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The Phorum, Part 4: April Fools’ Day

As moderator, administrator, and chief maintainer of the message board known as the Phorum, I always played some sort of prank on April Fools’ Day. At first it was usually pretty low-key. But with the switch to the new SMF software, I had complete control over the entire system. The pranks began escalating.

The primary problem I encountered was my own laziness. Usually I would start work on my prank sometime the evening of March 31st, limiting my pranking ability to whatever I could come up with on short notice which could be implemented over the course of an evening.

As my abilities grew, so did my ability to execute pranks at the last minute….

The new paint job

One of my earliest pranks was changing the color scheme. All I did was create a new theme, which replaced the orange-on-grey theme we used with a garish pastel-blue-on-bright-pink one. Then I used my admin powers to force everyone’s account to use the new theme.

The theme was awful. It was barely possible to even use the website. Once people realized what had happened, of course, they could go into their user settings and change their theme back. I wasn’t a sadist. At the end of the day, I changed everyone’s theme back to the default.

(Oddly, a couple of people said they liked the new theme. I kept it around as an option. I don’t think anyone actually used it though.)

The translator

The next year, I wrote a script that randomly (about 25% of the time) ran posts through Google Translate twice, translating first to Spanish then back to English. It was actually deliciously subtle, and it took a while for people to even realize what was going on. I think I even cranked up the likelihood to 33% at one point to make it more obvious. This one got a bit of a laugh from the members.

Mistaken identity

I noticed that I often didn’t even look at the name of the person who made the post, instead just using their avatar to figure out who said what. For the next prank, I wrote a script that would randomize the avatars on each page of messages. So a message from George might have Susie’s avatar by it. Many people were surprised how confusing it was, and this prank proved to be generally pretty popular. There was no way to opt-out until the next day, so we just had fun with it.

The poor spellers

The year after that, I decided to reprise my prank from two years ago (see “The translator”), but with a twist: I grabbed a list of a few thousand common misspellings and typos that I found online. Each post was run through a filter where, on 20% chance, each word would either be turned into a typo (if it was part of the list of common misspellings, I would transform the word into its misspelling. Otherwise, I would try to make it a typo with some code I wrote to swap letters in the word).

I liked this better than the translator one because the probability applied on a per-word rather than per-post basis. 20% is frequent enough that every post will almost certainly be affected, but not so frequent that the post became unintelligible.

(I thought about making it so my own posts were not affected, but ultimately I decided to be part of the fun!)

Some folks deliberately inserted typos into their posts to see if the script would correct those typos to actually be right. They were largely unsuccessful, and in any case I laughed because I knew come April 2nd, things would return to normal and their posts would still be riddled with (their own, intentional) typos.

We are all Bob here

For this simple and honestly pretty dumb prank, I made the name of each member display as “Bob.” This is sort of the opposite from “Mistaken identity” above, because the only way to tell who wrote a post is to look at the avatar. Some people decided to have extra fun with it by changing their avatars to someone else’s, a twist I hadn’t considered but greatly enjoyed (even though it was usually my avatar they changed to).

(This prank was obviously a very last minute bodge job. If I’d had more time to plan, I really should have created a fake user called ‘Bob’ and rewrote the page to make it look like that fake user posted each post so it really was completely impossible to tell who wrote what message.)

Signed, Rick Astley

I’m pretty sure I recall my thought process exactly for this prank. “Hmm…I messed with the avatars, I messed with the post contents, I messed with the usernames…what’s left? I guess this year I’ll mess with the signatures!”

I changed the signature for each post to some song lyrics. I chose lines from (of course) Never Gonna Give You Up, Bohemian Rhapsody, Party Rock Anthem, U Can’t Touch This, and then the poems Ickle Me, Pickle Me, Tickle Me Too and Where the Sidewalk Ends by Shel Silverstein.

What was funny, at least to me, is that I only chose one line from one of those songs. So someone’s post might be signed off by “That’s hype, and tight”, “I’m just a poor boy, nobody loves me”, or possibly “And Tickle served coffee and mulligan stew”.

Nobody much cared. By this point, the Phorum membership had really begun to wane, and posting frequency was at all-time lows. I think there were so few posts that day that most of the song lyrics went unseen.

No more pranks

The year after that, I did nothing. I joked that my “prank” was that everybody would be trying to figure out what I’d done, but I hadn’t done anything so they got pranked just by expecting a prank. Meta, but the real story was that I just couldn’t be bothered. The handwriting, it could be said, was on the wall….

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