Abort, Retry, or EPIC FAIL


“This is not language. This chart is a fucking lie.”
Anil Dash, Battledecks 2008

A few years ago, I wrote an entry about knee-jerk contrarians on the Internet: those delightful people who find fault in anything and everything, dismissing months or years of work with a few words.

This is nothing new. It’s as old as communication itself. I’m sure that the moment man discovered fire, there was some guy nearby saying, “Too smoky. Can burn you. Lame.

In the modern age, we’ve found a much more efficient way to express disdain, distilled into only four letters: FAIL. This usage as a standalone interjection has been around for years, since at least 2003, but its recent explosion in popularity comes from 4chan and the Lolcats memes. Dedicated blogs like FAIL Blog, Shipment of FAIL and Fail Dogs further spread the meme.

On Twitter, the conservation of space combined with a meme-savvy audience creates a perfect storm for spreading FAIL. With only 140 characters, it’s not surprising that people have taken to using this often as a shorthand for longer criticism.

Here’s a recent example from Chris Messina (who hopefully won’t mind me picking on him):

factoryjoe: @skitch Nice Twitter + Email integration, but where’s the OAuth?? FAIL!

Obviously, Chris adores Skitch. It’s the best screenshot application ever made, he uses it constantly, and evangelized it to friends (I found out about it from him, in fact). I’m sure he intended it as a gentle ribbing, but the message is pretty straightforward: Skitch has failed because it doesn’t support an emerging standard he feels strongly about. Pretend you’re one of the Skitch developers, and compare the original to this slight reworking:

@skitch Nice Twitter + Email integration! I’d love OAuth support, too.

Part of the problem is that “FAIL” implies objective truth, when it’s just your personal opinion. Tantek Γ‡elik pointed out that, in LOLspeak, “DO NOT WANT” would be more appropriate since it clearly conveys a personal opinion.

I know many people who make stuff for the web, all of them very passionate about what they do. And every time I see a “FAIL” assigned to their work, it makes me sad. Yes, I know you’re trying to be funny. But I’m starting to see a trend away from the funny, and towards the angry, bitchy, or mean. So please, mind yer words.</missmanners>

24 Hours of FAIL on Twitter

The following is a small sampling of tweets mentioning “fail,” pulled from this Tweetscan search. Among the failures in the last day or so: Twitter, Facebook, Skype, Gmail, and Scrubs.

petroldarling: Oh my god. Metrotransit’s website is made of fail. In reality, the 84 stopped running an HOUR AGO. Now I am stuck in Midway.

nikete: facebook lacks a way to search the messages in your inbox. FAIL

jremsikjr: hulu.com FAIL! They cut out of full screen video to take me to the sponsors website at a commercial break πŸ™

DjDATZ: skype = fail.

madpilot: Paypal development sandbox allows you to send payments to accounts that don’t exist. FAIL

93octane: top chef dumbass can’t follow directions. FAIL

rv510: San Francisco protest —–> FAIL

boyafraid: Twitter is currently looking broken. Word wrap/line breaking has experienced epic FAIL.

CocoaSamurai: I can’t rent “I am Legend”? iTMS FAIL

AndrewTerry: YouTube on iPod Touch; wotta lotta fail….

jkestr: you would think a movie called blackjack would come out on the 21st rather then the 28th. Marketing dept: fail.

nrturner: Safari 3.1 is *still* using the blue ‘RSS’ icon that looks like ‘ass’ in the address bar. Fail!

montythestrange: Google Mail spam filter in EPIC FAIL mode again.

px: BofA is really good at sales I suppose. But when it comes to training their employees in regards to the issues I am facing they FAIL.

rob_ballou: not allowing symbols in passwords = FAIL

sambrown: Billings only uses my System Preferences currency settings? I can’t change it per project? What a waste of time that was. *sigh* Major Fail.

aeoth: Oh I’m loving VicLink today. I want croydon -> mt waverley, it gives me Scorsby -> mt w. NOT EVEN CLOSE. EPIC FAIL

bobthecow: kronos webapp standards compliance FAIL.

tdcool: UK broadband = fail

ferhr: Used a 15 year old /usr/share/X11 over a 2007 one. Total FAIL. Gnome/gtk is really a fragile piece of software.

Pistachio: Oh FAIL. Quickbooks online does not run on a mac. MUAH, Quicken. I love you too.

ourfounder: Valve software requires you to update your warez very very slowly before you delete them. “Fail!”

dosminos: Friday Night Lights pilot – win, Scrubs pilot – fail. Supernatural and One Tree Hill pilots – maybe.

mjjames: Visual studio doesnt use jsdoc it uses its xml way. Fail

stevefleischer: very hazy and smoggy in HK today. Air has an orangy tinge to it. Mainland fatctories EPIC FAIL.

muffinresearch: No seats what a pile of FAIL

ndw: The Scala beginner’s guide is a PDF? FAIL

knufflebunneh: I have a prediction for 2008: you fail.

61 thoughts on “Abort, Retry, or EPIC FAIL

  1. I can see where you’re coming from, but at the same time I think that there’s some translation error going on that may be making you (and others) oversensitive in the interpretation.

    The fact that lolspeak “FAIL” is spelled the same as the english “FAIL” doesn’t mean there’s an exact equivalence (i.e. consider in the latter case where a college professor hands you back FAIL in red letters on your essay). One is much harsher than the other.

    Using the lolspeak FAIL almost by definition implies that there’s a sense of humor about it, and that it *is* subjective. It’s used like you mention because it’s terse, and it’s fun and most people who get lolspeak (I think) understand it in that way.

    EPIC FAIL I think would be the stronger version in lolspeak terms (although, I think the fun is still there).

    Just my first reaction when thinking about it (because the FAIL meme doesn’t bother me that much, and on the Internet Jackassery scale seems pretty mellow — I also don’t interpret FAIL to mean anything either personal or global).

  2. I’ll just point out that my FAIL post about PayPal there, is an actual FAIL. It is an actual failure in there software.

    Skitch not having OAuth != FAIL. Skitch having OAuth and it not working == FAIL, at least that is the way I use it (Maybe I take it too literally)

  3. Your attempt to attack a meme that is used in a cultural display of superiority? YOU FAIL IT!

    Seriously, though. It may not be high brow, but few things quite capture the essence of the word. It has a flavor that people just want.

    On the other hand, divide by zero? OH SHI—

    PS: Your comment engine is full of FAIL and AIDS. It clearly says at the top “Email (optional, never displayed)”, yet it just refused by post because I did not enter my name and email address. Something needs corrected?

  4. I’d expand that out to a tone of entitlement in punditry that gives me fits. If you feel you can do better, shut the fuck up and just do it.

  5. I see where you’re coming from, and I think trying to guide it away from the mean is a really good idea.

    FAIL is still lighthearted to me when I read it — all of those uses up there seem less like condemnations of the thing as a whole and more like the pointing out of a failing part.

    That said, when someone not familiar with the LOLmeme sees someone describing their service or product as FAIL, I’m sure it could be very disconcerting.

    Expressing my thoughts clearly in this comment: FAIL.

  6. You don’t like ONE four-letter word that starts with F? And you actually wrote about it at length? Stick to linkblogging broseph.

  7. So FAIL fails. In general I agree, and I like the write up on it, but I do hesitate at the idea of swapping one word out for another solving any actual communication issues.

    Isn’t the real answer here that it’s impossible to have nuanced conversation within 140 characters?

  8. Thank you for this post. I can only hope that some of those I follow on Twitter will read it and be inspired to find a more clever way of complaining. Fail pictures are funny. Fail text is not. To me.

  9. I like to say “Boo urns”, myself, but I have used “FAIL” and its variations (-train, -boat, -bus, -factory etcetera), before.

  10. Yeah, I think i’m on board with this sentiment against laziness creep in criticism (even well-intentioned).

    The range of doubleplus good to doubleplus ungood should be enough for anyone.

  11. I should note that my nine year-old daughter has infected the third grade with fail (also “beclowned”). She is princess of WIN.

  12. LOL LRN 2 TAKE INTERBUTTS LESS SRSLY. FAIL.

    In translation: I can agree that serious comments and criticism should not include net-speak riddle with the word fail, but fully denouncing the usage implies you have a fail stick jammed somewhere up your butthole. The only thing that can get it out is relaxing more.

    Take Fail less seriously, because honestly, everyone who is using it isn’t being serious about it. And if they are, then they… FAIL.

  13. Your point makes sense as it pertains to a certain type of web jackass. The rest of the uses (and most of the examples you list) are ironically making fun of that certain type of web jackass, and are totally in jest.

    LIGHTEN UP PLZ. KTHX.

  14. I don’t think fail implies total failure. You can be very successful and loved and still contain a number of fails.

  15. I’ve thought this for a while, thanks Andy for bring it to the fore, the negativity held in FAIL is unhelpful, constructive criticism is much more welcome and productive

  16. FAIL is an image meme no wonder it gets lost in translation. Problem here lies with who is using it and how (microblogging) looking for depth and understanding in 135 characters is also not wise.

    It should not even indicate personal failure(but its

    the easy way to convey from an image sense). The most elegant fail images are funny an no ones sake

    or telling some clever way.

  17. All I could think of when I was reading through the list of Tweets is that these people sound like idiots.

    Is this how the kids are speaking these days?

  18. “Is this how the kids are speaking these days?”

    Since I’m a 41 year-old mom, THANK YOU for referring to us/me as “kids.” I need all the help I can get.

    /idiot kid, choking on FAIL πŸ˜‰

  19. Heh, well, nice to be TOKEN. πŸ˜‰

    I have to admit, my use of FAIL is really a Tantekism, but I take your point. Overplayed memes can certainly get tiresome, but I stillfind the FAIL meme useful if only because of the efficiency of the multiple messages conveyed based on the author.

    In my case, you’re right, I love Skitch! But, I’ve also consulted them on using OAuth and why it’s superior (to answer Heather’s reasonable criticism — I’m trying to make things better!). The Plasq guys know this and will be using OAuth eventually… So there’s a lot of nuance: I know the Plasq guys, I want to associate NOT using OAuth with FAIL, and I want to be mildly in-club funny.

    And that’s way too much srs tlk 4 me!

  20. One tweet says: “Oh my god. Metrotransit’s website is made of fail. In reality, the 84 stopped running an HOUR AGO. Now I am stuck in Midway.”

    I can tell from context that this refers to the Minneapolis and Saint Paul bus system. I see Andy’s point, but if there’s anything on the Internet made of FAIL, it’s Metro Transit’s website. It’s frequently misleading and sometimes outright wrong, and I’ve personally been burned by it numerous times. If I had been the one to get stranded in the cold (probably at night) in a somewhat dicey part of Saint Paul because the bus schedule is misleading or incorrect, I’d be “angry, bitchy, or mean” too!

  21. “What we’ve got here is failure to communicate.” (an allusion to an Oscar winning movie)

    Be honest with yourself people. The connotation is obvious. Everyone knows that FAIL equals loser. Just google it and you’ll see this overtly implied everywhere. The sad thing is that people enjoy putting others down.

    For constructive criticism, do your homework. Like this post says, to say FAIL just doesn’t work very well.

  22. helping to spread a meme you don’t like: FAIL

    Ah, cummon, it’s language, it’s an ever changing medium, and slang is the cutting edge of that change. If someone doesn’t speek lolcat, dat doesn’t mean i is gon change.

    Is it hugs tiem now pleez?

  23. It’s an interesting topic, Andy, because I’m pulled both ways on it. On the one hand, I definitely agree with the larger criticism implied here that our ever-shortening, more atomic communication media (for which Twitter is a great stand-in) put pressure against rich substantial discourse. That said, seeing your list of FAIL tweets it struck me how much actual useful content there was in there. If you can get passed the disgusting crusty layer of meme, there are a bunch of super-valuable bug reports and feature requests in there. If developers could track FAIL statements about their products — and get over the irritant of their obnoxiousness — they’d have a pretty good window into all of the little attributes of their product that bug their users on a daily basis, which used to be the kind of information you’d have to pay richly for.

  24. +1 for hating the FAIL, Andy. Thanks for writing this.

    When I first heard the meme, it was when I was working with a coworker, trying to fix something. When I IM’d to him: “Ok, I think I fixed it, how about now?” I got back “FAIL”.

    Without context, yeah: it’s rude and obnoxious.

  25. “Part of the problem is that ‘FAIL’ implies objective truth, when it’s just your personal opinion.”

    Unfortunately your definition is inaccurate. We say that something “fails” when it does not measure up to a standard. The standard can be anything, objective or subjective. It carries no implication that the standard in question is capital-t True (whatever that is).

  26. Haters be damned, I agree. It grates on me and it’s starting to bring me down a little. Of course, I try to stay away from meme words in general since it took me so long to realize that FTW on the internets was ‘for the win’ and not the original meaning, ‘eff the world.’

  27. Andy Baio said: This is nothing new. It’s as old as communication itself. I’m sure that the moment man discovered fire, there was some guy nearby saying, “Too smoky. Can burn you. Lame.”

    This was, by far, my favorite part of this post. Great stuff. It’s way easier to be a critic than a creator. The good news is that it’s almost as easy to be a cheerleader as it is to be a critic. Perhaps we need to elevate the best of the “good vibe” memes.

    i <3 teh internets. can haz mor blog now?

    Kind regards,

    Justis Peters

  28. The fact that lolspeak “FAIL” is spelled the same as the english “FAIL” doesn’t mean there’s an exact equivalence (i.e. consider in the latter case where a college professor hands you back FAIL in red letters on your essay). One is much harsher than the other.

    Er … ok. Wheres the magical browser that translates both context and sarcasm then? I’d sure like to use it. To summarize your post: FAIL != FAIL. Right? Following that same line of thought: 1 != 1. Great! I love you. At least you didn’t fail at logic, eh? …

  29. What’s troubling to me about this meme (or what its becoming) is that, yes, it can be mean-spirited as Andy points out, but even worse, its ambiguous and people exploit that ambiguity.

    This is built-in to the meme. As soon as someone says, “Don’t you think you’re being kind of a dick?”, there is an immediate, predictable response about how its only a joke, you need to lighten up, you are misinterpreting it, etc.

    So then the response is “OK fine, let’s just switch to something less ambiguous like DO NOT WANT”, but no-one seriously believes that this would work. Why? Because the ambiguity is the true intent. If I am on the receiving end of a FAIL, I have a choice: do I interpret that as a joke, or is it more than a joke? Why does that choice occur? Because I know that there’s a fairly strong taboo against being overtly critical or negative, so if I am to evaluate how people really see me, I have to read between the lines. Since people are self-censoring and I can never know for certain what they think of me or resolve the ambiguity, so the safe bet is to interpret FAIL as if it was explicitly critical, as if the person just dressed you down, or would have if it were not for the taboo.

    You might think this is an accidental by-product of social norms and so on, but no, this is the real point. You can be a dick without incurring the social costs of being perceived as a dick, and yes, I do think people are that sophisticated, if not completely aware of it. Compare this Hillary “not attacking” Obama for being a muslim or whatever. She’s not attacking Obama because he’s a muslim, she’s just bringing it up now because someone else might attack him for it later! And that’s ok and Hillary doesn’t incur the costs of being perceived as a negative campaigner. We can see this for what it is, a transparent fiction, a cover story.

    My prediction is that this meme will continue to gain strength until it stops being ambiguous, then it will disappear, and in that spirit: FAIL to dicks on the internet inflicting pain on people that they have no way to object to.

  30. Your point is well-taken and I agree.

    As far as my Tweet is concerned (stevefleischer) I stand by it 100% – factories just across the border from Hong Kong spew out countless tons of toxic crap into the atmosphere. If I upset them with my EPIC FAIL comment then tough.

  31. You know, I’ll actually take what you said and turn it around. When someone writes “FAIL” in big capital letters, I generally know not to take them seriously. Anyone who’s opinion involves dismissing a massive project with one word obviously isn’t worth my time. “FAIL” implies FAIL itself on the commenter’s part for a) not liking something b) not bothering to take the time to explain why they don’t like it and c) bothering to take the time to write out “FAIL” anyway.

    Whereas “DO NOT WANT” might actually be more cutting to me because it implies someone’s personally-held-opinion of hold-their-nose-stinky-poo-here bitchy aversion to whatever’s sitting in front of them.

    I guess you could paraphrase it as “(I) DO NOT WANT” in which case, had I just created the thing in question, I might be fluttering all over you, wringing my hands, pestering you with questions, asking “But why didn’t you like it?” “(YOU) FAIL” just sounds accusatory and ignorant.

    Of course, this is also assuming that I took any of those comments seriously. But how could I?! There’s cute kitty-katses behind your words!!!

  32. fat girl doing a jig in the cubicle ahead of me…which resulted in a minor earthquake…..EPIC FAIL

  33. The simple answer is to assign a negative value of credibility to people who can’t just learn to fucking talk. Find a way of explaining what you disapprove of beyond stupid 4chan-meme binaries and I might listen. I thought people grew out of being told, “Use your words!” around the time they left nappies.

  34. Wow. You people amaze me. It’s the f’ing internet, get over it. I’m assuming everyone that commented here and the author of this article is over the age of 40, because you don’t seem to remember when YOUR generation created words and phrases (awesome is one that comes to mind) that came from your pop culture. Does anyone that read this article actually know where “fail” came from? It’s from computer games. When you are playing one on one, or even in a group of people where you are killing each other. If you die, you FAIL. This has been a “phrase” since mid 90’s if I had to pinpoint it. It has evolved in the past 14 years into something “epic” (to coin another phrase, that one from World of Warcraft origin). It’s funny. Simple as that. It’s not negative, and i think swearing in your posts (2:52 PM Tom wrote:

    The simple answer is to assign a negative value of credibility to people who can’t just learn to fucking talk) is a whole lot more negative. It’s the internet, we live in a world of keyboard shortcuts and different humor than what was funny 10 years ago. Get used to it, evolve or die. And stop being a douche!

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