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web of fools

Online, every day is April 1

Livr, the social network for drunk people, had all the trimmings of an ascendant tech startup. A slick promotional video featuring two Eisenbergian CEOs. A hip website littered with buzzwords and trademarks. Press releases. Stickers. Posters. T-shirts. An auspicious, grassroots buzz that began in Reddit's technology forums and bubbled into the mainstream press.

Livr's only problem? It was all fake — an elaborate hoax engineered by Brandon Schmittling and Brandon Bloch, two Brooklyn creatives with a lot of free time and little patience for what they call the "absurdity" of modern Internet culture. After dreaming up an idea for a startup so ridiculous no one would believe it, Bloch and Schmittling set out to entice people to buy in. They bought a domain name, designed a website, enlisted actors to play Livr's earnest cofounders; they "leaked" a fake press release on Reddit, promising an improbable "online party at all times," a social network limited only by the user's blood alcohol concentration.

First Engadget blogged about it. Then Next Web. Soon Mashable and CNN. Within hours, one of Silicon Valley's top investment firms contacted the Brandons, asking if they needed venture capital.

"Livr was one of those ideas you have when you're sitting around the bar with your friends, and someone says, 'Wouldn't it be crazy if … ?' " laughed Bloch. "But these days there's no such thing as too crazy. The cultural landscape is just getting more and more absurd."

In the purer, wide-eyed days of yore, April 1 marked a once-in-a-year-opportunity to print phenomenal whoppers in newspapers, tell your children penguins can fly and otherwise violate the everyday norms of human behavior. But pranksters hardly need an annual indulgence for their hijinks anymore: On the Internet, after all, every day is April Fools' Day.

In the past week alone, online hoaxers convinced wide swaths of the online world that a deranged man dressed as a clown wandered unchecked around Staten Island; that Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte casually biked to his meeting with Obama; that R&B singer Trey Songz was gay; and that searchers finally found Malaysian Airlines Flight 370 … about 15 times over.

There's no denying the reality-bending, eyebrow-arching absurdity of these times, where "reality TV" denotes one of television's more fictionalized outputs and the news swims in headlines too crazy to be true. It's kind of like the classic ice-breaker game two truths and a lie: A bank mistakenly deposited $31,000 in a teen's account, and he spent most of it in days. North Koreans must cut their hair like Kim Jong Il. A major chain restaurant will offer milk shakes made with wine. Can you tell which story is fake?

"I don't see the distinction much anymore, between fantasy and reality," explained Bloch, who spends his days making "corporate documentaries." "In my mind, the line is blurred."

Exactly who is doing the blurring is up for debate. Although it's easy, and perhaps comfortable, to blame the deceivers, the reality is far more complicated. The Web incentivizes page views, no matter how they're racked up. And so hoaxes are hatched not only by lone pranksters but also by savvy marketers and public relations firms eager for attention. They're often propagated by journalists hungry for clicks and starved for time. Then they're swallowed whole by an audience drowning in so much information — such a cacophony of demands on their eyeballs and attention — that only the truly crazy stuff stands out.

"Americans are just bombarded with information," moaned Allen Peterson, the executive director of Wine to Water, a tiny water charity behind the "Miracle Machine" hoax of a few weeks ago, which promoted a newfangled gadget that claimed to turn water into wine. "I mean, to get their attention on something like the water crisis? The question is, how do we even get that in front of them?"

Wine to Water's hoax was perhaps the most forgivable ruse in recent memory. A five-person nonprofit organization based in Boone, N.C., Wine to Water funds clean-water projects in Haiti, Ethiopia and six other countries. It pays for the projects through donations and sales of its branded wine. After a CNN documentary about the group ran in December, the multinational PR firm Publicis approached Peterson with the offer of a pro-bono marketing campaign that would play off the Wine to Water name — and get the water crisis in front of millions of people who wouldn't spend two seconds on it otherwise.

Peterson and his organization weren't concerned about the tactics or the implicit commentary on America's painfully short, misdirected attention span. He reasoned that, if the hoax could save one child, the deceit would have paid off.

It did. Water to Wine's donations have shot up more than 20 percent since the hoax; Peterson estimates his charity will reach an estimated 6,000 more people in 2014.

But not all hoaxsters share Peterson's altruism, or Bloch and Schmittling's sense of philosophical inquiry. A number of websites that propagate fake stories — including Mediamass, or the dubious — profit from display ads when their frauds go viral. Others redirect to phishing sites that attempt to draw out the gullible clicker's email address and personal information.

But the most common class of Internet prankster overlaps, mundanely enough, with the April Fools' prankster of yesteryear. There is no ulterior motive — unless the pursuit of attention and .lolz constitutes ulterior.

"My friend just has a strange sense of humor and thought it would be funny," Gemma Sheridan, 26, of Britain, wrote in an email in reference to the mysterious creator of Sheridan's name may seem familiar: A viral story circling the Internet last week claimed she had been stranded on a desert island for eight years, forced to build a hut from clamshells and strangle goats to survive.

"It doesn't matter to me if people believe it or not," she added. "It's just a hoax and people will move on to another one."

They already have. Days after Sheridan's shipwreck story went viral, another News-hound story — this one about the Earth's gravitational field going down for a few minutes on April 4 — took off on Twitter. (Ironically enough, that bit of astronomical urban legend originated as an April Fools' joke … in 1976.)

It's easy to condemn the wide-eyed naivete of the Twitter dolts sharing this latest hoax: Haven't they learned yet? Couldn't they just Google it?

But condemnation is futile. The Web, after all, is an organism spun to divert and distract attention. Might as well condemn the entire multibillion-dollar industry of display ads, or the fresh-faced 21-year-olds graduating from journalism school and disappearing into an industry where their worth is judged by the clicks they generate.

Better yet, blame the very foundations of human nature, which wants to trust. To believe. To experience real awe — even for a fiction. As Plato wrote 2,300 years ago, before even the Bible told a story about turning water into wine, "everything that deceives may be said to enchant."

"People are interested in trading this reality for another one," Schmittling, Livr's cofounder, said simply. "They want life to be entertainment."

It's no wonder one day in April is no longer enough.

Online, every day is April 1 03/31/14 [Last modified: Tuesday, April 1, 2014 10:18am]
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