Why does everyone say "fail"? That's so fucking gay! -A Concerned citizen
I've been thinking about the fail Internet meme recently. In the past couple of years it has hit a critical mass; you can find it in all kinds of mass media and people's conversations. A friend of mine, new to social media over the net, found the meme's pervasiveness troubling (articulated by the quote above). I was curious about its origins so I embarked on quest for knowledge.
Wikipedia is usually a good starting point, so I went there. Sure enough, you can find an article about failure. Past academic sub topics about failure (what defines failure, taxonomies of failure, etc.), you get to the Internet meme. Demonstrating it's common form of "fail" and "epic fail", the sub topic brings up it's origin possibly rooted as a shortened form of "You fail it", a engrish phrase taken from a Neo Geo game called Blazing Star made in 1998.
For those aren't familiar with it, like I was, here's a clip from the game with the phrase:
Questioning the Origin
Something about this strikes me as wrong. I'm not exactly sure what but there are a few things that seem off this statement. I think I'm pretty well knowledged in both video game and Internet subculture. I wasn't even aware of Blazing Star until I read this article. It's not that I don't believe Blazing Star is the possible origin—the world of video games and the Internet is a big place—I'm just skeptical.
Looking at the citations for this statement, we have 3 sources:
- "Epic Win" a Slate article from 10/15/08.
- "How Fail Went From Verb to Interjection" a NYT Magazine article from 8/7/09.
- "All your FAIL are belong to us" a blog post on The Guardian from 10/17/08.
For the sake of my research, I disregarded 3 as it is mostly commentary that cited 1. Both 1 and 2 are good articles. They're mostly about the state of the meme as it is today. As far as the origin goes, both offer only a paragraph of material. 1, citing a 2003 Doomworld forum post from 2003, suggests Blazing Star's "You Fail It" as a possible origin. 2 suggests this too with out a source. I noted that this article was a year younger than 1 so it could have been its source (see the Fail Timeline below). 2 also cites UrbanDictionary, an informal source of neologisms, in trying to date the meme's origin to as early as July 2003.
I have a problem with these 2 cited pieces evidence. First is the DoomWorld forum post. While the post does indeed mention Blazing Star, it's only in the context of the forum post's proposed question: where does "All your base..." and "You fail it" originate from? Never mentioned is fail in the context as it's used today. Second is the link to the "fail" entry on UrbanDictionary. If you take a look at the "fail" entry on UrbanDictionary, you can see the first post was dated on 7/22/03 and has subsequently generated 89 definitions, none of which reference Blazing Star. However, if you look at the UrbanDictionary entry on "you fail it" you'll see the first post was dated 10/1/2003 and has since generated on 2 entries, one of which mentions Blazing Star.
While hardly an authoritative source, UrbanDictionary is still useful as a zeitgeist of slang usage. The timeline and consistency of these 2 UrbanDictionary entries calls into question the theory that "you fail it" is the origin of the meme . If "fail" originated from "you fail it", why was the "fail" entry started 3 months before "you fail it"? Also, why has the "fail" entry generated so many more definitions as opposed to "you fail it"? Sure you'd expect "fail", with the critical mass it has now, to have many more user definitions, but wouldn't you expect "you fail it" to have generated at least a few more definitions as the meme transformed into just "fail"?
Using Google to search historical Internet data doesn't help the theory's case. Searching Google Trends for "you fail it" comes back with not enough data to create a trend line. A Google search for "you fail it" between the dates of 1998 and 2003 comes up with only 402 results, none of which use the exact phrase and none of those 402 results mention blazing star. As mentioned in Slate's "Epic Win", fail is just too common a word to generate a useful Google search on the meme. However, Google does seem to indicate the variant "epic failure" started around 2006/2007. This also coincides with the UrbanDictionary post for "epic fail" created on 9/15/06. Through out all of this however, Blazing Star is amazingly absent. Surprisingly, "Blazing Star" doesn't even show up in trend data until 2006.
This doesn't surprise me. The Neo Geo came out in 1990. Technically superior to its contemporaries, the Nintendo SNES and Sega Genesis, it came with a cost of $650. Adjusted for inflation, that's over $1000 for a video game console. Some games, according to the Wikipedia article, were priced over $200. Needless to say, this wasn't a mass market gaming console. Some 8 years later when Blazing Star came out, the potential audience couldn't have been that big. Good luck even trying to find a copy of it out there to buy.
Today, thanks to wonders of modern technology we have a cornucopia of fail planes, trains, and automobiles (don't forget the boats!), not to mention the countless failure motivational posters. But despite it being the supposed progenitor of fail, there is an absolute dearth of "you fail it" images; all you can expect to find are random images, various aforementioned fail images , or, Blazing Star screen captures; everything but images with the "you fail it" text. Again, I wouldn't expect to see the same volume as "fail" images, but you'd think there would be some images.
Given what we know so far, the story of the fail meme follows something like this. In 1998 a game comes out for a what-would-now-be $1000 game console. Being on a niche console, a few copies might of made its way to the US. It has some bad Engrish on one of it's finish screens. At least 4-5 years later in 2003, around the same time as "All your base..." it gets mentioned on Internet forums and is laughed at by a group of people who are certainly larger that any group that could have originally played the game. Another 3-4 years pass, it has now hit a critical mass with images everywhere on the Internet; large fails are now called epic; large media publications such as the NYT write about the meme.
How Memes Grow
Something is really wrong with this story. There are too many gaps and the popularity growth of the meme just doesn't fit Blazing Star's obscurity. Borrowing from the Wikipedia entry, memes are units of cultural ideas, symbols or practices, which can be transmitted from one mind to another through writing, speech, gestures, rituals or other imitable phenomena. For a meme to flourish, it has to be easily transmitted from person to person. A common language and set of experiences between 2 people is needed for transmitting a meme. For many Internet memes, this facilitated through a reference to a video, song, game, or other piece of media that both people are familiar with.
For example, say I'm talking with friends when my cell phone rings. I receive a call informing me that I won a large sum of money. Hanging up my phone, I exclaim, "Everything's coming up Shawn!" My friends, or at least ones who watch The Simpsons, might remember this and laugh:
The meme "Everything's coming up _____!" has just been created. It has been transferred easily to the people who remember the particular episode of The Simpsons. Some people may ask where that phrase came from. Some people might make the same joke later to other people and thus the meme will spread. My point here is the more common the experience that the meme is based on, the more likely it will spread. An episode of The Simpsons is watched by millions of people. A meme based on The Simpsons will spread quicker than, say an early 90's sidescrolling video game with bad Engrish cut scenes.
The Internet does help speed the transmission and broadcast of a meme, but that common experience still needs to exist in order for it to transfer to person to person. Take a good example, a LOLCat. Back around 2006ish, someone found a rather silly cat picture on the Internet taken from a Russian cat food company.
Someone decides to throw some text on it describing the cat's, now known as happy cat, thoughts.
Many people laugh; comedy gold is discovered. Take a picture of a cat in some silly situation, place a label describing the cat's thoughts in it, and now you have a recipe for a meme plated with 24 carats of comedic gold. The meme spreads and a endless number of variations on the original meme take place.
The LOLCat meme has spread so vastly thanks to a couple of very common experiences.
- Almost everyone has seen their pet cat doing something silly.
- Many people assign their cats human-like thoughts and personalities.
All that's needed is modern technology for the meme to spread: digital cameras, Photoshop, and the Internet.
A Failure to Communicate
Coming back from the digression into what makes a meme transfer between people, I come back to the question: how could Blazing Star be the origin of the fail meme. Given that "you fail it" is an obscure reference to an expensive game console game that had limited release, how did it spread so quickly from person to person? If "fail" came from "you fail it" why are there no traces of its transformation in the same manner of the LOLCat meme? Based on the evidence I've seen, "you fail it" has no real solid connection to "fail", "failure", or "epic fail". Both have the word "fail" in them, both seem to have popped up around the same time on the Internet, both seem to be cut from the same Engrish cloth, but that's where the connections end.
My theory lies in another game. Back in 1999, less than a year after Blazing Star was released, Nintendo released Super Smash Brothers for the N64 around the world. In the single player version of the game, you encounter a break-the-targets mini game level. In the mini game, you have to hop around, platform to platform, to break targets before a timer runs out. If you fail to break all the targets, you are presented with this from the announcer:
FAILURE. Note even the emphasis that the announcer places on FAIL. Sounds pretty close to the failure meme doesn't it? You attempt to break the targets, you screw up, FAILURE. A simple logical conclusion stated ever so boldly by the announcer: FAILURE.
While Blazing Star remained in obscurity, Super Smash Brothers would go on to be a smash hit, selling almost 5 million copies. The popular 4-player battle mode enabled by the N64's 4 controller ports (a innovative feature at the time) created many fans of the game. 2 years later, Nintendo would release a sequel, Super Smash Brothers Melee for the GameCube. Like its predecessor, it sports the same break-the-targets mini game, and the same announcement for failing to do so:
Super Smash Brothers Melee would go on to sell over 7 million copies. The seeds of a meme were sown. Millions of young kids, teenagers, and young adults played this game. The many that played the single player mode were presented with a common experience. You have a set goal of breaking the targets, if fail to do so: FAILURE; that can be applied in many places in life. Many years after the release of the game, it was still popular for its multiplayer battle mode.
At this point this is where things get hazy. Pinpointing where the fail meme started showing up on the Internet is tricky. Without direct historical evidence of people explicitly saying where they got the "fail" meme from, we'll probably be left guessing. There's just no easy way to narrow down the search for this. As more and more people started using the Internet in the early-mid 00's, some where, some one, labeled something as "fail" and it took off. In the last 2-3 years, I would say it has hit a critical mass. The phrase "epic fail" has been coined. I now hear it in conversations. People not even familiar with the original source use the fail meme.
Social media provides more evidence of Smash Brothers being the origin of the fail meme. Try searching FaceBook. The FaceBook fan page of Blazing Star has 16 fans. Of the many Smash Brothers fan pages, one page has over 9000 fans! Even more pertinent, there's fan page for the announcer saying FAILURE that has almost 10 times the number of fans as Blazing Star.
Smash Brothers is still popular to this day. 2 years ago Nintendo released Super Smash Brothers Brawl for the Wii. It has sold almost 10 million copies and is the 8th best selling Wii game. Again, sporting the same mini game and, of course, an announcer eager to claim failure when he sees it:
And for my German readers:
I don't think this definitively proves it, but this is pretty strong evidence for Smash Brothers being the source of the fail meme. Being that there's no clear link between the transformation between "you fail it" and "fail", it makes much more sense that a game experienced by millions, stating explicitly the key word FAILURE, would be the common experience that fuel the transmission of the meme.
It's hard to say whether I'll be vindicated. But if I am, you heard it here first.
- 2/19/98: Blazing Star is released on the Neo Geo.
- 1/21/99: Super Smash Brothers is released for the N64.
- 11/21/01: Super Smash Brothers Melee is released for the GameCube.
- 7/18/03: DoomWorld Forum User Ichor sites Blazing Star as the origin of "You Fail It" later to be cited in "Epic Win".
- 7/22/03: The term "fail" is posted to the Urban Dictionary later to be cited by "How Fail Went From Verb to Interjection".
- 10/01/03: The term "you fail it" is posted to the Urban Dictionary.
- 9/15/06: The term "epic fail" is posted to the Urban Dictionary.
- 1/31/08: Super Smash Brothers Brawl is released on the Wii.
- 5/5/08: The fail Internet meme is added to the Wikipedia article on failure.
- 10/15/08: Slate publishes "Epic Win".
- 10/17/08: The Guardian blogs about "Epic Win".
- 10/24/08: KnowYourMeme publish a video about fail.
- 8/7/09: NYT publishes "How Fail Went From Verb to Interjection".