Web was fertile ground for April Fools' pranks

TechCrunch and Google lead this year's Geek prank parade

Pranks were rife on the web last week for April Fools' Day 2008, ranging from a prominent tech blogger's claim to have filed a US$25 million (NZ$31 million) suit against Facebook for the unauthorised use of his image to Google's unveiling of a feature that would allow users to send email back into the past.

Michael Arrington takes the prize for posting perhaps the first — and most convincing — high-profile web joke on March 31, according to many TechCrunch commenters.

Arrington, fed up with Facebook advertising partners using his name and photo without permission to endorse products, noted in the gag post that he was suing the social networking giant for US$25 million in statutory damages.

"Our attorneys believe that the use of my image and name in third party advertising is a violation of my statutory and common law publicity rights (we've written explicitly about this issue before)," Arrington noted on the blog. "Specifically, this leads to user confusion as to whether or not I am actually endorsing these products."

He went on to note that the phony lawsuit would be based on the notion that every "incident" of Facebook using his name or likeness in an ad multiplied by the number of impressions generated $150 million in damages. However, TechCrunch would be willing to settle the suit for US$25 million in Facebook stock, Arrington said.

The joke becomes more apparent as the post progresses, with Arrington finally noting that negotiations between TechCrunch and Facebook chief privacy officer Chris Kelly were "getting out of hand" at one point.

"When our team of lawyers offered to settle for a mere US$50 million, Kelly told me Facebook would 'bury you and bury your crappy blog' if we filed the suit," Arrington noted. "He then threw his steaming hot triple soy latte espresso at me, which caused extensive second degree burns over the top half of my body. Later on, he also unfriended me."

For its part, Google had a hand in several pranks, including the launch of a new feature in Gmail called Custom Time, which would allow users to send email into the past. Those emails would then appear in the proper chronological order in the recipient's inbox.

"You can opt for it to show up read or unread by selecting the appropriate option," Google noted in its "announcement" of the feature. "You'll only be able to send email back until April 1, 2004, the day we launched Gmail. If we were to let you send an email from Gmail before Gmail existed, well, that would be like hanging out with your parents before you were born — crazy talk."

The feature would limit users to no more than 10 pre-dated emails per year, because exceeding that limit "would cause people to lose faith in the accuracy of time, thus rendering the feature useless."

Google co-founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin teamed up with Virgin Group founder Richard Branson for another prank, this one announcing the launch of Project Virgle, the first permanent human colony on Mars.

In its 100-Year Plan for the Virgle project, the trio noted that "like their Earth-exploring forebears, Martian colonists will find equatorial latitudes inviting, at least in the sense that an Antarctic valley is inviting (i.e., it won't kill you really quickly). The lower latitudes also ensure favourable solar energy profiles for base backup systems."

In addition, the Virgle organisers said that Martian tourists would be able to "pay their respects to historical attractions like the Viking, Pathfinder and MER Opportunity sites, all conveniently near the future Virgle City, and inconveniently in low-lying areas that will eventually be submerged by rising Martian ocean levels."

Google continued its prank campaign with the Google Book Search project, noting that engineers have figured out how to make "Scratch and Sniff" books searchable.

"Using special equipment and tricky JavaScript, we're now able to capture some of the smells during the scanning process and then embed them in your web browser when you preview these titles in Google Book Search," noted Nathan Naze, a Google software engineer.

ESPN also got into the April Fool's game, taking a breather from covering March Madness to promote a live Death Match between Democratic Presidential hopefuls Senators Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama. According to the announcement, each candidate would take part in several events as part of a "winner-take-all, fight-to-the-finish, loser-goes-home-crying good old fashioned deathmatch," ESPN notes.

ESPN notes that its April 1 events would also include:

  • "The Dick Cheney skeet shooting contest: What better way to prove you've got the poker face that it will take to negotiate treaties with hostile world leaders than by taking a load of birdshot to the face?"
  • "The Al Gore 20000k Eco Fun Run. Which candidate can go the distance? Who can do it with the least carbon emissions, and without suffering an Inconvenient Stroke?"

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