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The culture of failure

If at first you don't succeed, tell the world about it -- because Web culture has become obsessed with our mistakes

By Don Aucoin
Globe Staff / May 30, 2009
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To 18-year-old Curtis Emery, nothing succeeds like failure.

Not his own, but that of others. For a while now, Emery has been a devotee of what he calls "failure videos," mostly on YouTube, that spotlight "everyday life things where people mess up, things don't work out the way they planned." Lately, though, Emery and his friends have been finding the same kind of laughs on a fast-growing website called FMylife.com that captures the red-faced moments of daily existence in first-person, dear-diary form. (Yes, the "F" stands for what you think it does.)

A forum for anonymous confessions of excruciating gaffes and moments of personal humiliation, FMylife.com taps into the confessional culture of the Internet but gives it a sardonic, self-deprecating twist. The site, which forms the basis for a book coming out next month, has made an instant connection with a generation whose comedic sensibility was shaped by the televised pratfalls of "America's Funniest Home Videos" and the cringe comedy of "The Office."

"There are some kids that are, like, that's all they do," says Emery, a senior at Hudson High School. "It's about stuff that happened at parties or at work. It can be anything from awkward sex stories to awkward office situations." And why does it appeal to him? "It's human struggles," he replies. "Things that could happen to anybody."

Perhaps the recession has intensified the hunt for the funny side of failure or made people more sympathetic to those who slip on life's many banana peels. Whatever the reason, the sharing of personal missteps has become such a part of today's e-culture that actress Lindsay Lohan recently sought to rehabilitate her image by actually underscoring her blunders, releasing an online video that made sport of her propensity for "passing out in Cadillac Escalades" and confessing: "I'm a workaholic, a shopaholic, and, according to the state of California, an alcoholic."

Non-celebrities increasingly use their own humiliating personal mishaps as grist for the mill on blogs and on social-networking sites like Facebook. A site called Fail Blog is home to embarrassing videos and photos sent in by users. The "Fail Whale" graphic (an image of a whale being held aloft by a flock of red birds) began as a way to signify error messages on Twitter, but it soon blossomed into a pop phenomenon, spawning T-shirts, coffee mugs, and a "FAIL Party" in San Francisco whose invitation read: "Let's remember and celebrate our FAILures."

In March, author and Attleboro native Suzanne Guillette published "Much to Your Chagrin: A Memoir of Embarrassment," in which she tells tales of embarrassing moments in her life and the lives of others she interviewed. Many of them eagerly volunteered, to judge by a video on Guillette's website. "I projectile-vomited on the girl that was my first kiss," one man tells the camera. Adds a woman, in what may amount to both an explanation and a credo for the get-it-all-out-there movement: "Too many humiliations. I don't feel that it's humiliating anymore."

So FMylife.com, with its spirit of good-hu mored self-abasement, is clearly riding the zeitgeist. Launched in January and based on a successful forerunner in France, FMylife.com already receives 1.7 million hits a day, including 1 million unique visitors. Coming soon to a bookstore near you: "F My Life," a book containing more than 800 anecdotes that have been posted on the site, to be published by Villard Books, an imprint of Random House.

Some college students have taken to exclaiming "FML!" out loud when life deals them an unexpected setback. Kelli Van Antwerp, 21, a junior at Columbia College in Chicago, says the site has "hit my college like a storm." She herself has become so addicted to FMylife that she has made it her homepage. "If you're having a bad day, and you think your life is terrible," she said, "you go to FMylife and you say 'You know, my life isn't so bad.' "

Meagan J. Ellis, an account manager at Kel & Partners, a Boston public relations agency specializing in social media, said FMylife.com represents "the ultimate overshare." The site has become a word-of-mouth water-cooler phenomenon in her office and other workplaces. "We're all so saturated with websites, and so there's a cool-kid cachet in being able to share a website that people haven't heard about," Ellis said.

What do newcomers find when they get to the site? A there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I catalogue of catastrophes in the workplace, in the bedroom, in school, at family or social occasions, or on the street. The site's format requires that all postings begin with "Today" and end with the rueful "FML." For example: "Today, I walked past a church with a bunch of people standing outside waiting for the bride and groom to walk out. When the church doors opened, I yelled congratulations as loud as I could. It was a funeral. FML."

So why would anyone want to share their failures with the world, whether on FMylife.com, Facebook status updates, or elsewhere? Don Fitz, who teaches social psychology at Washington University in St. Louis, says it may actually be a sign of good mental health. "People who put these on would be rather high self-esteem people, who have a good concept of themselves and enjoy laughing at themselves," he said. "It's going to take a fairly self-confident person to have that kind of exhibitionism."

Dr. Larry Larsen, an Andover psychologist who treats adolescents, sees it as cathartic. "In my opinion, it's an Internet occasion for finding the absurd and laughing about it," he said. "You really have two choices: You can cry or laugh."

Alan Holding, a "moderator" on FMylife who is among those who picks and chooses from among 5,000 submissions per day, said FMylife is "not about self-harm and tales of woe and desperation." Nor, he said, is the site aiming for nonstop raunch. "The idea behind the site is not to have a collection of terrible stories of woe and misery but to have a collection of funny stories that people are not too embarrassed to post on the website," he said. "It's somewhere people can go on and tell their stories."

Has he ever posted a mortifying anecdote about himself? "No," he quickly replied. "My life is too boring."

Don Aucoin can be reached at aucoin@globe.com.