When laughing at an epic fail is no laughing matter

By Rob Walker

The other day I was chortling at a viral GIF, which is not unusual. This one showed a young woman, apparently at a concert, rocking out with the completely unselfconscious abandon that is part of attending live-music events. She’s lost in the moment, blissed out. But although that moment had passed, someone had made a video of it, and this ephemeral instance of transcendence was now a meme-worthy chunk of digital-culture material for the fleeting amusement of others.

If you’re looking for a link to this GIF, you won’t find it here. That’s because, mid-laugh, I considered this woman as an actual human being, moving through the world somewhere, possibly embarrassed that documentation of her genuine enjoyment had been repurposed into a nutty-looking punch line. I felt clammy.

We laugh at strangers, refracted through digital windows, all the time. “The Global Village now anoints a new Global Village Idiot every other week,” as Mark O’Connell puts it in his recent mini-e-book, “Epic Fail: Bad Art, Viral Fame, and the History of the Worst Thing Ever.” While others, including me, have explored the more serious contexts of online humor, particularly when it tilts into the grim and mean, in “Epic Fail” O’Connell makes a useful addition to what I’ll refer to as Lulz Studies by attempting to put this variety of Schadenfreude in cultural-historical perspective.

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O’Connell is interested in mockery sparked by “a particular misalignment of confidence and competence”—it’s not just the failure that’s funny, it’s failure set against the backdrop of a certain sort of pretension. Rebecca Black’s “Friday” (one of O’Connell’s subjects) was bad, but what made it an epic fail, and thus a staggering viral phenomenon, was the general idea that this teenager had wildly over-estimated her own talent and potential for fame as a singer. Set aside for the moment the fact that this general idea was somewhere between grossly exaggerated and simply wrong. The gap separating aspiration from execution is where lulz live.

Or at least that’s what I take from the Web-era and pre-Web examples O’Connell spends time on. Notable among the latter are Amanda McKittrick Ros (whose unintentionally hilarious purple prose delighted the likes of Aldous Huxley and J.R.R. Tolkien for reasons Ros clearly did not appreciate) and Tommy Wiseau (whose cult “disasterpiece” film “The Room” has been called The Greatest Bad Movie Ever Made). Musing on Wiseau’s hard-to-read persona—just how serious was he?—O’Connell points out that our belief in the sincerity of his intent is crucial to enjoyment of its failure: “‘The Room’ wouldn’t be half as much fun to watch were it not a real person’s effort to make art.”

Intent aside, nobody produces a film, or publishes a novel, without a fair amount of concentrated effort. The epic fails of the Internet can be quite different: Youthful indiscretions, passing whims, or even (in the case of that euphoric concert-goer) random moments of life that were never intended for mediated consumption. “Epic Fail” considers “Friday,” as well as the ill-fated efforts of 81-year-old Cecilia Giménez to restore an “ecce homo” fresco in the Spanish town of Borja. Surely there’s a disconnect between the aspirations of such individuals and the global scale of the rebukes their efforts received.

O’Connell concludes with a personal anecdote involving a rather clueless aspiring rapper he used to know, and apparently regrets the delight he once took in savoring the sheer awfulness of the fellow’s creations. “The culture of the Epic Fail,” he writes, “in its rituals of comic sacrifice, is a culture of sublimated predation.”

There’s something eternal in that: The perverse comfort in watching others over-reach converts easily to reassuring lesson learned. A recent New Yorker piece by Giles Harvey on failure-centric memoirs makes a similar point: “If narratives of personal unraveling afford us a frisson of danger (‘Look how bad things can get!’), they also reaffirm our sense of relative achievement and security (‘At least I didn’t end up like that’).” Maybe a short clip of Icarus’ wings bursting into flames would make an awesome GIF.

But what’s most useful about “Epic Fail” is that it points to a darker side of the Internet’s familiar role as democratization machine. Previously unimaginable success stories made possible by online mechanisms are now celebrated routinely, and that’s great. But if the role of Global Village Idiot can be democratized too—awarded, even, to people who were simply going about their very nonglobal lives—we should try to keep that from feeling routine.