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Fail Whale Community Ethnography

Here is my Ethnography assignment. It has been uploaded to Authorstream and can linked to below. It seems to have lost some sound but as its only music you should be ok with out it.

Please leave any comments you may have on this blog – thanks

~ by Alison Johnson on . Tagged: , , ,

11 Responses to “Fail Whale Community Ethnography”

  1. This is deeply impressive work Alison – I think this could and should count as your final assignment as well. The level of scholarly analysis far exceeds my pitiful effort! I loved the combination of artistic endeavour and appreciation and the sheer range and scale of the different communities which have sprung up around this ‘fail whale’ concept. This surely wouldn’t have been possible in a pre-digital age! Appreciation and production of ‘art’ was an individual, geographically located activity.

  2. Hello Alison,

    I found your ethnography intriguing, even if I’m bewildered by the Fail Whale community.

    ‘Several networks are now defunct or empty spaces and corridors, vacated by fans or community members who have moved on such as the Fail Whale fan club newsgroup on google or bookmarks site. The bookmarks site for example includes a ‘closed sign’…’

    This reminded me of the ghost towns that exist within Second Life. Do you think there’s a shelf-life to the Fail Whale phenomenon? Are community members able to import sufficient value to merit sustaining the community longer term?

    Thanks again for an interesting, thought provoking study – I can’t say I understand the basis for the community, however it was fascinating to get your take on it.

  3. Noreen and James many thanks for your kind and supportive words and yes Noreen I think you are right about art appreciation on a global scale only possible in a digital age.

    James – perhaps its like marmite – love or hate it? Empty network corridors are something michael also blogged about and has a great video on Friendster. The way I view it, it’s no different to all those of us who discarded our tennis racquet or football team when we wanted to abandon the hobby we had as it was a fad or we got interested in something else or which was replaced by the Wii perhaps? Its hard to work out whether it’s the Whale, the community or the technology they have moved on from.

    Regarding the shelf life – I am surprised it continues even now, the online shop continues to have hits/visits and new photos added to Flickr can still get lots of comments and views etc so interest does not seem to be waning. It could of course be new visitors rather than original fans? However the creativity it inspires seems to be self perpetuating – some of these ideas and reproductions take many hours of effort and time investment.

    What I am trying to grapple with is why do we think community needs to be sustained for the longer term? There are many examples of urbanised traditional communities abandoned due to never taking off or a hold, or migration elsewhere for work, so perhaps we are clinging on to nostalgic images of community. Sue and Mark had a great chat on her blog about that and traditional historical views of community see http://edc.education.ed.ac.uk/sueg/2010/10/23/response-to-ali/#comments


  4. Hi Alison. Many thanks for conducting this interesting study into an unusual community. Perhaps unusual is the wrong word, but it is certainly intriguing in that it seems to have grown organically around a symbol, and the frustrations that a particular group of online users felt. I also find it fascinating that “community” quite often seems to “find a way” when the remotest of means or connections are presented. Having said that, there is clear evidenc of a unifying feature, and elements of “policing” despite there being limited organised infrastructure. Taking James’ comment further, I am also reminded of the mid-west American mining “ghost towns” that sprang up, prospered for a while, and were then abandoned when the cohesive element – not to mention means of income – were depleted.

  5. This is a really impressive ethnography Ali, thank you very much. Your work conveys a sense of mature virtual communities resulting in real work (artistic) artefacts. I find the intersection of virtual and real to be facinating, and you have illustrated this beautifully. I was very impressed with the way in which the ethnography was presented, very creative.

  6. pengwins, of course! genius. Excellent ethnography that takes us all over the place, just as the fail whale does (and I love the visual metaphor of the constellation that you’ve used). I can see you’ve put a lot of effort into researching and writing this, and it shows. I especially appreciated the post where you showed images that linked with other course participants’ interests – the way you’ve made the idea of socio-material objects relevant to us as a group is a really nice way to show us this concept. I think you might be interested in one of the readings on the Digital Futures for Learning course – about what the author calls ‘blogjects’, or objects that blog – http://www.nearfuturelaboratory.com/files/WhyThingsMatter.pdf , and perhaps also in Henry Jenkins’ work on fandom – http://www.henryjenkins.org/

  7. Now Jen, you see I am in the WinGuins camp :-) Many thanks for all the great comments everyone, really appreciated.

    Mark “I find it fascinating that “community” quite often seems to “find a way” when the remotest of means or connections are presented” is a good observation – I guess the effort involved in being this resourceful helps to galvanize the community too. Your points about abandoned mining communities of course happened in UK too and in many areas I lived and/or worked in at the time (lancashire/yorkshire and Nottingham) and now you mention this I am also reminded of the abandoned military bases we saw in some of the group’s visual artefacts at the beginning of the course.

  8. I absolutely love what you did here, Alison. It has strong links I think with James’ work on Flashmobs. Failwhale is so odd though, it shouldn’t actually be anything, but people have elevated it to something significant. I think ’seeing something significant in the insignificant’ is a trait some people have in common. Though Twitter have put some work into personalising the 404 message, I guess. Do you think this is what they hoped would happen? Does the little twitter bird have any fans?

  9. Oops. Jeremy, i mean, not James! Apologies…

  10. Thoroughly enjoyed your ethnography Ali. Fascinating topic which was totally new to me. Like others have said, I loved the presentation and the star motif. The idea of the community that had arisen out of error messages is amazing in itself but to think it has been sustained and transformed with an art angle is really amazing. This community must silence all those who say that the internet is killing off our communities. Now the question is when will the failwhale community fully resurface and for what reason.

  11. Thanks Marie, Linda and Sue,

    @Marie, yes the birds are often referred to by the community as a collective with the whale – ‘fail whale and his birdie friends’ so they are not neglected!

    I think the crux of the appeal is that the image represented both what twitter and Yiyling Lu wanted to express – happy thoughts and efforts to fix a problem and so something significant shone out and applealed to those with senses of humour at downtime. A time when often negative thoughts occur, which themselves were replaced by an ‘uplift’ (which the failwhale image also depicts and represents!)

    @ Sue I like your metaphor or ‘resurfacing’ fits with a whale image!

    @Linda – yes the community continues to spread activities both on and offline – this does not seem to be abating.

    Just found an example of the community coming together early doors for a ’spot of whale watching’

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