Failure: Why Are People Laughing?

April 26, 2009

If you have ever used Twitter, you may have come across the infamous ‘fail whale.’ While you may wonder what the fail whale actually is, it is quite self-explanatory. When their is an error or an overload of users on Twitter, users will find themselves staring a whale being carried over water by tiny birds. With so many errors on Twitter and users finding themselves staring at a fail whale so often, one would expect angry and annoyed tweeples. Instead, it is quite the opposite.

The fail whale has become something of a phenomenon in that what was just supposed to be an error page for Twitter, has now become an iconic logo. Originally created by Twitter user yiyinglu, the fail whale has made ‘failure’ profitable and also amusing.

Enjoying Others Fail

So what is about the fail whale that makes failure acceptable? Most would agree that failure is a disappointing and it would be shocking to hear someone say that they take pleasure out of seeing someone ‘fail.’ Still, it is a growing trend that is making failure become laughable and amusing.

The biggest reason for this growing trend stems from the direction that television shows and most recently the internet have begun to dip toward. For the last 19 years, America’s Funniest Home Videos has been bringing laughter to families across the nation. While shows consist of dogs doing tricks and kids saying funny things, it does include segments where someone ultimately ‘fails’ and gets hurt. This has been AFHV’s bread and butter. Without it, they wouldn’t be the same. Audiences watch because they want to see failure. Not only do they want it, but they almost demand it.

Fast forward to the present and we can see even more extreme cases where ‘failure’ is a joke.

Would you believe it if I told you that one of the fastest growing websites on the web revolves around people sharing their stories of failure and bad luck? I introduce you to FMyLife. With nearly 2 million unique visitors just last month, FMyLife has a growth rate of more than 75% in the last 2 months.

Here is an example of something a user wrote on FMyLife:

Today, I was meeting my girlfriend at the airport after studying abroad for a year. She ran to hug me, and I wanted to pick her up and spin her around, like they do in those romantic movies.I tried to do that, but instead I dropped her.FML

While it may be bad enough for people to laugh at one’s failure, FMyLife makes sure to have one key element to a successful website: Building Community. FMyLife allows users to rate these events by voting:I agree, your life is f***ed or you deserved that one. For the example given above, the FMyLife community voted you deserved that one 21,877 times.

Another site similar to FMyLife which has been gaining popularity is Fail Blog. As the name suggest, Fail Blog advertises themselves by the following:

Fail, Owned and Pwn moments in pictures and videos. Share fails, pwns, and owns with the world on FAIL Blog.

Fail Blog also builds their community presence by allowing users to comment on photos and videos as well as share content to other platforms like Facebook and Twitter. At nearly 11% growth rate, Fail Blog is close to reaching the 1 million unique visitors mark.

So what does this tell us?

Twitter has brought us the Fail Whale, FMyLife has brought us the now popular term “FML”, and Fail Blog has created an epicenter for ‘fail’ moments. People don’t just like hearing and seeing people ‘fail’, they love it. Love may be a strong word to use, but numbers don’t lie. People don’t mind reading and hearing about it, as long as it doesn’t happen to them. That is the key to it all. It is perverse to think that one can take pleasure out of someones bad luck, but as long as they themselves aren’t the ‘victim’ it seems like one could care less. One way to look at the situation is that when users see and read these stories about others unfortunate events, if they have no sense of connection with the ‘victim’ then they have no shame in laughing about it. The result of sites like FMyLife and Fail Blog is that they have created a new sense of what I call ‘fail humor.’ In a society where failures are becoming the punch lines of jokes, who is to say that when someone tells of how they failed at some pivotal point in their life, we as a society won’t laugh at them?

In an ideal and entirely optimistic world, failure would be seen as a way to learn from one’s mistakes. Some of the most powerful quotes we have today have been about failure and overcoming. One of my favorite quotes comes from Michael Jordan where he talks about his failure and the role it played in his life:

I’ve missed more than 9,000 shots in my career. I’ve lost almost 300 games. 26 times I’ve been trusted to take the game winning shot and missed. I’ve failed over and over and over again in my life and that is why I succeed.

If failure is a joke, would you laugh if your best friend failed college? Would you be amused if your mom failed at being a parent? Failure is a term we use to describe times when the outcome was unsuccesful or unfortunate events, it is important that we never forget that.


Photo by Shes Jack

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  • Reply Fanny Lawren April 26, 2009 at 11:57 am

    Interesting article. But is it really failure that people are laughing about? Could it be…

    1) embrassement – It could give good laughs as long as the people involved could laugh at it as well;

    2) journey to success – You could laugh about it and learn from it.

    Just my thought.

  • Reply Benjamin Jancewicz April 26, 2009 at 12:01 pm

    Great post, Joseph!

    I think the Fail Whale works because he’s charming. There is also the Missing Owl, also created by yiyinglu. There are even copies of the Fail Whale. Jaiku has a little bird that comes up when something goes missing.

    But the Fail Whale plays to a different kind of funny. On America’s Funniest Home Videos, there are two kinds of humour. People failing miserably (and it must be epic, or it’s not funny) and cute things making mistakes. The latter is definitely not epic, but it’s funny because the subject is cute. Fail Whale achieves that too.

    They could have easily replaced Fail Whale with a video of a skateboarder having his nuts crushed by a banister. But the atmosphere on the site would be much different.

    Fail Whale achieves what you talk about at the end of your post. It diffuses anger. It lets everyone know that we’re all victims, that collectively people share the problem. It doesn’t offer excuses, or pre-programmed unintelligible error messages. It helps us feel not alone, and lets us laugh at ourselves.

  • Reply James S. Walker April 26, 2009 at 1:10 pm

    Hey Joseph,

    Interesting post, once again. I wouldn’t have thought of the failure trend over time.

    Some points I’m not sure of though. I think the fail whale is one of those funky parts of twitter culture that gets laughed at because people realize that its absurd to get so upset about a free service that allows us to talk to each other online with a tad more ease than email. It’s now a complete joke.

    The twitter creators smartly made their service timeouts an event almost, one that is accepted by the culture. Hey, its much better than the Google 504 error pages. Also, people are laughing at the fail whale because it’s not that serious. When Twitter goes out, you know it’ll be back soon enough. When Google or another service goes down and you can’t read or send email, now you’ve got a problem. Right?

    The other things you mention all have to do with our interest in seeing those funny, embarassing, awkward, yet intensely REAL moments of life that we either rarely see or readily share.

    FML in some ways is like Post Secret “lite”. It still has the confessional aspect and allows feedback. Some of those posts are a little out there so you never know if they are really happening…(skeptic in me).

    I do think that you’re onto something when you talk about how our lack of connection to the person experiencing that “FAIL” moment. If we knew that people in some of those situations it might not be as funny, but depending on the topic, it might be hilarious.

    Thought provoking all the same. Hope all is well man.


  • Reply Joseph April 27, 2009 at 2:06 am

    @Fanny — Thanks for the comment! I appreciate it. I think for “Journey to Success,” to a degree you are right. We like to learn and laugh it off, but the growing trend is that ANYTHING can be a joke. Someone getting severely hurt is now funny.

    @Benjamin — I will admit that I am a bit of a fan of the fail whale design and that occasionally my girlfriend will yell “fail whale” as a joke when I mess something up haha.

    @James — As usual, I enjoy reading your comments as I feel you bring great value! I totally agree that the Fail Whale page is better than the Google error page!

  • Reply Benjamin Jancewicz April 28, 2009 at 8:40 am

    P.S., you should install this:

    That way people will know to come by and discuss if you’ve replied.

  • Reply Robert Sofia April 28, 2009 at 12:39 pm

    I think you’ve touched on something everyone can relate to. Failure has many faces, some of which are amusing. It also builds character and can teach us valuable lessons. The quote from Michael Jordan really drives the point home. The more you are failing, the more you are likely to be succeeding. If you never fail, it means you never take risks, which means you aren’t getting ahead.

    Good food for thought. Nice job!

  • Reply Matt April 28, 2009 at 6:00 pm

    Joseph – this is one of those posts where I had a response, then stopped and thought about it more. It made me do a ‘double take’ so to speak, which is a good thing. I couldn’t skim it, I really had to think about it.

    I think failure can be seen in many different perspectives. The failure we find that is humorous is also, typically, harmless. Seeing the Fail Whale on Twitter, reading about someone not getting the girl on FML, and watching Funniest Home Videos (another good example is the failblog). But, as I said – these are usually lighthearted ’embarrassments’ and not so much failures.

    Looking at it from a personal perspective, it’s important to not let failure consume you. Sometimes, the best way to handle a failure or a mistake is to laugh it off, turn it into something light-hearted, and learn from it, grow from it. That’s not to say that every mistake is laughable, but I think what Twitter and FML are doing is great in giving us a humorous view at the failures that inevitably happen every day.

    Again, great post Joseph.

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