The greatest email I’ve ever received

My last post reminded me of something that I always meant to write about, but never have.

Approximately 24 hours after I published BOIYNB, the following email landed in my inbox. I wouldn’t say that I’m swoon-prone, but I swooned.

Oh, how I swooned.

Date: Fri, 15 Feb 2008 00:03:32 -0500
From: “Randall Munroe” <xkcd@xkcd.com>
To: mhonan@gmail.com
Subject: Barack Obama (from Randall Munroe of xkcd)


Hi,

Assuming you’re the guy who did barackobamaisyournewbicycle.com:

You should try adjusting the randomizer on your site (barackobamaisyournewbicycle.com) so that it takes you through all the items before repeating one. There’s a subtle probability-related problem that occurs in showing people stuff at random that isn’t sufficiently appreciated.

If you have 1,000 factoids, you know how many you’ll have to show before the reader will probably see a repeat? 38. And when they see that first repeat, they think “okay, I’ve seen most of them.” Even if you write 10,000 entries, they’ll see a repeat on average after 119.

Bottom line, you can make the site much more enthralling if, for each visitor (IP/whatever), you shuffle the factoids and then show them one at a time, so there’s no repeat. This will look almost exactly the same to the reader for the first few refreshes, but it fixes the fact that under the current true randomness, the site looks like it has only 1%-10% as much content that it ACTUALLY does.

This affects a lot of sites, but yours is cute and I thought I’d let you know.

— Randall

Ultimately, I didn’t take Randall’s advice. Not because I didn’t think it was valid; he was completely right from a user experience standpoint I believe. But rather because the site—which as I’ve oft noted I thought up while riding the bus home and had pushed live by 9 PM that night in the exact same format that it’s in now*—was lightning in a bottle.

I still have no idea why people took to it like they did. Although I’ve never added any new phrases, or updated it*, it still gets a few hundred visitors daily. But I think it had something to do with the true randomness of the site (in multiple senses of that word).

XKCD is brilliant, brilliant, brilliant. Munroe is one of those rare geniuses who can pull off humor and human tragedy at once. I find his work entertaining, inspiring and moving—hence my excitement at receiving an email from him.

But sometimes, in order to believe in yourself, you have to believe that you are more right than those who you admire; that you are more right than those who are smarter, funnier, more experienced and more successful than you are. And without that certitude in your own work, too often you end up imitating rather than innovating.

In the end I stuck with my gut, and I think it was the right thing to do. And besides, I didn’t know how to fix it anyway. ;-)

*Other than to add the link in the lower right-hand corner to my book. Which you should buy. Even if you don’t love Obama like you once did. Even if your honeymoon is over. Because he’s still super-fantastic. You know that old saying that if the people lead the leaders will follow? Yeah? I know. Cliché. But that’s what happened last year. And it worked. And then there was a new season of The Office or Mad Men or Friends, or whatever, and we all forgot about Barack and that he was only successful because so many of us had his back and now nobody has his back except maybe Michelle and Rahm and if you don’t want healthcare in this country to be perpetually fucked you’d better get on it, you’d better make some phonecalls, you’d better do something other than just updating your Facebook status (and yes, I’m guilty, guilty, guilty) because the system doesn’t want to change and the system resists change and we’re all fucked unless we do something about it.

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