404s: Mistakes, Made Painstakingly

Red Fez, November 13, 2015.

Every now and then, we descend on addresses that have either changed or vanished into the bowels of the World Wide Web. “404” is the Internet equivalent of dialing a number, and ending up listening to an automated message that informs you that it’s no longer in service.

The feeling of hitting one is a bit like driving a long distance, only to realize that you’ve arrived at a cul-de-sac, and that the only way out of there is to return to where you came from. Doubtless, it’s a bummer. But wouldn’t some of the disappointment dissipate, or at least, be diluted, if you were to be entertained while you were there?

These days, most companies, the Davids and Goliaths alike, make the effort to build “error” pages that are droll, waggish, and playful. They appear to reward the weary wayfarer for taking the time and trouble to get to a destination, which, for no fault of theirs—or it was their fat finger that was the culprit—was not to be found.

There’s no one winning formula, but the crème of the crop tie their 404s into the brand’s overarching motif.

While flitting around in my room on a cold day, I went to AccuWeather to look up the temperature. No thermometer was located, but I stumbled across a placard that had painted on it three black clouds, with a bolt of lightning splitting them. It said: “Boom! The page you requested has been struck by lightning.”

The U.S. space agency has a nerdy one that caters to those with an interest in astronomy: “The NASA object you are looking for has disappeared beyond the event horizon.” Which means that it’s been gobbled up by a black hole, never to be retrieved.

501st Legion is a fan-based outfit that designs “Star Wars” costumes. It has a lone stormtrooper, who chants hypnotically, “This is not the page you’re looking for. Move along … Move along …”

Of course, this will resonate with the fandom. In “Star Wars: A New Hope” (1977), when Luke Skywalker, Obi-Wan Kenobi, and the two robots, arrive in Mos Eisley, in Tatooine, the sagely Jedi master summons the force to bend the mind of a weak-minded stormtrooper, guarding the entry to space tavern, into saying, “These aren’t the droids we’re looking for.”

If you ever bump into MOMA’s 404, you may not even recognize it, for it features a piece of art, just like its other pages do: Edward Ruscha’s “OOF.” Which sounds a lot like “poof.”

Spiritual But Not Religious is a space for folks who walk a spiritual path outside organized religion. A dejected-looking man, sitting in front of the computer, with “404” etched on its lid, has a philosophical message that can be read in a number of ways.

“The journey of life is filled with many disappointments. This is one of them. The page you were trying to reach: (1) does not exist; (2) is a myth; (3) transcends all human understanding; (4) exists, but in a different form; (5) has evolved to a higher plane of existence.”

“At times like these, we suggest just going HOME.”

NPR has a humorous and educative page from which you come away smiling, and a shade smarter. “It’s a shame that your page is lost,” it writes, “but at least, it’s in good company. Stick around to browse through NPR stories about lost people, places, and things that still haven’t turned up.” And those are: Amelia Earhart; 18 ½ Minutes of Watergate tapes; Jimmy Hoffa; and your luggage.

8bitpeoples is an artist collective in New York that focuses on 8-bit aesthetic. True to its niche, it features a dialogue between two bitty 8-bit birds, one black; one, white. The two feathered chums chuckle over a startling discovery.

Black Bird: 404!
White Bird: For real?
Black Bird: Yup!
White Bird: LOL!
Black Bird: LOL!

Cooklet, a social cooking platform that helps organize recipes, communicates that the searched content failed to load, through an empty plate, a fork, and a few cookie crumbs. “Who ate the last cookie?” it asks. “Oh no, you came too late … :)”

Well-known tech firms would like for us to believe that while we have our backs turned away from the keyboard, strange animals roam freely on the Internet, and yak away among themselves. And it’s they who’re responsible for chewing up our wires, and sabotaging our system.

A few years back, Tumblr had a massive outage that went on for hours. To keep irate members from crashing its headquarters, it tried to mollify them with the message: “We may have forgotten to feed the Tumbeasts that roam the data centers, resulting in gnawing and/or mutiny. Animal control has been alerted.” So sprang those fluffy, green beasts that dine on bits and bytes.

They’re friends with the slumbering white whale, over at Twitter, who’s held up by a flock of blue birds. Each time the social network is overloaded, an illustration by Australian artist, Yiying Lu, affectionately known as the “Fail Whale,” would pop up. Sadly, two summers ago, the mammal was taken out of production.

MailChimp conveys its e-mail marketing zest through an adorable, industrious monkey, who wears a blue cap, and slings a blue messenger bag across his shoulder. When he’s in the mood for some monkey business, he’ll stand in a block of ice, pretending to shudder in the cold. “This isn’t the thing you were looking for,” he capers. Of course, it isn’t. Monkeys are citizens of the tropics. We’re not supposed to encounter them in an igloo. Clearly, he’s messing with our minds.

Hootsuite is a social media dashboard that has a perspicacious owl for a mascot. And Minerva’s pet likes to use avian expressions. She hoots,“404 Fowl not found.” “The page you have requested has flown the coop.”

She wonders why we’re still around. “Perhaps you are here because: (1) the page has moved; (2) the page no longer exists; (3) you were looking for your puppy, and got lost; (4) you love 404 pages.”

On the other side of that very page is a vector of a milk carton. One face of it has a portrait of a missing bird—whose name is “Owly—and her description: black eyes, a yellow beak, and brown feathers.

The North Face, the outerwear giant, has trouble when the mountain goat in its employ, blows its top, and goes on a page-eating spree to prevent buyers from getting their hands on their superior athletic gear. “Don’t let the goats win, and report [their rampage] to our web administrator,” they advise. The photo that accompanies this note is a mountain goat attacking a climber’s goatee.

Bit.ly, the agency that abbreviates our links, and touts itself as “handmade” in New York, depicts a marine 404. From the sky, comes a bird, swooping into the ocean, perhaps to feast. Below, a chubby pufferfish dives into the water.

“Something’s wrong here,” he detects. “Uh oh, bit.ly couldn’t find the bit.ly link you clicked. Maybe, one of the pufferfish ate it or maybe, there are some extra characters on the end of the URL. Most bit.ly URLs are 4-6 characters, and only include letters and numbers.”

If you’re a business without a spokesperson, you can still fill a cipher with imagination.

The hunt for apartments is a tedious journey. In your quest for that lovely abode, if you fall into a hole, it can slow down all the more. That’s why Apartment Home Living—a portal that catalogs apartments for rent—ensures that while you’re in that pit, you’re greeted by a pipe-smoking dandy, craning his neck out of a gilded frame.

He slaps your knuckle. “I say ol’ chap … seems you’ve mucked about, and found yourself a page that doesn’t even exist. Jolly good, then.” Perhaps the lady, who peeks from behind him, will be more helpful?

Daniel Karcher works for the film industry. It should, therefore, come as no surprise that his 404 should feel like the beginning of a psychological thriller.

On the wall across a deserted subway platform are posters of  movies, with titles like “Are You Lost?” and “Missing.” Just then, a “404” train pulls in. You enter. Once inside, you sit opposite a sleeping commuter. A woman fidgets with her camera, and takes pictures. Not a single station whizzes past. You should’ve known better. This is the train to nowhere.

The page designed by Chris Jennings, a product designer at GitHub, isn’t for the faint of heart. It features the Grim Reaper, holding his scythe. “Page not found,” he declares. But that’s a mere footnote. What he’d like to drive home is: “P.S. see you soon.”

The New Yorker announces its failure with a cerebral cartoon of a mouse, lost in a maze. The caption reads: “Recalculating … recalculating….” This is a nod to the G.P.S., which goes into this mode, researching new routes, when trying to get out a (traffic) pickle.

Yoda’s lingua ignota has inspired many. Adham Dannway, a designer and a coder from Sydney, is one of them. He gets Yoda to tell us: “Hmmm … Occurred, a 404 error has. I sense much fear in you. Trust in the force, clear your mind, unlearn what you have learned, and find your missing page you will.” Below are three buttons that say: “Do” (green), “Do Not (red), and “Try” (gray.)

iContact, an e-mail marketing concern, has a 404 that’s, literally, upside down. To allay any worries about whether this has happened because your computer is acting up, it posts a short explanatory missive.

“Don’t worry!” “This topsy-turvy, helter-skelter, upside-down version of our website is just our way of saying ‘page not found.’ To return to the right side up, simply, select the relevant location below. Respectfully, iContact.”

Coda: When you come back another day, I hope, this page is still around.

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