April Fools Day has rolled ’round again, and already the confusion is thick in the air. Doug and Dave have swapped faces for a day (or perhaps longer), much as newspaper comic artists often do. The WaSP reports that the use of standards has hitherto unsuspected benefits, and Nature is reporting that stronger trade winds have changed the planet’s rotation enough that today should be 2 April, not 1 April. Global warming is blamed.
Then there are the edge cases. Google’s announcement of Gmail has now been reported by CNN, The New York Times, c|net, Wired, and more. It sure seems like an April Fools Day joke on Google’s part, just like Pigeonrank, but heck, it could be real. Here’s the thing: just because it got reported by major media outlets doesn’t make it true.
I found this out back at the very beginning of 2000. You all probably remember the Y2K noise leading up to that point; there were reports that vendors had to certify pencils as Y2K compliant in order to sell them. It got pretty silly. In the middle of it all, as we went through month after month of analysis and certification of the systems at CWRU, one of the DMS gang said something like, “Are we sure that Aurora [the CWRU Web server] won’t suddenly think it’s January 1900?” The response was, “I sure hope not, because then it would insist on using a telegraph to connect to the Internet.” We started riffing on that idea, kicking around what the page design would look like, what kind of news would be there, turn-of-the-century pictures that should show up, and so on.
So we did it. My co-worker Pam and I went down to the University Archives and found a number of photos that were of the right era and that were clearly allowed to be used (many of them had no known author and so would not pass into the public domain until 2020), and scanned them in. I created a wood-grain design for the home page, including a modified badge that proclaimed us the “Yahoo! Most Wired College 1899” site. We had two places on the page where the year was listed, and I had to deliberately introduce Y2K bugs in order to make them say “January 1, 1900” on that day. We set up a cron job to roll the old-timey graphics into place at the stroke of midnight on 1 January 2000, and went off to party.
By eight o’clock on the morning of the first, we had several dozen e-mails in the server contact inbox. They were about evenly divided into people congratulating us on having a sense of humor, and people insulting us for being so stupid as to have suffered a visible Y2K bug on our public Web server. (I’d like to think that at least some of those were tongue-in-cheek.) By the end of the day, Wired had reported it as a real Y2K bug, even quoting our message apologizing that the server “believes that it is January of 1900,” and the next day the story was printed more or less verbatim in The Washington Post. We ended up issuing a press release about it, and the joke design, which was intended to stay in place for a couple of weeks, lasted 33 hours before the administration said, “Yeah, uh-huh, very funny. Get rid of it.”
As I write this entry, I have no idea if Gmail is an April Fools joke or not. (Okay, that’s not true. I have some idea that it’s a joke, but I’m not certain.) In a way, it’s kind of irrelevant. The whole situation has simply reminded me that those in the news media can be as easily duped as the rest of us, and that’s something worth remembering in the current political climate.