Where did the “FAIL” Internet meme come from?

by 1389 on September 1, 2010

in "The Great Recession", 1389 (blog admin), 2010 US Elections, Arizona, art and design, Egypt, FAIL, humor, meme, pride, railroads and trains, sloth, the human condition

Train wreck at Montparnasse 1895 - FAIL - click for larger image

What’s new about FAILure?

Failure has been part of the human condition ever since the Fall of Man. Every one of us learns of the ubiquity of failure, almost from birth. Failure generally means that you tried something that didn’t work, with consequences all too often catastrophic. In a larger sense, you can also fail by not bothering to make an adequate effort in the first place.

Failure, actual and impending, of every stripe, is celebrated hilariously on an ever-growing cornucopia of blogs and websites, such as The Darwin Awards, Fark.com, There, I Fixed It, The Smoking Gun, numerous demotivational poster sites, and one of my own favorites, the Lords of Logistics series on Dark Roasted Blend.

During the past decade, the familiar word “failure” has become the Internet meme “FAIL”. The infamous Urban Dictionary defines Fail in various ways, including “The glorious lack of success.” The FAIL meme has propagated in tandem with the seemingly exponential growth of FAILure in the world at large.

I’ve occasionally experimented with the FAIL meme myself, both on deviantART and on 1389 Blog. The following example suddenly became more relevant after John McCain won the 2010 Arizona Republican primary election:

Swirling vortex of Arizona FAIL license plates

The unfortunately leftist online Slate Magazine contends that the growth of the FAIL meme reflects Schadenfreude, defined as pleasure at the misfortunes of others:

Slate: Why is everyone saying “fail” all of a sudden?

the good word
Epic Win: Goodbye, schadenfreude; hello, fail.
By Christopher Beam
Posted Wednesday, Oct. 15, 2008, at 11:55 AM ET

…What’s with all the failing lately? Why fail instead of failure? Why FAIL instead of fail? And why, for that matter, does it have to be “epic”?

It’s nearly impossible to pinpoint the first reference, given how common the verb fail is, but online commenters suggest it started with a 1998 Neo Geo arcade game called Blazing Star. (References to the fail meme go as far back as 2003.) Of all the game’s obvious draws—among them fast-paced action, disco music, and anime-style cut scenes—its staying power comes from its wonderfully terrible Japanese-to-English translations. If you beat a level, the screen flashes with the words: “You beat it! Your skill is great!” If you lose, you are mocked: “You fail it! Your skill is not enough! See you next time! Bye bye!”

Normally, this sort of game would vanish into the cultural ether. But in the lulz-obsessed echo chamber of online message boards—lulz being the questionable pleasure of hurting someone’s feelings on the Web—”You fail it” became the shorthand way to gloat about any humiliation, major or minor. “It” could be anything, from getting a joke to executing a basic mental task. For example, if you told me, “Hey, I liked your article in Salon today,” I could say, “You fail it.” Convention dictates that I could also add, in parentheses, “(it being reading the titles of publications).” The phrase was soon shortened to fail—or, thanks to the caps-is-always-funnier school of Web writing, FAIL. People started pasting the word in block letters over photos of shameful screw-ups, and a meme was born.

The fail meme hit the big time this year with the May launch of Failblog, an assiduous chronicler of humiliation and a guide to the taxonomy of fail. The most basic fails—a truck getting sideswiped by an oncoming train, say, or a National Anthem singer falling down on the ice—are usually the most boring, as obvious as a clip from America’s Funniest Home Videos. Another easy laugh is the translation fail, such as the unfortunately named “Universidad de Moron.” This is the same genre of fail that spawned Engrish, an entire site devoted to poor English translations of Asian languages, not to mention the fail meme itself. A notch above those are unintentional-contradiction fails, like “seedless” sunflower seeds or a door with two signs on it: “Welcome” and “Keep Out.” Architectural fails have the added misfortune of being semipermanent, such as the handicapped ramp that leads the disabled to a set of stairs or the second-story door that opens out onto nothing. Even more embarrassing are simple information fails, like the brochure that invites students to “Study Spanish in Mexico” with photos of the Egyptian pyramids. These fails often expose deep ignorance: One woman thinks her sprinkler makes a rainbow because of toxins in the water and air.

The highest form of fail—the epic fail—involves not just catastrophic failure but hubris as well. Not just coming in second in a bike race but doing so because you fell off your bike after prematurely raising your arms in victory. Totaling your pickup not because the brakes failed but because you were trying to ride on the windshield. Not just destroying your fish tank but doing it while trying to film yourself lifting weights.

Why has fail become so popular? It may simply be that people are thrilled to finally have a way to express their schadenfreude out loud. Schadenfreude, after all, is what you feel when someone else executes a fail. But the fail meme also changes our experience of schadenfreude. What was once a quiet pleasure-taking is now a public—and competitive—sport.

It’s no wonder, then, that the fail meme gained wider currency with the advent of the financial crisis. Some observers relished watching wealthier-than-God investment bankers get their comeuppance. It helped that the two events occurred at the same time—Google searches for fail surged in early 2008, around the same time the mortgage crisis started to pick up steam. And the ubiquity of phrases like “failed mortgages” and “bank failures” seemed to echo the popular meme, which may have helped usher the term out of 4chan boards and onto blogs.It’s rare that an Internet fad finds such a suitable mainstream vehicle for its dissemination. It’s as if LOLcats coincided with a global outbreak of some feline adorability virus. The financial crisis also fits neatly into the Internet’s tendency toward overstatement. (Worst. Subprime mortgage crisis. Ever.) Only this time, it’s not an exaggeration….

Read the rest.

Somebody else’s troubles may be our own

As with the gapers block phenomenon, we can never quite look away from failures that are not our own. Whether trivial or spectacular, whether humiliating or oddly heroic, whether well-deserved or the outcome of pure happenstance, failure gets our attention, and well it should.

I don’t think it’s always schadenfreude. Sometimes we laugh out of relief because the troubles belong to somebody else this time around, even though we know it could have happened to us.

Other times, we laugh about failure even when the failure DOES embroil us in its consequences, as with the ongoing political, social, and economic debacles in the US and the EU. (If you need a good laugh right now, check out the Sunday Funnies political cartoon series on Flopping Aces.) When we can share a good laugh, it not only underlines the lessons that we can learn from these failures, but also lightens the burdens that we all must bear as we work our way through.

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