Fools and jokers coming to a network near you

While there is little known about the origins of April Fools' Day, the list of gags go on and on and this year is certain to add to the list of potty-themed Wii games, scratch-and-sniff Web sites and police-finding mobile applications.

With corporations and users watching for the potential outbreak of the Conficker worm, the chance to slip the quasi-believable through to the masses could be tougher this year.

But with the advent of social networking, stories that do stick could spread like, well, social networking.

"Your audience on the Internet is gigantic and now if something goes viral you could be famous or your Web site could be famous," says Jim Underdown, executive director of the Center for Inquiry in Los Angeles. Underdown spent last weekend shooting pictures of a Mr. Coffee lid suspended by invisible string from a pole. He plans to use the "UFO" pictures in a lecture he gives regarding hoaxes.

Given the coming rush of pranksters for April Fools' Day, he says it is imperative people raise their skepticism level to avoid being sucked in.

So it might be beneficial to refresh memories in order to put tech industry people in a suspicious -- or devilish mood -- before April 1 shows up on the calendar Wednesday.

Google is well known for its pranks dating back to 2000 when it unveiled its "MentalPlex" search technology on April 1. It was a mind-reading application that excused the user from having to physically type in a search query.

Last year, Google, having grown like a tall tale since 2000, couldn't live with just one gag, unleashing 15 semi-believable stories including the Google Book Search Scratch and Sniff, and Virgle, in conjunction with the Virgin Group to establish a permanent human settlement on Mars.

"Earth has issues, and it's time humanity got started on a Plan B," Google said on its Web page.

Google also included its YouTube site for the first time last year in its April Fools' gags linking all videos on some national versions of the site to Rick Astley's song "Never Gonna Give You Up," which meant that all users who clicked on featured videos were Rickrolled.

In anticipation of more hi-jinks, Wikipedia already has a placeholder for 2009 under the list of Google hoaxes.

And speaking of social networking, the Twitter faithful got an early April Fool's jolt last year when a story about charging for tiered service went viral.  

The story of Twitter premium paid accounts with the names Sparrow, Dove, Owl and Eagle shook followers who then raised a chorus of Tweets.

The bogus accounts claimed to provide each user with a certain number of additional characters per Tweet and with extra followers. The top-tier Eagle account came with a 500 character max and 1,000 extra followers for $250 per month. The package included celebrity followers, a service that Tweets while the user sleeps, and a custom "Fail Whale" page for when Twitter is down.

Others also got in on the games.

Njection.com, a site for drivers and automotive experts, announced a system for real-time tracking of police officers so users could look up where the officers were stationed in their neighborhoods.

Njection said it was placing global positioning systems is the vehicles of patrol officers, undercover cars, and Special Weapons and Tactics vehicles. In addition to the Njection Web site, users could get the information via Windows Mobile 6, and BlackBerry and Palm mobile phones.

The Online Dating Industry Journal blog reported that the founder of eHarmony.com, Dr. Neil Clark Warren, had found a new love interest on Match.com, one of his company's biggest competitors.

ThinkGeek.com tempted users with such new products as the ZapCam, a combo video camera and tazer so the user could shock someone and film it at the same time. Also included was software for uploading the video directly to the Internet. The product list also included a USB pregnancy test and a new Wii game involving urination.

Underwood says there is a theme to all the claims in these gags.

"A bit of skepticism should kick in right way," he says.

For those that skip that step, embarrassment could be the price to pay.

Follow John on Twitter: twitter.com/johnfontana.

This story, "Fools and jokers coming to a network near you" was originally published by Network World.

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