Thursday, October 29, 2009

Nerd Word of the Week: Fail Whale

Twitter Fail Whale is backImage by playerx via Flickr
Fail Whale (n.) - Nickname for the custom 404 error page for the Twitter microblogging service. Also a geek-slang curse invoked whenever something goes wrong, especially if that something is Internet-related. The Fail Whale Twitter page depicts a flock of the Twitter mascot birds attempting to hoist a cartoon whale into the air, and includes the phrase "Twitter is over capacity." The Twitter Fail Whale usually appears when the Twitter servers are overloaded, typically as a function of the service's burgeoning popularity. Thus, the Fail Whale often shows up just when the most Twitter users are paying attention. The Fail Whale has become both a beloved and a reviled symbol for Twitter and for the growing-pain-ridden universe of social networking Web applications. You can now buy Fail Whale merchandise and join the Fail Whale fan club.

I bring it up because: 40 years ago today, the ancient Internet ancestor of the Fail Whale was born -- on the same day as the Internet. On Oct. 29, 1969, the first router-linked communication between two ARPANET-linked computers occurred when the SDS Sigma 7 Host and UCLA sent the following message to the SRI SDS 940 Host at Stanford: "lo." That's the letters L and O, transmitted in lowercase. No, that isn't the earliest l33t-speak version of hello ever recorded. UCLA was trying to send the login command to the Stanford system but the ARPANET link failed two letters in. Sort of like when your Twitter post times out and the page refreshes to a cartoon rendering of several painfully peppy songbirds trying to hoist and equally over-happy humpback into the sky. In other words, on the day we invented the Internet, we also invented the Fail Whale.