2375: Worst Ladder

Explain xkcd: It's 'cause you're dumb.
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Worst Ladder
[Six months later] "Well, our 'worst ladder' subscription series was a surprisingly lucrative success, but was completely canceled out by the losses from the disastrous Home Depot merchandising tie-in."
Title text: [Six months later] "Well, our 'worst ladder' subscription series was a surprisingly lucrative success, but was completely canceled out by the losses from the disastrous Home Depot merchandising tie-in."


An always present concern of media industries is consumers shifting tastes or indeed abandoning a medium altogether (such as print newspapers or in-person theaters). This strip depicts one such scenario prompting a meeting to discuss the problem. The other attendees suspect the consumers are simply shifting to an online platform, but Megan reveals they are instead shifting towards image search results.

Of course, during the age of the internet, there are many sources of free entertainment. YouTube and TikTok provide examples of these services, as practically anyone can choose from a tremendous variety of content. Therefore, this abundance of free content hurts services that require money to see their content, particularly when this content does not have any factors that make it inherently more appealing than the free services. The Quibi paid service shut down, just 6 months after it opened, on the same day that this comic appeared.

The joke here is that instead of YouTube or TikTok, possible customers are going to the Google Image search page for "worst ladder". Even the meeting participants are entranced by it, so the meeting devolves into everyone showing their favorites to each other, even though everyone there should have a particularly vested interest in their own company's performance.

Searching for images is an unorthodox source of entertainment, frequently only seen when searching for memes (this, in fact, is how Know Your Meme gauges interest in a meme). Depending on your relationship with Google's personalization algorithms, image results may change up between different people or different views, or remain roughly stagnant from day to day (contrasted with other services that contain new posts nearly every second), and the quality of any Google Images page will decline with scrolling. Therefore, an image search results page is not a sustainable source of entertainment[citation needed], and may be unlikely to compete with the service in this comic.

Search results currently tend to vary widely from person to person, as Google uses the user's search history, IP address, and location to try to find the most relevant result for each person, even if they are not logged in. (For instance, regular readers of xkcd are more likely to see this comic in the search results for "worst ladder".) This provides social opportunities around searching, sometimes exploited by social media posts (which may be how Megan originally found out).

The title text explains that the company actually decided to use the idea, and created a subscription service for these images. The idea was a success and was indeed very lucrative. They then tried selling actual "worst ladders", or "worst ladders"-themed merchandise at a hardware store, thinking that people who enjoy looking at others' mistakes would also enjoy making that mistake themselves, but this tie-in ended up costing them as much money as they made from the subscriptions (if the word "disastrous" is meant literally, there may have been injuries and liability lawsuits involved). Alternately, those who happily consumed this company's new output were put off by the overt commercialism of over-promoting the chain-store and so took their schadenfreude custom somewhere else/back to their original ad hoc sources.


[Ponytail, Cueball, Hairy and Hairbun are sitting around a boardroom table. Megan is giving a presentation and pointing to a chart behind her.]
Megan: Our entertainment division is failing. We can't compete with free content.
[A frameless panel. Only Megan is shown, with her pointer to her side.]
Off-panel voice: Where are they going? YouTube? TikTok?
Megan: No.
[Zoomed in on Megan.]
Megan: The Google Images search results for worst ladder.
Off-panel voice: Huh?
Off-panel voice: Let me see ...
[Ponytail and Cueball are looking at one laptop, and Hairy and Hairbun are looking at a second. Megan has her arms out in front of her, frustrated.]
Ponytail: Yikes, look at this one! The stepladder is balanced on --
Hairy: Wow, they tied a ladder to --
Hairbun: Ooh, check out the --
Megan: No!


Searching Google for "worst ladder" at the time the comic was posted allows observing ladders that are comically unsafe or poorly designed (see sample results from shortly after the comic was posted). It is worth noting that, while normally it does not undergo much change, the "worst ladder" page will likely now contain a barrage of results related to this xkcd comic, as happened with 369: Dangers. This influence is similar to the Slashdot effect. For reference, at the time of posting (0:00 UTC), the comic was the 30th Google image result. From about 0:20 to 1:15 UTC, it was the 18th result; by 1:30 UTC, it had become the third result. Searching Google for "worst ladder -xkcd" yields better results, but some xkcd is still there.

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Their ladder is obviously placed somewhere where they all have to walk under it to get into the boardroom. 00:59, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I find it extremely pleasing that within 20 minutes the XKCD itself in on the front page of Google results 01:09, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

Google searches gonna be skyrocketing for "Worst Ladder". --01:24, 22 October 2020‎ (UTC) (Please sign your comments)

Can definitely see when the comic was posted [1]. Maybe we should add a screenshot to the trivia section --Luckykaa (talk) 07:16, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

Can someone create a category for "business"-related comics? There are quite a few (some related to Beret Guy's businesses, but others just general). 01:31, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

Can someone confirm if this comic is related to Quibi's shutdown announcement? Because if it isn't, then it's one major coincidence. Aderon (talk) 01:50, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I'm not entirely sure of the parallels but I'd love them to be in the article--FrankHightower (talk) 02:07, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I thought someone had added a practical screenshot of Google's "worst ladder" search, before realising it was one of the inline Google-powered ads, this one 'aptly' for a certain popular online auction site which illustrated various ladders apparently up for sale upon its platform.... 01:55, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I tried doing it, but it says I'm not allowed--FrankHightower (talk) 02:07, 22 October 2020 (UTC)
I saw that link (yours?) too, and appreciated it. Now, being just an IP I'm fairly sure I'd not be allowed to upload media to the Explain wiki, but I know it's been possible for others. Like with created highlights of the XKCD Garden, IIRC. But maybe it isn't automatic to all usernames but time/authorisation-prompted, after a certain length of engagement. Maybe the answer lies in the Community Portal, or the question could be asked there if not. 02:46, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I've got a screenshot of "Worst Ladder" GIS results taken around 02:45 UTC. Would it be worth adding to the wiki, and is there a way to upload it here? GreatWyrmGold (talk) 02:49, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

Update: Even searching "worst ladder -xkcd" (which should remove all pages mentioning xkcd) has resulted in the xkcd comic coming up.

I kept feeling like I was missing some more specific reference about what company could possibly find itself replaced by "worst ladder" searches. Like, it's so specific it doesn't feel like "welp, all media companies are SOL because everyone just likes ladders now", it feels like this company was somehow in a niche that was uniquely affected...but I can't imagine what that niche could be haha.- jerodast (talk) 03:31, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

No, I think "worst ladder" is just a stand-in for any random (and absurd) internet hype. I mean, who would ever be interested in watching people randomly pouring buckets of ice water over their heads... Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 06:56, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I moved the Google Image Search part to the Trivia section. The actual results of such a searhc are imho not relevant for explaining the comic. Elektrizikekswerk (talk) 08:14, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

Also try "worst wheelchair ramps." Probably not Douglas Hofstadter (talk) 12:34, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I thought the reason for the disastrous Home Depot tie-in was the lawsuits that resulted from people buying Worst Ladders (tm) and having accidents. --Itub (talk) 13:24, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

That would require some people to actually buy and use them. You can lose a lot of money by manufacturing a product that no one buys.-- 09:37, 23 October 2020 (UTC)

I find it so jarring to see XKCD mention TikTok. For whatever reason, I associate XKCD with the 'old interenet', which obviously doesn't include TikTok. -neverdroptop 15:46, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

xkcd may be "old internet," but it's still on the "new internet". Randall Munroe's been around here a while, but he ain't out of touch. GreatWyrmGold (talk) 16:33, 22 October 2020 (UTC)
I consider anything from earlier than the Web as Old Internet, anything post-Eternal September to be New Internet, and in-between is a very interesting time. xkcd at its core (before you also consider its official Twitter/etc accounts) is firmly NI, but also definitely Web 2.0(+) in 'vintage'. But with an OI charm quite often lost in today's electronic biosphere. I don't think there's anything wrong with Randall commenting on the latest (or potentially so) Social Media platforms, or participating. I suppose a usenet://alt.fan.xkcd presence might be a bit too 'retro', but... now I think of it, why not? 18:00, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

I performed the "worst ladder" search at 19:00 UTC and the top two search results are the XKCD page, followed by this ExplainXkcd page! We're number 2! Mind you that might be a reflection of how often I visit this site. Nutster (talk) 19:02, 22 October 2020 (UTC)

At this time, explainXKCD is number 1 for my sister, who doesn't visit this site at all, in incognito mode-- 19:49, 22 October 2020 (UTC)
I'm seeing the explainxkcd copy of the image in first place, the one on xkcd in 4th, and the same comic on 3 other sites on the first screen. Didn't realise there were that many popular mirrors. Angel (talk) 00:41, 23 October 2020 (UTC)
I'm seeing a reddit post "the top google image search result for worst ladder is", then this Explain XKCD second. There are other sites that reference XKCD in the top 25 images, but not actually XKCD itself. -- 10:30, 23 October 2020 (UTC)

Anyone think it's possible this is a reference to that Quibi service, which shut down a few days before? w.J 02:18, 24 October 2020 (UTC)

I was toying around with google trends, and I noticed a certain spike on the searches for 'worst ladder' around the time the comic was posted, which means xkcd had a measurable impact on google searches!! do yall think it's worth putting in the trivia section?? this link should hopefully work [2]