Yiying Lu, an artist and a designer in Sydney, Australia, has made a number of appealing illustrations, many featuring animals. But one image in her portfolio is far more likely to be familiar to at least some of you than any of the others: the one depicting a peaceful whale held aloft by a small flock of birds. To certain particularly dedicated users of the online social-networking service Twitter, the “Fail Whale” is as iconic as any corporate logo, and far more beloved. Some have bought the T-shirt, and some have joined the fan club. Most recently, Fail Whale earned Lu a Shorty — an award devised by Sawhorse Media, an Internet company, to praise all manner of Twitter expression — winning her a trip to the New York awards ceremony in mid-February.
As with many Web-popularity stories, there’s a lot of flukiness to Fail Whale’s rise. For starters, Lu had never heard of Twitter when she created the image (which she called Lifting Up a Dreamer) as an electronic birthday card for a friend overseas while she was still finishing her visual communications degree at the University of Technology, Sydney. In July 2007, she uploaded a number of her illustrations, including that one, to a service called iStockphoto. That’s where, almost a year later, it came to the attention of Biz Stone, a Twitter founder.
If you’ve managed to miss the hype around Twitter, it’s generally described as a “mini-blogging” tool. Its estimated five-million-plus users communicate in bursts of 140 characters or less to those friends or strangers who follow their “tweets.” Last May, during a big popularity spike, Twitter experienced regular service outages; users were greeted with a picture of a cat at a computer during these down stretches. Stone decided that was too jokey and turned to iStockPhoto, where he encountered Lu’s illustration, which nicely suggested a team effort to accomplish something difficult. Plus, it was supercute. He paid a few dollars to use the illustration under iStockPhoto’s standard license, which grants a perpetual worldwide right for such online uses.
What happened next was chronicled almost in real time by online observers like ReadWriteWeb and Widgets Lab: a Twitter user dubbed the image Fail Whale; another created a Twitter feed and Web site for the mascot; a third found the image on iStockPhoto. This revealed the name of the whale’s creator and suggested a mission for fans, recalls Tom Limongello, a Twitter enthusiast who works in business development for Crisp Wireless: “Let’s promote her.” The Fail Whale community sent a box of T-shirts to Twitter headquarters. “Mixed feelings,” Evan Williams, another Twitter founder, tweeted upon receipt. But he honored the request for a public shout-out to Lu.
Lu was flattered to learn about her illustration’s quasi-icon status, she says, but of course a stock image’s popularity does not translate directly into revenue. (She has since removed it from iStockPhoto.) The T-shirt stunt ended up being a kind of branding event for the artist. Limongello figures the number of tweets, blog posts and other online info-bursts must have numbered in the tens of thousands. This helped Lu to sell a few thousand dollars’ worth of whaled T-shirts, mugs and prints through Zazzle.com and other services. She also got a lot more attention from design and illustration clients. “It fits Twitter’s brand so well,” Lu says. “I don’t know if it’s fate or a coincidence.”
Either way, it’s surprising — as if a song heard mostly as hold music hit the Billboard charts. It probably took two specific factors to create the accidental icon. First, it’s a lesson in the power of raw repetition — the “mere exposure effect” identified by psychology studies that suggests we like things more simply by seeing them more often. Second, Twitter enthusiasts are almost alarmingly zealous. Even now the Fail Whale Twitter feed continues to share news of, say, the most recent Fail Whale-related video on YouTube.
An e-card visual emerging as an artist’s best-known image might also inspire mixed feelings. “It’s not like I only created this fish,” Lu says with a laugh. On the other hand, she has become more interested in exploring the “animal/technology metaphor” and in extending her illustration into the physical world by way of goods. Someone suggested a plush-toy version of the Fail Whale, for instance, and she says she likes the sound of that. But she would probably need to find a partner other than Twitter to make it happen. Stone says, understandably, that his company would prefer the whale to be a memory, not merchandise.
This essay was originally published in The New York Times Magazine, February 12, 2009.