Dr. Geek: The Popularity of The Fail

As a society, as a civilization, even as a species, we like to celebrate success.  With the Summer Olympics under way in Ye Olde London Towne, we have one of the great examples of how much we humans celebrate success.  We give people medals, trophies, money, cereal endorsements, all for outrunning, outgunning, outswimming, outsynchronizing their rivals.  We are surrounded by successful ideals in our sports heroes, our political heroes, our war heroes, our super heroes — they are people to be admired and to serve as role models for the rest of us.  Hell, some of our super heroes are also hugely successful in other areas of life, such as the billionaires Bruce Wayne and Tony Stark.  We all strive for success in what we do; we’ve even been taught that we shouldn’t do something unless we hope to succeed at it, even if it takes years.

And yet, there are people who are contradictions: they appear to be trying to succeed by failing, or they appear to worship failures.  Which prompts the question: is failing a new way of succeeding?

The culture of the “fail” is widespread across the Web.  There are whole groups devoted to producing and sharing images, or memes, of “fails”: of things not working the way they were supposed to.  The people who brought us the lolcat meme have a whole blog devoted to aggregating such fails.  The fail is increasingly going mainstream, moving from instances like “the Fail Whale” from Twitter to appropriation by a Nobel Prize winning economist.  For this article, I am focusing on the fail compilation videos of videosharing sites like YouTube.  I, like so many others, cannot help but laugh or cringe or stare at these moments of utter failure, often accompanied by pain, that people have shared with the world.  But in watching these, I cannot help but wonder why.  Why do I respond to them as I do?  Why do people do these things?  Why is “fail” become such a popular Internet meme?

All of my answers are musings, drawing on research into other media activities and content.  By no means am I offering anything definitive — I do not plan to succeed in defining the love of the fail in this article.  And, yes, there will be embeds of  fail compilations from YouTube for your enjoyment.  So let’s begin there, with one of the most recent compilations:


Fail videos on YouTube appear to be one of two types: accidents that occurred during everyday life versus accidents that occurred during staged events, where it was hoped the end result of some attempted feat would either be very cool or very painful.  Now, of course, both types involve there being an accident in both types: only in the staged videos, the accident would never have happened without the people trying to do something, usually, stupid in the first place.  There appears to be a preponderance of the latter videos involving stunts by white suburban males who probably have a lot of time on their hands — I’ll talk more about them later.  And lest you think this is only an American phenomenon, videos do exist from around the world, such as those from the “Meanwhile in Russia” meme.


It’s hard not to see a “triple-dog-dare-you” aspect of adolescent male culture in these staged videos, with people yelling “do it!” to the person about to attempt the feat.  The staged videos are all about stupidity, misfortune, and what results when you combine the two, especially in the latter type.  For the true accident videos, there may be stupidity involved — parking in the wrong place, not watching where you’re going, texting while biking — but it is the misfortune that is definitely clear, and is why these videos tend to elicit more sympathy and empathy than the staged videos.


The amount of videos, websites dedicated to them, and viewers who watch them indicates that the America’s Funniest Videos phenomenon of finding humor in other people’s stupidity/misfortune is going strong.  Well, as long as the stupidity/misfortune does not show any serious pain.  Many videos in compilations cut out before any knowledge of the pain suffered, but did see a video where could clearly see a clearly broken leg — those videos get far fewer likes thanks to the gag factor that quickly turns laughter into realizing these are real people being really hurt.  We are meant to laugh at the person, at the spectacle, but not at the pain — we are made to wince at the pain.

Accidents of both types have always happened: people have always been stupid and/or unfortunate.  We see them more now because of the increasing ubiquity of cameras.  It started with America’s Funniest Videos, when the cameras people had were essentially made and used for producing “home movies”.  The show gave us a glimpse into other people’s lives, when something bad or silly happened.  But we did not see these occurrences as “fails”, which has a derogatory connotation.  We saw them as humorous for similar reasons, but they were not deemed so openly as being the failure of someone’s judgement.  The tone was more celebratory even when it was mocking, given the family friendly jokes of Bob Saget (who’s real stand-up comedy is anything but family friendly.)  With AFV’s format of joking commentary, grainy home videos, and the penchant to replay key moments of embarrassing or “funny” moments, the show essentially produced the template for the fail compilation videos that would follow over two decades later.


So why do people watch these videos, and why do people produce them?

As to why watch, perhaps it is similar to reasons why we watch horror films or reality shows: that feeling of schadenfreude.  Part of us, a perhaps base part, likes to see other people fail to feel better about our selves.  For all of our compassion as a social creature, there is also the flipside of competitiveness that drives much of life on this planet.  We like to feel that we are succeeding, if even in a small way.  If we see others who are succeeding more than us, then we may look at our success and belittle it as not enough.  This belittling of the accomplishment, much like of a fandom, can result in a weakened sense of self worth and self confidence.  However, when the opposite happens, and we see someone failing — whether through their stupidity in a horror movie to run upstairs to evade the killer or through their devaluation in some type of ridiculous staged “reality” competition — we may evaluate our own accomplishments in a more positive light, believing that at least we have accomplished something better than that.  We are constantly comparing ourselves to others to determine how good we are doing, and thus by extension how good we are.  Watching a person make a stupid decision or have something unfortunate happen to them in these fail videos can help us feel better about ourselves and our position in life and the world.

As to why do people produce them, the first type to address are the true accidents, those that do not result from anything staged.  They may be the result of something stupid the person has done, or they may be the result of something no one could control.  Either way, they are not staged and filmed in anticipation of success.  Thus they are not produced in the same way the staged ones are.  So the question for those is why share them — either as the focal person of the accident, or as a bystander who happened to be at the right time and the right place?  It might be as hubris, as a way to be modest in the social arena of the world.  It might be for sympathy, for condolences from the social arena.  If the victim is not in control of the recording, then it might be something darker, some desire to humiliate — or it could be something noble, such as to educate the social arena to prevent similar from occurring.

For the second type, there is obvious production occurring.  Why stage an activity, and then post it, either as the victim or as the bystander, when it fails?  Some in the general public cry “Monkey See, Monkey Do”, believing that watching such videos inspires others to try similar, or more grandiose, feats.  It is this belief that has led to the common requirement of “Professional stuntmen, please do not try this at home” to accompany videos of extraordinary feats.  Others might say that the ubiquity of cameras, and the availability of videosharing, promotes such actions, wins or fails.  Still others shrug and argue “Boys will be boys”, believing that adolescent boys have a lot of time on their hands.  Maybe an anthropologist would argue that there is something about the teen male in a post-industrial society that compels him to prove his worth, his masculinity, in the social arena through such feats.

Another explanation can cut across these different beliefs.  We have seen with the rise of Web 2.0 the rise of “fifteen seconds of fame” or “famous to fifteen people”.  Back in the rise of the mass media, Andy Warhol declared that soon everyone would be famous for fifteen minutes.  The ubiquity of cameras, the capabilities of videosharing websites, and the just general increased pace of modern life has shortened that time, meaning a flash in the pan is a very fast flash in the pan, while social networking has increased a person’s connections with others, meaning they can be well known to at least a small part of the online population.  Maybe victims and bystanders alike are hoping to finally have their fame when they post their videos and allow them to be spread and compiled.

True, most of these people, victims and bystanders, will never be known by name, especially as they can hide can behind the anonymity of the Web.  But social media has produced a different type of fame: not name recognition but bragging rights over how many people have seen and/or commented on something you shared.  We’ve all felt it: that sense of being a part of the social arena when dozens of people commented on something we posted on Facebook, retweeted our tweet on Twitter, or liked a video we uploaded to YouTube.  It’s a sense of validation, that something we thought was important was deemed to be so by the masses, faceless or known.  Now imagine that you have a funny fail, and it gets thousands or millions of likes and comments.  You can feel like you belong, that your life means something because this thing you’ve done or you’ve recorded means so much to so many people.  By having an impact, if only minor and fleeting, on so many people’s lives, your life has mattered.

It may be fleeting fame, or it may turn into something bigger, something more akin to traditional fame.  But it’s a way to get those fifteen seconds and reach those fifteen people — and you can get lots of those fifteens the more you engage with the social arena in the same way.  Whether you are just the recorder of the events, or you are the center of them, by sharing the video of the failure you can be a part of the larger world.  And the more we share, the more we want to share.  Sharing is addictive.  A watcher of the fail videos may be more likely to post one just to be a part of this social arena.

Fails are popular not just because we like to see stupid things that people do to feel better about ourselves, but because we like to share in people’s successes and failures — we like to share life, which is all that life boils down to.


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