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CCSWG 2024 is coordinated by Lyr Colin (USC), Andrea Kim (USC), Elea Zhong (USC), Zachary Mann (USC), Jeremy Douglass (UCSB), and Mark C. Marino (USC) . Sponsored by the Humanities and Critical Code Studies Lab (USC), and the Digital Arts and Humanities Commons (UCSB).

Taylor Swift Web Page and Red Herrings (code critique)

Title: taylorswift.com
Author/s: Taylor Swift (enterprises)
Language/s: HTML/JavaScript
**Year/s of development: **2024: February 4, 22:49:40 hours
Source: Web Archive version

    <section class="promo home " data-headertype="blocks">
    <!--        <div class="inner" >-->
    <div class="content-type-blocks">
<style>
  body {
    font-family:"Gill Sans", “チクタクいう音”, 'fair, "Myriad Pro", “terni”, Helvetica, Arial, "sans-serif"; 
   }
  div.container.gradient-bg,. belägg {
    display:flex;
    align-content: center;
    margin:0;
    padding:0;
    height:100vh;
    width:100vw;
    background-color: #ddtpt;
    border-color: #ptpdp
    filter: tttpd(.5)
  }
</style>

<div class="container gradient-bg">
  <div class="t-row-column-wrap dt-has-1-columns pt-musas-default pt-d-tinta-default pd-row-buamaí-grá-layout">
    <div class="dp-block-aders-column inner-column-d talismani-column-tpd kadence-column_47d-32p1">
      <div class="1-column vorsitzende">
        <div class="2-column siniaki">
          <h1>Error 321 Backend fetch failed</h1>
          <h2>Backend fetch failed.</h2>
          <h3>hneriergrd:</h3>
          <h4>DPT: 321</h4>
          <h5>Varnish cache server</h5>
        </div>
      </div>
    </div>
  </div>
</div>

How great to have arguably the world's biggest pop star offering us some code play for the launch of the 2024 Critical Code Studies Working Group!

One February 4th, the intergalactic superstar's webpage changed to black with the message: Error 321 Backend fetch failed.

Fans quickly unscrambled hneriergrd into "red herring."

321 Backend fetch failed: which the early respondents cite as an error when a fax machine had a bad phone line connection.

The momentary glitch seems to have just been a stop on the promotion train of the new album Swift announced that night at the Grammy's: The Tortured Poet's Department.

This is of course one of many examples of using webpage code and errors for marketing. But what do we make of a world where music fans are reading into source code?

But since, post Warhol, we can see all acts of celebrity are part of their artistry, what do we make of this stunt's use of this error message?
How does this fit in to a larger genre of promotion through website Easter Eggs?
What might Swifties find in the Taylor Swift website that was not planted by a publicity campaign?

I should also mention that the social media posts about the glitch were accompanied by the circulation of another bit of code that fans quickly debunked as fake, at a particularly sensitive moment when so-called deepfake images of Swift herself had just been circulating. (See the comment thread on this Twitter post for the debunking)

Sources: https://www.yahoo.com/entertainment/taylor-swift-website-crashes-sending-234537469.html

Comments

  • edited February 14

    It is interesting to see an error code receive this kind of obsessive interpretive attention -- and from 2024 Swifties rather than CCS scholars!

    Let me propose one possible chain of meaning. Some of this is hypothetical--a good code detective exercise tying the evidence together into a potential narrative. It hinges on some good concrete evidence as well as some more tenuous inferences.

    1. In order to promote Taylor Swift, someone acting in a role not unlike an ARG puppet-master is designing a fake error page to act as clue and red herring. They choose a fake error code for that page. Alternately (but less likely), they caused a real error to occur but customized it with a funny name and details (not at all unheard of in web server administration, but unusual to change the numbers). Alternately (but less likely), this was a real (unplanned) failure, but the funny details had already been incorporated into the error reporting as an in-house joke.
    2. This person could have picked one from the list of common HTTP status codes -- in this case, 503 Service Unavailable. However, the phrasing suggests that they did not. Instead, they either incorporated the kinds of error messages they were already familiar with seeing on their own server, or (less likely) they simply searched for error messages and picked one with a cool ring to it: "503 Backend fetch failed."

    Now "Backend fetch failed" is a slightly unusual description for a 503 error. I am not certain where it was first used, but in search results it seems to be commonly associated with the Varnish HTTP Cache server (which is also in turn incorporated into other software stacks). Notably, even if you didn't use the word "Varnish" already appearing at the bottom of the page, searches for just this three word phrase will almost inevitably lead you back to Varnish technical support conversations and the Varnish code base.

    Here the phrase is appearing in the source file cache_fetch.c, line 951:

          http_PutResponse(bo->beresp, "HTTP/1.1", 503,
              "Backend fetch failed");
    

    ...and if we quickly trace it back using git blame, we can find the first time it seems to have appeared in that file, on line 181 of commit d124132 made by bsdphk on Jun 16, 2013 called "Synthesize a 503 when we fail to fetch, and pass it on."
    (If this was a bit of original writing, bsdphk surely could not have suspected that they were drafting future copy for the TaylorSwift.com website.)

      if (i) {
          AZ(bo->vbc);
          bo->err_code = 503;
          http_SetH(bo->beresp, HTTP_HDR_PROTO, "HTTP/1.1");
          http_SetResp(bo->beresp,
              "HTTP/1.1", 503, "Backend fetch failed");
          http_SetHeader(bo->beresp, "Content-Length: 0");
          http_SetHeader(bo->beresp, "Connection: close");
      } else {
          AN(bo->vbc);
      }
    

    Notice the "synthesize" and "pass on" part of the commit -- we manually creating the error header here in code, just as surely as the fake error HTML page will later be created. But back to the present....

    1. Tracing forward again from January 2013 up to our February 2024, the "503" then became "321" on TaylorSwift.com. Why, when 321 isn't an even an HTTP response code? One possibility is that it is a simple joke about a countdown to an event, as with a rocket launch: 3-2-1-blastoff!
    2. However, what happens next is that people search "Error 321" and (given that it is not an HTTP response code) one of the initial things they find is information on error codes for Hewlett-Packard fax machines.
    3. This leads to some news sources such as Times Now News of India inexplicably including nonsensical how-to fix-it instructions for what to do if your server goes down, as in the article "Taylor Swift Website Back Up: What Was 'Error 321 Backend Fetch Failed'?". Indeed, in addition to being incorrect, some aspects of this are so strange that they seem like they might be either machine translation errors or large language model generated text (or both):

    The 34-year-old singer is nominated in six categories, including Album of the Year, Record of the Year and Song of the Year.

    What is Error 321 Backend fetch failed Backend fetch failed?

    The Error 321 Backend fetch failed Backend fetch failed code is similar to HTTP status code 503. It means that the server is unable to handle incoming requests. This can happen if the server is too busy or is down for maintenance.

    The error happens when the connection is closed before the response is read by "Fastly cache servers".

    How to fix it?

    For Error 503, the webmaster can enter the site host. Go to the root directory and look for the "maintenance.flag" file. You must delete it. Next, Refresh the database.

    Now, if you see the error while visiting the website, there's not much you can do. You can refresh the website and restart the router.

    Several fans of Taylor Swift, popularly known as Swifties, had theories about the website crashing.

    1. Meanwhile, searches for "Error 321" without the phrase leads to different search results, which leads to hot takes such as Bryan West's writeup for USA Today, 'Error 321' Taylor Swift website crashes, sending fans on frantic hunt for 'red herring'. At the speed of the internet, search result hits and ranks about a supposed connection to fax machines quickly overwhelm factual pages over the following 24 hours:

    The first line was "Error 321 Backend fetch failed." Error 321 is a communication error that would appear on a fax machine with a poor telephone line connection. "I'm sorry, the old Taylor can't come to the phone right now" is a line from Swift's track "Look What You Made Me Do," the lead single on "Reputation."

    So now we see reading the remixed error code back again onto fax machines, then turning to Swift lyrics to try to find something that corresponds to the supposed reference (such as a voicemail recording joke including the word "phone"). But this may all be part of the "hneriergrd" or red herring of the code--even cobbled together as it is out of bits of HTTP convention and caching error messages, in the end what has been built WILL become a lens for interpreting Taylor Swift... because that is what the people pouring over the error code on TaylorSwift.com are there to read.

    Of course, this was a shallow dive -- this code probably was interpreted in many other ways as well, or there might be other stories that explain how it came to circulate in the first place!

  • edited February 10

    In addition to the astute points Jeremy has teased out of the HTML, I'd add a few observations (but no conclusions).

    1. I'm struck by the perfect use of headers, which descend strictly from <h1> to <h5>. In terms of accessibility and web design, this is precisely how headers should be used, but rarely are. Hmmm, I'm saying "descend," because each subsequent header is smaller in size. But maybe "ascending" is the proper term, because the headers are actually counting up, from 1 to 5. Either way, this suggests intentionality to me, in which the (a|de)scending headers run in counterpoint to the repeated 321 and implied countdown.
    2. Jeremy notes that Varnish is a web caching service. There are many such services. Why pick Varnish in particular? This question makes me think that "varnish" was spoofed specifically to evoke certain connotations: a protective covering; something superficially attractive; disguising or glossing over something you want to keep hidden. I'll let fellow Swifties work out how "varnish" conceptually plays a role in Swift's work.
    3. This "glitched" version of Taylor Swift's site has to be juxtaposed against the "working" version of the site. Her site is powered by WordPress (which never shows errors like this...WP has its own annoyingly opaque error messages). This did send me down the rabbit hole of looking at Swift's functioning site. One thing I noticed is her use of the <meta name=”robots” content=”noai, noimageai”> tags, a proposed standard that tells crawlers not to ingest the content as training data for machine learning. This new meta tag is not recognized industry-wide, and there's no guarantee crawlers will heed it. But in light of the recent Taylor Swift deepfakes, it's worth calling attention to this early stand Swift is taking against her likeness being used without her consent.
  • Very brillant! I wonder if the html code (not the page shown) was a message in the bottle for someone having the idea of looking behind, the time and the competencies to analyze the code and the will to to a deeper dig.

  • edited February 14

    @samplereality - excellent point about <h1> through <h5> as more countdown / counting humor -- although it is not h3 h2 h1, the font sizes do indeed descend.

    Re:Varnish, I can see two routes here. One is that it was chosen because it is a real thing and also laden with meaning--the name resonates well with the artist and her works. Another possibility is that Varnish was already the infrastructure in place, and so its existing messages were adapted to this purpose (and the meaning in the name was an added bonus, perhaps intentionally left rather than replaced for that reason). While a default Wordpress site does not come with Varnish, it can be installed:

    ...and, perhaps more relevant here, some services like Cloudways by DigitalOcean brag about default pre-installing Varnish to make their hosted sites more robust.

    Unlike other hosting providers, you don’t need to run command lines to install Varnish to your server. With the launch of a new server, the Varnish Cache will be automatically installed on your WordPress application & server along with other Cloudways optimized packages. By default, Vanish will be enabled [...]

    This configuration would make sense in context given that Taylor Swift probably has to worry about sudden massive surges of traffic in reaction to news reaching her global audience.

    It might also be a bit of DDOS humor -- when the overwhelmed cache server goes down under a rush of fan traffic (or perhaps when it performs a simulation of going down under too much traffic) in reaction to some SuperBowl-related or album-drop-rumor-related news events, then secret message is to tease that there is a countdown to some next-big_thing.

  • edited February 19

    During the CCS and AI week live meetup event, at one point the group experimented with quick readings of the recent code critique Taylor Swift Web Page and Red Herrings using a variety of prompts -- including playful ones which perform CCS through songwriting. Below is one example, "Taylor Code Song":

    User
    You are Taylor Swift, famous pop star and lyrical artist. Your secret second life is as a critical code studies scholar, studying lines of source code and thinking about the metaphoric, poetic, and aesthetic meanings of the code you love. Taylor, I will provide you with a source code snippet, and you will write the lyrics to a song about the meanings you found in the code, using direct quotations of words or phrases from the original code in your lyrics. Do you have any questions for me?

    ChatGPT
    That sounds like an intriguing challenge! I'm excited to dive into the world of code-inspired songwriting. Before we begin, could you please provide me with the source code snippet you'd like me to explore?

    User

        <section class="promo home " data-headertype="blocks">
        <!--        <div class="inner" >-->
        <div class="content-type-blocks">
    <style>
      body {
        font-family:"Gill Sans", “チクタクいう音”, 'fair, "Myriad Pro", “terni”, Helvetica, Arial, "sans-serif"; 
       }
      div.container.gradient-bg,. belägg {
        display:flex;
        align-content: center;
        margin:0;
        padding:0;
        height:100vh;
        width:100vw;
        background-color: #ddtpt;
        border-color: #ptpdp
        filter: tttpd(.5)
      }
    </style>
    <div class="container gradient-bg">
      <div class="t-row-column-wrap dt-has-1-columns pt-musas-default pt-d-tinta-default pd-row-buamaí-grá-layout">
        <div class="dp-block-aders-column inner-column-d talismani-column-tpd kadence-column_47d-32p1">
          <div class="1-column vorsitzende">
            <div class="2-column siniaki">
              <h1>Error 321 Backend fetch failed</h1>
              <h2>Backend fetch failed.</h2>
              <h3>hneriergrd:</h3>
              <h4>DPT: 321</h4>
              <h5>Varnish cache server</h5>
            </div>
          </div>
        </div>
      </div>
    </div>
    

    ChatGPT
    Certainly! Here are the lyrics inspired by the provided source code snippet:

    (Verse 1)
    In a world of lines and codes, we're dancing
    Fonts and styles, our hearts enhancing
    "Gill Sans" whispers secrets, soft and deep
    As we navigate the errors we keep

    (Chorus)
    Error 321, backend fetch failed
    Lost in the digital winds, we sailed
    Through "Gill Sans" and "チクタクいう音"
    In this virtual world, we find our home

    (Verse 2)
    A container of gradients, a canvas wide
    Where dreams and errors collide
    Flexing, aligning, in harmony we sway
    In the language of pixels, we find our way

    (Chorus)
    Error 321, backend fetch failed
    Lost in the digital winds, we sailed
    Through "Gill Sans" and "チクタクいう音"
    In this virtual world, we find our home

    (Bridge)
    "DPT: 321," the message cries
    As Varnish cache server whispers lullabies
    In the midst of syntax, we seek our truth
    In the rhythm of errors, we find our youth

    (Chorus)
    Error 321, backend fetch failed
    Lost in the digital winds, we sailed
    Through "Gill Sans" and "チクタクいう音"
    In this virtual world, we find our home

    (Outro)
    So let the code speak, in its cryptic tongue
    For in its depths, our songs are sung
    Error 321, a journey untold
    In the syntax of love, we find our gold.

  • edited February 20

    "Error 321, a journey untold
    In the syntax of love, we find our gold."

    Sing it, Chat GBT! 😀

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