How An Unknown Artist's Work Became a Social Media Brand Thanks To the Power of Community

Twitter users are very familiar with the iconic image of the Fail Whale. This social object has been latched onto by Twitter fans not just as a representation of Twitter's downtime, but also as a representation of the community's love for the service and their hope for its triumph over their many struggles. Despite Twitter's troubles, most of its users stayed true, watching and waiting as the team began the long process of recoding the application in order for it to scale up. As Twitter succumbed to the strain of running their under-provisioned service, the Fail Whale "over capacity" image would appear. And this image began to take on a life of its own. This is the story of the Fail Whale.

Fail Whale's Beginnings

You probably thought that Twitter was using designs they paid for, right? Well, apparently that was not the case. The designer behind the Fail Whale, Yiying Lu, had posted the image to the stock photo web site, iStockPhoto. (She has now removed the original link). Although the image of the Fail Whale was widely known, the designer herself was not. Tom Limongello decided to change that.

Tom had once made himself a Fail Whale t-shirt from a screenshot which he wore at a Mashable party. Of course, the shirt was a huge hit. But Tom couldn't really post the shirts for sale because he didn't have rights to the design. Yet, here was an entire community of Fail Whale fans - many of which who had gathered at failwhale.com - who wanted a shirt of their own.

But then Tom met the designer Yiying Lu when her iStockPhoto link was tweeted to the @FailWhale Twitter user from Twitterer @emmastory. The Fail Whale project (@FailWhale, failwhale.com) is a community effort created by Sean O'Steen, (@seanostee) whose mission was to create a brand from the Fail Whale phenomenon. Sean is responsible for the Fail Whale web site and the Twitter profile, but the name "Fail Whale" itself was coined by Nick Quaranto.

Setting Up The Fail Whale Store

Despite the popularity of the Fail Whale, creator Yiying Lu wasn't really profiting from her iconic work. Twitter.com did not link to her and she didn't have an online store for Twitter fans. So Tom took it upon himself to give her a call. He told Yiying, who lives in Australia, but is originally from Shanghai, about the project, the community's desire for merchandise, and the Fail Whale's potential, and asked her to create a Zazzle store so everyone could enjoy her work.

And thus the Fail Whale online store was born. On zazzle.com/failwhale, fans can now customize their own shirt with their own handle and slogan. Now, not only could Fail Whale fans buy the shirt, they were also helping to support the artist, too.

FailWhale Zazzle Shop

Spreading the News: Fail Whale Has Arrived!

The next question the Fail Whale community wanted to address was getting the word out about the Zazzle shop. Tom had originally wanted to send shirts to the team at Twitter as gesture of community support, and he now also realized that the gesture could also be a way to promote the artist herself and her new shop.

So, the Fail Whale fan club rallied together to round up the $361.17 needed to purchase 20 shirts and have them shipped to Twitter's offices. Also included with the shirts was a note from Tom and the gang which offered a message of support to the Twitter team and also a request to tweet a thank you to Yiying which included the link to the Zazzle store.

Read this document on Scribd: Letter to Twitter in support of FailWhale

Twitter's Evan Williams did end up tweeting about the shirts shortly after their arrival. Though he wasn't sure how to react (tweeted: "mixed feelings"), he did include the link to the online store. Tom equates this tweet to a media buy...at a $25.06 CPM. Of course when you take into account the re-tweets and the other subsequent Twitter messages linking to the online store, the effective CPM goes down quite a bit.

Ev's Tweet

Fail Whale Fan Club

The Fail Whale fan club at failwhale.com now actively promotes the Zazzle store as well as the additional shop that Yiying Lu opened up for t-shirts and accessories at failwhaleshop.com. The Zazzle shop has made around $4200.00 from the 12,000+ visits they've received since June 25th. The fan club also runs a Facebook group that currently has 3154 fans.

But the number of sales made is only one aspect to this story - what's more compelling is the torrent of social media cooperation that Ev's tweet set off. Since then, Tom, Sean, and Yiying have continued to manage the Fail Whale community across the numerous social sites, making new friends, starring their favorite fan photos, and interacting with those who post to the Facebook fan page wall. Sean even extended the Fail Whale concept to TUAW recently which showed the Apple iPhone similarly being carried by Yiying Lu's birds during the low point of iPhone 3g activation issues last Friday night.

Fail iPhone

The Birth of a Social Media Object

It's also notable that this social media effort has gone the opposite route as what has been seen with another iconic brand: Hello Kitty. The fans of that brand have literally stolen the image to make fan art, claiming that Hello Kitty is now part of our pop culture. Normally, the internet encourages this type of piracy, but in the case of the Fail Whale, by promoting the artist, the designer's identity and official link have floated to the top.

The Fail Whale story is one that shows the value of open content. By making the art available, Yiying is now going to profit in more ways than if she had simply made the art available for purchase. She will be earning profits from merchandise at both shops and from the sale of her prints and she will certainly win some future design work from this as well. Of course, her successes come from more than just the work itself, but also from the power of the community who embraced it. The marriage of the two breathed life into the art and created a modern-day social object which emanates the hope of the community and the love they have for the brand.

You can see more of Yiyang's work on her personal site, yiyinglu.com.