The wisdom of crowds

Comic timing
By GEORGIANA COHEN  |  September 26, 2007


Well before the appointed hour, exactly 2:38 pm on September 23, nearly a thousand people had gathered at tiny Reverend Thomas J. Williams Park in North Cambridge, waiting for . . . well, no one really knew. But with 20 seconds to go, they started counting down.

“Redonkulous,” is how 19-year-old Olin College sophomore Katherine Elliott explained it. Bound by a spirit of adventure that drew them from Arlington, Cleveland, Calgary, Moscow, and elsewhere, fans of xkcd — which bills itself as “a webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language”; the letters “xkcd” meaning nothing in particular — came to this place, at this time, to see what exactly would happen.

“Something’s already happened,” said 28-year-old Jesse Raymond, who’d traveled from upstate New York. “We’re all here.”

Fans of xkcd (go to, which is drawn in simple stick-figure form, are your romantic brand of geek, who see a challenge both in sorting through lines of code and in affairs of the heart. “[xkcd is about] computers, physics, mathematics, and what it’s like trying to be someone having relationships with people while being good at all those things,” said 53-year-old David Bass, a North Cambridge resident who brought his wife and three kids — all fans — to the gathering. Around him, people wore T-shirts sporting equations, traded in-jokes about velociraptors, engaged in spontaneous foam-sword duels, and hauled a mattress to the top of a jungle gym they had overtaken.

Randall Munroe, the 22-year-old creator of the comic, moved to the area in June. A former NASA scientist with a degree in physics, he can appeal to his fans’ unique sense of humor. And they thank him for it.

“One of my friends characterized it very well as, ‘Oh my God, there’s someone in my head reading my thoughts and making a webcomic about them,’ ” said John Ostwald, a 27-year-old software developer from Newton.

The meet-up was prompted by a March comic entitled “Dream Girl,” in which Munroe’s stick-figure narrator recounts meeting a girl in a dream who urgently whispered a date and time and the mapping coordinates — 42.39561, -71.13051 — of Williams Park in his ear. The narrator goes there at the appointed moment but, as he sadly concludes, “It turns out wanting something doesn’t make it real.”

But hundreds of people decided to make it just that. “Dream Girl” was enough to bring Alex Norris here all the way from England.

“I saw that, and I got my credit card out and booked the plane ticket,” said the 34-year-old IT-support technician, who participated in a tape-measure length competition during the gathering.

“I think it’s really amazing because there was absolutely no planning that went into this,” said Claire Bailey, an 18-year-old student at MIT. “It was all just people acting independently and coming together as one.”

So at 2:38 pm, the crowd cheered and applauded . . . and waited. Then Munroe appeared. “Dream Girl” had been enlarged onto giant white boards and affixed to a fence, with blank boards hung alongside.

“Maybe wanting something does make it real,” Munroe told the assembled fandom. “Clearly, the comic needs to be corrected.”

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  Topics: This Just In , Science and Technology, Massachusetts Institute of Technology, Sciences,  More more >
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