Imagine walking to class after a rainy day on campus. You attempt to leap over a large puddle on the sidewalk, but rather than land safely on the other side, your jump is a bit short, and you land in the middle of the murky pool of water. If a friend were to witness this, what you would most likely immediately hear a long drawn out “faaiiill.” In fact, I have actually said “fail” to myself out loud when I almost tripped, missed a shot at the garbage can, or attempted to do anything “cool” and, yes, failed.
Where did this come from? How did this word become such a common utterance? Not only is it ridiculously prevalent in everyday life among peers, among the most popular searches are “fail” images and videos.
The history of this meme is all conveniently laid out on a website fittingly entitled “knowyourmeme.com.” Although the information cannot be taken as gospel because the website is a trademark of “Cheezburger, Inc.,” which doesn’t sound entirely scholastic, it provides a great history of the origination and rise to popularity of “fail,” as well as accompanying videos and pictures.
According to this site, the earliest documented usage of the term “fail” can be traced to a 1998 Japanese shooter game entitled “Blazing Star.” The “game over” message in the video game is as follows: “You fail it! Your skill is not enough – see you next time. Bye bye.” Here is a short video clip of this:
Obviously the fail we know today has transformed quite a bit. The site also acknowledges that the origin of “fail” as an interjection is unknown. However, it first appeared in the Urban Dictionary on July 22, 2003. It is defined there as “either an interjection used when one disapproves of something, or a verb meaning approximately the same thing as the slang form of suck.” Since the date it was originally published, more and more definitions and examples have appeared on the site. Here are a couple examples of possible contexts in which the term would be used: “You actually bought that? FAIL” and “This movie fails.” Here is a compilation of examples of the usage of “fail”:
Furthermore, Google Trends reported that people “began exchanging and searching for pictures and videos labeled with “FAIL” in as early as 2004. Message board sites popularized the term, as well. The Cheezburger Network itself assisted in the aggregation of the meme with it’s “FAILblog,” created in May 2008.
Even the New York Times discussed the “fail” phenomenon in an article printed August 7th, 2009. This article by Ben Zimmer, executive producer of visualthesaurus.com (“an online destination for word lovers”) who has also worked as editor and consultant for American dictionaries (such as Oxford English Dictionary), addresses the mass popularity of the term and how it is even cropping up in topics on politics. Like the meme website earlier mentioned, the article discusses the history and the developments of “fail.” He writes about how “fail” is now often accompanied by adjectives to strengthen its meaning. For example, you may have heard “epic fail” or “massive fail.”
This shows that variation exists in the usage of fail, and the term has undergone development through the years. As Richard Dawkins discussed in Susan Blackmore’s The Meme Machine, memes, like genes, must have variation (ability to change), heredity (ability to be passed along), and fitness (endurance through time). It has already been shown that “fail” has undergone variation and has heredity (exhibited by it’s mass popularity). The last question is of fitness.
Can this term endure? If the previous estimations of the origination of “fail” are correct, it has already endured a great deal of time – much longer than most fads. As Ben Zimmer wrote in his article, “Popular usage will, of course, be the ultimate arbiter of the durability of fail. One sign of fail’s staying power is that it has already made the move from noun to adjective in some circles.” It seems that “fail” is embedded in so many cultures and a part of so many people’s vocabularies that this meme may indeed last for some time.
Overall, this meme is replicated in real life social situations and is widespread on the internet through blogs, pictures, and videos, as well. Its relevancy across mediums and its quick, sarcastic message has contributed to the vast usage of the term. “Fail” definitely has a behavioral component, as it spurs the creation of videos, and it is commonly used in conversation.
The meme theory, as discussed in our readings by Dawkins and Blackmore, is exciting because it begins to explain how ideas, concepts, and behaviors are passed both vertically (from generation to generation) and horizontally (across populations in a short period of time). I have often wondered how certain videos become viral and even how religion has endured and developed through the ages. This helps me see why. My favorite part of the excerpt we read from Susan Blackmore’s book, The Meme Machine, was when she wrote about how knowledge is not what separates us from other animals; it is our ability to easily and instinctively imitate (p. 3). I have studied this in classes on animal cognition and human psychology, and I love this idea and the research behind it. However, the comparison between science and memes seems a bit oversimplified, and I would argue that the evolution of culture may be even more unpredictable than the evolution of genes. As science evolves, knowledge of genes may increase, but I have doubts as to how far the knowledge of the evolution of culture can grow. In the end, the idea greatly intrigues me, and I am excited to learn more of the development of memetic theory.