I have a simple and lighthearted but (I suspect) non-trivial question.

Having seen the phrase ‘Obligatory XKCD’ a lot recently and used it often myself (There’s a lot of overlap between WB.SE and the topics Randall Munroe likes to handle) I’m now wondering where/when it was first used?

I don’t know if we can trawl the comment history for the first instance of a specific phrase, but I would be interested if anyone knows just how this now common WB.SE quirk began.


3 Answers 3


To add to Glorfindel's answer:

Randall Munroe once made a comic about a programming error that was very common decades ago, which allowed hackers to have gain control over databases even if they did not have administrator credentials. When a programmer made this mistake, we could usually modify data as much as we wanted, delete whole databases, or bring a site down by overwhelming its hardware with useless queries.

In the comic, a woman named her son in such a way that inputting his name in an electronic system would delete student data (should the system have a table called Students). Some school is calling the mother to complain about what she did, and she replies by letting the school know how amateurish their IT work is.

Her daughter is named Help I'm trapped in a driver's license factory. Notice that this hotlinking of the image above is allowed by the author. Check the source link above.

Since it was a very common mistake, programmers went en masse to Stack Overflow (and other sites not in Stack Exchange) for a solution. There was an absurd amount of duplicate questions - so we were joking that reading that specific XKCD comic was part of the mandatory education for a programmer.

Back then Stack Exchange did not have many sites as it does today. Besides SO there was just Super User and Server Fault, if I remember correctly. Those were all aimed at IT, so references to XKCD were mostly about that comic or some other related ones.

Since a lot of Worldbuilding users are also SO users, the tradition made its way here memetically, but the "mandatory" part of the joke lost its original meaning. Now it is said as if speaking of a subject causes an obligation to reference a related XKCD comic should one exist, not that the specific comic contains mandatory knowledge for someone to work in a field.

On a not unrelated note, I feel really old now.

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    $\begingroup$ "School," not "schoo." Also part of the joke is public schools have notoriously bad IT $\endgroup$ Nov 4, 2020 at 15:53
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    $\begingroup$ Sidenote: we have an abnormous high link rate to XKCD compared to others, because XKCD also has a lot of astrophysical problems and political problems, and Randell does run What If?, which does occasionally solve our problems... $\endgroup$
    – Trish
    Nov 5, 2020 at 9:35
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    $\begingroup$ The programming error is still a problem today. SQL injection attacks are #1 on the OWASP top 10 owasp.org/www-project-top-ten $\endgroup$
    – UEFI
    Nov 5, 2020 at 10:59
  • $\begingroup$ @UEFI that is why we can't have nice things. Frameworks nowadays ensure that you are only vulnerable to SQL injection if you try hard to be vulnerable. Oh well... $\endgroup$ Nov 9, 2020 at 6:09
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    $\begingroup$ Obligatory bobby-tables reference. Also, ironically, in most case the right thing to do is not to try and "sanitize database inputs" on your own, but depend on framework/platform/environment code to do it for you; otherwise you're very likely to miss something. $\endgroup$
    – Zev Spitz
    Nov 9, 2020 at 10:05

The earliest reference I could find on the network is this Stack Overflow answer from March 2009. I encounter the phrase all over the network, so it was inevitable to hit Worldbuilding eventually.

In fact, the phrase probably predates the Stack Exchange network. To my surprise, it doesn't even appear in The Many Memes of Meta.

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    $\begingroup$ It does predate SO, but not by long. oldest mention I could find was on 2008-02-04, so only a few months before SO was announced. xkcd itself started in 2006, and it of course took a while for "obligatory xkcd" to catch on and to become popular. $\endgroup$
    – Polygnome
    Nov 3, 2020 at 20:13

At least 2007.

The term appears on my companies internal wiki dating back to September 2007. A comic published in July 2007 (if you use "goto" in programming you'll get velociraptord) made it's way into our official coding standard.


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