In The New York Times Magazine: Fail Whale

FAIL WIN
An unlikely social-media icon

This week in Consumed, how a service-interruption image got a fan base — as if a song heard mostly as hold music hit the Billboard charts.

As with many Web-popularity stories, there’s a lot of flukiness to Fail Whale’s rise. For starters, Lu had never heard of Twitter when she created the image (which she called Lifting Up a Dreamer) as an electronic birthday card for a friend overseas while she was still finishing her visual communications degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. In July 2007, she uploaded a number of her illustrations, including that one, to a service called iStockphoto. That’s where, almost a year later, it came to the attention of Biz Stone, a Twitter founder….

It probably took two specific factors to create the accidental icon. First, it’s a lesson in the power of raw repetition — the “mere exposure effect” identified by psychology studies that suggests we like things more simply by seeing them more often. Second, Twitter enthusiasts are almost alarmingly zealous….

Read the column in the February 15, 2009, issue of The New York Times Magazine, or here.

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