Google has become notorious for releasing a slew of goofy, elaborate jokes every year for April Fools’ Day.
This time around, it actually had to pull the plug on one of its pranks after it allegedly caused some people to lose their jobs.
Its inaugural joke way back in 2000 also caused a fair amount of both internal and external controversy.
In his excellent book “I’m Feeling Lucky,” Douglas Edwards, Google employee #59, describes how the April Fools’ Day tradition got started and how its first joke made a lot of people pretty angry.
Edwards started as Google’s first “brand manager” back in 1999, meaning that he was essentially responsible for all the non-search related text that appeared on Google.com. When spring of the next year rolled around, he approached cofounder Sergey Brin, known for having a rather wild sense of humour, about the possibility of doing something fun for April 1. Brin loved the idea and the brainstorming began, with the criteria that Google’s prank should be something that was positive and improbable, but that didn’t seem completely impossible.
What if Google was so good, Edwards posited, that it could deliver search results without you even having to type anything? What if it could read your mind?
The higher-ups signed off on “MentalPlex” and Edwards, a few joke-cracking engineers, and Google’s webmaster worked at “warp speed” right until the deadline to launch an interface on the homepage, a funny FAQ page, and a few goofy error messages that would show up on the search results page.
One of those messages would end up causing trouble though:
It said that Google’s MentalPlex had “detected foreign thoughts” and translated the interface text on the results page into German.
After MentalPlex went live, Edwards obsessively refreshed his inbox to see how Google users would respond to this first-ever prank. Although many people emailed about how funny they found it, more and more people complained about how the foreign language portion made it too hard to continue to navigate Google like normal.
Also, it was “painfully clear that for many in Google’s global audience, jokes about Germany and mind control were just not funny.”
Google ended up pulling the foreign translation aspect, but only after several hours and many more complaints (including one aghast women who said she was losing money as a professional researcher because she couldn’t figure out the foreign language page). It was a Friday night and the engineers authorised to make the change were out drinking but, finally, that particular page got removed.
Edwards’ take-away was that Google’s pranks should never inhibit people’s ability to use its products, but others inside the company — including Brin — thought that the users were just being stupid and that Google shouldn’t have been “spooked” by a little negative feedback.
Google’s business executive, Omid Kordestani, on the other hand was furious about the “really amateurish” joke that no one had warned him about, and that he felt would alienate advertisers.
But, despite all the controversy from every side, the tradition was born, and would just pick up steam from that first year forward.
“April Fools’ Day would become a perennial black hole in my calendar,” Edwards writes. “A gravity well into which my attention would be sucked from increasingly great distances in time.”