Thursday, April 1, 2010

All Fools Today

Jester Mask
Did you know that Americans originally created the Joker for playing cards in the 1800's as the highest card for the game of Euchre? Juke, but no joke.

It's April 1st, and that means you've been made a fool. Not by me of course; the tidbit above is not prevarication despite your uncertainty. Nevertheless, you are being foolish. You look foolish right now and I can't even see you! You act downright medieval you're such a fool!

(Please excuse the jester.)

The exact founding of this "All Fools Day" on the first of April isn't known, though it is known that the practice has a history going back hundreds of years with about as many theories as to its origin. Owing to its long history (and reasons I'll detail), April Fools' Day is very popular in Westernized countries around the world. Interestingly, in the traditional culture of some countries such as the UK, Australia, and South Africa, you're only supposed to 'fool' before noon. If you prank someone after noon you're considered an April Fool.

April Fools' Day thrives because we're particularly ready for a goofy time of year, so to speak. With a physiological basis in enjoying the anticipation of unexpected thrill (à la dopamine), a mood of lighthearted puckishness meshes well with the time of year; moving from cold Winter indoors to the onset of sunny Spring outdoors. The months following the winter holidays are perceived as particularly dreary, so by the time April arrives people are anxious to celebrate the seasonal change. Thinking sociologically, it's how societies celebrate the vernal equinox on a day that is easier to remember.

Even though the jocundity we experience personally on this day isn't always memorable, we are always eager to hear about clever pranks. Lists of both the well-known and best recent April Fools circulate widely every year as testament to this desire, and you'll probably read at least one by the end of the day. Each communicative medium has its own class of hoaxes, from print to radio to TV. And now of course there's the Internet, the most likely source of your prank news in the modern era.

The desire and expectation of deception is problematic, however. That's probably why we do this hoax holiday only once a year. Important factual news announced on April 1st is automatically doubted by the public, wary of being fools caught unawares. We keep ourselves at a distance lest we fall into some emotional trap and look silly (even as we quietly desire the silliness). Distancing is normal behavior we employ all the time, but it's especially pronounced when you're keeping yourself constantly alert to trickery. Problems occur when this heightened skepticism affects our perception of serious stories we would otherwise give their accordingly serious consideration. We restrict receptiveness and compliance, which can incapacitate systems that rely on precise communication or timely cooperation.



Illustrating the effects of this profound shift in our approach to news on April Fools' Day, one need only look back at the stories that emerged after the last time this happened. On April 1st 2009, a school was almost burned to the ground in the town of Albertslund, Denmark because the fire department refused to believe that the news was true the first two times that people called to report the fire. Naturally the firemen, being normally helpful people, rushed to extinguish the flames after repeated communication attempts forced them to realize their mistake, and the school was fortunately not a total loss. Nonetheless, the anecdote is indicative that losing response time in a time-critical situation can have catastrophic consequences.


Terrorizing your lighthearted day of puckishness a little more personally, one can easily imagine that the psychological caution we employ on April Fools' Day acts as convenient cover for malicious pranksters. In another story from last year, on and around April 1st 2009 there was a great deal of American mainstream media attention concerning about a rapidly spreading computer worm (often cited as a variant of Conficker). Without knowing enough to assess the immediate danger of the virus, news outlets warned the public at the speed of panic, as news is wont to do.

Unlike the Danish school fire, the danger of the worm was relatively minimal, especially in contrast to the slew of new viruses unleashed on the web everyday. Yet still alike the Danish incident, the ambiguity of the purported threat still led to overreaction. In the case of the fire department it was inattentiveness; in the case of the news outlets it was over-attentiveness, drowning out other more relevant news. Either extreme leads to neglect.

Now that you know you're playing the fool whether you like it or not, bear in mind the distinction between rational response and irrational response as you take in the day's news this year. After all, it's April 1st and everyone's a bit foolish. So keep your jokes... practical.

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