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The FAIL Meme

One of the recent poor trends in mailing list discussions is to reply to a message with a comment such as “FAIL” or “EPIC FAIL“.

The FAIL meme has been around for a while and actually does some good in some situations, slate has a good article about it [1]. The first example cited in that article is that ‘when Ben Bernanke and Henry Paulson testified before the Senate banking committee last month about Paulson’s proposed bailout bill, a demonstrator in the audience held up an 8.5-by-11 piece of paper with one word scrawled on it in block letters: “FAIL.”‘. This is an effective form of political demonstration, short words generally work well on placards (if only because the letters can be larger and therefore read from a greater distance) and anyone can understand the meaning of “FAIL” in that context.

There are some blogs dedicated to publicising supposed failures, failblog.org and ShipmentOfFail.com are two examples. I cite these as supposed failures because some of the pictures that they contain are obviously staged. It’s basically an Internet equivalent of the “Funniest Home Videos” shows that I never watched because they were not particularly funny.

So using the word “FAIL” on it’s own can be an effective form of political protest and can be used for mildly amusing web sites. But where it falls down is when it’s applied to a discussion that involves people who are from different cultures or have different levels of background knowledge – which covers most mailing list discussions.

Something that might be obviously wrong to some people is often not obvious at all to others. For example being forced to reboot a computer for any reason other than a kernel upgrade seems obviously wrong to me (and to most people who use Linux or other Unix systems) but Windows users seem happy to reboot machines after applying patches or upgrades. So writing a message with “FAIL” as the only word in a discussion with Windows users would not be productive. It could however be reasonable to forward a link to a page on a Microsoft web site to Linux people for their amusement with “FAIL” as the only comment – anyone who would find the link in question amusing would require no more explanation.

Sometimes when in a debate someone will write a message that only says “FAIL“, this is a very unconvincing argument that will not convince the opposition or any onlookers.

Generally it seems that using “FAIL” in a discussion with other like-minded people when talking about someone outside your group for the purpose of amusement can be effective. But any other use is going to be a “FAIL“.

As a more general rule single-word messages seem to have little value apart from certain limited situations. I have identified the following seven scenarios where a single word message is useful. Can anyone think of any others?

  1. Code review – someone posts code (or design for code) and people who like it will write “ACK” or something similar.
  2. Arranging a meeting – the question “who wants to meet for lunch tomorrow” has “me” as a valid answer.
  3. Voting – “yes” and “no” are valid answers for a poll, but a mailing list or forum probably isn’t the best place for it.
  4. Citing an example to refute a claim – often a single word won’t be a great response but may be adequate to prove a point.
  5. Answering a request for a recommendation – if asked to recommend a laptop I might say “Thinkpad” or if asked to recommend a server I might say “HP“. Both those answers are poor (I recommend EeePC for netbooks and Dell for small/cheap servers), so while such an answer would be useful it would be below my usual quality standards for email (I prefer to write at least two paragraphs explaining why I recommend something).
  6. Informing people that something has been done by replying to a request with the word “Done“.
  7. Agreeing to a contract or proposal with “OK” or “Yes“.

Update: I added another two reasonable uses of single word messages,

6 comments to The FAIL Meme

  • I think you’re getting a little too academic about a really quite simple expression. As I see it, “fail” is used in place of other equally useless phrases such as “sucked in” or “lol”, all of which on their own are an opinionated form of “+1″.

    None of these convey any useful information and their use in meaningful discussions—especially on mailing lists—should simply be avoided. If you see “fail” used on its own you should probably just think “tongue in cheek” and move along.

  • Karellen

    Title fail.

    ‘”fail” fail’ or ‘”Epic fail” epic fail’ would have been geeky quiney win.

    (Nice article though)

  • etbe

    Thomas: However I have seen a number of posts from people who seem to believe that they are actually adding something to the discussion with a “FAIL” message. The entire contents of this post should be obvious to everyone, but apparently isn’t.

    Another variation on the theme is the “Keh” or “Que” message.

    foo: That’s the type of post that Jaldhar is known for.

    Karellen: I’m glad you liked my post. I considered some amusing titles, but decided to go for something boring.

  • I respond to a lot of support requests with a single word (Done) when no further discussion is needed.