As you might have gathered from previous posts on this blog, I’m constantly fascinated by the innovative ways in which different projects on the Internet make use of crowds. I’ve covered Tomnod’s use of crowdsourcing in global crises and the “crowdplaying” of Twitch Plays Pokémon. Then on 1st April, xkcd – “A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math and language” – upped the ante with an interactive, crowdsourced comic strip called Lorenz.
Edward Lorenz, after whom the comic is titled, was an American mathematician and meteorologist. He was a pioneer of chaos theory and coined the term “butterfly effect”, which describes a tiny variable altering events to eventually produce a much more dramatic result, such as a butterfly flapping its wings and eventually causing a hurricane. The comic’s title text (a caption produced by hovering over the strip with your mouse) directly references the butterfly effect, reading, “Every choice, no matter how small, begins a new story.” The comic’s storyline is also dependent on user-submitted dialogue and click statistics and is therefore chaotic in nature.
The comic begins with an image of an individual (their gender has been the subject of much discussion on the Explain xkcd Talk Page, and they are largely agreed to be female based on them being referred to as a “lady” in one line of dialogue. However, as the dialogue is user-submitted, this is not definitive) at their computer. The user is given a choice of four phrases, randomly ordered, for the character to say:
Each of the different dialogue options begins a different story, which is in turn affected by further dialogue choices made within the story. Sometimes there will be a silent panel where the reader is only given the option to “Continue”, but otherwise wherever there is dialogue, the reader has the ability to influence it, either by choosing an option from a multiple-choice menu or entering their own suggestion. The multiple-choice format is reminiscent of a Choose Your Own Adventure novel or a Visual Novel, but unlike those media whose storylines are ultimately finite, Lorenz’s use of crowdsourcing to create dialogue options means that its story is continually evolving and spawning new variations.
How does the crowdsourcing part work? As I mentioned earlier, the comic’s storyline is influenced by two factors: user clickthrough rates and user-submitted dialogue. The Explain xkcd page for Lorenz postulates that the comic uses A/B measurement techniques to determine the most popular lines of dialogue. The options available to readers alter over time as more popular dialogue options prevail. This can also be seen in the very first panel of the comic, which previously contained two additional dialogue options, reading, These stupid tiles… I’ll just play one more game. and Gravity. Lots of it. Explain xkcd discussions, xkcd forum discussions and saved images also point to dialogue options and storyline paths which appear to have been phased out of the comic over the days since it was first uploaded. The criteria used to determine this are unknown; possibly an option becomes permanently “locked in” once a certain number of clicks has been reached, and a future version of the comic will have an extensive but fixed number of paths and dialogue options. Alternatively, the comic might retain the option of user-submitted input for the last panel of each storyline, allowing readers to have the last word in every story they explore.
As the comic stands, each storyline will always end with a blank speech bubble for the user to fill in their own line. Some end much sooner than others, likely depending on how many users have played through that pathway and submitted dialogue suggestions for it. No-one knows whether the suggestions were manually filtered through, or submitted via some sort of algorithm and then retained if they were popular, but at its peak the comic was replete with in-jokes, references, clever computing and technical puns, bizarre non-sequiturs and the occasional typo. Playing through the comic and then suddenly being presented with a blank space to fill with my own words reminded me of a Wired magazine article I read about improvised stand-up. Patricia Ryan Madison, professor emerita at Stanford University, gave advice on how to keep an improvised scene going. “Never block or negate,” she advised. “[Y]ou might get a laugh, but then the scene is dead in the water. … The first rule of improv is to say: ‘Yes, and…’ Agree and then add the first thing that you think of.” Of course, if I couldn’t think of anything decent to add, I could just refresh the page and start again, or back up a few choices and play a slightly different path.
Lorenz isn’t the first time that Randall Munroe (the creator of xkcd) has pushed the boundaries of what an online webcomic can do. In the past, several dynamic and/or interactive comics have been published which use novel methods of storytelling or interface with the user in unexpected ways. A previous April Fools’ comic, Umwelt, would show the reader one of dozens of different images or comics depending on a number of factors including web browser, browser window size, geographical location and referrer. It references the idea that each organism experiences the world in a unique way according to all the various factors which shape its experience.
The most famous dynamic xkcd webcomic is Time, first published on 25th March 2013. It told an extended story over the course of 124 days and 3,101 images, which were uploaded at the same URL roughly every 30-60 minutes, essentially making it a very slow animation. As the comic played out and readers tried to work out details of its mysterious setting, story and characters, the comic spawned its own subculture with a lingo, jokes, mannerisms and a Wiki. The Time discussion thread on the xkcd forums has nearly 75,000 replies and is still going strong.
After Lorenz was published, there were some optimistic predictions that it might become the next Time, and the format certainly has the potential. With a consistent method of approving dialogue options to continue the story, the only limit to its scale would be how many extra panels Randall was willing to draw for users to add dialogue to. Unfortunately, a few days after the comic went online it became clear that it wasn’t going to progress beyond its current state. User submissions no longer seem to be appearing in the comic, and the incomplete pathways have thus been truncated as they stand. However, there is still an incredible wealth of material already available to explore in the comic (even with a few bugs getting in the way), and after all the time I’ve spent playing with it, there are still stories I haven’t yet found. For an April Fools’ joke, when so many others resort to throwaway gags, you can count on xkcd to do something great.