April Fool’s 2004 sucked

A careful and reasoned argument.

April Fool’s Day is the closest the Internet can get to a birthday, I
think. There is an
actual birthday
, or at least one given to it by the uberhackers
who first came up with the thing. September 2, the day that the first
message was passed between two computers over a test-run version of
the ARPANET
(what the Internet was first called, when it was a project funded by
the U.S. government).

But September 2 is a day only celebrated by nerds. There’s no sense of
majesty in it unless you’ve got a degree in electrical engineering
— a couple bytes flow across a wire in a computer lab in UCLA
— and no real sense of decisiveness. There was no Rubicon
crossed on September 2, 1969, the way there was on July 4,
1776
. (You must remember that the Internet is much older than you
probably think it is, and that its history begins before the birth of
America Online, or even Microsoft.)

They could’ve just unplugged it and called it a day — or more
likely, the government could’ve gotten bored of it and cut its budget
in a committee meeting that would have undoubtedly been forgotten as
soon as the day was out.

The reason why I think April 1 makes for a better birthday is that it
is one of the very few holidays that everyone, no matter their age,
culture, race, or personal belief system can believe in without
causing a ruckus. And its spirit is more in line with what the hackers
who put the Internet together than perhaps any other global holiday.

The moral of April Fool’s Day is: think, for God’s sake. A prank only
succeeds when people turn their brains off, when their critical
thinking skills are disengaged. Pranks tell us exactly what we’ve been
waiting for someone to tell us: yes, this is delicious free chocolate;
yes, there are aliens out there that want to talk to us; yes, there is
a way to make a million dollars without breaking a sweat.

The first major April Fool’s Day prank on the Internet, and perhaps
the best, was kremvax. There
was no Web then — just a thing called Usenet, a
message board that the entire Internet participated in. Usenet these
days is the refuge of two camps: inveterate old-schoolers too used to
it to give up, and warez freaks who pay upwards of $20 a month just for the privilege
of downloading pirated video games, movies, and the latest version of
Adobe Photoshop. But back then, it was the public square of the
Internet.

On April 1, 1984 (you must remember…), a
message
appeared on Usenet that began:


Well, today, 840401, this is at last the Socialist Union of Soviet
Republics joining the Usenet network and saying hallo to everybody.

The message purportedly came from a K. Chernenko via a machine named
kremvax (first passing through kgbvax, of course). In reality, it was
a forgery perpetrated by Piet
Beertema
, a Dutchman who was one of the first to connect western
Europe to what would become the Internet.

Some people believed the message, of course. Maybe they didn’t know
that Konstantin
Chernenko
was president of the USSR then, or didn’t make the
connection, or maybe really believed a politician would actually use
the Internet. (Even now, it’s kind of a stretch.) Some half-believed
and asked, “Is this for real?” And a lot found it funny, but didn’t
believe it.

And of course there were those who thought the Internet was much too
serious for a prank:


I found this article in extremely poor taste. Usenet is, I thought,
for computing and international conviviality. The presence of Soviet
sites on the net would be an excellent way of promoting these.


The person who fudged this up clearly has access rights to their
site's news facilities. If I worked there I'd be somewhat worried
about security.

Riling these people up is key, I believe, to pulling off a good
prank. Fooling the innocent or naive is one thing — it’s fun, no
doubt about it, but it takes about as much skill as schooling your
niece in the ways of the tooth fairy. But the real enemies of April
Fool’s Day are those who believe everything must be done with
propriety, dignity, and above all, seriousness. The kind of person you
imagine who would be in hog heaven auditing your tax return. The
people who believe in infinite political correctness.

They are the reason trolling — where someone posts a message along
the lines of “Spain is a bunch of cowards who just elected a
pro-terrorism government” — works on the Internet. In short: people
take things way too seriously, and are drooling over the chance to
take the high ground.

A well-executed April Fool’s Day prank has to put the fucking hammer
down on these people, because there aren’t that many chances to do so
without looking like a complete jerk. April Fool’s is your one-day
free pass, your Get Out of Jail Free card.

On this count, this
year’s April Fool’s
was kind of lame. Mostly, Web sites pulled out
the Fake News Posting, which always comes up just short of funny. It
comes in several common varieties: the We Got Bought Out By a Big
Corporation
— which actually was effective back when
dumbasses were laying down serious cash for some chump’s Fishing Tips
home page — the Obviously
Ridiculous Technical Joke
, and the We
Got Hacked By The Chinese
.

The problem with this kind of strategy is The Onion not only
pioneered the genre of Fake News Posting on the Web, but in recent
years has driven it straight into the ground. Don’t get me wrong;
The Onion still puts out a laugh-out-loud headline once in a
while, but when people start parodying your own
parody
, the writing’s on the wall.

What’s really insidious is that the real winner this year was Google
with their incipient free email service, Gmail. The press
release
came on April 1, was replete with goofy language, and most
importantly, had a key fact that would squarely put in the Obviously
Ridiculous Technical Joke category: every user would get a whole
gigabyte of storage for free.

Most of the time, you’re lucky to
get 10 megs (a hundred times smaller that a gig) from a free email
service. So people wondered “Is this for real?” just like with kremvax
— only instead of considering whether the Russians wanted to
talk to the rest of the world, they were instead thinking about
whether Google could afford to give them such a great deal.

And it turns out Gmail is
for real
! Everybody’s drooling over a April Fool’s Day
too-good-to-be-true offer that turned out to be really true!

It’s a fiendish piece of social engineering, and it makes me wonder
whether Google’s turn to the dark side is coming sooner than I
expected. Before, I thought that it would come when Sergey Brin and
Larry Page, the benevolent nerd kings of Google, retire — and retire
they will, when they decide they want to explore some other problem
beyond getting people to pictures of Britney Spears in the shortest,
easiest, and most effective way possible.

But think about the kind of things Google could pull off by combining
their search indexing technology with billions of email
messages. Right off the bat, they’re going to use it to serve up ads
to go with your email — in an ideal case (for advertisers,
anyway) a message setting up dinner plans will come with a list of
local restaurants. But imagine what other crazy shit they could do
with your email, with the right lack of ethics. It’s kind of scary if
you think about it long enough.

There are a lot of things April Fool’s Day is supposed to be, but
scary is not one of them. It’s just not right.

Article © 2004 by Chris Klimas