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Organization and Subject Access

Randall Munroe is a busy man, and as his collection of XKCD comics grows, retroactive organization as an archival collection becomes an increasingly complex task. This is where we come in. One of the main goals of XSXKCD is streamlining document access for users. To achieve this goal in terms of organization, we have adopted a custom XML metadata schema based on a JSON standard used to some extent by Randall Munroe. This will allow us to maintain flexible continuity with the XKCD comics as new documents are published, as well as facilitate more faceted subject access. With a controlled vocabulary of tags, XSXKCD can provide a "Browse by Subject" page for users to view the comics as they would a traditional archive (see http://www.calisphere.universityofcalifornia.edu/browse-a-z.html). These subject tags would also allow us to attribute a weighted information retrieval schema to the search function. This way, when users search for keywords such as "art" which return obfuscated results as discussed later on, more relevant results may be returned. On the XKCD website, the search function is also buried at the bottom of the page. We would feature the search bar more prominently at the top of the site.

Because of the dynamic nature of some comics (some include hyperlinks or javascript), we found XML to be the most flexible means of properly classifying and organizing the XKCD documents. Although we have a limited number of tags at the moment, the faceted schema allows us to both add new subjects and add descriptors to individual documents.

Our document features include:


As our user base would be fans of the XKCD comic, the primary concern of access is recall. That is, our goal is not to introduce new individuals to the XKCD collection, but to aid users already familiar with XKCD to find a specific comic or group of comics. Fortunately, all of the XKCD documents exist as web documents under a creative commons license. This means that the documents are all already available on the web. The problem we face with the XSXKCD archive is not to make restricted documents accessible, but to optimize what might be considered a kind of filter failure in terms of access.

Present access to the vanilla XKCD is restricted to browsing the comics by chronological order of publication or entering a very basic keyword search based on transcripts. This is great if a user remembers specific dialog, but does very little in terms of the aboutness of each piece. Considering recall in another sense, the browsing option recalls all documents, and the precision of the Google custom search is far from reliable.

Consider an example: a user searches for comics about "art" using that word as their search term. Given the current metadata, the results are completely useless due to the "warning" at the bottom of every page of XKCD which reads: "UNSUITABLE FOR LIBERAL ARTS MAJORS." Clearly, there is room for improvement upon the existing system. And as the collection grows, that improvement becomes more necessary.

Our solution is to provide access through a faceted classification system and a controlled vocabulary. This would allow users to browse comics in the archive by any number of precoordinate tags based on our own authority. The features of these tags range from subject, style, characters, events, and type. Essentially, anything that may or may not be included within the existing title and transcript of a comic that describes the aboutness of the document. Examples of these tags are listed below. The idea of including faceted terminology within the controlled vocabulary of the tags is in order to enhance the search function as well as enabling accessible browsing.

In the future, we may also consider implementing an uncontrolled tagging system to enable personal curation of the XKCD collection. Again, as many of our end-users would be fans, enabling a feature for those fans to define comics on their own terms (in a manner similar to LibraryThing) would immensely improve the functionality of the archive as a tool for accessing specific comics. And because the collection is continuously growing, implementing this function would help to mitigate some of the labor required to maintain the cataloging required of each new document. Given the often incredibly silly nature of the community, however, we think it may be best to focus on controlled access for now.


Hypothetical inventions

XKCD comics sometimes describe technologies that could be really useful, but don't currently exist. The comics show why they would be cool if they existed. Some of these have actually been implemented afterwards. But at the time of their publication, they were 'hypothetical inventions.' Wild ideas abound in comics we've tagged with this attribute.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/335/, http://xkcd.com/1109/, http://xkcd.com/810/, http://xkcd.com/481/

With variables
To make fun of popular culture, to analyze obscenity usage, or to get a pseudo-scientific idea of something, xkcd sometimes simply displays charts of things its creator has done some off-the-cuff research on. For more in-depth pop-culture science by Mr. Munroe, see what-if.xkcd.com.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/1101/, http://xkcd.com/715/, http://xkcd.com/467/

Current-events related

On certain days, xkcd comments in various ways on the news, whether it is memorializing Steve Jobs or cracking a joke about an article about a recently published scientific journal article or predicting the future of a new product, xkcd sometimes rapidly responds, rather than waiting for context to emerge over time.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/695/, http://xkcd.com/1091/, http://xkcd.com/961/, http://xkcd.com/617/, http://xkcd.com/685/

XKCD presents, guides, explainers
XKCD has a unique perspective on a wide variety of topics, and its simple style can help explain things that otherwise seem complex. As a result, in a couple of different formats or styles, xkcd has published sorts of reference materials for its audience. These tend to be large images
see for example: http://xkcd.com/518/, http://xkcd.com/518/, http://xkcd.com/1040/, http://xkcd.com/1029/, http://xkcd.com/681/, http://xkcd.com/1080/, http://xkcd.com/273/

Flow charts
XKCD often presents topics in terms of steps. These steps are often best explained through flowcharts. While some of xkcd's flowcharts are serious, others are hilarious. But they all explain something in steps.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/210/, http://xkcd.com/851/, http://xkcd.com/518/, http://xkcd.com/854/, http://xkcd.com/1066/, http://xkcd.com/844/


As xkcd's author comes from a mathematical background, his comic often addresses topics graphically. The form varies from bar graphs to standard line graphs with comical annotations and also vary in their degrees of formality.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/523/, http://xkcd.com/715/, http://xkcd.com/833/, http://xkcd.com/418/

Venn diagrams
Another expression of the mathematical background of xkcd's creator is venn diagrams. The simple format belies the hilarity that Munroe shows is possible in his venn diagrams.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/668/, http://xkcd.com/773/, http://xkcd.com/747/

Personal to Mr. Munroe
XKCD's author keeps as low of a profile on xkcd as his stick figures do, but his persona is clearly present in some comics. Sometimes this is acknowledged upfront, sometimes the title-text reveals the personal connection to Munroe, or sometimes the connection is implicit. But no work can be totally separated from the context of its creator, and these comics show that to be true.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/818/, http://xkcd.com/819/, http://xkcd.com/820/, http://xkcd.com/821/, http://xkcd.com/530/, http://xkcd.com/1048/, http://xkcd.com/931/, http://xkcd.com/836/ includes: "my hobby" tag (see below)#

Oftentimes, a good way to describe a phenomenon, or make a geographic joke is by drawing a map. Sometimes xkcd's maps represent the real world, sometimes they represent it to varying degrees of accuracy, sometimes they may not the world but the Internet.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/195/, http://xkcd.com/977/, http://xkcd.com/802/, http://xkcd.com/256/, http://xkcd.com/850/, http://xkcd.com/753/, http://xkcd.com/1079/

Comics that break the traditional rules of comics
While xkcd often is a comic, it is a specific form of comic, a webcomic. This does not inherently mean that xkcd has to break the traditional rules of comics, but sometimes xkcd does. (NOTE: this collection does not include hyperlinking and some interactivity, but instead focuses on the graphical structure of xkcd documents that break the traditional rules of comics.)
see for example: http://xkcd.com/475/, http://xkcd.com/82/, http://xkcd.com/155/, http://xkcd.com/942/

Optical illusions
Some xkcd comics contain optical illusions or are about optical illusions. The comic may or may not call attention to the fact that there are optical illusions in said comic. The illusion may be the joke, or it may just be a result of the structuring of the frames or some other design-based factor. Maybe you learned about a specific optical illusion from an xkcd comic.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/609/, http://xkcd.com/417/, http://xkcd.com/445/, http://xkcd.com/442/, http://xkcd.com/237/, http://xkcd.com/1080/, http://xkcd.com/997/

Often, xkcd things thinks linearly, in terms of time or in terms of spectrums. Both of these describe degrees of concepts, be them time or random things that are addressed in spectrums.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/243/, http://xkcd.com/273/, http://xkcd.com/419/, http://xkcd.com/435/, http://xkcd.com/813/,

Timelines are a useful way of explaining history usually, but Munroe witty insights into time that are a bit unusual. XKCD's timelines display Google's view of the future. They explain movie character groupings, the emergence of pop culture phenomenon, and the historical in-accuracy of video games.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/204/, http://xkcd.com/988, http://xkcd.com/657/, http://xkcd.com/887/, http://xkcd.com/560/, http://xkcd.com/623/,

Pie charts

While graphs, charts and venn diagrams are great for explaining some of the mathematical insights that Munroe has shown the world from his xkcd perspective, others necessitate the use of pie charts.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/290/, http://xkcd.com/688/, http://xkcd.com/197/

My hobby

Some may say xkcd's author Munroe is weird, others may say he's normal, still others may say that if he's weird, 'weird' is slowly becoming normal as computers and computer culture becomes more ingrained in society. He has presented some of his weird or normal (depending on your point of view) hobbies on xkcd.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/53/, http://xkcd.com/37/, http://xkcd.com/75/, http://xkcd.com/451/

Paper background

When xkcd was first published, the comics were less comics and more scans from Mr. Munroe's various notebooks. As a result, instead of the usual white backgrounds of xkcd comics today, they were often on graph paper. Title-text was added to these scanned xkcd 'comics'. Some of these were presented with annotations explaining the context. Others were presented with only the standard xkcd elements like title.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/1/ through http://xkcd.com/44/ (note: what-if.xkcd.com uses a graph paper background in its style sheet)

Many xkcd comics are about life, love, politics, technology, and a smattering of normal and esoteric topics. But sometimes, they are about killing. Maybe Munroe felt murderous the night before the comic was posted, maybe killing a character in the comic makes a great joke. If you remember that someone literally killed someone, attempted to kill someone, or talked about killing someone in an xkcd comic, it's here.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/740/, http://xkcd.com/769/, http://xkcd.com/542/, http://xkcd.com/144/

Sometimes, when xkcd comics are about a specific neighborhood or about schools, it's not sufficient to just say "the teacher" or "the neighbors." Sometimes, for whatever reason, there needs to be a name behind the stick figures. A real name. This is merely a guess of the organizers of this xkcd classification system, but it is our belief that Munroe picked a real family he knows for these situation. They are the "Lenharts."
see for example: http://xkcd.com/416/, http://xkcd.com/135/, http://xkcd.com/499/, http://xkcd.com/1050/, http://xkcd.com/704/

Conference Talks
XKCD's audience is in part made up of scholarly people like computer science researchers or college kids pretending to take their studies seriously. As a result, some of Munroe's humor takes place at hypothetical conference his stick-figures participate in. Oftentimes he (or the stick figures) get kicked out of said conferences for mocking them. Other times he makes jokes about other topics through conference talks. Here, you'll see male or female denizens of xkcd holding a microphone or a pointer and presenting the joke or interesting insight.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/541/, http://xkcd.com/153/, http://xkcd.com/867/, http://xkcd.com/365/, http://xkcd.com/690/, http://xkcd.com/820/

Like we've said before, xkcd is a very interdisciplinary comic. This means that it hits esoteric and popular culture topics. Sometimes all at once. One of the more pop culture aspects of xkcd is that some of its comics reference songs. The songs found in instances of xkcd range from the 1950s to the 1990s to whatever's in the latest Guitar Hero to current music. We're no strangers to most of the music referenced, but you know the rules, and so do I, so we both know that it is sometimes impossible to remember exactly which xkcd and which song you're trying to think of. If it had a song in it, then you better believe we put a tag on it.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/712/, http://xkcd.com/153/, http://xkcd.com/1009/, http://xkcd.com/108/, http://xkcd.com/132/, http://xkcd.com/351/, http://xkcd.com/988/, http://xkcd.com/389/, http://xkcd.com/159/

Portrayals of Real-World People

XKCD often describes fictional events. XKCD often describes true events. And sometimes xkcd content falls in between those two categories. In varying degrees of fiction or non-fiction, xkcd uses real people who exist in the world beyond comics.These include people Munroe knows personally, dead people, and also famous people like well-known software developers or politicians. In these comics, people are not merely mentioned, but drawn.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/992/ (Katy Perry), http://xkcd.com/225/ (Richard Stallman), http://xkcd.com/496/ (Ron Paul), http://xkcd.com/617/ (President Barack Obama), http://xkcd.com/1044/ (Mitt Romney), http://xkcd.com/639/ (Abraham Lincoln), http://xkcd.com/567/ (Ben Franklin), http://xkcd.com/462/ (Morgan Freeman), http://xkcd.com/130/ (Julia Stiles), http://xkcd.com/960/ (Willie Mays, Guy Fawkes), http://xkcd.com/626/ (Isaac Newton, Gottfried Wilhelm Leibniz), http://xkcd.com/799/ (Stephen Hawking), http://xkcd.com/591/ (Stephanie Meyer), http://xkcd.com/524/ and http://xkcd.com/351/ (Rick Astley) [see also the "Rick Astley" tag]

Rick Astley
XKCD shapes, purveys, and analyzes internet culture in many comics. But a particular person who has gained memetic prominence is used very often. He is a person who is never going to give you up or let you down or run around and desert you. While he also won't make you cry or say goodbye, maybe the comics tagged "Rick Astley" will jog your memory about something you were trying to think of. Astley himself need not be included in the comic, but instead, references to his song which constitutes the "Rickroll" meme are documented here.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/524/, http://xkcd.com/389/, http://xkcd.com/351/


As Munroe states, xkcd is "a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." Some of xkcd's comics deal with love -- the good and the bad -- and occasionally are not drawn with humor in mind.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/17/, http://xkcd.com/701/, http://xkcd.com/44/, http://xkcd.com/48/, http://xkcd.com/55/

While most of the xkcd comics are drawn in simple black and white, Munroe will occasionally utilize some color in his works when he deems it necessary. This can be as small as a dash of red, or as full-blown as a sketch drawn in color.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/59/, http://xkcd.com/60/, http://xkcd.com/67/, http://xkcd.com/659/, http://xkcd.com/663/, http://xkcd.com/1052/, http://xkcd.com/395/

Non-stick figure characters
The majority of xkcd's comics are populate with Munroe's signature stick figures, but Munroe has also dabbled in alternative character depictions, particularly early on. These comics break away from the general "storyline" Munroe has in play with xkcd.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/56/, http://xkcd.com/1/, http://xkcd.com/7/, http://xkcd.com/11/, http://xkcd.com/23/, http://xkcd.com/133/, http://xkcd.com/78/

"Evil" Hat Guy / Classhole

Though he doesn't technically have a name, he is definitely a recurring character due to his tell-tale black porkpie hat. He initially started as simply an antagonistic stick figure but slowly morphed into a malevolent, scheming jerk (who happened to have found love). Munroe has also began to integrate a new "hat guy" into his comics.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/169/, http://xkcd.com/455/, http://xkcd.com/954/, http://xkcd.com/515/, http://xkcd.com/542/, http://xkcd.com/325/


As stated in xkcd's blurb, some of the comics are also about math, and Munroe uses some of his comics to show off his dazzling mathematics and intellect. While these may be the comics that are "unsuitable to liberal-arts majors," Munroe more often than not uses math to make jokes within the field and to prove his own superiority.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/816/, http://xkcd.com/410/, http://xkcd.com/385/, http://xkcd.com/447/, http://xkcd.com/55/, http://xkcd.com/872/

Guest Strips
Rarely, Munroe allows guest contributors to make their own xkcd comic in place of one of Munroe's traditional comics. Both drawn in Munroe's typical fashion or in the style of the guest contributor, these give others a voice through xkcd's webpage (though the tone of the comics still stays close to Munroe's).
see for example: http://xkcd.com/822/, http://xkcd.com/823/, http://xkcd.com/824/

Red Spiders

Early in Munroe's comics, he had a few strips starring a group of red spiders crawling around on floating cubes, and subsequent comics starring these red spiders would track their progress. Currently, the war between humans and the red spiders is on hiatus, but that hasn't stopped them from popping up in other comics.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/8/, http://xkcd.com/43/, http://xkcd.com/126/, http://xkcd.com/47/, http://xkcd.com/427/, http://xkcd.com/442/


Comics that either parody other webcomics or pop culture. While many comics make jokes at the expense of stuff and things, these comics are overt parodies.
see for example: http://xkcd.com/160/ http://xkcd.com/145/ http://xkcd.com/472/

Created and maintained by Brian Wilson, Garrett Traylor, Keri Carroll, and Brian Balsamo (click to contact!), and in conjunction with Randall Munroe.