Skip to main content

At the height of last year's confounding blizzard of cat photos, in which the Internet was blanketed in photos of cats talking like little hackers, a simple cartoon put things in perspective. It was of two men of two men - stick figures, in fact - surrounded by cats with strange little placards on them.

"Oh hi - I'm here from the Internet," said the first, who was holding a cat in one hand and a placard in the other.

"What are you doing!?" asked the second.

"Gluing captions to your cats," said the first. Beneath him, on the floor, a catwrestled with its caption.

It might have been more wry than uproarious, but it crystallized the absurdity of the moment. Last year, the imperative on the Internet was that cats needed captioning. Don't ask why; it's just what the Web was buzzing about. Maybe we could have ignored the silliness if the Internet was discrete from the real world, but it isn't. In fact, the lines between the two are blurring more and more each day.

And for this, we can thank - or blame - one Randall Munroe, a 24-year old former National Aeronautics and Space Administration engineer, and his creation, the comic strip xkcd. It is drawn solely with stick figures and has no regular cast of characters (except perhaps for the author himself, in stick-figure form), but it is equipped with a whimsical, often melancholy wit that has earned it a cult following. Each new comic goes shooting around the Web almost as soon as it is released. If the Internet had an official comic, this would be it.

The comic - the name means nothing - bills itself as "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language." On one hand, the strip plays to its base with jokes about math, Linux and minor celebrities known only to fans of math and Linux. One xkcd admirer I know - a doctoral math student who runs a Web hosting business on the side ("I've often felt like [ xkcd]was sorta written for me specifically," he says) sent me some favourites. I loved the one where the punchline was a clever piece of database code. I didn't get the one where the punchline was "e to the pi minus pi."

But nerd humour gets you only so far. The strip also manages to be humane - and sometimes even touching. It uses a line graph to illustrate how, as humans approach cats, their intelligence goes down and the inanity of their statements goes up ("You're a kitty!"). A bar chart shows how many more Google results there are for "I should have kissed her" than for "I shouldn't have kissed her." One of xkcd's iconic efforts, the "Wikipedian protester," depicts a figure in a crowd watching a speech and waving a sign written in blue that reads "[citation needed]rdquo;.

But if there's an emotional ambition to Munroe's creation, it's in the notion that things can be wished into being. On that front, he has had some interesting success. In the spring of 2007, Munroe drew a cryptic strip in which a dream girl whispers a string of co-ordinates in his ear. Months passed without any further announcement. But when the appointed time came, almost 1,000 fans converged on the co-ordinates, which turned out to be a park in Cambridge, Mass. They came dressed in homage to their favourite strips, in T-shirts bearing equations, or in velociraptor costumes. At least one man showed up waving a large sign that read "[citation needed]rdquo;.

Ever since, fans have brought Munroe's stick figures to life wherever they can. Cory Doctorow, the ubiquitous blogger and fair-copyright activist, is so taken with xkcd's insinuation that he wears a red cape and goggles (a not unfair characterization of his righteous attitude) that he showed up to accept a prestigious award wearing exactly that.

Most recently, Munroe drew a strip that suggested that the notoriously asinine commentators on YouTube might experience moments of self-discovery if the website first made them listen to the garbage they were about to post, read aloud. Lo and behold, mere weeks later, a new button mysteriously appeared in front of YouTube's millions of users: commenters can now click for an "Audio preview" of what they've written. Google - YouTube's owner - has kept a straight face and has not acknowledged any correlation. But when Google - which has been known to have a sense of humour - appears to follow your lead, you know you're onto something.

The revenge of the nerds is ongoing. Who would have guessed that a comic strip like xkcd could reach a broad audience, and turn up in The New York Times and on the New Yorker's website? But a comic about viewing life through the lens of Google and Wikipedia is something to which more or less everyone can relate. In 2008, esoteric is the new mainstream, and anyone who thinks that what happens on the Internet will stay on the Internet doesn't understand the power of stick figures.