Sunday, March 7, 2010

fail whale speaks

Twitter's "fail whale" image, shown when the site is down for maintenace, has gained a following of its own. But have we been duped? The truth, from McSweeney's.


Call me Sam. Or Successful Sam, since your cutesy rhymes and alliteration seem to travel well on the Internet. If you really wanted to get my attention, you'd call me click click clicka click Saaaaammm click click. If you ever took more than 140 characters to understand the story of how I came to float in the air using only eight birds and a fishing net, you'd never label me by my shortsighted "meme" again.


About six years ago, I was taking a quick oxygen break from a Colossal Squid hunt in the Southern Ocean. Imagine a tractor-trailer (me) and a Greyhound bus (squid) wrestling in a vat of pitch-black gelatin. My enemy has tentacle clubs lined with razor sharp suckers and I just have this big, dumb-looking mouth. These hunts require every ounce of my blubber. As a result, any break from the melee—the sun on my back, the wind fanning my block-like head—really gets my mind going. During one particular reprieve, I remember thinking how Antarctica looks like an apostrophe. That led me to the idea of the grammatical possessive, as in Sam's squid that he will soon kill is thousands of meters below. I wanted to tell every sea creature in all five oceans about my dinner. Then I thought about the Italian woodcarver (who calls me by another horrible name, Monstro) living inside me. He sends out messages, only at a limited scale. They are fashioned out of planks of wrecked ships and don't even make it to Chilean Patagonia. Apparently, he is looking for his son who is also made of wood. I find the whole situation really weird.

You humans are strange creatures. You extol your every technological advancement, call your cell phones smart, and describe social media as a revolution. Meanwhile, whether you realize it or not, nature has already bested you. For fifty million years, whales have been using sonar to broadcast our status across hundreds of nautical miles. My social network numbers in the thousands. Once, I picked up a female in Madagascar. We rubbed up against each other and sloughed off large sheets of skin. That's no euphemism for sex. It's how we keep ourselves free of disgusting marine organisms.

Dear me, I've lost my thread again. Sorry, that's just how my brain works. It's the largest of any animal, ever, with a highly developed neo-cortex. Long story short, I invented Twitter.


In 2006, I was summering in the San Francisco Bay, still thinking of that apostrophic break from the hunt. During my stay in the Bay Area, I had my inner Italian inject some orange-crowned warblers with spermaceti, the wax in my head cavity, imbuing them with whale strength and creating a mental bond between the birds and I. Then I digested the Italian, as he was no longer needed. My plan was falling into place.

A few days later, I noticed a group of young men eating burritos at a bayside park. They were whiter than a beluga, with heads just as bulbous. Tech nerds of the highest order. My suspicions were confirmed when they entered a building bearing the ill-designed logo of an Internet startup. Luckily, their loft space afforded the room I needed, and under the cover of a foggy night, the birds hoisted me in with a fisherman's net through a large window.

Fueled only by a few morsels of leftover calamari I rescued from the garbage, I had the birds draft a proposal for a service I selfishly called, "Whalr," using my ideas of global sonar. The sun was rising as the warblers carried me away. Judging by the illustration that made me famous, someone must have seen me as I left, although I rarely smile and have a white, freckled underbelly not represented in the picture.

It's ironic, and not in a hipsterish way, that I came to be associated with the service not working. Every day I Direct Message @Biz, @Ev, and @Jack, the "founders" of Twitter, asking them to give me credit or, at the very least, one of their Webby Awards, but I may as well be sending missives into the Pacific Trash Vortex. I've taken to swallowing glass bottles, hoping they contain alcohol. Sometimes I'll slap my tail flukes against the water really hard, just to see if I feel pain. Tourists on boats take pictures and applaud at my flagellations. I guess they love watching me suffer.

Maybe I am a failure.


Thomas Jefferson once said, "He who receives an idea from me, receives instruction himself without lessening mine; as he who lights his taper at mine, receives light without darkening me." And we applaud his humility and graciousness. Yet have we forgotten that this candle he's talking about was made from the stuff found in my great-great-grandfather's head? Us whales have given you humans a lot. By Poseidon's codpiece, I'm proud to see Twitter continue to proliferate. The illustration you've come to know me by is charming, and after all I am flying. My moniker, however, must go. It was already rough being called a sperm whale. But you've managed to find a word that's worse.

Whales have gotten this social media thing right for millennia. We've been using broadband clicks to communicate long before you humans fell in love with the practice. Help me rewrite the history books, as I don't have hands. Retweet my message, hashtag it, put it in a bottle and fling it out to sea. That's where you'll find me, trying to figure out Google Buzz.

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