Creater of Twitter's 'Fail Whale'enjoying a bit of fame

  • Article by: ALEXANDRA STEVENSON , New York Times
  • Updated: November 17, 2013 - 2:50 PM
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Twitter whale, illustration by Yiying. Lu

With its recent initial public offering, Twitter minted a brand-new group of billionaires, many of whom were rewarded for their early work with the company.

But one person who brought a sense of levity to the startup during its darkest hours will not be making anything. That person is Yiying Lu, the artist behind Twitter’s “Fail Whale” — the image of a whale being carried by birds — that used to pop up every time Twitter’s website was down, which was a lot of the time in 2008.

Unlike Facebook’s graffiti artist who took shares instead of payment that turned out to be worth more than $200 million, or the masseuse at Google whose stock options made her a multimillionaire, Lu was not richer after Twitter’s first day of trading.

“I have no stock,” Lu said. “Yet,” she added after a pause.

Her story is just one of many from people who contribute to the success of a startup but don’t reap a windfall when it goes public.

Lu, who was born in Shanghai, moved to New South Wales, Australia, as a teenager and later studied in London at Central Saint Martins College of Arts and Design. She created the whale as a birthday icon she would send to friends who were scattered around the world. It was meant to depict a whale so full of good wishes that it needed a little help from its bird friends.

In 2008, she posted it to iStockphoto.com, a royalty-free service where photographers and artists can post their work and license it for a small fee.

Biz Stone, one of Twitter’s co-founders, went to iStockphoto during Twitter’s early days when the site hit a rough patch with regular shutdowns. He was looking for a cheap image that could be used as a symbol when the Twitter site was down temporarily but would return soon. Lu’s image struck a chord with him and, as it soon became apparent, with Twitter’s followers.

Lu only discovered later that Twitter was using her whale image when a fan — one of many around the world who had named the Twitter whale “Fail Whale” — contacted her to congratulate her.

“When it came up I had no idea,” she said, “I didn’t even have a Twitter account.”

Looking back today, Lu called the chance discovery of her whale by Stone serendipity. Even though she was not paid much for the image, she would end up reaping enormous benefits.

“I do appreciate the opportunities and I want to tell the positive story,” she said.

Opportunities did begin to arrive. In 2010, when the comedian Conan O’Brien left NBC as host of “The Tonight Show” after a scuffle with management, he needed a fresh image for his new “Conan” show on TBS. His team, familiar with Lu’s work made famous by an online fan community, commissioned her for the job. She created a Pale Whale — depicting O’Brien riding the original Fail Whale — for the show.

Lu has also received a Shorty Award — which was created for Twitter users — and in a twist, this year a Twitter engineer commissioned Lu to create a logo for Twitter’s “capacity service” team of engineers who help to keep the website up. The image is of a bird equipped with cogs and tools.

Even though Lu said she harbored no bad feelings toward Twitter’s management, which took a long time to acknowledge the artwork was hers, she did feel strongly about the role that art plays for technology companies.

“Tech companies should compensate artists who contribute to their company’s value,” she said, adding, “It’s important to humanize technology.”

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