Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking
August 24, 2009 3:07 PM   Subscribe

The Art of the Prank offers insights, information, news and discussions about pranks, hoaxes, culture jamming and reality hacking around the world. Includes topics such as The History of Pranks, The Prank As Art, and the Sociology and Psychology of Pranks. Get pranking. posted by netbros (16 comments total) 18 users marked this as a favorite
There's also The MIT Gallery of Hacks.
posted by ericb at 3:14 PM on August 24, 2009

Thanks for the Pranks. I've always found pranks and hoaxes unfunny -- kind of mean-spirited as they are a one-sided form of humour. I will set you up then laugh at you for being trusting, gullible, stupid and inferior to me. Well, I hope there is more to it than that, so I will look forward to read thru this site when I have time.
posted by binturong at 3:25 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I just watched the chimp reacting to magic in the thread below and it made me think some more about this genre of humour. I rather felt sorry for the chimp as this is a kind of teasing. The same way people snatch a treat from a dog then laugh when it gets upset, or an older bro torments his younger bro, just because he can. (Yeah, I confess I am a younger bro!) So pranks and hoaxes are kin to teasing which are kin to bullying. They also seem to involve the majority crowd laughing at the minority victim of the prank. Well, before I sound totally humourless, I'll stop and then read some of this interesting site to see if it will change my opinion.
posted by binturong at 3:41 PM on August 24, 2009

I've always found pranks and hoaxes unfunny -- kind of mean-spirited as they are a one-sided form of humour. I will set you up then laugh at you for being trusting, gullible, stupid and inferior to me.

I think it depends on the prank. Things like gluing a quarter to the floor and seeing how many people go nuts trying to pick it up, maybe.

Sneaking into a friend's dorm room and filling his closet with helium balloons? I'm not so sure.
posted by EmpressCallipygos at 3:50 PM on August 24, 2009

The best college prank in which I participated:

A group of us bought cheap (but loud) battery-powered alarm clocks and distributed them in various locations in the main library's shelves (in some hard-to-reach places)... all on one floor and within "ear shot" of the most densely populated study tables.

The first alarm clock was set to go of at 8:00 p.m.; the second at 8:05 p.m., the third at 8:20 p.m., the fourth at 8:25 p.m. and the fifth at 8:45 p.m.

The effect was fascinating to witness (from afar and where we could mask our laughter).

A replay: the first alarm (8:00 p.m.) goes off. Disturbed students scamble for, find and turn-off the alarm clock. Everyone returns to their books. Five minutes later (8:05 p.m.), repeat. Students start to get flustered and wonder if another will go off. Wait, wait, wait. "Seems that another is not likely to go off, since it's been a while." 15-minutes later - another goes off (8:20 p.m.). First wave of pissed-off students packs up and leave. The remaining students are hold-outs and hoping that the prank is over. Next alarm clock (8:25 p.m.) goes off (mirroring the original interval of 5-minutes). Second wave of really, really pissed off students depart. Those who remain are resolute in not letting the alarm clock prank "get to them". 5-minutes pass with no disturbance, 10-minutes pass ("it must be over"), 15-minutes pass ("it's over"); 8:45 p.m. alarm goes off - library floor clears! *

Previous AskMe threads regarding pranks/hacks: 1, 2
posted by ericb at 4:02 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

I'm sure everyone who had a paper or an exam to study for found that highly amusing.

The kind of prank where causing unpleasant reactions in the victims is the main point are not funny, except perhaps when a pompous and powerful person is deflated.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:32 PM on August 24, 2009

"are not funny" should read "are not funny TO ME". Obviously some people find them hilarious.
posted by i_am_joe's_spleen at 4:33 PM on August 24, 2009

In other news, you kids get off my lawn!
posted by scalefree at 4:43 PM on August 24, 2009

I could write a book about stuff like this...
posted by Alexandra Kitty at 5:19 PM on August 24, 2009

ericb: This is even worse.
posted by StickyCarpet at 5:33 PM on August 24, 2009

My rule for deciding whether a prank is acceptable: Ask yourself what will happen if/when* the target figures out what's going on? If the answer is "they'll laugh", then go for it. If they answer is "they'll be pissed off", then no matter how sophisticated or unique the prank is, it's morally no better than asking someone to get into your car and then stepping on the gas anytime they get near the door. Occasionally, there's a gray area where some people will think it's funny and others won't, and precisely where that balance lies is debatable, but this is true for just about any moral guideline. The key here is that the dividing line between tickled and irritated not be between the perpetrator(s) and the target(s). In that case, you're being an asshole. If the line is between "people with a sense of humor" and "self-righteous, easily-offended, gullible fools", then you're being a troll.

Note that if this is an "if" situation, you also have to ask the question, "what will happen if they don't find out?" For me, this usually involves telling them, but I'm willing to allow as acceptable a prank where nobody figures out the truth, but nobody was pissed off nor misled into believing a falsehood (e.g., everyone's just left thinking "what the hell just happened?" There's also a timing issue. If your prank is the average Internet April Fool's day gag of simply lying, I think you need to put a short fuse on it. If it's at all believable (and don't make the mistake of assuming that everyone knows you're not an idiot/asshole/crackpot), the prank needs to include something that let's people know that it's a joke, so that (for example) if they never revisit your site again, they won't find themselves stuck with this misinformation for years. If the lie is such that they might act on this (false) information, you need to let them in before they do so. Otherwise, you're just a liar. It may be a funny (to you), clever, brilliant lie, but you are still a liar.

Example 1: EricB's example is an asshole kind of thing to do. I don't see any debate on that. It's well thought-out and clever, but that doesn't change the fact that it's really a dickish kind of move. Maybe if they'd pulled it off somewhere where the people were sitting around bored instead of somewhere where stressed-out people are trying to concentrate, I could get behind it.

Example 2: Last April Fool's day, I told my undergraduate students that since they'd gotten out early so many days this semester, I'd be asking them to stay a few minutes after the end of class for the rest of the semester. When they started mumbling astonishedly at each other, I quickly amended myself by suggesting that they could come in early if that was better for them. Immediately, someone in the back row of the lecture hall shouted out "That's a April Foo's joke!" Everyone laughed and I told them they were too smart for me. This was a stupid prank. It didn't fool anybody. I'm sure that by the time the one kid had spoken up, most of the rest of the students were still just shocked by the blatant stupidity of what I'd said. But humor is seriously amplified by relief in my experience (I will avoid going off on a tangent about my pet theory about where humor comes from), and thus everyone enjoyed this. But regardless of the quality of the prank, this passes my rule fairly strongly.

Example 3: Filling someone's office with balloons, covering their cubicle with post-its, etc. These can be fine, depending on whose job it is to clean things up, and whether or not something important gets screwed up along the way (if they have a job that needs to be done as soon as they show up, and now they can't, then you might want to reconsider your timing).
posted by ErWenn at 5:35 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

What about culture jamming cases like the Yes Men or the Billboard Liberation Front? The target is absolutely not amused in these cases, but done properly there's a perception that the target's getting what they deserve.
posted by scalefree at 6:01 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

Too bad they don't have anything on the Max Headroom prank. You can watch it here.
posted by Evilspork at 6:30 PM on August 24, 2009 [1 favorite]

scalefree: What about culture jamming cases like the Yes Men or the Billboard Liberation Front? The target is absolutely not amused in these cases, but done properly there's a perception that the target's getting what they deserve

Those are interesting situations that aren't resolved by my personal guideline. Part of it depends on what you mean by "target". While the advertiser and therefore the owner of the billboard itself are likely to be annoyed, the typical passer-by will often be amused. This is one of those gray cases where I think the guideline still applies, but it doesn't make the decision for you. All the guideline says is that you're being mean to the advertiser and the billboard owner. It's up to you to decide whether or not this is one of those cases where being mean is acceptable. I'd definitely hold that anyone who does this solely for the humor value is unjustified. But of course, in most of these cases, it's also a form of protest, which to many, may justify the meanness.

My point with mentioning my personal guidelines is to make it clear that the fact that it's a prank (or that you're being sarcastic or "ironic" or "just joking") doesn't automatically make it okay. If someone's annoyed, angered, misled, or hurt by your actions, you have to look elsewhere for your justifications.
posted by ErWenn at 9:12 PM on August 24, 2009

What, no love for RE/Search: Pranks, perhaps the definitive book on the subject?

The sequel, not as good. But the original is—was—a life-changing read.
posted by Hogshead at 4:12 AM on August 25, 2009

Neil Steinberg's book If At All Possible, Involve A Cow: The Book of College Pranks is a delight to read.

It's also notable as the book where "legendary" prankster Dick Tuck admitted that he'd been making up shit all along, and the pranks he was famous for never occurred. He b.s.'d so hard even Nixon thought Tuck was a real prankster.
posted by magstheaxe at 8:02 AM on August 25, 2009

« Older Federal prosecutors to investigate abusive...   |   Floyd Zaiger, father of the pluot, aprium, and... Newer »

This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments