April Fool’s Day Online

I’ve never been big on pranks. I’ve always found too many of them lack any real cleverness or end up falling flat after a ton of preparation. Which is probably why I really enjoy the online takes on April Fools: they’re simple, they’re an amusing break from the normal routine and they’re generally quite witty.

CTV has a pretty good rundown of what you’ll be able to find out on the internet today.

April Fool’s Day used to be a day of jokes, fake news items, and the always popular switching the salt for the sugar prank. These days, fake news items, sadly, still abound. But now, it’s all about the web-based April Fool’s Day hoaxes.

Search engine behemoth Google has somehow become the master of this genre. Last year, they caused the layout of their proprietary YouTube pages to flip upside down. Quite droll. The year before that, they “Rickrolled” every viewer who clicked on a Featured Video on the YouTube homepage. Really, does that ever grow old?

And every April Fool’s Day since 2002, they’ve unveiled a list of bogus new Google services. (Clearly, their well-paid developers have a lot of extra time on their hands – and odd senses of humour).

These phony new services have ranged from the “somewhat amusing,” to the “No seriously, they really should invent that.”

In the latter category was last year’s Gmail Autopilot, a service that would analyze how you answer emails, then do it for you as if it really were you — signature grammatical errors and all. (No seriously, they really should invent that!)

In the former category have been Google Gulp, a drink touted to make users smarter about search inquiries; Virgle, a joint project with the Virgin Group to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars, and the pretty much self-explanatory Google Book Search Scratch and Sniff.

Google has already rolled out this year’s list of fictitious services. They include such soon-to-be-classic gems as Google Translate for Animals and Google Street View in Anachrome 3D. We’ll leave you to review them yourselves. This year, Google even officially changed its name to Topeka. As in, Topeka, Kansas. It’s a long story; Google it — I mean, Topeka it.

Ironically, what has become a tradition for Google on April Fool’s Day once led to embarrassing confusion. When the conglomerate announced on April 1, 2004, that it was launching an email service called Gmail, offering the then-unheard-of 1 gigabyte of free email storage, many assumed it was a hoax. It wasn’t, but Google learned something about becoming a victim of its own success.

Among other sites with a history of April Fool’s Day hoaxes is ThinkGeek, a web-based retailer that sells mugs, t-shirts and the like for programmers and other “geeks.” Each year, they mark this April day by posting a bevy of bogus new products. They’ve included the CaffeDerm, a caffeine-delivering system of skin patches; a PC EZ-Bake Oven, designed to fit in a 5¼-inch drive bay; wireless extension cords (think about that for a second); and a USB Pet Rock.

Facebook got into the April pranking game in 2007, when the networking site claimed to have upgraded its virtual “Poke” feature with a new functionality called LivePoke, which promised to dispatch a real person to poke your FB friends.

Last year, the venerable Guardian newspaper decided to jump on the Web hoax wagon by announcing it was going to embrace the Internet in a whole new way, by ditching its print edition to publish exclusively on Twitter, relaying all the news of the world in 140-character tweets.

It also announced a mammoth project to rewrite the newspaper’s entire archive into tweets. Stories were to include: “OMG Hitler invades Poland, allies declare war. See tinyurl.com/b5x6e for more” and “JFK assassin8d @ Dallas, def. heard second gunshot from grassy knoll WTF?”

This year, some Twitter users planned what may well have been history’s worst kept secret April Fool’s Day prank. A number of Justin’s Bieber’s 1.6 million followers conspired to collectively unfollow the 16-year-old pop star, and then re-follow him the next day. OMG, it would be the most hilarious prank ev-ah, they agreed! But when that prank attempt got blown open when a number of news outlets squealed, it morphed into a prank to tell Bieber his beloved Chuck Norris had died. No word on whether Bieber fell for it. Twelve-year-old humour: who can understand it?

Finally, there are those who use April Fool’s Day for more malicious Web-based pranks. Case in point: last year’s Downadup/Conficker worm.

The worm was all the buzz of the security world early last year, roaming the Web looking for computers not protected by security software and taking advantage of – you guessed it — a security vulnerability in the Windows operating system. Once triggered on April 1, 2009, the worm allowed hackers to create a “secret entrance” onto the infected computer, giving them easy access to everything on the PCs.

Fortunately, patches were introduced ahead of the trigger date, so Conficker didn’t turn into the widespread threat it could have. Nevertheless, security software maker Symantec says the criminals behind Downadup/Conficker “still have the keys to some 6.5 million of these computers, which have not been fixed by their owners, leaving them open to be victimized at any time by cybercriminals.”

“Downadup/Conficker served as a great reminder to consumers and businesses about the need for effective security protection,” the company warned in a news release this week, noting the need for PC owners to keep their security patches up to date as well as to regularly update their security software.

A reminder that not all Web-based April Fool’s Day pranks are in good humour.