Sometimes the beloved geek-chic webcomic XKCD is funny in a broadly accessible way. Sometimes it’s achingly poignant, sometimes it’s socially intelligent, and sometimes it’s esoteric humor that programmers or scientists have to explain to the rest of us. But at its most ambitious, it either packs massive amounts of interesting information into a small space, or engages in breathtaking experiments with the medium. By this time, there’s a small army of fans standing by, waiting for each new update from creator Randall Munroe, so they can get to work interpreting, debating, and making tools to help parse the more complicated comics. (For instance, it’s worth exploring the massive scope of that last linked comic, “Click And Drag,” on your own, but it’s easier to get around with this keyboard-integrated version, and this zoomable version makes the scope clear—and makes it easier to find all the funny details out in the air, or underground.)
Yesterday, Munroe posted a comic called “Time” that appeared to be a simple drawing of two of his signature stick figures sitting on a hill together. Fans immediately launched threads on the Straight Dope board, XKCD’s forum, and many other places, theorizing about what the image symbolized, and what it might do. Turns out that what it does is update with a new image every half-hour, telling the world’s slowest flipbook-animation story. Naturally, someone immediately created a gif that updates when the site updates, and over the course of a couple of days, a story is emerging—a story that’s still developing one image at a time.
But while the gif version is convenient, it loses what’s fascinating about the strip: the participatory act of coming back to the site over and over, looking for updates and, as people did for the first six hours or so, trading images, observations, and theories about developments. Not to mention the question of how much longer the comic will play out over time. This is slow-paced entertainment for a fast-paced world, but it’s also the kind of nifty experiment that keeps people coming back to XKCD, which at its best isn’t a strip comic so much as an idea factory and a shared experience.