ONE of my new year’s resolutions from last year was to not fall off my bicycle again. Throughout the previous year, I came off at least four times. In 2013, I managed to achieve that resolution but not without a little scare on Christmas night. Riding home in the rain, my foot slipped off the pedal and got caught in the wheel. Luckily, the road was empty. I wobbled, teetered and zigzagged before finally managing to regain control. I later discovered, however, that my big toe was a mess. A group of young revellers on the footpath had seen it all. ‘‘ That was almost an epic fail, dude,’’ one said.
After the final eye-watering minutes of the ride home, I thought about what he’d said. I knew the word ‘‘ fail’’ had taken on a new meaning. Once a nominal synonym for accident, the ‘‘ fail’’ has become an internet phenomenon, or meme — another digital neologism. I logged on to YouTube and typed in ‘‘ fail’’. A list of clips popped up, among them The Ultimate Fails Compilation 2013, which had been viewed no fewer than 98 million times. The clip thumbnail showed a girl diving into a lake. Harmless enough, I thought. Thirty-three excruciatingly compelling minutes later I’d seen person after person — usually American — suffer as seemingly benign incidents morphed into life-scarring, perhaps fatal, accidents, or ‘‘ fails’’.
The fail as a spectacle has of course existed since Homo erectus first stepped on a thorn bush. But these days there’s a Wikipedia page devoted to it, featuring an emblematic photo taken in Paris in 1895 of a train crashing to the ground at Montparnasse station. The modern precursor to the fail compilation is Funniest Home Videos, which began in the US inspired by a Japanese program and which became American ABC’s longest-running entertain- ment show. Coinciding with the rise of the camcorder in the 1980s, the advent of the viewer-submitted video show was a TV executive’s dream: delighting in others’ misfortunes was cheap and easy. It was light entertainment, however. The presenter breezily reassured us that despite the chaos, no one was hurt in making the videos.
How things have changed with the internet. These days, the mishaps are so gutwrenchingly spectacular it’s impossible to believe the person failing escaped unharmed. In fact, a critical ingredient in any internet fail clip is the reaction of the person capturing the carnage. ‘‘ F . . k dude! Are you OK?! I so got that on tape!’’ says one man as his BMX bikeriding buddy shrieks in pain after a mistimed landing. Whereas television’s Funniest Home Videos uses a comical voiceover and vaudeville music to attenuate the violence, the internet fail compilation dwells on the suffering. As Time magazine has noted sardonically, the term ‘‘ fail’’ offers an easy way to say schadenfreude. Or as a friend noted to me, ‘‘ The fail is almost like a snuff movie — the terrible thing is you just can’t turn away.’’
Many of the fails in the 2013 ‘‘ ultimate compilation’’ are of course anything but accidents. The camcorder may have been voyeuristic but because of its size it was relatively indiscreet. Once it was turned on them, people froze, conscious that their every move was being immortalised. The camera seemed to rob them of all co-ordination, causing them to slip off the stage and crash into the wedding cake. Now, in this era of smartphones, everyone is accustomed to being filmed. Indeed, the presence of the cameraphone is apparently reason enough to attempt some mindless feat, such as the teenage boy in the compilation who fails to smash the car window despite headbutting it 10 times. Even the videographer begs him to stop. ‘‘ Dude, like that’s enough already!’’
Alongside its camera function, the smartphone has spawned other versions of the fail. The blogsite TFLN (Texts From Last Night), for example, is dedicated to the ‘‘ regrettable text message’’. While the advances of smartphones and social media have helped us share and celebrate the successes of lives (new job, new baby, new cupcake), they are at the same time being used to capture, exhibit and prompt our most ignominious, indeed epic, fails.