April Fools’ Day and the Ghosts of Media Past

April 4, 2011
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X FilesApril Fools’ Day has become quite the internet phenomenon, with several websites presenting goofs on their usual format or other bits of amusing fakery. This year’s hoaxes included Google’s introduction of “Gmail Motion,” a feature in which Gmail uses your computer’s webcam to control your email via bodily movement, and Digg’s announcement of a “reverse pay-wall” wherein users of the site get paid. Such trickery is nothing new, but I was struck this year by the prominence of pranks framed around laughter at media’s past.

For example, YouTube promoted its 100th anniversary, complete with a reprint of their first blog post by guest blogger William Howard Taft and a compilation of the top five “viral pictures” of 1911. These clips parody various entries in the canon of virality: The Annoying Orange, Failblog, The Bed Intruder Song, RickRoll, and Keyboard Cat. Moreover, placing “&vintage=1911” onto the end of any YouTube URL will add a sepia-tone patina and silent-era piano soundtrack to that video. Although this underscores the relative newness of viral video’s online context by contrasting it with an imagined or half-remembered media past, it also demonstrates the link between viral video and early film culture’s cinema of attractions. (1) This particular joke also relies on the differentiation between the early twentieth century’s purportedly genteel social norms and the apparent mass-culture vulgarity of today’s viral fare. “Fail” becomes “flummox,” keyboards turn into flugelhorns, and 80s pop videos become belly-dancing films. Of course, in the case of “Buggy Intruder,” the literal whitewashing of the Antoine Dodson video (with the transformation of “rapist” to “fornicator” and the elimination of the original video’s signifiers of race, class, and sexuality) neatly excises all of the elements that made the original video’s circulation and popularity so dubious to begin with.

With its own April Fools’ gag, Hulu didn’t reach quite as far into the past, but it presented an even more overt demonstration of the problems and possibilities of media history in the digital age. Rather than its usual post-millennial sheen, Hulu displayed a front page that parodies the aesthetic of a website from 1996, complete with awkward interface, low-resolution images, and Times New Roman font. This not only implies that the web is now “old enough” to have its own awkward age at which we can look back and laugh, it also underscores the irony that on-demand streaming video sites like Hulu would not have been possible in 1996—a move which pokes fun at Web 1.0 while congratulating the site for its own advanced technological circumstance.

In addition to this aesthetic design, the page also links to various television episodes and music videos from the mid-1990s, including a faked episode “from the archives” of Hulu’s daily entertainment recap program, The Morning After, in which the two anchors reference Alanis Morissette songs in their recaps of last night’s episodes of Cybill, Lois and Clark, and Sister Sister. Hulu’s prank places cultural items such as The X-Files, Saturday Night Live’s “Bill Brasky” skit, and the music video for Dave Matthews Band’s “Crash Into Me” within an uncharacteristically well-defined historical context. Put another way, by linking such texts with the contemporaneous aesthetics of dot-com-bubble-era web design, Hulu roots them in a period-specific milieu. Thus, not only does its April Fools’ joke goof on the history of web design, it plays with the site’s usual historicization of television, which Lynn Spigel describes as such: “On Hulu, the user is not situated in any particular time or place, and the historical resonance of any one program or film is less a concern than its availability and circulation—at instant speeds to mobile audiences—in the present.” (2) In contrast, “Hulu 1996” diverges from this ahistorical, on-demand mode of presentation and reaffixes this heretofore missing “resonance” by quite literally framing these television episodes and music videos within the functions and designs of Web 1.0.

Playing with issues of taste and canonization more directly, The Criterion Collection posted a site advertising a fake, out-of-print edition of Douglas Cheek’s 1984 horror film C.H.U.D, complete with audio commentary by filmmaker Pedro Costa and a “visual essay” by Tag Gallagher. The site also contains a faux-pretentious reading by critic Kent Jones, who underscores the absurdity of C.H.U.D.’s faked canonization by comparing it to Paradise Lost, Dante’s Inferno, and Anthony Mann’s He Walked by Night. The joke here is fairly obvious, contrasting C.H.U.D. with Criterion’s usual art-house fare. Of course, while these gags all work at the expense of Cheeks’ film (albeit with relative affection), it’s possible that this could also be a joke about the oft-raised question of why Michael Bay’s similarly schlocky Armageddon has been adorned with the most prestigious of all home-video accoutrements: a Criterion spine number.

All in all, these April Fools’ jokes take as their butt the contemporary problems of canonizing and historicizing entertainment media’s texts and technologies. More specifically, they involve laughter around the remediation of genres, texts, and aesthetics somehow perceived as antiquated, embarrassing, or downright bad. Even Gmail Motion cracks wise about the differences between e-mail and the more obviously tactile and embodied communicative methods of yore. It’s easy enough to see this as derisive laughter at the embarrassing ghosts of media past (as I have argued earlier about laughing at found footage), and it is that, at least in part. But when we laugh at this past, there is often a great deal of affection commingled with scorn. Indeed, it can be impossible to parse the lines that separate derisive mockery, laughter of recognition, and genuine nostalgia for mediated experience that can never be completely recovered. This affective melange is certainly not exclusive to these April Fools’ jokes, and it helps explain the pleasures found in sites like the oft-circulated “Geocitiesizer,” which promises to “make any webpage look like it was made by a 13 year-old In 1996,” and the website for the movie Space Jam (alerted recently to my attention by an esteemed colleague), still intact in all of its late-twentieth-century glory. These websites, along with “Hulu 1996,” are amusing in their antiquity (whether “real” or parodic), but they also allow us to re-enter the sandbox of the mid-nineties web—an experience that can be surprisingly poignant.

(1) David Gurney, “‘It’s Just Like a Mini-Mall’: Textuality and Participatory Culture on YouTube,” in Flow TV: Television in the Age of Media Convergence, ed. Michael Kackman et al. (New York: Routledge, 2011), 31

(2) Lynn Spigel, “Housing Television: Architectures of the Archive,” The Communication Review 13 (2010): 64.


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