The ever-incisive Slate Magazine drops science on the origins and evolution of the FAIL meme. Haven’t heard of it yet? You will soon enough, dear internet friends and followers.
Thus far, FAIL looks to be this year’s w00t.
Dare we say, 4Chan FTW…again?
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!”
So it started out in the dark corners of the American arcades…and migrated to the wide world of online message boards:
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.
But “You fail it” ain’t exactly catchy. Why not make it one word, in all caps, and italicized?
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.
Which sort of brings us up to speed in late 2008, where a “taxonomy of fail” has been amply indexed and expanded by the uber-popular Failblog.
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.
But why is it so addictive and compelling a catchphrase? I blamez teh lolschadenfreudez.
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.
So let us rejoice in the epic celebration of one another’s hardships and misfortunes — who needs a long and clunky German compound word when we’ve got a single syllable, four-letter, gem that can be applied so effectively?