April 2nd – The Day After

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170401381_5077365f42_m.jpgYesterday, April 1, April Fool’s Day here in the U.S., I wrote a post that began with:

In a surprising move, LinkedIn announced late Monday that they will be terminating their free service, beginning May 1.

It was pure satire, and got a lot of laughs (I’m told even within LinkedIn – one Sr. Director even reposted it on his personal blog), but like most good satire, it was just a little too close to believable, and some people missed the joke. And as you can see from the comments below, which I’ve left in tact, a few people even took me to task over it.

Personally, I think it’s great to all let our hair down once a year and have a good laugh, poking a little fun at the things we take a little too seriously the other 364 days. But I had made a decision before I even posted it that I wasn’t going to leave the whole thing up, at least certainly not without a clear explanation up front, if at all.

Why?

Because to do so wouldn’t be a good service to my readers. For one day devoted to pranks, I’ll forgive myself. I’m in pretty good company (see below). But to have people even see the headline any other time is potentially confusing, and potentially damaging to my own brand as a reliable, credible source, not to mention LinkedIn.

Which brings me to my next point… what are the consequences of April Fool’s pranks? What will the aftermath be on Wednesday?

Hey, I love a good April Fool’s prank as much as anyone, and I get a kick out of great satire. But don’t we have to draw the line at some point? Maybe Michael Arrington can get away with saying he’s suing Facebook, or Chris Pirillo with saying he’s stopping live streaming, without some sort of disclaimer that it’s a prank. Popular though they are, they’re still fairly personal, individual voices. But when InfoWorld ran a story about Microsoft and Yahoo agreeing on a buyout price, they put in an April Fool’s notice, albeit at the end of the article, which ran two pages.

So what about Google?

  • No indication, other than the absurdity of it, that Virgle, their alleged joint venture with Virgin to colonize Mars, is a hoax.
  • No disclaimer in the Virgle videos from Richard Branson or Larry Page and Sergey Brin that it’s a prank, except maybe Page’s and Brin’s apparent difficulty keeping a straight face (kudos to Branson, clearly the better actor among them).
  • No disclaimers in Google’s prank new capabilities to send an email into the past and search into the future.


Is that stuff still OK now that Google is a public company? What if someone doesn’t get the joke and decides to buy Google stock on the basis of those “announcements”? Take a look at their stock price chart. It soared Tuesday. OK, so did the rest of the stock market, but you have to wonder, was any of that at all fueled by speculation from people who simply didn’t get the joke?

It’s unfortunate that there are people who aren’t smart enough to get the joke, but are still investing their money in the stock market. But public companies have a fiduciary responsibility to their investors, no matter their IQ. Hilarious though it was, I have to wonder if Google and any other public companies who pulled April Fool’s pranks without any sort of disclaimer aren’t setting themselves up for potential legal trouble with the SEC.

What do you think? Did Google go too far? Do you know of any other public companies that may have crossed the line with their April Fool’s shenanigans? What will they do to clean up their mess the day after?

Image: Luderbrus via Flickr

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8 Comments

  1. @Wendy I got a lot of people, apparently. Don’t feel bad. 🙂

    @Lance LOL! Good one, but you do highlight something I think I was thinking subconsciously but hadn’t really articulated. It’s not just an issue if the public companies pull the prank themselves — what if a normally credible news outlet does so, like the InfoWorld MSFT/YHOO deal? Or if a major competitor of a public company does it?

    I’m thinking next year I may just submit something to The Onion.

  2. I love a good April Fool’s prank and pranks on any other of the 364 days of the year for that matter. However, i agree that if the prank has the potential to harm people or businesses, placing a disclaimer is the responsible thing to do. However, if a humorous post is written correctly, the reader should immediately be able to identify it for what it is. That being said, anyone who buys a stock after reading a post on a single site, should probably not be investing in the first place. If a law suite is filed, it will no doubt be thrown out and labeled frivolous. The real question is do you think people are willing to admit their own gullibility (ie: stupidity)?

  3. Scott, well done! (I got some concerned emails, and you were totally believable). As usual, you bring up excellent points that reflect deep questions about the meaning of “Web 2.0,” namely, the convergence of business and personal lives. Pranks are clearly in the personal arena and have the context of intimacy, and traditionally, work is on the other side of the aisle. According to Boomer or Traditionalist thinking, companies have no place playing pranks anywhere, except maybe at an employee function, which is hyperlocal, while Xers and Millennials are, like, “Get a life.” Now that work and personal elements of life are merging, we have to figure that out.

    For my 2 cents, I think it’s perfectly okay for bloggers to say anything, but official company communications, especially for public companies, that’s dicey. Companies should remember that investors are global and that not everyone in the world recognizes April Fool’s Day. True, anyone on the Web should realize that s/he has to vet information from anywhere. I think Google is taking a huge risk for little upside.

    More generally, I can also see why people don’t want to put on disclaimers (kinda sucks the air out of the joke when you have to explain it ,^). But I think people and companies should realize that jokes and pranks depend on a certain intimacy. I think a good test for whether you should prank or not in a venue is, how much of your probable audience will get it? If it’s a fairly high percentage, you probably have enough intimacy to pull it off. Or maybe you say, “The Web is global; who gets it gets it, and for the others, so what?” That’s a logical point of view, but it disregards the people who don’t get it. How much do they matter to you?

    Bloggers have a higher level of intimacy than companies like Google, so jokes will probably more likely to come off in that milieu rather than official communications.

    Cheers- Chris

  4. Hi Scott,

    you say the three Google April’s fool pranks, “Virgle”, “Gmail Custom Time” and “gDay with MATE” do not have disclaimers when in fact they have … if you look at more than the front page.

    Let us start the tour “down under”:

    gDay™ with MATE™
    On the front page scroll down, click on “Try gDay” and you end up on a page that clearly states “Welcome to Google Australia’s April Fool’s Day joke”. Incidently if you click on either “Terms of Use” or “Privacy Policy” you end up on the same page.

    Gmail Custom Time
    On the front page scroll down, click on any of “Terms”, “Privacy Policy” or “Program Policies” and you will end up on a page stating “Welcome to Gmail’s April Fool’s Day joke”.

    Virgle
    To get to the disclaimer for this one you will need an extra click compared to the two others. Click on “FAQs” in the menu on the left, then scroll to the bottom to the answer of the question “Okay, c’mon, seriously — is this Virgle thing for real?”. Click the link “Virgle is real” and you are treated with a fake “404 Page Not Found” stating that “Virgle isn’t real”.

    That out of the way…

    A prank is usually fun to some extent but there can easily be unexpected consequences.

    Here is an example: A tech news site here in Denmark published a story stating that a danish ISP together with Apple Inc. was giving away downloads from iTunes to the ISPs customers and all they had to do was go to the iTunes Store and enter their ISP customer number. This resulted in a storm of phone calls to the ISP from people who could not get it to work. This disrupted their business to such a degree that the legal machinery was put to work. The news site quickly pulled the story.

    It started as a prank but …

    Regards,

    Christian

  5. Does your website have a contact page? I’m having trouble locating it but, I’d like to send you an email. I’ve got some ideas for your blog you might be interested in hearing. Either way, great website and I look forward to seeing it improve over time.

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