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Reviews Comments: Elitist? Count me unimpressed Xkcd whole series review by Fauxlosophe

I got into xkcd years ago, back when it was probably on strip two hundred something. What it was then was slightly surreal and a refreshing touch of "hey remember those wierd things you used to do?"

Years later, what more has really been done? Maybe it has gotten more openly bitter about liberal arts and maybe had a few strips where the author thought he could make people aware of stuff. Mostly though, it feels like I've read the same 4 strips two hundred times a piece.

Mostly though it's the same old stuff only now it's wrapped up in the pretension of being "Genius Bonus" Science jokes while at the same time trying to appeal to a large audience. This means that really most of his jokes end up referencing 11th or 12th grade science and doing some cheap word play or clearly misunderstanding them. I'm a "liberal arts major" and honestly, I get most of his jokes, the ones I miss seem like something that can be thought of after skimming over a wiki page. There's no genuine wierdness or inspiration to them and so they get stale pretty quickly.

xkcd has been trapped between being the "Science" comic and appealling to a large audience [mostly of geeks granted] which limits anything really interesting that can be done with jokes. It's like referncing Plato's Cave or Schrodinger's Cat; It's a small part of a field that people who don't know what they are talking about cling to.

So it's turned to mentioning something you learnt in 11th grade and expecting you to be impressed or else just saying "Hey! I do wierd things too! Listen to me!". With that in mind, even the old jokes seem more trite.

He hit a niche before anyone else was willing to exploit it so directly: Pandering directly to nerd nostalgia that isn't based on brands. Which was nice for me until I saw what was happening. Now it just feels like he could say any wierd thought he's had and people who have had it will give a standing ovation. It feels sort of trapped in that stage we all had once where we'd say anything to fit in, without necessarily understanding it; "Hey Physics Majors! I hate Liberal Arts too!" or "Hey Internet! Isn't 4chan craaaaaaazy?"

Once you scratch past the surface, xkcd has nothing wierd and nothing interesting. Just empty stick figures telling you stuff you might recognize and hoping that it will amuse you.


  • Tomwithnonumbers
  • 21st Sep 12
I'm not going to comment on the day to day comics, but XKCD doesn't have _nothing_ interesting, he sometimes comes up with things which are just legitimately cool achievements

And a lot of his graphs cause a lot of stir around the statistics/statistical visualisation blogs
  • maninahat
  • 22nd Sep 12
I'm glad you linked to that. In spite of my previous criticisms of Xkcd, I was very much impressed when I saw it.
  • Fauxlosophe
  • 23rd Sep 12
It's wierd and he does come up with unique stuff once in a while. Nothing was an exaggeration which I blame on the fact that I'm limited to less than 400 words. All the same I don't see what's brilliant about it. I saw what amounted to a bunch of one panel comics that I had to run all over the place to see. I mean they were all on a similar backdrop which would be interesting if he had characters to compare; Guy X reacts in Y way while Girl A reacts in B way and so on. But he doesn't really have characters that he can develop. The only two I can really think of that have anything to them are blackhat guy and whitehat guy. The former when from being a funny asshole to being an outlet for overly complicated schemes to make day-to-day acceptable target annoyances pay. The other went from having one, maybe two, strips where he's pitched as a Carpe Diem guy [indulgent but hey it could work] to pretty much incapable of higher thought and obcessed with Pastries.

Outside of that we're seeing a wall of stick figures doing different things due to being on the side of a building. The infinite canvas is definitely cool and he's not completely without innovation but the desire to be elitist for geeks and still appeal to a large [and mostly younger] audience sort of tears him between two points that make it really difficult to create quality content and leaves a lot of his stuff as geeky references that are supposed to be funny on the grounds of refering to something you have seen or just doing something wierd that you might have imagined doing at some point.

Like, while I was impressed at the scale and there was some wierd stuff going on, I don't think I actually laughed at anything or found it too insightful as a whole. If anyone else here did, I'd be interested to know what I missed.
  • Tomwithnonumbers
  • 24th Sep 12
I don't know if you were meant to laugh or be inspired quite so much, I think the main purpose was to convey the sheer size of distance, which is something we find hard to comprehend. It's just entirely unique and represents a huge amount of creative work that no-one had thought of doing before.

And this isn't a one off either,you talk about being stretched between two points, but as far as statisticians go, he's satisfying the whole range. Take a look at this blog, it's a pretty big visualisation blog, written by professionals and just generally writes about data visualisation, different graphs advantages disadvantages etc.

And look how many XKCD graphs he's talked about, and I assure almost all of them are the highest praise (in fact there's an XKCD article on the front page even). Some of them are 'a bit of fun today' but others he talks about like this

I think you can split the comics into two different types really, the comics, which are meant to make people laugh or whatever and of those, whilst I don't fully agree with your opinion, I don't disagree enough for it to be worth trying to persuade you, but the other type, the big projects are useful, interesting, skillful, detailed and often beats the people who get paid large salaries do this stuff as their full time job. It's an accomplishment and a testament to Munroe's abilities and I feel it really does deserve some respect
  • Tomwithnonumbers
  • 24th Sep 12
  • almost all was incorrect maybe half, maybe 30/70 on praise to 'this is fun'. But at the very least he's being funny to people who've gone way past secondary school level
  • Tomwithnonumbers
  • 24th Sep 12
  • and as another example of his stuff being entertaining to people at the far end of the spectrum, I've had university professors (that's plural) put his comics in their lectures
  • Fauxlosophe
  • 24th Sep 12
I'm not sure what you mean by "30/70s on praise to 'this is fun'"?

"He's being funny to people who've gone past secondary school": I didn't say no one over secondary school found him amusing, only that his comics had to appeal to people still going to Secondary and so it is typically fairly basic stuff. There are exceptions but they suffer from the same flaw:

"You know Obscure thing A? Me too. Haha."

It's worse when an example is highschool level because it's unimpressive in the first place but even past that, it's not going anywhere with anything and expecting us to be amused just because it made a reference to something we find amusing. It's like everything wrong with Big Bang Theory without the consistant characters allowing for slightly more nuanced jokes over time.

Generally, I don't find any of his strips funny or insightful. Not inspiring but insightful. That includes conveying in some meaningful way the sheer size of distance. That would be insightful. Instead I grunted as I strolled over a series of uninspired one panels that wouldn't be worth individual publication as strips and moved slowly through as much of the canvas as I could both myself to. Only thing it conveyed to me is how far people will go to prove a point, or if I were a fan, I suppose it'd be some sort of metapoint about how hard we work for 100 percent completion without getting actual fulfillment for it.

You linked a single site twice. I'm really not sure what this says about the merit of xkcd. This is what is said on the site really makes me doubt any serious professional merit to it. It's pretty much just: "This looks cool. I endorse it."

That's not scientific or critical. I've seen a thousand blogs with more critical information on them, amateur or professional. I'm just genuinely unimpressed and am confused by the point you were trying to prove there.

The graph we are shown is just showing us a graphical way of saying "Jupiter is heavy and thus has large gravity." I learnt the relative size and weights of the planets in like grade 5. I didn't have the exact numbers memorized but I suspect the author checks his data as well. It doesn't seem brilliant or deserving of too much respect.

I'm not trying to disrespect him but nothing you've showed me or that I've seen has impressed me to the point where I think he out does anyone paid a large salary to do this. Plus I'm curious when you last sat down and tried to read something by someone in one of those fields before you start comparing them negatively to a stickfigure comic.

To university professors, I've seen many reference numerous things in classes in pretty much every subject to make things more relevant. Some groan while doing it, some after. This is a way of making a connection with students and serving as a start point for introducing a lecture, this doesn't prove anything more than popularity all said.
  • Tomwithnonumbers
  • 25th Sep 12
Well we've come to some places we're going to have to fundamentally differ on. You weren't impressed by the size comic, I was, I don't know that there's really anything more to discuss there, presumably it's just personal preference.

The reason why that blog saying 'that looks cool, I endorse it' is all they do all day is look at professionally created stuff and say whether it looks cool and they endorse it. For someone whose specialisation is data visualisation, that is taking concepts and information and displaying them in cool, interesting, easy to understand ways 'I know it's a comic, hand-drawn, and all stick-figurey and stuff, but Randall actually explains the concepts really well. There's good annotation, clear examples, and he's made an obscure topic easy to understand' is a huge endorsement. Because they say the same sort of thing about graphs made by the New York Times and it puts him above the people the United Nations employ

and data visualisation is something which XKCD does a lot, sometimes it's not meant to be a joke and sometimes it's just meant to be data visualisation. Sure you knew the relative sizes and weights of the planets in grade 5 (although personally, I'm slightly impressed, I would never have committed that information to memory, even now) but data visualisation is about taking facts and presenting them in a way that conveys understanding to the brain. It's possible you're just very gifted at understanding and comparing numbers, it would explain why you weren't impressed by the size map either. I personally, even if I had looked at the numbers in year 5, would probably still have very little clue about what the relative sizes mean, so I love his Jupiter map as a clever way of respresenting and conveying that information to me.

... so the relevance of data visualisation to me. Well I'm a mathematician in training and at the moment I'm beginning to specialise in statistics and pure mathematics, so I have enough basic competence in the subject to know that the UN graph was shocking in comparison to the hand drawn stick comic (to be honest the UN graph was shocking compared to a lot of stuff even normal people would do) and I feel like as a partial outsider I at least understand the concepts and aims of data visualisation although I probably miss a lot of the subtle points. But generally I just read that blog and I was trusting them when they would describe comic a as being impressive and graph b by the guardian being weak for such and such reason.

... the rest I figure I was essentially wrong on and you were right, even I don't really know where I was going with :D
  • Fauxlosophe
  • 25th Sep 12
I think we can come to an agreement there in general to differ on a lot of points and that obviously that happens when people come at things from different viewpoints.

Honestly, flowingdata really say a lot and if I were to follow a blog I'd enjoy one that offered more of an indepth view of method and etc. but I suppose it helps bring things to people's attention.

To clarify I didn't know exact proportions but I had to learn shit in French which makes it stick in your head, generally. It leaves an impression to see it scaled out like that but it's something I did see on educational products and posters in a way that wasn't too different from how xkcd did it. So I got about as much out of seeing planet diagrams in elementry as I did that the xkcd strip and so it doesn't feel too special to me make of it what you will.

Past that, I think it's subjective stuff where I raise relatively valid criticism and aim to counter some people hyping the comic as elitist and yeah, like you said we all go in for different stuff so people not looking for that kind of thing and after charts might see some purpose to it. I might catch you around the forums, until then, all the best.

  • Fauxlosophe
  • 25th Sep 12
  • Flowingdata don't really say alot [about the stuff they are reviewing].

I missed a negative, I wish tvtropes gave you the option to edit comments.

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