What were the original two results for 'died in a blogging accident'?

This question about an XKCD comic currently has three votes to close, and Hamlet♦ has left a comment saying he'd be happy to be the fifth:

I think this question is off-topic and am perfectly happy to cast the fifth close vote. The image is a picture of a graph. The fact that the graph occurs in a xkdc [sic] cartoon is irrelevant. The question asks for the source of one of the data points of said graph. I fail to see any argument as to how such a question would be on-topic on a site about literature. It's not a literary analysis question, it's not a question that you can ask about a story, etc. I've been a proponent of a broad scope, but we have to draw the line somewhere.

I was also one of the close-voters, but I'm having trouble articulating exactly why I felt this question is off-topic. I'm getting a definite feeling of scope creep - if questions about XKCD trivia are on-topic, then what isn't? - but that's not enough justification on its own for closing this particular question.

Thus, I bring the accused before you, dear meta.
Should this question be closed or left open? And most importantly, why?

  • 1
    It's a Skeptics question. It's asking for where a stat came from. It's not out there in the context to analyze a specific piece of literature or to understand it better, in the context of the entire piece.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:30
  • @Zizouz212 But not all questions on this site have to be about analysing a specific piece of literature or understanding it better in the context of the entire piece. We've had questions about song lyrics, literary awards, pseudonyms, speeches, ...
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:39
  • @Zizouz212 That's a bad heuristic, and I'm not sure it's a correct one. E.g. here's a question that was asked by me out of curiosity and won't in any way change my view on the series. On the other hand, XKCD is usually referencing popular culture, and it's quite relevant to understand the comic as a whole. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:40
  • @Gallifreyan Your question states "What is the reason the writer was changed mid-series?" Asking "Where did this number come from in this comic" doesn't seem related to that in any way.
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:41
  • @Zizouz212 My point is, my question is about the production of a comic, and it's not related in any way to literary analysis or some such. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:47

2 Answers 2


I think this is off topic, and that it's Literature Stack Exchange's version of a problem Role-Playing Games Stack Exchange resolved in 2012: real-world research questions.

I'd like to summarise the issue briefly, so you can check if there's parallels for yourself.

On RPG Stack Exchange we deal with tabletop roleplaying games like Dungeons & Dragons, the kind you play with pen and paper and dice. Subjects like boats, finance, economies, medieval history, modern technology, and geography get used in those games. So, people started asking us directly about those topics: they'd ask us about real-life medieval boating or the 1930's USA economy or other stuff which frankly had nothing to do with any of our expertise in role-playing games.

Something seemed wrong about that. We weren't meant to be Anything At All Stack Exchange. There were sites like History.SE for questions like that boating one. We weren't sure where to draw the line until 2012, and I'll get to the line we drew in a moment.

Literature has some risk for that too: “this thing showed up in a book, so I'll ask about it on literature” potentially enters domains requiring expertise totally unrelated to literature expertise. Was Mark Twain actually almost a millionaire twice over, before he became famous? was an early borderline question that made me concerned Literature might eventually experience this very phenomenon (though that question seemed to be received OK and may not itself be representative of this issue).

Here's where RPG.SE drew the line: we decided to only accept questions that were materially related to RPG expertise. Our on topic help now sports the following passage:

Questions about a general real-world topic such as history, geography or economics, whilst relevant to RPGs, may be off topic if they are not RPG-centric (or better belong on another Stack Exchange site, such as History). A good rule of thumb is to ask yourself:

Would an RPG expert give me a better/different/more specific answer to this question than a Historian, Geographer, etc?

If yes, then feel free to ask it here.

This means “how does the F-22 fighter jet work?” is off topic and should be asked on Aviation SE instead, but “how can I model the F-22 for this pilot character in Dresden Files RPG?” is on topic.

We adopted this from Game Dev Stack Exchange, which has a very similar passage in their own on topic help to handle their own issue of non-game-related art, music, and programming questions.

I don't know where you'd draw the line on Literature Stack Exchange, though, and it might take a different formula instead. A rule of thumb of “Would an avid book reader or literary analyst give me a better/different…” might not cut it for being clear enough.

FYI: a conversation some of us had about this in chat.

  • Your example Mark Twain question is clearly on-topic, because it's about an author and even made an appearance in one of his works. Your proposed rule of thumb could make sense, but we're not Skeptics - who draws the line between "literature enough" and "too real-world"? Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:40
  • 3
    You make some good points - in fact, even earlier today I was thinking about posting a question about the historical/scientific accuracy of something-or-other (can't remember what) and then decided "no, that would be a question for History or Physics or Biology - it's not really about literature per se". This reminds me of SFF's policy on science questions: essentially, real-world science goes to science sites, while fictional science can stay on the sci-fi site.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:43
  • @Randal'Thor I think you basically summed up my thoughts better than I could have as well :)
    – Zizouz212
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:44
  • @Gallifreyan I'm not sure where the line would be drawn really. And yeah, that question itself might be fine. I've updated this answer to clarify it based on your comment. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:45
  • 3
    But on the other hand, we have to consider that (1) questions about a book's historical accuracy can help us to appreciate the book better (e.g. this question - it's much harder to appreciate Dostoevsky's The Idiot if you don't know what the main character's title means) and (2) for some literature questions, the skills needed are research, which can also answer questions like the XKCD one (I answered it using the same internet searching skills that I've used to answer several firmly on-topic questions).
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 16:46
  • I think "Would an RPG expert give me a better/different/more specific answer to this question than a Historian, Geographer, etc?" is actually a great rule of thumb. And I think in the case of the xkcd question the answer clearly is no.
    – user111
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 18:07
  • @Hamlet So who do you think would be best qualified to answer the XKCD question, specifically? Clearly not a physicist or a geographer in this case. What kind of expertise is required? (To me it seems like an exercise in internet research skills, which is what's often needed for literature questions too.)
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 19:03
  • 3
    @Randal'Thor Bear in mind the RPG guideline doesn't care who would answer it, or whether there's a stack or practical way to get it answered otherwise. The rule of thumb is just that, for establishing a good frame of reference. We are optimizing for pearls, not sand and we don't care much about leaving a person out in the cold because their question is something we're trying to filter out. For example, there's no geology or military stack — we still won't answer real world geology or military questions. Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 19:12
  • 3
    @Randal'Thor if we're defining our sites scope as "exercise in internet research skills", then that could mean anything. You're going to have to find a more specific purpose for this site than "internet research skills".
    – user111
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 21:12
  • 1
    @Hamlet I never said that should be this site's scope or purpose, only that such questions are suited to the type of expertise found on this site (unlike the history/geology/etc. type questions that doppelgreener is talking about).
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jun 21, 2017 at 22:15
  • Just for the record, I ended up downvoting this answer for essentially reason (2) in my second comment above: you make some very good points about "real world" questions as opposed to literature ones, but the XKCD question isn't one of these. I think you're attacking an unintentional straw man here. It's not a question about history or geology or whatever; it's a question about something which, by previous precedent on this site, should count as literature.
    – Rand al'Thor Mod
    Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 14:11
  • @Rand There is room to re-assess if that precedent is something we want to stick with, so the existence of precedent alone doesn't necessarily finalise anything. Commented Jun 22, 2017 at 14:15

I've thought about it some more, and I now think this question should be on-topic (and have retracted my close-vote accordingly), after considering the possible reasons for it to be off-topic.

  • Is XKCD itself on-topic? This is the first thing we need to ask, and I think the answer should be YES. We already have questions about comics, and questions about online publications; I couldn't find any questions specifically about webcomics, but if Calvin & Hobbes is on-topic, then surely XKCD should be as well.

  • Are "trivia" questions on-topic? This is an issue which I suspect will come up many times more on Lit meta, and doppelgreener makes a good point that perhaps some of them should be off-topic as being "not really about literature". However, this particular piece of trivia is almost the main point of that XKCD comic. The joke is that "died in a car accident" or "died in a skydiving accident" are commonly-heard phrases whereas (almost) nobody ever says "die in a blogging accident" or "die in a haberdashery accident". Given that a couple of people actually did use the least popular of the phrases on the chart, it's interesting to ask who.

    I'm not a fan of judging questions' on-topic-ness for this site by how "useful" or "interesting" they are, as I've already discussed elsewhere, but I think this particular question would be OK even if we were applying such stringent criteria. So the answer to this one is MU.

  • Is this a question for literature experts? Well, it's not a literary analysis question - that's for sure. But we've already established that this site isn't just for literary analysis questions. What you need to answer this question is internet research skills - which is exactly what you need to answer many other questions here which nobody would dispute are about literature.

    For this reason, I think doppelgreener's answer, while it makes some very good general points which we might want to consider at some later stage, doesn't really apply to this particular question. This isn't a question for historians or geologists or anyone else; it's a question to which our site's 'experts' are at least as well-suited as any other's.

Why, then, did I vote to close this question myself at first? Well, I think - and I suspect others feel similarly - it was a combination of the fact that it's about a borderline on-topic work and the fact that it doesn't seem literary. Put together "ugh, XKCD, that's not proper literature" and "ugh, hunting for Google results, that's not literary" (both forms of literature snobbery) and they're enough to extract a semi-unwilling close vote even if neither on its own would have been. This seems to be roughly the same thinking as Hamlet was following when he said:

There are two ways to define the scope. We can confine it to books. Or we can confine it to literary analysis. That question isn't about a book and it isn't about literary analysis, so I don't really see how it is on-topic.

When I pointed out that he was wrong about this, because we have plenty of questions not about books and plenty of questions not about literary analysis, I began to realise what the problem is: this question is in the intersection of two regions of controversy and borderline on-topic-ness, which makes people more willing to VTC it than if it had been in just one of them. But:

TL;DR: if a question is in two categories which are only just on-topic, then it too should be on-topic. Controversiality isn't cumulative.

  • 1
    I actually think the comment I posted ("There are two ways to define the scope. We can confine it to books. Or we can confine it to literary analysis. That question isn't about a book and it isn't about literary analysis, so I don't really see how it is on-topic.") isn't a bad rule of thumb. Content here should be interesting to people who are interested in literature. Those two categories (books and literary analysis) are, in my mind, the topics people come to the site for. So if something isn't in either category...
    – user111
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 3:14
  • 1
    I'm not 100% sure that my comment is the right way to go. But I think it's worth considering as a possible boundary for our scope.
    – user111
    Commented Jun 23, 2017 at 3:14

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