On April Fools’ Day, Don’t Be Like Google. Be Like PornHub.

Google’s image of its super funny April Fools’ Day Gmail prank.


In theory, at least, April Fools’ Day is an occasion for joyous nonsense, but in practice it’s become an opportunity for frustrated sanctimony. That became clear Friday in the outcry against a Google prank, which added a button to Gmail that appended an image of a Minion dropping a mic to an email and then muted further replies to the thread. Because the “mic drop” option displaced the more inoffensive “Send and Archive” button, it was easy to press it accidentally. Almost immediately, Google’s help pages filled up with threads of complaints, including some from users, as the Telegraph and other publications, claiming that the faux-feature had cost them job opportunities.

In the face of this outrage, Google quickly deactivated the button and appended an apologetic mea culpa to its original blog post. The company should, however, have seen this coming, not least of all because, as Vox notes, Google has been executing annual japes since 2000. Vox’s Libby Nelson adds that the failure of this prank may be an effect of Google’s size and power: Because so many people rely on the company’s services, any unexpected change is potentially damaging. “The ‘mic drop’ uproar shows how pranks are viewed differently when they come from a corporate behemoth rather than a scrappy startup,” Nelson writes.

In reality, however, the problem isn’t the prank itself, but the way it was executed. Much of the first wave of complaints came from users who were just looking for a way to turn the prank off. Whether or not you think minions are charming—most here at Slate agree that they’re singularly villainous, for what it’s worth—this isn’t a joke with much staying power. The pleasure of April Fools’ Day comes in the opportunity to announce that a joke was just a joke. But because it has potentially lasting effects, and because users had little control over it, mic drop had the ability to do persistent damage, even after the humor fades.

The real trouble with Gmail’s “mic drop” may have been that it took advantage of those who had the most to lose from it. Justin Boxill accidentally activated the feature in an email exchange with a potential employer. As he explained to me over Twitter, he’s normally careful on email, but in his excitement at the job opening, he clicked more quickly than he might have otherwise.

In other words, Google was able to prank him because of his exuberance. He almost immediately sent an apologetic follow-up note, but he never should have had to do so in the first place. (Boxill sent Slate a screengrab of his email exchange, confirming that at least some of these widely reported accidents really happened.) Though he acknowledges that there’s some potential for humor in the prank, Boxill rightly suggests that it’s the sort of thing that might have worked better if it were opt in, thereby allowing users to deploy it in the service of silliness instead of making them the butt of the joke.

Significantly, journalistic enthusiasm may be just as bad when we pile on to a bad prank. A few publications referred to a tweet by Andy Baio that included an image of the mic drop GIF attached to an email from a funeral home, presenting it as if it were real. Baio’s image turned out to be a made-up example he had created to show what could go wrong, not an example of an actual screw-up. It’s clear that there’s real potential for harm in Google’s stunt, but that doesn’t mean that there’s no way for a company to do April Fools’ right.

By way of example look, of all places, to PornHub, which temporarily converted its entire site into CornHub—a source for all of your hot, buttery corn video needs. “Hard shucking like you’ve never seen!” one video caption promises, while another offers, “First time kernel popping.” (A mostly safe for work Twitter link to an image of the site can be found here.) These are dumb jokes, to be sure, but they’re jokes on and about the site itself, not on its users. Best of all, the site includes an option at the bottom of the page to turn off the prank for good. As PornHub knows all too well, sometimes it’s OK to finish early.