The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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.

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