April Fools' Day is coming--beware of your browser

As old as the Web, the tradition of Internet-based April Fools' jokes keeps people laughing even as they get duped.

On April 1, 2004, Google announced it was launching Gmail, a free e-mail service featuring an unheard-of gigabyte of free storage.

Given the timing and the fact that Yahoo Mail and Hotmail then offered less than 10MB of free space, most people laughed off the Google news as a funny April Fools' joke.

Of course, we know now that the Gmail gambit was for real. But in the Internet age, April 1 has become a day when dozens upon dozens of good-natured online hoaxes are perpetrated each year. Thus, people would be wise to smell-test just about everything that pops into their browser on and around April Fools' Day.

"For new users especially, it's hard to tell the difference between legitimate sites and the hoax copies."
--Andy Baio, blogger

"People tend to believe things that sound plausible or appear to come from a credible source," said Andy Baio, who writes the popular technology culture blog Waxy.org and who each year tracks the best April Fools' pranks. "For new users especially, it's hard to tell the difference between legitimate sites and the hoax copies."

Baio also coined a term for April Fools' Day, "Internet Jackass Day," which some fans of the tradition think is pretty apt.

"That's what the gang at Waxy.org have termed April 1," wrote Networkworld on its blog on April 2, 2004, "and we couldn't agree more. Welcome to April 2, where it's safe to turn on your monitors and believe once more--but if you're like us, your paranoia won't subside till Memorial Day."

Another compendium of Internet April Fools' jokes comes from the site Urgo.org. On the site, its author, Jason Pearsall, lists the best of 2005 and 2004, as well as a more complete list. The site will be updated April 1 to include the best of 2006.

"It's something anyone can do, and it lets people be creative," said Pearsall. April Fools' Day "is something people get drilled into them starting when they're young, and it's a real creative way that anyone can do something on the Internet."

Smell-tests aside, there are always those people who fall for April Fools' Internet pranks, even those who should know better.

A case in point was 2003's iLoo from Microsoft, purportedly an Internet outhouse replete with a flat-screen plasma display, broadband access and a wireless keyboard. The software giant's MSN UK unit waited a whole month--till May 2 of that year--to set the trap.

Among those to get sucked in by the iLoo was CNET News.com, which took company representatives at their word and ran a story on the design--and then a subsequent one acknowledging the ruse.

Some Internet observers aren't surprised people fall for the pranks. Pearsall thinks the issue might just be that people don't remember the date.

"A lot of (people) don't remember," he said, "until their first (prank). These days, you have to get to (people) really early in the morning. So the first one of the day really does fool them."

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