High-Tech Hijinks: Top 7 Web and PC Pranks

IMAGE: Web-related April Fools JokesABC News Photo Illustration
Web-related april fool's jokes

What would April be without its annual day of tomfoolery?

Even the stodgiest among us enjoy a chuckle, and tech geeks, especially, have a field day every April 1, using their skills to snare surfers online or throw friends and co-workers off-kilter at their computers.

"What a lot of people forget is engineering is technical and, in business is important, but a lot of us are doing this because it's pretty fun," said Dan Kaminsky, a computer security consultant for Seattle IOActive Inc. in Seattle, who is also credited with discovering a major Internet security flaw.

"The heart of humor is surprise," he continued. "And how often have you [said] 'you can do that with the Internet!?'"

Whoopee cushions and cans of snakes may still leave some of us in stitches. But in the Internet age, it's often easier for mischief-makers to use fake news and Facebook pranks to catch their victims off-guard.

"What is digital slapstick?" asked Nate Westheimer, the organizer of the entrepreneurial community New York Tech Meet-Up. "It's less about physical humor and more about informational humor. It's very situational."

From a proposal to run the Internet through pigeons to reports of a sophisticated Google dating service to a bizarre but popular YouTube phenomenon starring singer-songwriter Rick Astley, the Internet has played host to all kinds of high-tech hoaxes.

Here's a sampling of our favorites (including a few simple computer pranks you can pull, too).

Pigeon-Powered Internet?

To make sure that individuals and institutions all over the world can communicate over the Internet, lots of very smart computer engineers develop and promote Internet standards. But the fine people involved with the Internet Engineering Task Force are a puckish bunch. And, every April 1 since 1989, they've published at least one tongue-in-cheek document.

"There is a long and storied tradition of the people who put together Internet standards having a little bit of fun," Kaminsky said of the documents known as the April 1 RFCs (or Request for Comments).

One of their most notorious April Fool's publications, he said, was a proposal outlining how Internet data could be carried by well-trained pigeons.

The plan was so popular that, in 2001, a group of programmers in Bergen, Norway, actually put the pigeon-powered Internet to work. They sent carrier pigeons bearing packets of data across a roughly 3-mile region.

"It was a very, very slow Internet connection," Kaminksy deadpanned.

The World Wide Web leaves a lot of room for amusement, he said. And as the pigeon proposal shows, if you can do something ridiculous (as long as it doesn't hurt anyone), there's little reason not to.

The Google Soulmate Search

Google, too, has a long tradition of using April Fool's Day to launch faux products.

In 2006, the company announced a plan "to organize [the] world's courtship information with Google Romance."

The spoof offered a psychographic matching service (called Soulmate Search) and all-expense-paid dates for couples who agreed to experiencing "contextually relevant advertising" while on their outing.

Other Google pranks included Google Gulp, a link of "smart drinks" that promised to "maximize your surfing efficiency" and Google Australia's "gDay with MATE," that would search Internet content before it is created.

Phone Phreaking

Computer hackers of today set their sights on credit card information and other valuable intel that can be sold on the black market or used directly. But, Kaminsky said, in the early days of the Internet, hackers were often just trying to maintain long-distance friendships.

"Until recently, a major motivator was, 'I have friends who live far away, and I want to talk to them," he said.

That motivation gave rise to a high-tech subculture of "phone phreakers" who learned how to take control of the phone network to give new meaning to the prank phone call.

In one legendary case, he said, phreakers hijacked all incoming calls to a Southern California city in the early 1970s and said it had been leveled by a nuclear explosion.

On his Web site, John Draper, aka Captain Crunch (one of the more prominent phreakers), references an attempt by Apple co-founder Steve Wozniak to reach the pope via phreaking and pretending to be Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.

"There have been pranksters for as long as there have been people," Kaminsky said. "And whatever technology is available to have a little fun is certainly going to be used."

Rick Rolling

Last year, "Rick Rolling" was the April Fool's joke of choice.

The Internet phenomenon duped users into watching one-hit-wonder Rick Astley sing "Never Gonna Give You Up."

Millions of unsuspecting Web surfers were tricked by friends who sent them links to the song under the guise of something they'd actually want to see. But instead of the latest celebrity video or political testimony, the victims got the awkward stylings of Astley.

Although the origins of the prank are murky, the hoax grew on April 1 when YouTube disguised links on its homepage to direct viewers to the video.

Even tech-savvy entrepreneurs like Westheimer got some mileage out of it.

"One thing I did last year, we created a fake tiny URL shortener. You would take that URL, and it would Rick Roll everyone," said Westheimer, who has a particularly fun time playing the April Fool's jokester, as his birthday is April 1.

The hoax came from an older Internet trend called Duck Rolling, he said, which worked just like a Rick Roll but took surfers to a picture of a duck on wheels.

'Web-Based Time Machine'

The Web-based design tool Aviary also had a bit of fun last year on April 1. The image editing company launched a new tool called Dodo that promised to take a photo of someone and show you how he or she would look older and younger.

Billed as a "Web-based time machine," the company posted before and after images of people and places.

From the moment the company "launched" the service, people started writing to the site asking how they could download the application. (Although handfuls of doubters quickly recognized the trick for what it was.)

The beauty of the prank was that it involved an element of believability, Westheimer pointed out.

"I heard they still get people asking them about it," he said.


In 1965, the BBC interviewed a professor who said he had invented "smellovision," a device that would allow at-home viewers to smell the aromas that matched the events on screen.

According to MuseumofHoaxes.com, he demonstrated the technology by putting coffee beans and onions into the machine and then asked the home audience if it could smell anything.

From across the country, viewers called in saying they could smell the odors. But the BBC revealed soon after that it was all an April Fool's hoax.

In 2007, the BBC revived the joke for the 21st century when it announced "sniff-screen technology" on its Web site.

Telepathic E-Mail

The BBC is hardly the only media company to use its platform for pranking. In April 1999, the business and technology magazine Red Herring published an article about new technology that would let people compose and send e-mail telepathically.

With the technology, "users can compose an e-mail of up to 240 characters through dictation or mental visualization -- and then transmit the message telepathically to an e-mail address that they similarly either dictate or think."

The article said users had to wear a small hearing aidlike device and that a company called Tidal Wave Communications planned to launch the new technology.

The reporter ended the story with a reputed anecdote about the Estonian computer genius behind Tidal Wave:

"When asked how large the telepathic communications market may grow, Mr. Maldini falls silent. He stares vacantly for several moments out his office window and then says, "I just sent you an e-mail with my answer."

Upon returning to our office, we find the response waiting: "It's going to be huge," reads the e-mail. "Simply huge."

According to MuseumofHoaxes.com, Red Herring received many letters from readers admitting that they had fallen for the trick.

DIY High-Tech Foolishness

Of course, not all computer-generated jokes require a high degree of expertise. "Professional" pranksters say technology has made it easier for anyone to have a bit of April Fool's Day fun.

"[Technology] has opened up its own world. It's created a lot more opportunity," said one of the authors of the Ultimate Office Prank Book. The book is due out April 18, and the authors behind the pseudonym Mae B. Fired asked to keep their identities confidential.

In case you're in need of some creative inspiration, some of their favorite tricks include:

-- Sticking a piece of tape underneath a rollerball mouse so that it doesn't track.

-- Going into a target's Control Panel and changing the mouse speed to make it painfully slow to move the cursor across the screen.

-- Using the AutoCorrect Option (in Microsoft Word) to replace the name of the target with something else (Village Idiot, Britney Spears, etc.) so that whenever they type in their name, your new entry appears.

-- Changing the settings under Internet Options in the Control Panel so that the target's browser automatically loads a different home page than what they have selected. (For example, Yahoo instead of Google or that pesky video of Rick Astley …).