Hello, Yiying! The creator of the “Fail Whale”

by garth on June 30, 2008

“Lifting a Dreamer”, by Yiying Lu

After hearing that the Fail Whale article on Wikipedia was scheduled for early deletion, I felt compelled to help edit it to meet the standards of the Wikipedians — at least, the inclusionists.

It was — and still is — quite important to me to clarify the relationship between the picture of the whale, the name the community gave it, the personality projected by the community on it, and the @failwhale account created by @seanosteen.

Luckily, James Governor had written an article “The Designer Who Gave Us Fail Whale and Showing The Whale”:

I had assumed Twitter was using designs it had paid for for its Fail page, but apparently not. Courtesy of John Wilson’s comment on my last blog about Twitter, a couple of hours ago, came news the famous whale is a stock shot from here.

Yiying Lu is the fantastic designer behind the image we all see, and love, so much. Frankly I think Twitter should use more of their work to give us some variety, and also give Yiying a lot more credit. How about a service sleeping owl?

Thanks to James’ detective work and Kapanka’s edit, the Wikipedia article already linked to Yiying, but it lacked a lot of detail.

So, I sent Yiying a tweet and an SMS, and we ended up talking on Skype. I wish I’d recorded it, as she’s great interview talent. All I can do here is report the story:

Yiying was studying at UTS when she drew “Lifting a Dreamer”. To help support her studies, Yiying put it up on iStockPhoto not realising that the site was more for generic images — say, a mobile phone on a white background — than for personal works of art.

Yiying isn’t sure exactly when Twitter downloaded the picture, and so can’t nail down exactly what they paid for the license to use it, but estimates it was around USD$5-10.

Eventually, someone let Yiying know: “your whale is getting bigger! people see it every hour…”, she saw it on Twitter, and @tlimongello contacted Yiying from the USA to get her permission to put the Fail Whale on some T-shirts. @seanosteen had already registered failwhale.com for fan blog. After some discussion, Yiying set up the online store to meet community demand for Fail Whale memorabilia. She also deactivated the image on iStockPhoto to prevent further commercial use of the image.

To this date, nobody at Twitter has yet contacted Yiying. As of the last sightings of the Fail Whale — soon to be rare, about which I’ve got mixed feelings — the image remains unattributed. So, I’m delighted to spread the word about the true origins of the Fail Whale.

Back to that delightful mix of image, name, personality, and tribute persona, though: I think Yiying nailed it during our call when she said:

“This is a social object — it’s not only my thing. It’s my graphic, but how this graphic got famous… it’s the social power, the Twitter power.”

That Twitter power is now engaging with the artist, not just her image.


Angela 07.01.08 at 12:18 am

Hi, found your blog when investigating some new person following me on twitter. I’m not sure who it is, but it looks like they reposted one of your earlier tweets. The one where you reference this blogpost. Weird.

Their twitter feed is: http://twitter.com/barfslutton

Just thought I’d let you know.

@seanosteen 07.01.08 at 1:55 am

Great post. Excellent explanation of what has occured to-date, and your take on it. Thank you for all of your contributions to the Wikipedia article!

garth 07.12.08 at 9:26 pm

Thanks, Sean. I much appreciate it.

Angela, thanks for pointing out the scrape account! There are now plenty of spam accounts that post by scraping recent tweets from the public timeline. I guess I got lucky…

office space guy 10.13.08 at 8:10 pm

I didnt realise that she was paid less than $10 for this! I have seen in the past discussions about twitter getting it for a bargain, but I still thought we were talking in the hundreds or low thousands.

I just hope that she has earned enough from the follow-ups to make it all worthwhile :)

Flüge 12.03.08 at 12:42 am

Well, Yiying isn’t mentioned in the Wikipedia-article anymore. 5-10 USD isn’t a lot, but in she got famous now. The Fail Whale is definetely cult and she got her accolade due to Twitters fail. I like the whole story. And finally I know who is responsible for the design of my great T-shirt:)

Edith 05.07.10 at 7:34 pm

Of course Yiying is mentioned in the article on Wikipedia: “When Twitter experiences an outage, users see the “fail whale” error message image created by Yiying Lu.”

I didn’t know so far that Yiying Lu was paid less than $10 for the creation of the fail whale. And I don’t think that she got famous like “Flüge” said because I regularly use Twitter and I’ve never heard about Yiying Lu so far. But I really like the fail whale. It’s a great image *TOP* !

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