It’s April Fool’s, and already sighs have arisen from across the United States. Jokes, japes, pranks, and spoofs are in the air, and many people are grumbling in frustration rather than laughing in delight.
I wonder if we’re experiencing a cultural turning point.
Some of this year’s jokes are good. The Google Gnome video is a pleasant poke at Google Home, Amazon’s Alexa, etc. It also has some dark moments, like the compost meditation (aimed at a child!). Actually, “Gnome” offers a nice variety of tone and humor in a short clip:
Google also turned its Maps service into Pac-Man (or Ms. Pac-Man) on Android phones, which was clever and nice. The Alphabet entity taps into a history of businesses faking products for laughs (and good PR).
And yet we are often not amused. In fact, we’re increasingly ticked at pranks.
Some of this is political. To begin with, a slim majority of Americans or maybe more oppose president Trump, and tend to abhor his glancing relationship with truth. Many accuse the president of gaslighting the country, or of being a con man. These people are no longer in a mood to enjoy games with truth and reality, because they now insist on the importance of facts. Indeed, some Scandinavian newspapers decided not to report on these pranks because they didn’t want to end up supporting fake news.
One portion of this population goes further, seeing pranks as an expression of cultural privilege. Some see pranks as abusing marginalized or disabled people. Others see pranks as sexist, expressions of male privilege:
But who actually likes April Fools’ Day? Well, there’s always that one guy — “And it’s usually a guy, for some reason,” [Alex Boese, the curator of the museum of hoaxes] says…
Pranks are pretty fluid, available to some degree to many people, and so we shouldn’t be surprised to see a liberal prank criticizing the Trump administration, as with this website turning its contents into a mock-ICE notice. Which, of course, not everyone finds amusing:
I haven’t seen many progressive anti-Trump pranks, but could simply be missing them. George Takei’s fake Congressional run tweet is a mild form of this.
On a different level, Cracked.com, which has somehow become a leading comedy and culture site, sees pranks as being misapplied to social situations where they don’t belong. Some company jokes conducted by managers can fail as a result. Cracked also sees many pranksters as simply cruel and ugly. My friend Brett Boessen makes a related argument, seeing the internet as extending April Fool’s stunts beyond previous boundaries, rendering many trusted sources unreliable or disturbing.
Further, some pranks skate the edge of legality, and their documentation through YouTube pushes them over into prosecution. Once more digital technology makes stunts both more accessible and potentially less appealing.
Not all pranks are on April Fool’s Day, of course, but the holiday is the annual high point of japery. It’s when Americans get the most meta about surprise stunts. And we really seem to be unhappy in many ways.
Perhaps these attitudes are coalescing into an anti-prank consensus. The political angle – progressives against Trump – could lead to pranking taking on a libertarian or conservative hue, which would be strange, but viable. Maybe arguments about harm, either physical, legal, emotional, or political, will give pranking and even April Fool’s a sense of danger, both thrilling and less culturally acceptable.
I’m not sure how to measure this, but it’ll be interesting to see if April Fool’s 2018 is less jape-filled than this year’s.