Google, April 1, and the Trouble With Tricks When You Know They’re Coming
April 1 is Google’s high holiday. Since its earliest days, Google has pulled pranks on its users. Once, as I relay in my book, Sergey Brin even tricked employees into thinking that shares of the company would soon be revalued, causing some to borrow money to buy their options immediately. (Google had to square up.)
More generally, I have noticed that over the years, Google has gravitated from small tricks to elaborate presentations of outlandishly extravagant initiatives, often having to do with artificial intelligence. Supposedly the joke was that people might be inclined to believe that Google was unveiling stuff that was many years away from reality. But the real joke was that even the scariest plans that Google joked about were the kind of thing that Google’s leaders actually dreamed about. In that sense, Google makes fun of itself. Sort of.
Even though that the Principle of Internet Idiocy applies to April Fool’s jokes, it’s pretty hard to trick people on 4/1 anymore. (For those who don’t know, here is the Principle of Internet Idiocy: when constructing a satire, it is impossible to imagine anything so outrageous that someone on the Internet won’t think it’s real. Jonathan Switft would have a tough time in this century.) One can predict with 100 percent certainty that on April Fool’s day, Google will produce many elaborate parodies–Wikipedia is already listing fifteen this year–requiring a lot of initiative. (The most shocking thing Google could ever do on April 1 is nothing.) Spontaneity is not a factor—for some employees the project is part of their job.
Left with that, we can only judge Google’s efforts by literary or entertainment value, which can be considerable. But none really deliver the sting of a joke that lures you into thinking, “Is this real?” then ups the ante by being so outrageous that you realize you’ve been stung. I found Google’s main trick this year to be less of a prank than a slickly produced parody of Google’s ethos and the way it communicates it. (The same with today’s fake Gmail announcement of a version that uses Morse Code–it’s a very funny parody of a self-congratulatory product announcement but when you’re done you say to yourself, “Hey, it actually is hard to type on a smartphone. Who’s the real butt of this joke?”)
The NASCAR thing is a straightforward description of a partnership between Google and NASCAR to create autonomous racing stock cars. The home page links to a blog post, supposedly written by Sergey. The post is poker-faced, only veering in the last minute with a joke about passengers in Google cars being about to eat sushi while driving.
Personally, I would have spiced with up with a head-on treatment of how Google cars would have channeled the hootch-running past of NASCAR—maybe fueling the cultural divide between Googlers and stock car racing aficionados–but that’s just me.
While Google gets high marks for execution, the joke itself really isn’t a mind stretcher. A driverless NASCAR entry is really not so far-fetched. I bet if Googlers worked on it for a few years, they could produce something that could actually win the Daytona 500. Even if some clueless folks forget what day it is and retweets this as fact, you can’t really say they’re very gullible. NASCAR itself posted a pretty amusing video with scenes of Sergey in a Google stock car (some real cash was spent on this!), and top drivers commenting on it. The drivers seemed to be in the joke, but the fans interviewed – good ole boys out of central casting who seemed repelled at the concept—took it as real.
And you can’t blame them. The fact is that the real world is much weirder than parody these days. Compare Google’s driverless NASCAR to some of the news items we have seen over the past year (think: GOP primaries). Stuff routinely occurs that one could not have predicted in a million years. Stuff that makes even the craziest April Fool’s stunts look sedate. And now think of this: if Google in 2003 announced that it had developed self-driving cars, everyone would have taken this as a crazy joke. But only a few years later, it’s totally real.
Absurdists have good reason to “feel lucky.” The real world shocks us every day. But there are no surprises when Google—and just about every other tech website in the world—feels compelled to come up with hoaxes on the one day when people expect to see hoaxes. And that’s why April 1 is the dullest day of the year.