RIP #FAIL, he writes optimistically

desktop septiembre 2008Several weeks ago, someone I follow on Twitter – and I am really sorry that I can’t remember who – made a wonderfully concise critique of the ubiquitous #FAIL hashtag. Since Twitter’s search is borked and can’t retrieve results more than a week old these days (ROFLMAO TWITTERFAIL!), I’m going to have to paraphrase. In a nutshell, though, the argument was this:

When you apply the same descriptive hashtag to an unsuccessful military strategy that led to the death of hundreds as you do to your cat getting its head stuck in a paper bag, the hashtag has lots its impact.

It’s like calling a political rival a flip-flopper. Once upon a time that comment stung (for reasons that escape me, frankly) but it’s so overused these days it means absolutely nothing.

That in and of itself is reason enough to save yourself five characters and abandon the once-clever zinger of a hashtag. But, really, I think the overwhelming adoption of the tag hints at a bigger problem that social media only serve to exacerbate.


We’re really, really selfish.

Seriously, search for #FAIL on Twitter and see what you get. Most days, it’s a steady stream of people complaining because some product or service didn’t meet their expectations. This product didn’t meet my needs and thus it’s a failure. I got an unexpected outcome and thus the system is a failure.

In some cases, this is appropriate. In others? Well, not so much.

It’s like we can’t understand that we’re not always the target market. Or we refuse to acknowledge that, gee, maybe we did something wrong. Nope. It’s a fail. As though every company, every system and every interaction should be tailored to me and me alone.

If a brand isn’t active on social media channels, it’s a fail. If a brand is active but doesn’t respond quickly enough, it’s a fail. If a brand responds quickly enough but in a way that doesn’t satisfy someone’s expectations, it’s a fail.

It’s insanity. And it needs to stop.
Creative Commons License photo credit: action datsun


  1. Bravo Joe!

    When I first engaged on Twitter i vowed i wouldnt swear, sy wOOT (dont get it 😉 or use the f-word….#fail.

    Ladt week I vowed to filter #fail (my own ff) from my streams this week. I’m glad I hadn’t yet done so or I would have missed your post.

    I often ask the #fail tossers if, before simply venting and moving on, any effort was made to express thir displeasure with a product, service or behaviour. It seems that the “everybody should be listening and responding” passive aggressive approach to customer complaints is winning out!

    I will join you in your optimistic hope for a #fail RIP.


  2. I hear ya Joe. But why does #fail have to objectively mean anything? I liken it to the concept of open data. We don’t know what people will do with the data when they get their hands on it. And it doesn’t matter. People will repurpose it for their own needs. The same goes for *how* people use and communicate on Twitter. For some, that means venting about too little espresso in their grande eggnog latte. For others, it will refer to the exploitation of child workers in some developing country. No one owns the term. The point is that how we use Twitter and what we say on it, just as you pointed out, is not intended for everyone who reads it. It may only have relevance within a particular target group. Why can’t one group derive one meaning from #fail and another derive another meaning? They are not necessarily talking to each other. People need to vent. People do it in different ways. Some use #fail. Some don’t. Does it really matter? It is, after all, just a word.

  3. Damn you, Tariq, way to (unintentionally I assume) raise the point I made a few posts ago and use it against me. Ultimately you’re right, who am I to challenge how people derive value from Twitter? If they choose to tag something as a failure, regardless of the gravity (or banality) of the issue, isn’t that their prerogative?

    Yes. I suppose it is.

    However, as Martha points out, I think the proliferation of the hashtag speaks to the passive aggressive and selfish nature of online conversation. If that’s the way people choose to use the medium, they are entitled to fill their proverbial boots. But I can’t blame brands (and I use the term very loosely here, including government departments) for being wary of the channels. FAIL if you do, FAIL if you don’t.

  4. Hey Joe. Yes, unintentional…:)

    I’m not sure I agree wholeheartedly with Martha’s argument. For example, this morning I complained about not getting my “discount” at Starbucks for using my personal mug and my eggnog latte just tastes like hot eggnog. Granted, I didn’t hashtag it with #fail – I just linked to a video of keyboard cat. I am making a personal choice not to use the hashtag because I do feel that I was overusing it and focusing too often on the negative. That said, expressing my displeasure with a product this morning can be useful for others – reminding them to make sure that they ask for their discount for using personal mugs, for example. I didn’t pay attention, and as a result paid more than I had to.

    Maybe people are hoping that the Starbucks Fairy will show up with a free latte and an apology when they tweet about an order gone-wrong. Maybe they’re hashtagging as an attempt at self-deprecating humour. Maybe it’s an inside joke with a niche community. Maybe it’s just a genuine expression of frustration in a situation where there is not anything else they can do. Maybe a lot of things. None of that necessarily means that Twitter users are passive aggressive or that there is something inherently wrong with society. That’s like saying that because if 60% of Canadians vote that 40% don’t care about politics. It’s a false assumption…

  5. Tariq – always nice when we agree 😉

    Perhaps it’s simply a niche community joke but I think the simple issue for me is this – when I hear kids in the playground call something minor, or worse, someone a “big fail” it’s clear that the frequency and ease with which that is uttered online is spilling into our offline worlds.

    Don’t get me started on the customer service bent 😉

    Good banter boys!


  6. Hello Ms. Mclean. 🙂

    Anecdotal evidence does not make it universal. Though I’m still inclined to agree with you – yes, our online behaviour likely bleeds into our off-line behaviour. That said, calling someone a “big fail” as an insult or in a negative way in a playground is a problem with the behaviour of the child. A problem that goes back throughout the history of mankind. Kids insult each other. And hit each other. And in the absence of guidance or rules, they will experiment with ways to cope with disagreement until they figure out what works for them (rightly or wrongly). If it wasn’t the word “fail”, it would be something else. As I said in my previous post – fail is just a word.

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