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Updated : Wednesday 9 January 2013

As we all know, if you fail it means you’ve – well, screwed up. Spectacularly, in fact, if you do it online (and countless people do) or, especially, on Twitter. Here, if you try to tweet and see the “Fail Whale” symbol, it means the network is overloaded. Also, “Fail” has come to be used for blunders such as sending a private message by mistake to all your contacts or followers, thus making it – very – public.

The politicians and celebs who send the most tweets are obviously the most likely victims of a Fail. It happened recently to TV presenter Russell Brand, who tweeted a photo of his now ex-wife, singer Katy Perry, without makeup. He claimed it had been a mistake. Or Britain’s best-known black politician, Diane Abbott, who rather rashly tweeted that “white people love playing divide and rule”, which earned her a reprimand from the party leader. There’s nothing you can do to un-tweet a Fail. Once tweeted, it’s out there. Even if you delete the message from your own Twitter account, there are hundreds or thousands of followers who still have it on theirs. It’s also possible to Fail on Facebook, if you post a message on your wall that was only meant for one of your friends – but to do that, you have to suffer a real loss of concentration. It only needs a moment’s inattention on Twitter.

There are several options if you commit a Fail: You can deny it and claim to have been the victim of a hoax or a hacker (“It wasn’t me who wrote that message on my Twitter account, it was a pirate”). The kind of thing tried by US Senator Anthony Weiner, in an attempt to explain away his infamous “boxer shorts” Fail…. before he caved in and admitted it.

You can try to put a positive spin on it or subtly change it’s meaning, or claim it was a DM (direct message) fail – but that’s unlikely to be very credible either.

Or you can do it the Spike Lee way: after a Florida teenager was recently shot by a neighbourhood watch captain, the director retweeted what he believed was the address of the killer to his followers – over 250,000 of them. It was the wrong address. Lee is reported to have paid an undisclosed sum of money to the real owners of the address, a retired couple, as compensation.

Ashton Kutcher, a serial offender, is rumoured to have handed over control of his Twitter account to his manager.

If the Fail ends up costing you your job, your reputation or your marriage, that’s called Twimmolation.

It has to be said, in Twitter’s defence, that the network was never intended as a way of sending private messages. Twitter should be regarded more as a marketplace, a virtual public space where opinions can be exchanged. That explains why, in ergonomic terms, the network was not designed to limit the risks of a Fail. It took just one wrong letter for Weiner to ruin both his career and his marriage. When he entered the name of the recipient of his very personal message he hit the “@” sign instead of the letter “D” which would have sent his tweet directly to the lady in question – and only her – with no questions asked. It’s quite easy to mistake the @ for the D, which is why there are apparently millions of Fails every day! The solution? Don’t use Twitter to send “private” messages, stick to good old email; it may be less trendy but it’s also a lot less risky.

The term Fail has become so widespread on the web that it has begun to spill over into daily life. People no longer ask if you’ve heard about the latest gaffe so-and-so has made, but “did you hear his Fail?”

By extension, the term Fail has come to mean any kind of embarrassing marketing error. A poster for the hugely successful French film “Intouchables”, one of whose main characters is a wheelchair user, mentioned that the cinema showing it had no access for people with reduced mobility …. earning the dubious distinction of the “worst fail in cinema history”.

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