The XKCD Event

A couple days ago, Jordan sent me an email linking to a forum thread for the popular geek/nerd/stick-figure webcomic XKCD. The forum thread discussed some coordinates and a time noted in a recent strip, which had been changed from a location in upstate New York to those of a small park in North Cambridge (42.39561 -71.13057 2007 09 23 14 38 00). This quickly turned into a discussion of who was going to make the pilgrimage to this park on September 23, 2007, at 2:38 PM local time (or 10:38 AM, which is 2:38 GMT). Fans started meetup threads at the XKCD forum, Livejournal, and elsewhere (just google “XKCD event”).

The original strip ends with a person explaining that he went to the coordinates revealed to him by a woman in a dream, where he discovered that “It turns out wanting something doesn’t make it real.” This makes for a sad and touching sort of ending, but also left the door open for something much grander.

I’m in Cambridge, Massachusetts this weekend, staying with my girlfriend who works at Harvard, and visiting my family before two of my younger brothers move to LA later thsi week. As it turns out, the event Jordan mentioned to me happened two blocks from my girlfriend’s place. I walked over with a camera at 10:30 to see who might have shown up.

Only a few people had arrived by that time, but they knew to expect others. As I walked into the park, I saw some college-age guys milling about, making eye contact with me to see if I was there for the event. They greeted me as I approached; one was from Long Island, and another was from Russia. He flew here just for the event, and had to get help from others on the XKCD forums in obtaining a visa. Ten or twelve others were around the neighborhood, they explained, but were wandering until the appointed time. Another fellow arrived, explaining that he was from (relatively) nearby Framingham, and “I wasn’t sure if it was universal time.” I had to take care of some other errands before the main event, so I bid them farewell for the time being.

At 2:30, I realized I was going to be late if I didn’t leave the house soon. I ran down the street, camera in my pocket, hearing the murmur of the crowd as I approached. People were standing outside the fence of the park, looking at the mass within. I started taking photos.

The space was full, especially the jungle gym, which I mistook for a solid structure until people started climbing out later and I realized I could see through it. Hundreds of happy geeks were scattered across the park. The center of the playground was especially densely packed with mostly college-age men and women shoulder-to-shoulder in t-shirts referencing XKCD, Penny Arcade, MIT, and countless obscure jokes about science, math, and video games. I hurried to the center of the throng, taking pictures as I went, as people started a ten-second countdown to 2:38. After the cheers that followed, some started chanting “Ran-dall, Ran-dall,” calling for the creator of the comic to appear. I noticed a giant, unfinished version of the comic strip that started it all, affixed to the fence against the basketball court.

Randall Munroe appeared next to the strip just as people were calling “Speech! Speech!” All heads turned and the crowd quieted as he shouted, “Thanks for showing up.” Laughs, and he explained that the original strip ended wrong; apparently, wanting something enough does make it happen. Cheers, and he explained the next step: This means the comic needs a new ending, so he brought some markers. “It’s like Wikipedia,” he shouted, and in no particular order, people made their way to the strip to finish it in their own ways.

I suspect that most of those in attendance didn’t actually draw anything on the strip. Most were just happy to have a spontaneous “geekfest,” as a friend of mine called it. I didn’t attend with this friend; we just happened to spot each other across the crowd. We first met on a local BBS in the early 90s. He randomly bumped into even more people he knew from MIT. It was like this all over the park: people running into friends, chatting with strangers, finding or creating things to do.

A small group was competitively trying to see how far they could extend tape measures before they bent (as suggested in this strip). A few were in costume or carrying props; I spotted one furry, a guy in a cape, a few people dressed as stick figures (e.g., tape over a white outfit), several people with foam or papier-mache weapons, and two people holding up “citation needed” signs (as in the Wikipedia reference from this strip). The folks with fake weapons had playful battles for onlookers. Some guys played guitars by a tent. A blankets were laid out with groups picnicking. Someone was distributing (selling?) shirts commemorating the event, emblazoned with the coordinates. And one fellow wore a fill-in-the-blanks shirt from ThinkGeek reading:

im in ur
42.39561 -71.13057 2007 09 23 14 38 00
ur dorkz

There’s at least one good summary (posted by Ben/”Dragonhawk”) at the “I was there” thread in the XKCD forums already. I can’t say how many people were there, but at the peak I suspect it was several hundred.

I had to leave early for my brothers’ farewell party, but things were still going strong at 3:20. I felt lucky to have the chance to drop by this fun, fascinating, friendly gathering. If you were there, please feel free to post links to your writeup or photos in the Comments.

Updates: I realized after posting this that I really didn’t describe at all what this event must have meant for the local community. This is because that’s kind of hard to tell. There was a separate mini-playground fenced off from the larger part of the park, and I believe I saw some parents with kids in there. There’s some talk of this in the forum, however:

You know…more than the normals, I felt bad for the little kids and their parents expecting a nice afternoon at the park. I’ll admit it I nearly bulldozed a kid trying to get to the pole that activates the fountains. It was just so awesome!

I talked with one of the parents there, turns out he was an xkcd fan. He didn’t recognize the name Randal Munroe, but looked it up when he went back home and realized that it was from the comic. So he came and hung out while his kid was napping.

Some guy asked me to take a picture with his son who had been playing in the fountain and was all wet.

That would be me. (I would probably not describe myself as a normal, however.)
(Okita, let me know if you’d like a picture of the the picture — it came out really well.)

Truth be told, I was surprised that there were ANY “normals” in the crowd at all! At least we weren’t a rowdy bunch — I was half worried that a mobscene would have scared off any parents bringing their children to a “favorite neighborhood park,” expecting a quiet Sunday.

That last comment, incidentally, was more of a reply to people discussing a pic of an attractive woman who just kind of showed up and hadn’t heard of XKCD before.

I dropped by the park this afternoon to see what kind of mess might have been left over. The answer: none whatsoever. The only traces that anyone had been there at all were some chalk writings (including “flickr: xkcddreams,” “hack the planet,” and “nerd nation was here”) and a few notes on the community bulletin board (including a page from a guy advertising for a “dream girl” and ads for local SF cons).

Also, I should note that I found (and joined) an XKCD meetup pool of photos on Flickr, and have added the xkcddreams tag to my photos. Here’s one large and particularly good set of photos I happened to stumble upon. Also see some neat adjustments made to park signage.