How come a tunnel between Europe and Asia makes the world news when the land border between the two continents measures thousands of miles? Is Sweden part of the European mainland? That's the kind of questions that keeps webcomic author Randall Munroe busy. He loves maps and will spend hours tracing Russian rivers in Google Maps. And he has the time to do it. As the creator of the XKCD comic, he spends much of his day surfing the net, reading news pieces and finding inspiration for the next comic.
You might not recognize Randall Munroe's name, but you've most certainly seen his stick figures. Ever since he published his first strip in 2005, the strips have been frequently shared on the internet, and they're also used for spicing up Powerpoint presentations.
His popularity means that Randall Munroe can live on his comics without having to sell advertising. He makes money from selling t-shirts.
When Computer Sweden meets him in Malmö, Sweden, he's attending the developer conference Øredev where he's giving a lecture about the April Fool's jokes he runs on his site.
XKCD fits the Øredev audience as a glove. Many of the comics are about subjects such as cryptography, the Internet, Python programming and SQL. Randall Munroe does have a background as a programmer, even though brief. After graduating, he was hired for a NASA project where he worked with robots. His most memorable contribution, however, seems to have hitched a robot to his office chair with a network cable and have it pull him around. And about the same time he found out that he made more money selling funny t-shirts than being hired by the federal space program.
What made you start drawing XKCD?
"Actually, it started by accident. I've always spent a lot of time making charts, solving math problems and doing other things in the margins of my school notebooks. Instead of doing what I was supposed to do, I drew maps and stick figure battles. Every time I had to hand in an assignment, I didn't want to, because I had made something that I wanted to keep. Eventually, I realized I spent so much time in the margins that I needed to get my own notebooks for that."
Were those drawings in the margins about what you were studying?
"No, that would have been nice, but no, but they were usually about something quite different. I was an OK student, not a great student. In the end, those notes started to stack up faster than my school books.
When was this?
"I began keeping my own notebooks in high school, but it wasn't until near the end of university that my piles of notebooks became so high that I had to decide what to keep. I browsed through some of it and scanned it, and some of the scanned stuff was kind of neat, sort if in themselves, so I published them on a web site that I owned and hadn't used for anything. I'd bought a four-letter domain."
So you had the name before the comic?
"Yes, and I picked the name XKCD because I wanted a unambiguous string of text that referred back to me. Even when I was eight or nine years old, I had noticed that all services I used on my computer made me select a name when I signed them. And every time my interests changed, I changed the name that I used. Finally, I thought I should have a name that just referred to me. I didn't want a name that meant anything, because then I wouldn't have to change names when my interests changed. However, that didn't help me escape that trap. My alias became associated with my web site, so I had to stop using it for other services, because people thought it referred to the comic.
And before starting your comic, you worked with robots at NASA?
"I first had an internship there in the summer of 2005 and worked on a virtual reality display. At the end of that, I was offered a job in one of NASA's robotic labs. That was when I started to publish images from my notebooks on my site. Interest in the comic grew quite rapidly, so I offered some t-shirts for sale in Spring, 2006. I think I sold 15, five of them to my mum."
"At the same time, I published a comic about the sudo command in Linux that people really liked. Until then, I hadn't realized that there was a whole community of programmers out there that really liked my stuff. So I put a t-shirt with that joke on the net, and it sold really well, and I realized that I wouldn't be able to go to work and mail all those t-shirts at the same time. Before I knew it, I made more money on t-shirts than on my day job. Every day when I went to work, I was losing money."
But why did you quit NASA, isn't that a dream job?
"I think I was a little bit out of my depth when I worked at NASA. I was put into the middle of this job on doing development for an on-going project with very extensive code, but what I knew how to do, and still do, is to write short algorithms. I don't know a lot about things like version control, so we didn't use any of that. But I got the robot to do some fun things. I made a lasso from a CAT-5 cable and made the robot pull the chair around the office at top speed with me sitting in it. And you wonder why they didn't let me keep that job?"
"No, seriously, when my contract was up, I was offered another job, and I hade to decide if I wanted to keep going. I have read some different versions on the net about what happened, that NASA dismissed me and so on. But the truth is my contract expired, and I didn't ask for a new one. And they didn't go out of their way to find me another one."
When did you realize that your comic would become something?
"I think that the one first time that it was distributed to a lot of people I didn't know. Somebody passed it to somebody who passed it to somebody who sent it to Cory Doctorow who writes the blog Boing Boing. He posted it on the blog. At that time, my site was nothing but a folder with JPEGs on a web server. Suddenly, I had 20,000 visitors. Those visitors of course disappeared immediately, but that made me realize what could happen if I published my comic. Then it increased gradually, and it became so big that I don't really know what to make of it. It's just a lot of people."
How important is the number of visitors for you?
"You're lucky to have any number of readers at all, so I try not to focus too much on it. There are many who compare me to other comics and find out which one is the most popular. I try not doing that too often. But I do look at web site statistics comic strip by comic strip to see if it was linked much, or if it was read only by regular visitors of my site. That gives me a feeling for if the comic was something people liked and wanted to show their friends."
How much influence does that have on what you do?
"Somewhat. I'd like to compare it to stand-up comedy. On one hand, you don't want to be completely guided entirely by what's popular, but by what you want to do, but on the other hand, you want to make people laugh. If you're on the stage with earplugs on all the time, you won't develop as a comedian, because you don't know what jokes that work. Often, it's not about people liking jokes about Linux. It's more about knowing that if you present a punch line like this, it works, but if you do it like this, people won't laugh."
On my way here, I read a book about The Simpsons and how many of the writers for the show are mathematicians. They say that creating a joke is like solving a mathematical problem. Have you thought about that?
"Yes, I've thought about how people will often say that humor is the last job that artificial intelligence will be able to take over. But I don't think it's that much safer than any other job. I've thought a lot about to what would be needed to automate what I do, what parts of coming up with jokes that follows a certain formula. I think it's difficult, but that it's possible to have a hybrid using people and algorithms."
"You can see something like that at Reddit and similar sites where people make jokes and people vote for the one they like more. I think you could build a system that comes up with jokes, but that there might be some limits for that could work. It becomes easy for those systems to fall into patterns that they keep coming back to. Which of course can happen to people too. So I don't know how useful that would be for getting fun ideas that nobody thought of before."
How do you go about it when you think of your jokes?
"I stare at a blank page and hope that an idea will come to me. But I also make notes of ideas all the time when I see something that seems funny to me. That's how the process works, something occurs to me that seems kind of funny, and then I sharpen it so I can communicate it to somebody else. So when there's a deadline for the day's strip, I think through the ideas that might work."So you always work against a deadline?
"Yes. In fact, I am not aware of any comic author that works ahead of a deadline. They don't have a buffer, even though it would make sense to have that and publish them successively. But there is something about a deadline that lets you pick an idea and flush it out."
When you're out traveling, like now, are you inspired to draw comics about, for example, Malmö?
"Maybe. I don't know. It's like I get too many impressions when I travel. I have the most fun drawing when I'm bored. I would draw so much when I was sitting in class and not paying attention. When I travel, there is so much coming in that there is no space for anything to come out. But I might get ideas that I make something of weeks later, when I'm home."
Some of your works seem to be based on heavy research.
"Yes, sometimes. Some of them are big research projects. But other ones, I'll write directly about something when I encounter it. Sometimes it's easier to write a simple and funny joke when you're just seeing it for the first time from the outside. Then I might discover things that seem strange, but that you wouldn't notice if you're deeply into the subject."
There's a wide range of topics in what you deal with, anything from sciences to relationships. "I spend all my time reading articles on the net instead of doing what I'm supposed to do. When I went to school, I brought books in my backpack and read them in class, until my teacher found out and took my book away. Then I took out the next book and kept on reading. I read a lot. When I'm not doing anything else, I start going through Wikipedia articles and follow links. Everybody does that to some extent, but I've found a way of making it my job."Do you take things from your personal life, or do you find everything on the net?
"I write about personal matters, but with a time delay of years. The stuff that I was really upset about two or three years ago, I might write about now, when I can put it in perspective. I wrote a strip about a breakup. People thought it had just happened, but it actually happened three years earlier. It took time until I was comfortable writing about it."
Why are some of your strips more widely read and more long-lasting?
"Some of them become standard references in discussions. As when I made one about SQL injections, and now people use that strip as shorthand for explaining what that is. But some of the most popular ones aren't about a particular subject like that. As the panel I made about a huge world that you can explore by clicking and pulling. It was just a comment on how big the world is, and it wasn't about a programming language or anything else. It's probably the most popular one I ever put on the Internet. That was maybe my own favorite too, which is very satisfying."
How did you get the idea for that one?
"I think it was Google Maps, by zooming in. Sometimes I will zoom into a satellite image until I can see a river and I follow it through the backwoods of Canada or Russia for hours. You feel like you've traveled somewhere. I realized that I would be able to do something similar and wanted to see if I could make a world that was big enough that people would get bored before they had explored all of it. I spent a quite lot of time constructing it, and in the end I thought that nobody would explore it. But I got more feedback on it that on anything I've ever done."
Do you think that's because people saw that you'd spent a lot of work on it?
"That's part of it. Just putting in a lot of work is not. I wanted to capture the experience I get when I explore Google Maps, but also to create the overall message about how big the world is. That's something I keep going back to, how big and exciting the world is. Maybe people like that."
Do you have more courage doing such things now than before?
"Yes - I think so. I am at least more interested in doing big things."
Your project Time, with 3,000 images being updated for 123 days, required your readers to pay attention for a very long time. Why did you do that?
"It was a bit like the giant comic, something I thought I have never seen anyone doing this before. I also wanted to see if it would work. But also because sometimes it might be that things become more interesting if they are difficult to access. There are books that I've read that make the story deliberately complicated. But once people get into it, they're really excited to have this secret language and world that they can share. "
How do you know how narrow your comic can be without excluding too many?
"It's trial and error. I write in English and humor is hard to translate. Four fifths of the world's population won't be able to understand this. Every time you do something more specific, you exclude people. For a long time, comics in daily newspapers had to have mass appeal, so they couldn't be to narrow. The most narrow ones were probably Gary Larson with his biology jokes and Scott Adams doing office jokes. Lots of people work in offices, but Dilbert pushed the limits. On the net, you can go further."
"But I'm sure there are people who like Mondays and who don't understand Garfield. I feel that if there is a group of people that are excited for reading it and appreciate it, you should be thankful.
Translation by Anders Lotsson.