On April 2, 2012, the editor of The Daily Free Press, Boston University’s student newspaper, issued a letter of apology to “the Boston community and whomever else it may concern.” The note addressed a joke the paper had printed in its April Fools’ Day issue—one jokingly describing a sexual assault. “Our aim,” the paper’s editor wrote, with a tone full of contrition, “was to publish satirical material about Boston University as a whole, and we did not intend to perpetuate harmful stereotypes or inappropriately make light of serious issues … We deeply regret our heartless behavior and did not mean to personally offend anyone.”
Such letters are not unusual; April 2 regrets are, at this point, almost as common as April 1 fools. The apologies come from college professors (“I had my head in April Fools’ rules,” one explained, poetically). They come from police forces (in 2013, a Dutch officer’s tweeted joke about Top Gear closed down a highway). They come from Google executives (in 2013, Google China’s Kai-Fu Lee posted a joke about China’s Great Firewall coming down, which many found more insulting than humorous). They come from other executives (last year, the COO of Electronic Arts, the video-game designer, had to apologize for a joking tweet about a switch to Nintendo). The whole cycle of prankery—the effects of April 1’s culture-wide trolling—is as predictable and as unfunny as Black Friday tramplings and sexist Super Bowl ads. Is it at all surprising that people get arrested for April Fools’ jokes gone awry? No. No, it is not.
For a day that’s supposed to be about whimsy, this is a sad state of affairs. April Fools’ Day is, in theory, awesome: It’s Halloween, basically, but with fewer Slutty Pumpkins. The festival (it is not, in the United States, technically a holiday) has its origins in rituals of the vernal equinox: Ancient Romans celebrated Hilaria when the weather changed from wintry to summery, making people go a little crazy in the process. Today, ritualized fun-making on or around the first day of April is celebrated not just in the U.S. but around the world (in France, it’s poisson d’avril, or “April Fish”; in India, it’s Holi; in Brazil, it’s Dia da Mentira, or “Day of the Lie”). Even Saddam Hussein, apparently, wasn’t immune to a little springtime punking.
Or maybe he was? I read that thing about Hussein on the Internet—and the trouble with April Fools’ is that, by definition, every little fact concerning it could actually be a ridiculous lie. Did you hear the thing about Taco Bell purchasing a famous national landmark, thus creating the Taco Liberty Bell? Or the one about Burger King coming out with a burger-scented fragrance? Or the one about Google’s new “magic hand” smartphone operating device?
You heard about those things, of course—either now or previously—via the Internet. And the Internet, for better and very often for worse, does not tend to distinguish between stories and facts, between the earnest and the satirical. The World Wide Web is an epistemological free-for-all—which makes it wonderfully democratic, definitely, but which also means that lies can spread on its platforms with, often, as much ease as truths. This is a source of anxiety to news organizations and sociologists; it is the reason Facebook’s mega-awkward “satire” tag exists; it is the reason that every time some kind of storm hits New York City, some percentage of the American public will end up convinced that sharks have infested the Hudson.
So on the one hand, you could argue against April Fools’ on the grounds that the vast majority of its “jokes” are not, in fact, funny. You could, on the other hand, argue against it on the grounds that the celebration constitutes little more, at this point, than culturally sanctioned assholery. (Google April Fools’ Day, and you get stories such as “12 April Fools Day Pranks to Make Your Roommate Hate You” and helpful tips about leaving your parents a little gift called a “soy-sauce surprise.”) You could argue against it, on the other hand (April Fools’! Most people have only two hands!), on the grounds that April Fools’ has been co-opted by brands and politicians and all the other interest groups that stand to benefit from a combination of free media and the performance of humor.
Mostly, though, you can argue against April Fools’ on the grounds that the Internet has divested its jokes from the very thing that used to give them their charm: their low-stakes sense of fun.
It used to be that an April Fools’ joke was, very obviously, an April Fools’ joke. It was not subtle; it was not satirical; it was not mocking. It was a prank, and one nice thing about pranks is that they tend to enjoy announcing themselves: “Gotcha!,” “April Fools’!,” etc. Today, though, in a culture that finds HuffPost dedicating an entire vertical to “Weird News,” and that finds BuzzFeed writing stories listing “25 People Who Don’t Realize The Onion Isn’t a Real News Source,” and that finds Florida being Florida, April Fools’ jokes are less funny than they used to be precisely because they are now less obviously jokes. That thing about Burger King’s Eau de Whopper was, in fact, a more figurative whopper … but, really, it could just as easily have been a whimsical product and/or marketing stunt. (The chain has a produced a very real foodstuff called “Chicken Fries,” so.) A McDonald’s sportswear line; Amazon’s Dash button; Beyoncé launching a vegan-food-delivery service; all of these things are actual things that might as well have been April Fools’ jokes.
What that means is that, this time of year, we become trained to doubt the people and institutions—news outlets, businesses, fellow humans—we are meant, ideally, to trust. Everything operates in a kind of limbo of credibility: Wait, is that a real thing or an April Fools’ thing? How can we know for sure? What would it mean to know for sure? What is truth anyway? Etc.
This dance of the epistemologically awkward comes from something positive, which is that the world is wondrous and wacky and getting, it seems, more so by the day. Change is happening so quickly that pretty much anything—short of jetpacks, very sadly—seems, at least potentially, believable. The aroma of angus? Sure. Southwest Airlines offering trips to Mars? I mean, maybe. “Any sufficiently advanced technology,” Arthur C. Clarke had it, “is indistinguishable from magic.” One corollary to that is that lies about technology are very difficult to distinguish from truths. The worst thing about April Fools’ Day isn’t just that its jokey stories are misleading and frustrating and unfunny; it’s also that, very often, they are redundant.