Who is the most influential person in Internet history? That argument could go on for years. But you could make the case that one guy with a pencil has the strange power to make things happen without a company, without a title, and without even asking. Randall Munroe has influence he never asked for. His creation xkcd is "A webcomic of romance, sarcasm, math, and language." The accompanying blog, which Munroe calls a "blag," is where he posts everything outside of the thrice-weekly comic. He's published several books, too, but it's the comic that seems to have the biggest impact.
1. THE BALL PIT
When Munroe posted this comic, Mike McHenry was inspired to install a ball pit in his home. Then Munroe was inspired to make it happen in his own home (shown at the top). He later enlarged it. Then Last.fm put one in their office, although it didn't last long.
2. CORY'S COSTUME
When Munroe posted this comic, Cory Doctorow of Boing Boing was just an average-looking guy you might not recognize on the street.
A couple of months later, he showed up at ETech 2007 looking like this. Since then, the red cape and goggles have become Doctorow's signature in various comics and animations.
3. NINJA ATTACK
Maybe he should have taken lessons. A few months later, he was mock-attacked by a band of ninjas as he spoke to the debate club at Yale University.
4. INTERNET MAP
5. ONLINE COMMUNITIES
In 2007, Munroe posted a map of online communities, and updated it in 2010. Click here to enlarge.
When Munroe posted this comic, a new "sport" was born.
Andrew, Chris, Ryan, and Chance recreated the stunt in real life and sent Munroe a photo. More people sent in pictures, which end up in the Chesscoaster gallery. See more pictures here.
7. RULE 34
When Munroe posted a comic about Rule 34, he thought ahead and registered the domain wetriffs.com. Pictures were, of course, submitted. Wetriffs is no longer, but the mildly NSFW contents can be viewed via the Wayback Machine. Rule 34 leads to Rule 35, which is “If it doesn't exist on the internet, it must be created.”
8. OPERATING SYSTEM NOT FOUND
When Munroe posted this comic, Dustin Spicuzza was inspired to create software that posted a love note at the startup, with a ominous "Missing operating system" appended.
He also posted warnings about trying this at home. It could lead to panic, anxiety, and domestic discord.
When Munroe posted this comic, Raffael Mancini was inspired to develop the butterfly easter egg for Emacs. Only real programmers will understand it.
10. TASTY AND DIFFICULT FRUIT
When Munroe posted this comic (be warned: its title is NSFW), it caused an explosion of dissenting opinions. To appease the grapefruit lovers, Munroe took a poll that plots everyone's opinions on fruit. A response comic was then posted to reflect the disagreement with the original graph.
Remember the Discovery Channel song that we all sang in 2008? Munroe made his own version, featuring recurring elements from xkcd. Noam Raby made an animated version, and then there was a live-action version of the comic, and then another featuring some folks you might recognize. (I’m the one singing the first boom-de-yada.)
On July 7, 2008, Munroe posted this comic. The Wikipedia entry for "wood" immediately sprouted more pop cultural references for wood. It was the highest traffic that particular entry would ever see. The entry has since been edited, with the "Pop Cultural References" section removed.
13. YOUTUBE COMMENTS
When Munroe posted this comic, YouTube was paying attention and made it come true. Sadly, the "audio preview" comment feature only lasted about a year.
14. GRAPHING MOVIE PLOTS
When Munroe posted this comic, shown only in part here, Vadim Ogievetsky was inspired to create a generator called PlotWeaver to plot narratives for other movies.
Munroe posted about Tetris Heaven, then followed up with Hell. It was only a few hours before someone had a working version of the game online. It is every bit as frustrating as you'd think.
When Munroe published the strip "Packages" in 2009, the punch line was that the kind of things a ‘bot buys on Ebay could be used to profile the buyer as if he consciously chose those items. But the idea for an automatic buyer appealed to New Zealand developer Paul Hunkin, who created a program to do just that. His Python script scanned the Australian auction site TradeMe for cheap items with free shipping. The bot was given a dollar a day, and could make purchases out of its balance. He even told us about his purchases on Twitter for about a year. Hunkin was not the only one who tried it.
In 2014, a service called Bobcat in a Box launched, inspired by the comic. You can sign up for $30 a month, or any amount above that, and then receive surprise packages bought by their automated system. You can even set keywords on your account to limit your preferences.
The comic "Malamanteau" appeared in 2010. Munroe didn’t coin the word malamanteau, but he popularized it. A malamanteau is "a neologism for a portmanteau created by incorrectly combining a malapropism with a neologism." Some of those things are explained here. So, of course, some Wikipedia editors immediately added a page for malamanteau. It was taken down and re-added several times before the URL for malamanteau was redirected to the page on xkcd, but not before the word was analyzed at The Boston Globe and The Economist. The kerfluffle spawned a blog called Malamanteau Mania! that lasted for a couple of years. Malamanteau survives at Urban Dictionary.
18. TOP TEN HUNDRED WORDS
In November of 2012, Munroe posted the comic "Up Goer Five," which explained the parts of a Saturn V rocket using only the thousand most common words in the English language. Writing in that manner is not easy. Munroe had help from his computer, and he eventually posted a text editor that lets you know what words are not in the top thousand. Even “thousand” isn’t in the top thousand. I put the first paragraph of this article into the editor and found about half the words are verboten. An earlier text editor based on the idea was even harsher in its word rejection.
The "Up Goer Five" comic inspired Alaska Robotics to rework the song “Space Oddity” using only those common words. The result was the song “Space Weird Thing.” MinutePhysics made a science video explaining space travel using the same technique. In 2015, Munroe published a book titled Thing Explainer: Complicated Stuff in Simple Words that takes on quite a few subjects in this manner.
No doubt there are other projects inspired by the many xkcd comics. If you have any doubts about Munroe's influence, bear in mind that there have been several sites dedicated to explaining xkcd. One is still active, and there's an app that can link each comic to the explainer. One defunct site that explained the comic was itself parodied by another site, devoted to explaining the explainer. And another site explains how bad it is. Of course, there's an xkcd subreddit. There’s even a forum where other artists take xkcd comics and alter them to make them less funny. (That's influence.) Don't forget to check the hovertext at each xkcd comic for an additional punch line.