Web 2.0 Error Messages

In the nascent days of Web 1.0, visiting a web site that was down, or traipsing a link that no longer existed usually resulted in a plain plage coldly informing you of "404 - File Not Found" or "500 - Internal Server Error." Okay then - journey over - time to try again on Alta Vista! Soon enough though, enterprising product managers and engineers figured out a way of extracting some value out of the thwarted visitor. Consequently, these pages evolved into search boxes surrounded by navigational links trumpeting the content available elsewhere on the site. "Sorry, we don't host the original link BUT look at the other goodies we have! Try a search! Look at some ads!" In essence, a 404 became a biased 411 - a free plug for the rest of the site. After all, those eyeballs were too precious to lose.

This remained the state of the art for the longest time - still is in most places. Try this, this or this, for example. However, the next gen web companies, particularly those involved in the business of user communities, are taking a lighter approach. This goes with their fun image. Just look at their overall design and color schemes (pastels, hot pinks, baby blues). It makes sense - why be a sourpuss if you're a social networking site and trying to attract visitors? Even morticians like to have fun now and then! Perhaps it's not all that surprising that this playfulness extends to their error messages as well. So, do join me while I tour some of the better parties on the web.

We begin with Technorati:

Invoking the Flying Spaghetti Monster is a fine way of getting the festivities started. Bonus points for "leave a quarter on your way out," a sly dig at those web 1.0 titans who still view an error page as a monetization opportunity.

Our next destination is YouTube:

Will those zany guys stop at nothing for a laugh? "Zapping the gremlins" pokes fun at the IT/Unix guru nerd set and their habit for all things hobbit. It's also a reference to the behind the scenes sorcery necessary to run sites like this, the black box nature of which is illustrated by the "layman's explanation," a real hoot. The tequila is really starting to flow now!

Moving on to Google, we have this:

Javascript magic running dry at Google? Say it ain't so! And yes, there's the reference to the black arts again. Even Merlin can only stay up for so long apparently. So, let's tiptoe out of there and look for louder pastures. How about web 2.0 darling, FlickR?

Yes! "Highly trained monkeys" are in da house! The clincher is the "include the following information in your error report" bit, a dig at the endless applications and websites that ungraciously crash, usually when you're trying to save something critical to the existence of the free world, and then have the cheek to request that you send an e-mail with an unwieldy huge stack dump as debugging information. Why, anybody would think us users were nothing but beta testers. Oh, wait ...

Ah, we're having such a good time here, let's stay awhile and sample some more of that sangria:

Oooh, a massage, a confession and a get-out clause ("in the grand scheme of things it's no big deal") - these folks are real veterans of the dating scene. Tough to leave this party, but depart we must. Let's drop by Google on the way back to see if they've woken up and, by jove, they have:

Aha! In their typical pithy way, these boys have summarized the entire ethos of the error message in one succint sentence: "Oops. That wasn't supposed to happen." Bit of a buzz kill, but that's a great haiku for life in general, if you think about it. It's also a fine way of rounding off the evening.

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- September 10, 2006 2:52 PM // Technology