Reflecting on Time with XKCD

I suspect I’m a couple weeks late on this one. But it’s simply too much fun for me to pass up. So, for those of you who have actually been paying attention to the InterWebs over the last few days, please move along. (Also, since it’s almost impossible for me to imagine a world in which Leah Libresco has not posted on this, I’m going to spend the rest of the day looking nervously over my shoulder.)

As a long-time XKCD fan, I’m familiar with the Internet Phenomenon Known As Randall Munroe. But even that familiarity did not prepare me for “Time.”

Wait for it.

A bit of (late March) background from The A.V. Club:

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 boardXKCD’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.

A few days ago, they posted an update:

Fourteen days after posting, the comic is still regularly updating. It’s closing in on 500 frames of animation at this point, with a story about two characters building an epic-scale sand castle, and taking periodic breaks to swim, attack their own work with a trebuchet, and debate tactics for improving their work.

The strip’s deceptively simple debut (and the subsequent reveal of its complexity) was largely lost on my ADD-tinged self, so I had to use the gif site to catch up. And boy, am I glad/sorry I did. Watching all 500 frames at once was invaluable when it came to filling in the back-story. And besides, as a colleague remarked, “I’m not staying up all night to see each frame.” But at the same time, the high-speed version is dramatically different than discovering a new frame ever half-hour or so. And there’s really no substitute for resetting The Anticipation Clock each time the image shifts.  (I actually jumped during one of the transitions earlier this morning.)

There’s a fun “If A Wait’s Worth Doing, It’s Worth Doing Well” vibe going on over there, so I encourage everyone to hurry through that gif so they can get to the really good stuff: the waiting. (I haven’t had this much fun doing nothing on the Internet since I listened to the orchestral version of John Cage’s 4’33″ for the first time.)

What a great little project, and one that actually produced more reflections on Time, my internet behavior, and and the various ways in which I consume things than I would have anticipated  To that end, here’s The A.V. Club with their “Nail on the Head” bit:

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.

The world’s slowest flipbook-animation story

About Joseph Susanka

Joseph has been doing development work for institutions of Catholic higher education since graduating from Thomas Aquinas College in 1999. A grateful resident of Wyoming, he spends his free time exploring the beautiful Wind River Mountains, keeping track of his (currently) seven sons, being amazed by his (currently) lone daughter, and thanking his lucky stars for Netflix.

  • Theodore Seeber

    I think it is a very slow commentary on global warming.

    • Joseph Susanka

      I had not considered that option previously, Theodore. But it makes some sense to me. I’m intrigued.

  • Joseph Thompson

    Have you ever read any Haruki Murakami? The dialogue in the XKCD comic reminds me a lot of the the mythical and memory-lonely tonal dialogue in Murakami’s “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World.”

    • Joseph Susanka

      I have not, Joseph. Will give him a look, though. (I’m pretty sure the title of “Hard-Boiled Wonderland and the End of the World” alone would have been enough to guarantee I’d at least crack the cover.) Thanks for the recommendation!