April Fool’s Day on the Internet

By Dominic Custodio

April Fool’s day has come and gone. With the usual spattering of tame office pranks (office manager getting rick roll’d on the lobby TV…I swear I was just an accomplice) and the much-talked about onslaught of the Conficker worm on computers around the world turning out to be a non-event, things were actually quite normal on April 1st.

Not of course, if you were making the rounds on the web. The internet was rife with pranks and jokes – some subtle, many in-your-face – and it was hard to escape with even the biggest web names and the normally “corporate” companies joining in on the madness. What better way to use the information super-highway then to spread mayhem and confusion? Jokes ranged from school-yard antics to the high-brow, but a couple, actually provided food for thought about current trends, and if not, at least some interesting and controversial design. Two in particular, caught my eye:

A Newspaper moves to Twitter: Every joke has a sliver of truth behind it as they say. With the print edition of the Seattle Post-Intelligencer gasping its last breath only a few weeks ago and the paper moving completely online, The Guardian was hitting close to home when they wrote their fake announcement about canceling their print edition and moving it all to Twitter. Sample posts from their new offering made it clear what was up (“1940: W Churchill giving speech NOW – “we shall fight on the beaches … we shall never surrender” check YouTube later for the rest) but the Guardian’s playful jab at Twitter had quite a few readers fooled. Commenting users toyed with idea; indeed, with all the newspaper closings recently, there was a nugget of plausibility there.

Print has a lot of competition these days with digital penetrating our daily lives: blogs, tweets, RSS feeds, not to mention digital readers like Kindle delivering daily editions of newspapers to the paper-saving/eco-minded masses. Print will find its niche, but the Internet has definitely changed how it operates. It is in fact reinventing itself by taking on the qualities of the web in interesting ways. Time Magazine, for example, launched an experimental magazine called Mine that allows users to pick and choose content, much like what you would do with your iGoogle or MyYahoo page. After choosing from a couple of themes (Fashion, Sports, etc.) your content would be compiled into your own personalized magazine, delivered also in your choice of print or digital format. I signed up for free a while back and am curious to see how it turns out.

As for a 140 character per story newspaper? That’s tough to imagine – for the mean time at least. For now, the joke remains an interesting marker of changing times.

What happened to my site?:  Sites often use a single page containing a fake press release or announcement to play these jokes. It’s safe and relatively harmless. Companies like Google and Qualcomm recently, go a bit further with full sections of fake content safely tucked away from their real site. But the few, brave ones go all out and drastically change the user experience of the whole site – with interesting ramifications. YouTube flipped everything upside down for example. The programmers, thankfully, left an easily readable link to revert back to the old layout, avoiding a potential firestorm (btw if for some odd reason you actually LIKE viewing upside down text and videos, add “&flip=1” to any YouTube URL).

There was less uproar on YouTube compared to what was going on over at Reddit. Reddit took a dig at rival news aggregator Digg, (no pun intended) by switching the whole site’s interface to Digg’s layout, leaving the page essentially broken. Many users were baffled and ultimately annoyed as you can see in the picture below.

Digg’s layout (the pop-up is their April Fool’s prank)

Reddit copying Digg’s look. And disgruntled users.

A joke taken too far? With the layout mangled and users looking to other users for the solution, it definitely left a sour taste with some. Taking out usability, even for one day is a risky move, and while it won’t alienate your loyal fan base, it might be enough to turn-off fickle users.

Final words: Many pranks confirm trends and induct names/things/ideas into popular culture. Many are just plain silly fun and give your company a human face. And then some may be too controversial for their own benefit. Something to think about the next time you go joking around online.

Interested in how other sites around the world handled the April 1st? A comprehensive compilation can be found here.

Enjoy!

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