Our Favorite April Fools’ Pranks, Japes and Tomfoolery

Why do people like to fool each other — or at least try to — on the first day of April? No one really knows for sure, but it’s one of the most enduring unofficial holidays, celebrated (or in some cases, barely tolerated) in dozens of countries. And for whatever reason, the technology world is even more fond of this holiday than probably any other. In this post, we’ve collected some of our favorite pranks and bogus news stories from today for your amusement — if you come across any that you particularly enjoyed, feel free to add them in the comments.
But before we get started, it’s worth noting that one of the biggest April Fools’ jokes of all time might be the day itself. No one can seem to agree on how or why it became popular. One theory is that it started with the change to the Gregorian calendar in 1582, which moved New Year’s Day from the last week of March to January. Those who continued to celebrate in March (a celebration that usually lasted until April 1) were called April Fools. The only problem with that theory is that there are references to the idea of April and fools that pre-date the change to the Gregorian calendar.
Another theory is that it started with the Persian tradition of playing pranks on people on the 15th day of the New Year’s celebration of Norouz, which usually falls on April 1 and is known as Sizdah Bedar. This tradition apparently goes back to 536 B.C. And to make things extra-confusing, plenty of countries celebrate something like April Fools’¬†on other days — like the 28th of December. If you want to see what April Fool was like in 1861 in the United States, check out this fascinating post from the NYT (s nyt).
And now, on to the monkeyshines, drollery and shenanigans:

  • Hulu Time Travel. Points for effort go to Hulu, which set up a complete homepage as the service would have appeared in the 1990s, with links to actual episodes of NewsRadio, The Kids in the Hall, 21 Jump Street and other shows — and featuring a modem-connecting noise when you click to watch. Well played, Hulu.
  • ShopSavvy Becomes GreyScale. Poking fun at the recent blockbuster financing — and associated controversy — by the iPhone (s aapl) photo-sharing app Color, this is a nice touch from ShopSavvy: The tagline for the new service GreyScale is “share photos — with no one.” But will Color think it’s funny?
  • Flattr Partners With North Korea. For true geek cred, you can’t get any better than a donation service started by one of the founders of The Pirate Bay — “brokep” describes how Flattr is going to be used by North Korea to manage the entire economy. Knowing North Korea, this isn’t really that far-fetched.
  • Gmail Motion. (s goog) The web giant says it’s launching a Kinect-style interface to its email service that will let people navigate with physical gestures. The video with this one is worth watching, if only for the guy who gets to illustrate the movements (according to a blog post, Google is also changing all of its sites and services to Comic Sans, the most-hated font ever invented).
  • The Swiss WikiLeaks Scandal. According to a leaked cable, the Swiss government has been hiding surveillance systems in ceremonial cuckoo clocks it has been giving to foreign diplomats for the past 30 years.
  • The Playmobil Apple Store. The gadget and gift site ThinkGeek has become a staple of April Fools’ for nerds, in part because its fake products are so perfectly believable — and this year it’s a Playmobil replica of the Apple Store. Fake items from previous years have become so popular that the site has actually produced them as real products, included the TaunTaun Sleeping Bag and others listed here.
  • HuffPo’s Pay Wall — Just For the NYT. Some April Fools’ pranks have a kind of edge to them, and this new pay wall just for New York Times employees has that feel to it: not only is it a poke at the NYT pay plan, but a jab at the paper that has slammed Huffington (s aol) for aggregating its content (bonus points to Arianna for testing the new feature in Winnipeg, Manitoba). The special terms of the paywall — all links from Facebook are free, provided they lead to stories about animals with extra limbs — are also hilarious.
  • Sir Richard Branson Buys Pluto. The founder of Virgin Records, Virgin Airlines and about 300 other things named Virgin (s vmed) likes to do things large, so it’s fitting he says he is buying Pluto and will have it reinstated as a planet.
  • LinkedIn Recommends Robin Hood. The best April Fools’ jokes are ones that play on the core features of a service, and LinkedIn has done a pretty good — and, unlike many other pranks, subtle — job with its “you may know” feature today, which suggests people like Albert Einstein, Werner Heisenberg (“this may be Werner Heisenberg’s profile”) and Robin Hood (“activist, chief fundraiser at Nottingham”).

  • (screenshot courtesy of Dan Hocking)

  • Seth Godin Introduces Whitespace Ads. Points for creativity should go to marketing blogger and author Seth Godin, who announced the launch of a new advertising vehicle that will use the white space in between paragraphs for links that will be highly targeted, location-based and unobtrusive — mostly because they will be invisible.
  • Mozilla Launches “Do Not Fool” Standard. This one is so meta that it hurts: Mozilla has a browser header that allows you to automatically inform websites that you do not want to be fooled — a play on the “Do Not Track” header proposal for privacy protection from advertisers. Going to install this one now.

If geekish pranks are your thing, the site Hacker News is collecting them,¬†including a new product that acts like AdBlock in real life: a pair of goggles that remove advertising from whatever you’re looking at. And even Wikipedia has gotten into the April Fools’ Day game — but what appear to be fake articles are actually links to factual information that isn’t really what it seems, like the fact that Batman is half female.
Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr user Mykl Roventine