BOSTON (MainStreet) -- During the decades that preceded cable, satellite and HDTV, television stations were prone to the occasional studio malfunction or dead air. Over time, standard test patterns were replaced by comical cartoon illustrations where, for instance, a bumbling worker of some sort would get tangled up in a mess of cables, declaring: "We'll be right back."
Images of this sort were a way to -- at least minimally -- placate annoyed viewers. They were a mea culpa offered with a humorous, humanizing twist.
The online world is taking its cue from that tradition.
Given the myriad ways software can malfunction, Web content can change and computers crash, error messages are an annoying reality of the Silicon Age. To ease the sting of these failures, engineers and programmers are increasingly using cheery images and comical asides to alert users and apologize for the failures.
The Fail Whale
Among the better examples is the Twitter "Fail Whale" -- a mammoth, cartoon Moby-Dick being carried airborne by a flock of tiny birds. The image appears whenever the sites servers are overtaxed, leading to an outage.
For Yiying Lu, who created the image, it has opened opportunities personal and professional. The illustration has taken on near icon status -- there are T-shirts, fan sites and parodies (a notable one was commissioned from her by Conan O'Brien). Lu has created a virtual ark of her easily identifiable animals and, as co-founder and creative director of the graphics company Walls 360, is branching out into new forms of advertising, augmented reality and QR codes. She's received numerous awards and is in near constant demand as a speaker all over the globe.
She's quick to point out that her success -- driven by the Fail Whale -- was as random as it was unexpected.
Lu describes herself as "an international kid" who grew up in a family that was often traveling and living in different cities. In 2002, she moved from Shanghai to Sydney, Australia, where she attended college.
With friends scattered around the world, she decided to apply her studies in design and visual communication to a simple, personal task: a pencil-drawn e-card of an elephant being carried airborne by fluttering birds. She called the piece "Lifting a Dreamer" and it was meant to express her desire to be geographically closer with friends and family.
"I just thought it was a really beautiful visual metaphor," she says. "That my wish the elephant is so big and so heavy, with the birds representing my free spirit and good wishes."
In 2006, she decided to create a new image to express very similar dreams. The creation of "Lifting a Dreamer 2.0" found inspiration in some very random things.
The elephant became a whale, in part, because of some wordplay -- Sydney is in New South Wales. The turquoise color scheme, which ended up closely matching that of Twitter, came from Lu's December birthstone. Instead of a pencil sketch, the image was crafted digitally.
At the time, Lu, still a student, had no Web site of her own, so she posted that image and others on Flickr. She later migrated her images to iStock, a site for stock photography and graphics, thinking it would better reach a community of designers.
Six months after posting her work on iStock, she started getting fan mail. A letter from a man in Ireland alerted her that the image was being used by Twitter -- a site she had never heard of. She soon learned that founder Biz Stone had used her photo to accompany a downtime alert, replacing LOL Cats that had been used and set aside for fear they were too "jokey."
"It was just bizarre because people thought it was specifically designed for Twitter," Lu says. Comment boards, in particular on flickr, were filled with speculation about what the symbolism might be. There were discussions of Freudian implications. Some loved it, some disliked it and offered their own alternatives. An online fan club was created by one of the former.
"I actually hope Twitter goes down more so that I can see your whale," one person wrote to her.
"My intention of this artwork was really just sending best wishes to my friends overseas," Lu says. "It was a very positive image and it was supposed to be a visual soother -- to make people happy -- which it hopefully does on Twitter."
Lu says she now appreciates that her whale symbolizes a message to be patient and "relax" not taking "failure too seriously."
She admits to mixed emotions initially.
"If it was just being used as a logo, I would probably feel more neutral, because a logo doesn't have any positive or negative association with the specific artwork," she says. "But this was used as a downtime image. I was a fresh graduate from school and somehow there was this really weird association of my artwork with failure. It was kind of hard in the beginning, but I gradually learned to appreciate that this was an amazing opportunity.
"I really think that, in that service breakdown moment, it is providing empathy for the user. When things are going wrong, they do want to have some hope and some positive uplifting moment for them to feel better. I love the fact that this image somehow changed people's perception of looking at a bad situation or error."
The "Sad Mac"
Apple (Stock Quote: AAPL) computers through OS X 10.1 (Puma) have featured one artistic representation or another of the "Happy Mac," the smiling face that appears at start-up to let you know all is well with the world.
Equally iconic to Mac users is its evil twin, the "Sad Mac," a scowling little guy with X-ed out eyes who usually made his appearance with a sound effect known as the "Chimes of Death."
A rather morbid sound effect accompanied failures in PowerPC Macs before 1998 -- the sound of a skidding car crash, complete with shattering glass.
Recent versions of the Mac operating system have bid farewell to the Sad Mac, although a relative lives on in a "Sad iPod" face that accompanies a hardware or firmware error.
The Red Ring of Death
There really isn't much amusing or comforting about the glowing red ring around your Xbox's power button. Those three flashing red lights are the video game console version of a hospital patient going flatline.
We added this to our list because, for what its worth, your Xbox's code red is a bit of a celebrity impersonator. Isolated from the rest of the front panel, it bears a striking similarity to one of the cinema's great computer breakdowns: the HAL 9000 in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
Bottom line: If your Xbox interrupts Arkham City to start singing, "Daisy, Daisy, give me your answer do," you might want to drop the controller and run.
Although the Red Ring of Death, known to gamers as RRoD, is often a portent of hardware failures, sometimes the news is less fatalistic. A power surge can trigger the blinking lights and be fixed, in some cases, by simply powering down, unplugging the unit and letting it rest for a bit.
As of last year, Microsoft's (Stock Quote: MSFT) slimmed-down version of the Xbox bid adieu to the RRoD, replacing it with a less auspicious red dot that appears at the center of the power button.
Blue Screen of Death
Don't think of Microsoft's Blue Screen of Death as just an error message -- consider it a piece of living history.
Talking paper clips may come and go, but the BSoD has been around since the embryonic days of the operating system. Every version of Microsoft's OS, from 3.1 to the forthcoming Windows 8, has had a variation of the post-crash message.
The white text atop a blue backdrop is meant to explain why your PC isn't a happy camper. The codes and jargon, however, probably don't mean much to the average user, other than the fact that "reboot" and "safe mode" are terms they will soon be all too familiar with.
There's really not much fun about the dry, unwanted message -- or is there?
Creative types can tinker with the OS to change the color of the message to something they find more pleasing.
Microsoft once even offered a BSoD as a download for developers looking to prank colleagues into thinking their computer had crashed. To add an air of authenticity, its details included actual specs from the victimized PC's configuration.
The Web also hosts numerous sites that document the many unusual places the BSoD pops up. Nearly any sign or terminal that runs on Windows can occasionally flash the crash recap -- towering Las Vegas signs, rock concert stages and even Times Square billboards.
Perhaps taking a cue from the tradition of the "Sad Mac," early testers of the forthcoming Windows 8 have reported that the impersonal BSoD is now humanized a bit with a frowning emoticon added atop all that tech mumbo-jumbo.
The BeOS operating system's Web browser, Net+, included a fondly remembered way of announcing errors. It offered up a variety of haiku messages to ease the heartbreak of rebellious pages.
Among the dozens of poetic consolations users might see:
Errors have occurred
We won't tell you where or why
Not a pretty sight
When the web dies screaming loud
The site is not found
Click exciting link
Gossamer threads hold you back
404 not found
Cables have been cut
Southwest of Northeast somewhere
We are not amused
Server's poor response
Not quick enough for browser
Timed out, plum blossom
The code was willing
It considered your request,
But the chips were weak
To have no errors
Would be life without meaning
No struggle, no joy
The OS also had its own way of handling failed log-on attempts. Among the error messages you'd get after fumbling for the right password: "Have you tried checking for post-it notes on your co-workers' desks?"
Flickr's coloring contest
On July 19, 2006, the photo-sharing Web site Flickr underwent some growing pains. Its servers crashed, leaving millions of users unable to access their images.
Many found it hard to get too worked up, though, thanks to a peace offering. The error message turned the outage into a coloring contest.
There was, to start with, a rather run-of-the-mill apology.
"We've had a temporary storage failure affecting a sizable chunk of old Flickr photos and are moving about 20 terabytes of photos across a few thousand miles (between two of our data centers) to ensure consistency and smoothness," it read. "All photos and data are safe and nothing has been lost."
Then, more creatively, shut-out users found an image of two, side-by-side circles when they tried to log in.
The two shapes were accompanied with the following text: "Arrggh! Our tubes are clogged! Because this sucks, we thought you might like to enter an impromptu competition to win a free pro account! Just print out this page and colour in the dots. When the site's back up, take a photo of your creation and post it to Flickr, tagged with 'flickrcolourcontest.' Team Flickr will pick a winner in the next couple of days, and that lucky duck will get a free year of Pro." (Why "tubes"? It was a gentle jab at then-U.S. Sen. Ted Stevens, an Alaska Republican, who described the Internet as being "a series of tubes.")
About 1,000 entries were received, many of which are remain posted here.
A service as graphic-heavy as Tumblr -- with millions of "blogs" perpetually refreshed with photos, GIFs and videos -- is bound to have a server hiccup from time to time.
Cartoon "Tumbeasts," conceptual cousins of the Fail Whale, appear whenever the site gets all choked up. Among the explanations that rotate with their appearances: "We may have forgotten to feed the wild Tumbeasts that roam our datacenter, which often results in unexpected downtime due to gnawing and/or mutiny. Animal control has been alerted."
The Tumbeasts first appeared in January in a "State of the Web" edition of the popular web comic The Oatmeal.
"If you're going to go down, you might as well blame it on an imaginary animal like Twitter did with their infamous Fail Whale," wrote creator Matthew Inman. "I've taken the liberty of creating this animal for you."
A mere four hours later, Tumblr took him up on the offer and the green, bandwidth-a-vores have been munching their way through Ethernet cables ever since.
A lot can go wrong between mouse clicks when browsing the Web. The common "404" error message, in tech speak, is standard response code for when you, the client, is able to connect with a server but cannot retrieve the intended data.
Perhaps most commonly, this happens when a previous page on a site is moved or eliminated.
Web servers have the capability to customize the response page that appears instead of the text or images you were looking for. In most cases, these messages are cut and dried, with perhaps a logo or contact info added.
But sometimes -- and with increasing frequency -- publishers are having some fun with their 404 alerts.
Since 1996, the 404 Research Lab has offered an online depository of the best and worst of 404 messages.
There are rampaging animals, karate kicks and bad magicians to blame for broken links and pages that have disappeared. The error page for South Park Studios features a profane Eric Cartman swearing about his missing content. The site for 501st Legion, a group of Star Wars re-enactors, has an imperial storm trooper advising that "This is not the page you are looking for ... move along ... move along," a reference to that famous Jedi mind trick.
Hit the wrong link while checking out the New Yorker online and you'll still get a dose of its content -- with a cartoon specially drawn to reflect your browsing plight.
Best known for its classic video game system, the 2600, Atari also had its own line of computers running a proprietary operating system in the 1980s.
A bit of its gaming aesthetic crept into the otherwise utilitarian set-up. Critical system errors -- the kind that might make your Mac sad or windows blue -- spawned rows of cartoon bombs. Counting the fuse-topped cannonballs would decode what conflict or violation caused the crash.
Do you love the quirky ways that companies use to define theselves and set themselves apart to their customers? Check out MainStreet's look at 7 Fake Executives at Real Companies for more!