Lessons of April Fools’ Day

In a relatively short period of time, April 1st has morphed from the old, traditional April Fools’ Day into Ignore the Internet Day. Whether you’re Google or Thinkgeek, the first has taken a special place in the heart of internet geeks everywhere, who have seized the opportunity as a chance to take a break and laugh at each other for a day. The only problem is that it has made it impossible at times to pull meaning from the noise during the day, and the quality and breadth of the jokes seems to have passed its pinnacle.

For the past several years, higher education has been able to release a little pressure through April Fools’, and this year was not any different. At the end of this article you’ll find a gallery of the different jokes schools around the country played, and the examples range from faux press releases, to Facebook gags, to homepage takeovers. And all this fun is not without some lessons. Lori Packer had a nice start to things. She put out an article reflecting on what they did at the University of Rochester, reverting to a 15 year old layout. In the post, she talks about the things that she had to edit on the page to make it work today, and laughed at some of the old techniques that were used - how will we compare today to what we’re doing in 2025? Do you think about the future of what you’re producing? Not that what we did in 1996 was bad, it was just the “old way,” and that makes for interesting lessons on growth today. I actually find a lot of enjoyment going back and looking at code (that is frequently still in use) that I wrote years ago. It’s a great opportunity to see how we’ve grown as professionals, and sometimes catch mistakes so that we don’t continue them in the future.

Karine Joly was quick on the gun too, showing off some favorite gags. She made one point that I think is absolutely worth reflecting on, too. Look at some of the creativity that comes out of April Fools’ Day (even beyond higher education). Imagine, when you just go to a designer and say “Go crazy, we need something for the day that will make people laugh,” and they come back with some of the stuff we see here. Why do we stifle that in “normal” processes? In trying to be funny, we really are in danger of starting to do things right, in a way. I think we need to do a lot better to encourage that. There’s a lot to be gained from the sort of web development that happens when you shoot from the hip. When every single move you make is measured and calculated, it can start to feel stiff and lifeless. Imperfection can bring with it a certain kind of charm all its own that you cannot manufacture.

On the other end of the spectrum, we have the schools that do nothing. Hint: nearly all of them. Now, it’s easy to say that we simply can’t take the time away from pressing needs for jokes, and I do respect that (we didn’t do anything for exactly that reason). But, there are schools that don’t do it out of fear. They are worried that one day of in context joking will somehow damage their reputation. Additionally, as was brought up on the UWebD group, there could be international considerations among prospective students that might not get the joke. Valid considerations, all. But, I counter with this: Google does it. They are neither worried about people not getting the joke, nor do they question if people understand what April Fools’ Day is. The day online is so heavily saturated with April Fools’ news and talk, that my argument is that it’s pretty hard to not know there’s something special about the day in a few parts of the world. An assumption on my part, but I think a safe one. And to add to that, if you are genuinely sacrificing important functionality for the joke, you’re probably doing it wrong. There’s a whole lot to be said for subtlety. April Fools’ does not need to get in the way.

Ultimately, the decision is a measurement of risk-reward. Is there a chance you might put people off that don’t get it? Sure. But do you draw additional attention to yourself by doing it? You bet. Is it worth it? That’s a question each school has to answer on their own. I would just suggest making the decision reasonably, and based on numbers as much as possible. If the only reason you don’t do it is because administrators are scared, then you’ve just found the best reason to do it, in my opinion. If you never push boundaries, you’ll never excel.

I’m not sure if this is just my perception or not, but while I think some places are getting better at April Fools jokes, it did seem like this year there weren’t as many schools joining in as years past. What do you think? Maybe I just wasn’t as observant as normal, but I wonder if the changes to the environment the past year is starting to impact the amount of risk taking we are capable of doing. I think there’s a lot to be said for being able to not take ourselves too seriously at least for a day. My bigger concern is just that the jokes get stale very fast. It goes back to how popular the day has become online. There’s a lot of people doing the same gags, the same jokes. But I think there’s a lot of value to be had in trying to bring the funny.

This post was written by:

Director of Web Marketing - who has written 78 posts on .eduGuru

Director of Web Marketingjoined Pittsburg State University in Pittsburg, KS (NOT Pennsylvania, they spell it wrong anyway) inand is currently the Director of Web Marketing.  He is also CTO for the interactive map provider nuCloud. Web development's role in interpersonal communication is a principle focus of his efforts to improve and enhance higher ed web commodities.  He is an active supporter of the dotCMS community, accessibility advocate, freelance consultant, frequent speaker at web events, and general purpose geek who wears many hats.  Read his complete bio.

  • https://www.goddessofclarity.com LoriPA -->

    Nice wrap-up, and thanks for the shout-out. I was really impressed this year with how funny a lot of the faux stories were, the cool things some did with video, and the involvement of high-level administrators (I’m thinking especially of Bryn Mawr and Beloit). I agree that I can totally see a school deciding to skip April Fools Day cuz they don’t have the time to devote (ours took all of 20 mins) but to not do something because you’re afraid you might offend or confuse is a little discouraging.

  • https://susantevans.com Susan T. Evans -->

    Thanks for the super post. I agree with your summary and like your references to “not taking ourselves so seriously” and more flexible, spontaneous web design.

    This is the third year we’ve April Fooled the home page at William & Mary. Believe it or not, we even talked strategy this year knowing that newly admitted students are all over our site at the moment. As a result, we chose an iconic campus spot and promoted our very popular, but still new, mascot. Further, we want students to know that we have a strong academic program and enjoy a little fun. Telling them both things during admission season is a good thing.

  • https://creativeservices.blogs.wm.edu/2011/04/04/april-fools-3-did-you-miss-it/ » April Fools’ #3 - did you miss it? William & Mary Creative Services -->

    [...] is worth a read. His .eduGuru piece called “Lessons of April Fools’ Day 2011″ is here. I agree with his summary and like his references to “not taking ourselves so [...]

  • Mary Ann -->

    Thanks for the round-up and thoughtful commentary. I’ve relayed it to my client at Bryn Mawr College, which you include here and which Lori mentions in her comment. Here are my observations and some data from Bryn Mawr’s April Fool’s Day web initiative — which included an announcement of an “intergalactic partnership” on its homepage (because “global is so 2010″), plus two related stories and one video.

    - Not only is it possible for your April Fool’s Day effort to be on message, the creative and collaborative process for coming up with the initiative encourages your team to think more creatively and more broadly about how to communicate and illustrate your institution’s messages.

    - Conveying the message that your institution is fun and, when your president gets involved, communicates that your leadership is bold, willing to take risks and — very important for internal team building — demonstrates trust in the prank planners’ judgement and capabilities.

    - Going viral doesn’t happen completely by accident. Knowledge of and established connections with the social media channels of key news outlets and influencers in the social media world, particularly in higher education, is key. For example, at Bryn Mawr, we knew that Inside Higher Education sends its daily round-up email at about 4:00 a.m. This meant the homepage needed to be live before then. A collaboration with Web Services made this a reality and the site went live at midnight. A tweet to Inside Higher Ed was scheduled for about 3:00 a.m., which meant that the person there who was putting together the round-up could see the homepage and knew it was worth including. If we’d waited until people arrived at the office, Insider Higher Ed wouldn’t have included Bryn Mawr’s partnership in the “Quick Takes” section of its daily email blast.

    - Some data: The total number of Bryn Mawr homepage pviews was more than twice the amount of the previous daily record. The total number of off-campus visits was more than 6 times the daily average. Of this total, 76% were new visitors to BMC website.

    - Driving nearly 20,000 new visitors to the website and introducing them to the College is a significant accomplishment in and of itself. However, a closer look at the data indicates that these visitors did not only look at the April Fool’s Day information. Visitors to non-April Fool’s Day pages were up significantly — valuable “spillover” from the effort — most significantly, to the academics, admissions, and student life sections. These landing pages had increases in daily visits of 101%, 72%, and 120% respectively.