This is not a gag or a prank. This is just a few assorted thoughts about the phenomenon of April Fools. Or as I previously called it, “Don’t Believe Anything Online” day. Today, I’ve started calling it the name you see in the headline above.
I get the urge to prank–I do. There’s something intoxicating about pulling one over on other people, of convincing them of some small white lie. I think the pleasure of that is what lies at the heart of the faux-holiday. I can still remember my first April Fools prank ever. I told my little sister there was a spider on the wall behind her. There was no spider. When she reacted with terror, I laughed and laughed. April Fools! She was maybe four years old. But I got her good, right? What a fool for trusting her big brother that something terrifying was right behind her!
When I was in college and the internet was still a new thing, the general attitude towards April Fools was that it was a fun, goofy thing. Sometimes you’d forget the date and get taken by a gag, ha ha! All in good fun. Over time, bigger and bigger companies got involved. As the internet has grown in importance in our life, April Fools has grown too, until it has become something that many of us no longer look forward to; I’d say we actively dread it now.
Google added a “mic drop” button to Gmail last night that allows someone to post a goofy Minions gif in an email and then stop receiving follow-ups. Gmail, used by millions, if not billions, for communications of various importance, put this button perilously close to the send button. The results have been somewhat predictable.
WHAT A HARMLESS APRIL FOOL'S JOKE, WHAT COULD GO WRONG pic.twitter.com/Maw8a6VUSA
— Andy Baio (@waxpancake) April 1, 2016
If you’re wondering why long-term users of the web feel a little exhausted by April Fools, it’s items like this that hold the explanation. And when the Internet was just a side show to our regular lives, the gags were funny and hard to take seriously. But now, it’s part of everyday life. It’s part of our jobs and our personal lives.
Does it really make sense to have a day where every company, every bit of software becomes strangely unreliable? Maybe we should scale it back a little, Google? Maybe “Do No Evil” should include “lay off the dumb pranks.”
That’s one perspective, and one for which I have a lot of sympathy, but I also would like to argue that April Fools enhances a powerful mental condition: a state of general disbelief and incredulity. You know how, when you remember the date, you read everything online with a grain of salt?
Perhaps we should be reading everything that way the other 364 days out of the year too. If we practiced incredulity more often, we could cut down on the disinformation that populates Facebook and Twitter in an election year like cherry blossoms in spring.
It’s difficult to be on guard all the time, though. Maybe the best we can hope for is April Fools being the one day where nobody believes anything they read. I’ll at least harbor a hope that within a hundred years, we can stretch that out to two or three days of disbelief every year. We could use a hell of a lot more of it in our lives, online and off.