I remember when Twitter announced its new web layout – I read a review coupled with the standard press release and immediately opened a browser tab to check it out. I was treated to one of the most simultaneously ingratiating and annoying figures in today’s web culture – the Fail Whale.
The error image, owing its charm to artist Yiying Lu, is maybe the most recognizable example of a technique that has really taken off in the web-based service crowd; explaining service failures in a creative, open way.
Creative 503, 404, and other error pages aren’t new – they’ve been around the web for a while. But trends suggest that this new strategy of taking outages and making them adoptable by your user community actually strengthens the loyalty among that community. When Twitter was in its early awkward growth stage, die-hard devotees took failure as a sign that their under-the-radar messaging service was gaining mainstream appeal. They were rooting for the service despite the failure, and so they adopted the whale as a kind of loyalty mascot (check out “the Story of the Fail Whale“ from ReadWriteWeb).
Another great 503 mascot story arose recently when artist Matthew Inman, via his hilarious site The Oatmeal, suggested in his Winter 2010 State of the Web [NSFWish] that Tumblr adopt a Fail Whale style mascot for its outages. They did.
People immediately started talking about what a cool move this was; from sites like Gearlog and Geeks are Sexy to mainstream outlets like CNN Money and the New York Observer. Tons of press was generated for Inman and Tumblr – good press – because of Tumblr’s nifty new way to screw up.
There’s a great lesson here about transparency in general, but first, let’s be honest. Web-based services don’t have a huge choice in the matter. If you make a server request and that server is down, you’re going to get an error message (at the very least, a refused connection). The system has built-in transparency. But there’s a difference between standard error message page and instead making that error message a creative, whimsical part of your brand. That’s an extra step toward transparency that seems to make a difference.
The Fail Whale and Tumbeasts both have twitter accounts and sites of their own. People buy tshirts, stickers, and even get – irony be damned – Fail Whale tattoos. An outage for a web-based service is supposed to be the biggest taboo among web-based service taboos. Server farms use consistency as a selling point with ad headlines like “99.95% Uptime!” Conventional wisdom would suggest that you do everything you can to minimize the attention your outages receive, not give it a cartoon mascot. And yet here we are, talking about brand loyalty in the midst of service failure.
Interest-based advertisers and data collection services should take note. Until recently, the strategy has been to do IBA activities as quietly as possible, because these activities can make users uncomfortable. That’s a failing strategy, of course, because research shows that users are far more bothered by the clandestine nature of the process than the collection itself.
But please learn the lesson that Fail Whale and the Tumbeasts are trying to teach you. We all know the web isn’t a perfect place, so don’t try to hide the less-perfect bits from us. Just tell us what’s going on, and we’ll like you better for it.