the kicker

Fail Whale, Meet Moby-Dick

May 8, 2009

So turns out Twitter’s “fail whale”–per ReadWriteWeb, a “representation of the community’s love for the service and their hope for its triumph over their many struggles”–is actually a pretty appropriate image for the service. Because the term “twitter,” all the company’s chirpy-bird branding notwithstanding, has, CNET’s Caroline McCarthy has discovered (via a tip from, no joke, the Twitter account of the massive blue whale that hangs from the ceiling of New York’s Museum of Natural History)…a marine-mammalian past.

And that past ain’t pretty.

“Twitter,” McCarthy found–per a document entitled “Report of the Commissioner for the year ending June 30, 1902: Aquatic products in arts and industries: fish oils, fats, and waxes. Fertilizer from aquatic products” (and unearthed by the blog of the Whaling Museum of New Bedford, Massachusetts)–is defined in whaling terms as: a “thread-like or membranous substance ranging through the contents of the case…from 2 to 3 inches thick, glutinous, and extremely tough” in the head of a sperm whale.

Oh, and there’s more. “In decapitating the sperm whale, especially in severing near the bunch of the neck, a very sharp spade is required to cut through this tough and elastic formation. Although it is very difficult to manipulate, an economical whaleman never throws this substance away. Since it can not be boiled out with the case, for the reason above given, it is saved and run through the pots with the fat-lean after the case and junk have been cooked.”

Yowza. Good thing Yiying Lu didn’t know about this…

Megan Garber is an assistant editor at the Nieman Journalism Lab at Harvard University. She was formerly a CJR staff writer.