What is the FailWhale?

Mary McMahon

The FailWale is an illustrated graphic of a whale held up by a flock of birds. It is perhaps most famously employed during periods of downtime by the social networking service Twitter, which allows users to submit and share brief messages known colloquially as “tweets.” Although the FailWhale was not specifically designed for Twitter, it has come to be so closely associated with the service that many people are unaware of the whale's origins and designer.

Seeing a FailWhale can be frustrating for internet users.
Seeing a FailWhale can be frustrating for internet users.

Graphic designer Yiying Lu created the FailWhale, originally posting it to a site which allows illustrators and photographers to sell creative creative licenses for their work to people who need stock graphics. In March of 2008, Twitter designers were apparently struck by the design, and they adopted it for one of their server downtime messages so that site users would have something to look at while server overload problems were resolved.

Someone might be described as a FailWhale when they are unable to understand something.
Someone might be described as a FailWhale when they are unable to understand something.

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Initially, the design had no formal title, but within days of its adoptions, users had started colloquially calling it the “Fail Whale” or “FailWhale,” referencing a popular Internet meme built up around the word “fail.” Several Twitter users appear to have started using the name simultaneously, with a few major Twitter feeds popularizing the name, causing it to spread like wildfire.

The Twitter staff may be less than delighted with the FailWhale and what it stands for, but it has acquired its own fan club and fervent fan community. The FailWhale has its own Twitter feed, fan sites, and fan groups on other social networking sites, along with a line of merchandise such as t-shirts, stickers, and bags. When Lu realized the popularity of the FailWhale, she also released illustrations of the whale's girlfriend, Eve Whale, along with other versions of the FailWhale, to satisfy the whale's fans.

This iconic illustration also points to a serious problem experienced by many popular websites, as server traffic exceeds the system's ability to cope with traffic, causing the site to fail until the issue can be resolved. Users expect services like Twitter to be available at all times, and they are often extremely frustrated and irritated by periods of downtime, even when these periods are brief. For Twitter users, FailWhale fan clubs are one way to vent frustration while waiting for the site to return to functionality, although most users would probably be perfectly happy never seeing the FailWhale in action again.

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