngYou also have your "blag" which is really a blog.(Comic 148 Mispronouncing) What about that?

RM. The blag is a fun thing. A project for me. as for the community on the blag, I don’t think there’s much of a community. There are people who read it, mainly when it gets linked to by something. There are people who are reading it and commenting but they generally are talking back and forth to me, they’re not talking to each other as much so I feel like that’s just a place to talk about interesting, science technology and funny things. There haven’t been a lot of posts so far. It's sort of a young thing so we’re sort of waiting to see where that goes.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngWhat’s your favorite xkcd comic?

RM: There are some, ones where I feel like I got things right. I’ve always liked the ball-pit one. Hearing about how people like it and how people respond to it makes me like it even more. There have been a lot of new ones where it would be easier to name, but the ones that have been around long enough people have really responded to way back when the answer to this was the comic about the MC Hammer slide, and I liked that one. I feel that one worked out pretty well. There have been a lot in the last year or so, last 6th months that where I felt I got things right. The one with the internet map made it all over the place, and since then there have been a few where they’ve been so well-reviewed that I think of them as high points of the strip. But I don’t know; I have soft spot that’s sort for the silliness of some of them.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngYou've had comics that have included actual people such as Richard Stallman [1] . What has been your reaction to meeting people you’ve discussed or mentioned or made fun of, or gently poked in the comic?

RM: It’s extremely surreal. And I mean just discovering that my, this is a normal person, and this is someone from my history books and I’m sitting here eating food with them. And that has not stopped being weird. And a lot of the time I feel like I should be having more substantial conversation than I am. I’m almost at a loss because it's such an enormous feeling. It makes me realize why people act so weird when they meet me, because I might be the same to them.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngSo is there anyone you’ve put in the comics that you’d like to meet but haven’t?

RM: Janeane Garofalo for a while now. My fans have been acting out my comics and I was making them weird and the fans were still acting them out. So I was just like, I’m going to make one that is impossible for you to make happen and then that can be the standing challenge. If someone can do that then I can start worrying about this again. And so I had Janeane Garofalo jumping a motorcycle off of a crashing space station towards a volcanic island with dinosaurs while she is armed with a tranquilizer gun. I figured that would be good. The reason I mentioned her was because I’ve been watching some of her movies and she’s just adorable.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngSomewhat on that topic, there was—I don’t know if you saw it—there was a website that had a fake news article about a hundred xkcders commit suicide by imitating one of your comics.

RM: I read that, I forgot exactly what site it was maybe BBspot.

Note it was BBspot. See [2]

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngSo that's the sort of thing you're thinking of in terms of people imitating things?

RM: I generally don’t worry about you know, that people are going to do something deadly because I mention it. That would be bad but I don’t think that would be my responsibility if that happened. I do sort of wonder about is, people acting out something that has negative effects on the community. If I put some kind of prank that in real life that would be mean-spirited or hurtful and if someone does that to someone famous and would lead to tension and bad feelings, then I would feel bad.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngYou did say on your blag at one point that “But remember, I am not advocating doing anything dangerous unless it’s really cool.”[3].

RM: Yeah well, that’s sort of my running thing. That was sort of a response to people who were really concerned about blame and always have disclaimers that say "by the way, we don’t endorse this". I’m like, do you mean that? Do you have to say that? Can you say that? If you say "I do endorse this" does this change things? What if I say I endorse it if it's really cool. And I don’t know. When I do something it's my responsibility; I’m deciding whether to take that risk and if someone gets an idea from me and goes and does something dangerous that’s up to them. I didn’t say well do dangerous things no matter what, so...

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngThe man in the black hat seems to at least many readers to be one of your favorite characters. Can you talk about him a bit?

R. Well, I decided early on that I sometimes wanted to be an asshole and sometimes I wanted to be sappy and romantic. And unlike the nerdiness and the romance, the asshole seemed harder to reconcile in one character and make that believable. I started putting the man in the hat, when I just wanted to say the most absurd thing. A lot of the time, I’m in a real life situation and I think what’s the most hurtful thing, what’s the worst way this can go, and have someone do that gleefully. That’s just a recipe for comedy right there. Then I have the guy in the hat so I’d put all that on him and then say “but that’s not the main guy, he’s much nicer than that” and, and I took that, the black hat symbolizes that for me because Aram from the now ended webcomic Men in Hats also wore a hat.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngSo it’s not Black-hat in the hacker sense?

R. No, it’s actually a black hat because there are only so many articles of clothing you can draw on a stick figure. I realized that I associated a black hat with gleeful asshole and that was a character I liked a lot of a since ended strip.

Specific comics

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngRegarding Comic 304, "Nightime Stories" [4]- Speaker for the Dead or Ender's Game?

R. Speaker for the Dead is a much more grown up book. I felt much less of a connection to growing up so I would say Ender’s Game. I’ve read Speaker. I appreciate it some extent. I didn’t feel as personal as Ender’s game. And I didn’t respond to it the same way. I reread Ender’s Game every half a year or so for quite a while. Probably 12 or 15 times now where it just was such an engaging story and such an engaging set of characters. I went back to it over and over. And that’s something I haven’t done with any of the other books in that section of the Ender’s series.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngThat comic made fun of Xenocide and didn’t mention the final book Children of the Mind at all. Do you have an opinion there?

R. I have not read either of those books since high school, and for me that’s getting further and further away. So I haven’t read either of those books in 6 or 8 years. My memories of Children of the Mind are that at least had had the end of the story there and so at least playing out, and being “ok, that happened.” I don’t remember all the details but that there was something to it. All my memories of Xenocide are a girl with obsessive compulsive disorder and Chinese history for many pages. So I didn’t have very good feelings to Xenocide. But neither of those two did I feel were on the same levels as Ender’s Game or Speaker for the Dead. I just picked Xenocide as the most clear target of them.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngHave you seen Orson since this conference started? (Orson Scott Card was the featured speaker at Vericon)

R: I have not. I have a t-shirt though that he signed.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngObviously he’s aware this specific one about Xenocide.

R: Xenocide followed from that joke I decided to make. I wanted her to be reading a book and wanted him (the character) to object to it and I worked out how the conversation should go. And then I asked ok who should I pick on? I ended up with Xenocide because I just don’t have great memories of it. It could be if I reread it I’d enjoy it. But um.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngBut you did say in the alt-text, “cue nasty emails from all 7 seven fans of Xenocide”. So it seems you understood that it was one of Orson’s less popular works at best

R: I can’t resist getting in another crack like that. Even if that’s not true, it's funny to say so. It's like whenever you say anything about, about “we’ve offended the persons in favor of what we don’t like here” you can always throw in “fortunately that’s not many people that don’t like that thing”. That’s almost a standard gag.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngDid you actually try the 28 hour day?(Comic 320, 28-Hour Day)

R: Yeah. I tried it a couple times in fact. I’m coming off of a 5 day period of doing that when I was rolling my schedule around. So I found that if I do it for more than a week I start to go crazy.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngThat’s exactly what you said in the alt-text actually.

R. Yeah that was. it gets to be the Sunday mornings where you have to stay up until the afternoon and nothing is happening. And no one is awake . The campus is dead. The apartment is dead. The internet is dead. And you have to stay awake, and you’ve already been awake for 14 hours. That’s when I’d fail at that. And then I’d fall asleep. And then you’re back on the standard college student schedule. And that’s when it always failed for me. And I’d always start to feel really tired in the middle of the day even though from the equations I shouldn’t.

On Wikipedia and Wikinews

R. It is interesting talking to any wikiproject. You aren’t talking to one person you are reading the words of a community and so now I’m almost feel like I’m not talking to you across the table I’m talking to some random internet mass and so you know “hello, internet, what are you doing on this page? Are you browsing this from work?” There’s an odd feeling to it. I’ve also have this urge to play with wikirules. I wanted for a while to find something I could say in an interview that couldn’t be repeated on Wikipedia.

I was thinking something almost Godelian like saying making a sentence that in some way depends on the way it's presented on Wikipedia and if you try to present it on Wikipedia with a neutral point of view by virtue of taking that action you are changing the point of view to do something.

I wanted to do an announcement saying that I could threaten to commit a crime or threatening to donate money to a charity. This money will go the charity determined by the placement of this comment in the Wikipedia article about this.

So by making the decision about where to place it you would be making the decision about how the real life event would go and how the rest of the article would go. And if you make it important enough people can’t just cling to the guidelines and say I’m writing it the best way, and if you make it something like a million dollars to either Africa or Asia, hunger relief suddenly you have the responsibility

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngI’m almost worried about including that in the interview, just because I could see some sufficiently rich troll actually implementing that.

R: Hey, if you don’t put it in the article, I’m going to talk about this.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngSo in general how has you experience been with Wikipedia? How did you first here of it, and actually have you heard of Wikinews before this interview?

R: I’ve been on Wikinews a number of times. Whenever there is a news story where the data is still being sorted out, there have been press releases but no one is really sure what’s going on, it's sometimes the place to go, to see. Information will always be being added. I feel that like if there’s a piece of information that got out there it's on Wikinews, it won’t disappear and be ignored. What will happen is sometimes there will be a couple of different sources. You go to the news sources and you don’t know which of those sources they have. And so then you go the next one, and you have a different sort of information. And so Wikinews is sort of sticky, someone with one source came in and gave their information. Someone from this source came in and gave theirs. They’re all going to build up slowly there.

Yeah. I think very highly of Wikipedia. I think that’s most of the criticisms about it are completely missing the point. The reason Wikipedia is useful is not because it has a similar error rate to Britannica for example. That’s one thing you often see in comparison. I think that a lot of the criticism of Wikipedia misses a key point -- that the way people interact with Wikipedia is fundamentally different from interaction with any other reference source in history. Wikipedia is a system for pooling information. It's where you go to find the consensus of interested parties backed up by citation. Yes, someone can edit an article and cause harm, but someone can also shoot you in the face while you're walking down a street. It doesn't make walking on streets a broken behavior. People use Wikipedia, by and large, properly -- as a glance at the collected pool of information on a subject, to figure out what something is or how it works. It's not a scholarly reference book, and I don't know anyone who treats it like one.

Politics and religion

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngNow we’re going to move on to something fairly controversial, because just I can’t resist. Religion and politics. You criticized Young Earth creationism and in the same strip (Comic 258, Conspiracy Theories) make a bug report to God. It's not clear how much the strip represents your own religious views but how much does that one? How much do others?

R: It’s a hard balance. I try to avoid being preachy because I can just talk endlessly for anything especially when someone is listening to me because it's part of their job. I could go on and on. I’ve avoided making the comic too personal just to avoid people feeling like they are reading someone else's stuff. They should feel "that could be me." If I were like this is the part that represents me and this isn’t that takes away from some of that. But I don’t think there’s any contradiction there. I think that Young Earth creationism is such a fringe idea that this concept that the Earth is young is not representative of anything that’s real spirituality. That’s a misunderstanding. They are looking at science and then convincing themselves that their ideas are scientific and then really thinking we’re doing science here and deceiving themselves. It seems much more like a delusion than anything to do with the validity of religion. And for making a bug report to God- Einstein would talk about God all the time. It's sort of a device. Einstein didn’t believe in God not in the way we talk about it today. But he’d talk about understanding what God did when he made the universe in looking at physics. That’s sort of the same way I approach that. It’s a convenient device. It’s a way to make a joke or something. At one point I referred to the “the gods” as a multiple thing because that works just as well I feel like.

Wikinews waves Left.pngWNWikinews waves Right.pngThe Ron Paul strip (Comic 367, Fandom) got a lot of interesting reactions particularly on your forum.

R: I just battened the hatches and didn’t listen and didn’t read any of it. I was like ok, I’m going to do a joke here. The joke involves Ron Paul and I like the joke. I’m now going to just hide from any political fall out... but anyone who has looked at Ron Paul at any length probably realizes that there are a lot broken things about our system and want someone who will just up and fix those things. And Ron Paul has a lot of ideas. We should just change this, this is just right, we should sweep away all this argument, all these structures that have built up and just follow the Constitution, and there are some good ideas. At to how practical it is, that’s to be debated in a case by case basis. But I like the freshness of it all, that’s not to say I’d necessarily vote for him that’s I’d necessarily would vote against him. He seems to represent actual “let’s think about this, let’s come up with the best idea. Lets do it because it's right." and I’m all in favor of that attitude.

Note: Shortly after this conversation, Munroe endorsed Barack Obama, pointing to among other things Obama's consultation with Lawrence Lessig known for fighting for looser copyright restrictions and for making Creative Commons. Munroe said the following in a follow-up email:

R: Although pretty important, I don't think that copyright, or more broadly internet policy in general, should be someone's main reason for supporting a candidate. I chose it because I think it's a good example of Obama's decision-making and what sets him apart from so many politicians, and because it provided a convenient background to segue into talk about his anti-corruption efforts and to leadership in general.


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