How to Mess with People in the Digital Age

By Published on .

Alec Brownstein has made a name for himself pulling fast ones on the industry, and the rest of the world, for that matter, with his digital tomfoolery. He's the guy who capitalized on the egos of some of the top creative leaders to get his portfolio on their desks--and eventually land a job and multiple awards show accolades. For April Fool's Day this year, he and his conspirators devised a scheme to let you "hijack" other people's--even celebrities'--Twitter feeds to make it appear as if they announced something they really didn't--like that they slept with you, for example. Here, Brownstein shares his history of hijinks and how the digital age has made pranking a phenomenal pastime.


As far back as I can remember, I always wanted to be a prankster.

The first prank I pulled was in second grade. I asked my English teacher to go to the bathroom. I grabbed a bunch of paper towels and drew all over them with a red magic marker. I clutched the wad of "bloody" paper towels to my nose as I staggered into the classroom. It looked like I had been shot in the face. My teacher freaked out. It was hilarious.

Image via Flickr user Alastair Vance

The old fake bloody nose falls in the category of Prank 1.0. These don't require much special equipment or technology, they can only be performed one time per victim, and to do them right, you have to be physically present to really enjoy the mayhem they create. Other examples of Prank 1.0 are whoopee cushions, dribble glasses, and joy buzzers. Kid stuff, but fun. The main drawback of Prank 1.0 is that the victim can grab the prankster by the ear and drag him to the principal's office. To really take pranking to the next level, you need separation from your victim. Enter the crank call.

I started crank calling before the days of caller ID, back when everybody had a land line. It was deliciously anonymous and largely without recourse for the victim. Though I had anonymity on my side, the fact that I sounded like a child seriously limited the repertoire of my pranks. It's hard to call someone and say that their husband was arrested for exposing himself to twelve year old boys at the Orange Julius in the mall, when you sound like you're ten years old. I sounded like a ten year old until I was fifteen, so my crank calls consisted of me and a friend randomly calling someone and making farting sounds until the person hung up. It was hilarious, and all was right with the world.

But then came *69. For those of you not old enough to remember, when someone called your landline and hung up before you answered, you could dial *69 and you would be connected back to the person who had just called you. The *69 dialer wouldn't know the number, but rather, would be automatically connected to the person who had just called them. Essentially, they were responding to an anonymous call with an anonymous call. And that's how I came up with the idea for the incoming crank call.

Here's how it worked: A friend and I would randomly dial someone and make farting noises and then hang up. When the victim invariably dialed *69 and our phone started ringing, my friend, who had a deeper voice than me, answered:

DEEP VOICE FRIEND:Hello?

*69 CALLER: Someone from this number just called and made farting noises then hung up.

DEEP VOICE FRIEND: Damnit, not again! (off phone) Brian! Get in here!

ME: (in background) Yes, father?

DEEP VOICE FRIEND: Are you making prank calls again?

A pause.

ME: (in background) I'm sorry.

Slapping sounds.

ME: Owww!

*69 CALLER: Oh, please don't hit him. It's okay.

More slapping sounds. Some crashing sounds.

ME: Oww! Father, please don't kick over my leg braces!

More crashing sounds.

*69 CALLER: Leg braces? Please, leave him alone.

ME: (crying in background) The other children won't come over and play with me because I can't walk. So I make prank calls. I'm so lonely!

*69 CALLER: That's awful!

DEEP VOICE FRIEND: That's no excuse!

Slap!

ME: (in background to *69 Caller) Why did you do this to me? Why?

*69 CALLER: I'm so sorry!

*69 Caller hangs up.

The incoming crank call falls in the category of Prank 1.5. It requires some technology, you can prank the same person with multiple variations of the same trick, and most importantly, you don't actually have to be in the same place as your victim. Another fun example of Prank 1.5 that I have come up with is the $100 Red Lobster Feast. I give someone a $100 gift card to Red Lobster. "Thanks for being such a great friend to me," I'll say. But I only load the card with $5. The victim then goes out of his way to go to Red Lobster, orders $100 worth of food, and has to pay for it himself.

Though it can potentially be cruel, Prank 1.5 still exists primarily between the prankster and the victim, which is to say that there is little public humiliation and little lasting effect. Being forced to pay for food at Red Lobster is disgusting and degrading and should never happen to anyone, but at least the only people who know about it are you and the waiter. But when you take the burn public and make it easily visible to anyone in the world, you have crossed the threshold to Prank 2.0.

Prank 2.0 is generally a really good Prank 1.5 that has been turned outward to allow multiple people to prank the same victim and broadcast the aftermath to the world. With the automatic posterity of stuff on the internet, Prank 2.0 can be really sticky, and could potentially mess up someone's life. This makes it significantly more hilarious.

My favorite Prank 2.0 is The Santorum Google Bomb. Started by columnist Dan Savage as a response to (then) U.S. Senator Rick Santorum's controversial statements regarding homosexuality, Savage mobilized an army of people online to link the word "Santorum" on their websites or blogs to a site he created called SpreadingSantorum.com. Savage's site existed solely to define the word Santorum as, "The frothy mix of lube and fecal matter that is sometimes the byproduct of anal sex." So many people linked the word "Santorum" and "Rick Santorum" to Savage's site, that according to the Google algorithm, the words "Santorum" and "Rick Santorum" were best represented by Savage's site and definition. As a result, it became the top search result, showing up before Santorum's Wikipedia page and campaign website. Remember when I said that Prank 2.0 can be sticky? The Santorum Google Bomb began in 2003 and it's still going strong today. Go ahead, try it out. Google "Santorum" or "Rick Santorum" and check out the results. Just be sure to click on the top result to let Google know that they showed you the right page.

Prank 2.0 adheres to the fundamental structure of prankdom; there is a prankster and there is a victim. There may be a group of victims and a group of pranksters, but they are all involved in the same prank. Prank 2.0 can be hilarious and brutal, but it's not inherently social. The prank and the victim are determined by an individual or a group and then people can either join the prank or not. By clicking the link or sharing the Santorum Google Bomb with a friend, you are helping to broaden the prank's scope, but you are not really changing or adding your own spin to it in any way. A truly social prank would enable any prankster or group of pranksters to prank any victim or group of victims in any way they want, build on the pranks of others, and make it all immediately public. A truly social prank could even prank an entire system and its users, like Twitter, Wikipedia, or Facebook. A truly social prank is what I consider Prank 3.0.

I just wrapped up a project called TweetForger.com which I came up with then built with my friends Romanos Fessas and Mat Bisher. It was a quick hit April Fool's Day prank, and as far as I know, the first ever truly social prank, or Prank 3.0. For a variety of reasons, (I'll let you guess), we only kept TweetForger online for four days. But in the time it was up, TweetForger.com got over 200,000 hits from people in 125 different countries. Apparently, pranks are a cross-cultural phenomena.

TweetForger was a simple web platform that let users create a page that looked like an actual tweet from any user on Twitter. Nothing they did on TweetForger ever actually appeared in anyone's Twitter stream, even their own. So we weren't hacking. Instead, the site just created a look-alike tweet on our server with a unique URL that pranksters could then share with their friends. Here's an example of a tweet I forged by Kim Kardashian:

Then I, @jusfonzin, shared the forged tweet with my Twitter followers.

The tweets that spread the most virally were forged celebrity tweets that were directed to the public, for example, this forgery of a tweet by the popular Brazilian Boy Band, Restart:

Translation: "We quit. We just realized that we sound like shit. Sorry, Brazil! We promise to never perform again."

Brands were certainly not immune from pranksters. This forgery of a tweet by VTR Chile, Chile's largest cable TV and internet provider, spread so virally that "TweetForger" was a trending topic in Chile, and VTR Chile had to issue a denial:

Translation: Stop blowing up our Twitter feed with your complaints!! We're not going to rush just because you're demanding it.

Some of the cruelest pranks were forged celebrity tweets in which a band, a director, or some other person in a position to make a victim's dreams come true, reached out directly to the victim and claimed to have heard his demo, read his script, or saw his reel, and was now very interested in meeting or working together. Convincing an aspiring songwriter friend that Paul McCartney somehow heard her single and wants to meet in person? Priceless.

TweetForger.com was social because it provided a platform that empowered individuals or groups to prank any victim or victims in any way that they wanted. The victim could be an individual, the whole world, or a finite group. By virtue of the fact that our platform made users question the validity of actual, authentic tweets, TweetForger was also a prank on the entire Twitter system. For the few days that TweetForger was up (and perhaps even still now) when you saw a tweet by a friend or a celebrity in your feed, you had to wonder if it was real or just someone messing with you. When one individual can use an open platform to cause millions of people around the world to question the validity of an entire system, that's Prank 3.0.

As for Pranks 4.0 and 5.0, I'm not sure what they will look like. I think we can expect social pranking to crossover into the real world. I'm currently working on a new site that will enable you to prank your officemates with a physical item in the office and simultaneously create an online page to amplify the embarrassment. More on that soon. But even as technology grows exponentially, and we can imagine pranks involving dancing robots, nanotechnology, or mind control, there's still no prank I can imagine that gets the same gut laugh as a whoopee cushion combined with a fake bloody nose.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Alec Brownstein is a freelance creative director and copywriter in New York City. He is constantly trying to affect the zeitgeist with simple, inexpensive ideas, like the Google Job Experiment, his award winning technique for getting a job at Y&R New York. His work is online at www.brownste.in.

Most Popular