While Wired magazine has commented on the huge popularity of xkcd, it has not been able to provide a reason for this:
This mix of brains and fun, as well as underlying sweetness helped propel xkcd from a hobby to a full-time job for the 23-year-old former NASA roboticist. Since its 2005 launch, xkcd has grown from doodles in the margins of a graphing notebook to T-shirts, radio talks and lectures on humor at MIT, where students batted inflatable raptors around the auditorium. The website drew between 60 million and 70 million pageviews in October, Munroe says, and xkcd’s growing fan base has taken to re-enacting events that take place in the comic.
However, even I don’t have a clue just why it is that xkcd seems to appeal to people so much. So I asked my good friend Neha Natalya Pandey to put fundaes on this. Since she’s majoring in Algorithm Analysis and Design (and minoring in Sanskrit Poetics) at U. Mich., and she has an amazing intellectual pedigree (her parents are Dr. Acharya Somuchidononanda Pandey and Dr. Valentina Dimitrieva Pandey), she’s ideally suited to explain this. I reproduce her correspondence on this subject below, with her permission.
you’re asking the wrong question. It is quite common for a comic strip series to resonate with its audience. A more relevant question is why each xkcd strip manages to resonate with someone or the other. Some people are particularly drawn to #285’s representation of discrimination. Others find themselves moved almost to tears by #252. #352 also strikes a particular chord. It’s almost as if there’s an xkcd strip for every conceivable emotion.
We should explore two questions – why there seems to be an xkcd strip for every possible emotion, and whether this is actually true, or achievable. To answer these questions, we should examine the great classical texts of ancient India, as well as the great computer science texts of the modern day United States and Netherlands.
The first text we must visit is the Natya Shastra, which lays out the nine basic emotional states, or rasas:
- शृन्गारं (Shrngaaram), the emotion of louw, romance, and erotica
- हास्यं, (Haasyam), the comic emotion
- करुणं (karuNam), the emotion of empathy, compassion and kindliness
- रौद्रं (raudram), the emotion of rage and fury
- वीरं (veeram), the emotion of courage and heroism
- भयानकं (bhayanakam), the emotion of fear, terror, and horror
- बीभत्सं (bibhitsam), the emotion of repugnance
- अद्भुतं (adbhutam), the emotion of wonder and marvel
- शान्तं (shaantam), the emotion of stillness and tranquility
However, the number of possible emotional states is much greater than nine. This is because at any time, we may experience the basic emotional state itself, or a combination of two or more emotional states. The actual emotional state can be represented as a nine-bit word, where the most significant bit represents whether shaantam is being experienced or not, and the least significant bit represents whether shrngaaram is being experienced. As a direct result of this, we find that there are 512 (29) emotional states that anybody can experience.
Emotional states don’t arise spontaneously, but are stimulated by bhavas. The Natya Shastra describes how the first eight rasas can be stimulated within the audience by the suitable expression of corresponding bhavas. While the Natya Shastra focuses on the use of body language, sign language, facial gestures, and music to convey bhavas, it’s obvious that any artistic medium, including stick figures is capable of projecting bhavas. It’s very likely the minimalism of the xkcd comics helps to make the process of inspiring rasas even easier. This isn’t my subject of experience, though, and my sister Nidhi Natasha would probably be able to explain this better.
But the important thing here is that what xkcd is doing is to communicate a particular combination of bhavas, and that this particular combination stimulates a corresponding combination of rasas very successfully. This also provides us with insight on why each xkcd post seems to strike a chord with someone or the other – with almost 400 strips to date, it is likely that a huge number of the 512 emotional states would have been dealt with. Even if the same emotional sate is dealt with thrice over, that still means about 25% of all possible emotional states would have been dealt with in xkcd.
For example, xkcd #150 triggers shrngaaram, karunam, and adbhutam and therefore the associated nine-bit word would be 010000101, or 131. #120 triggers bibhitsam and shaantam, and therefore the nine-bit word is 100001000, or 264. #230 evokes shrngaaram, karunam, veeram, and adbhutam. Therefore the associated emotion-word is 010010101, or 149.
What we learn from this is that given enough xkcd strips, there will eventually be at least one xkcd strip to describe every emotional state. From this, we can further deduce that it will eventually be possible to describe any emotional state by simply linking to the corresponding xkcd strip, or indeed, strips. The implications of this for livejournal mood indicators and facebook status messages alone is profound.
However, this does rely on:
- The total number of xkcd strips being at least 512, assuming no redundancy of emotional states across strips
- The ability of the creator, Randall Munroe, to evoke all nine emotional base states
If this is accomplished, the proof that there will be an xkcd strip for every possible emotional state is trivial, and left as an exercise to you.
Neha Natalya Pandey
Department of Computer Science & Engineering / Department of Sanskrit
University of Michigan, Ann Arbor