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The Lost Art of the Internet Prank

A conversation with Hipster Runoff's Carles.Buzz about satire, anonymity, and how trolling is replacing the prank.

by Brian Merchant
Apr 1 2016, 3:00pm

In honor of April Fools', which will no doubt rain down a torrent of inane corporatized "pranks" and toothless media hoaxes upon us all, let's look at one of the few people to do online pranking right.

The otherwise-anonymous Carles ran the popular Hipster Runoff for years during the height of the blog era, blending a deep knowledge of the increasingly commoditized "alt scene" with performance art satire to create a weird, funny, and scathing skewering of what would now be referred to as "millennial culture."

As Jimmy Kimmel and company snuff the last remaining life out of online pranks and cruel trolling replaces decent jokes, it's maybe time to take stock of what the medium even means anymore. So here's a chat with Carles, who's now something of an expert in the dark arts of content, about good internet pranks, the efficacy of his tenure pulling them off, and the future of the idea.

Me: First, what was Hipster Runoff?

Carles: Hipster Runoff was a blog worth blogging about. Back when blogging about something meant 'getting validation' via the smaller internet echo chamber. It covered indie music, trends, and other monetizable youth culture trends.

And you blogged anonymously.

Yes, I blogged anonymously.

Why?

It was my goal to let the narratives of the blog remain untouched by the perceptions of a personality or personal brand. I think it might be called 'cyberbullying' now, though.

Ha, there were probably people who thought it was cyberbullying at the time, too. Or at least just the guy from Bon Iver.

Yeah, anonymity made me accountable to no one except my own sliding scale of rationalized 'morals.' It may have been 'unfair.'

It also made the whole thing seem enigmatic, and maybe funnier and more absurd—there were people who thought the whole thing was kind of an extended joke or a prank. Do you think that's a fair characterization?

Yes, I think most chill people eventually view their career/line of labor as an extended joke or prank. I guess it was a media prank maybe.

Or satire. You were making fun of/celebrating this scene and these bands that people were maybe in the process of growing out of. And maybe the anonymity maybe even made it seem less harsh in that way.

I think 'prank' implies that there is some sort of termination point, but it just keep going. Maybe 'satire' has a nice stretch of content. 'Trolling' feels like an instant, any endless barrage.

Yeah, that's a good point. Are there even pranks anymore? Has it been replaced with trolling? was HRO pre-trolling? or an early trolling progenitor?

It feels like there are no more pranks on the internet, except for like million subscriber youtube channels. It's more of a genre of content, but not a 'verb'/noun.

I think 'honest criticism' can only be interpreted by internet audiences as 'trolling' or social-share-pandering.

Because of course pranks have been commoditized; they were, as amateur internet content goes, a fairly easy target. Short, easily filmable, comedic.

Easy to implement a #goPro.

Ha exactly—it's like the creator of every joke in that vein we come across now has pre-selected 'prank' as the mode of content. And the more organic stuff all feels like trolling now -- because if you put an ounce of thought into something funny (or trying to be funny) it risks appearing as if you're pandering for clicks over a more 'natural' joking vibe. But the not-thought-out-that-well stuff also has a tendency to suck, or to be mean, or to just be honest criticism, so it seems harsh. Thus, trolling.

Yeah, like 'pranks' on the internet, especially on April Fool's Day have to be family-friendly and schlub-sharable. It's not even about an actual joke that challenges reality, or even something that temporarily #shames someone or a group. It is more of a ceremonial prankspace now.

Yeah, it's a category that we can be prompted to clue into via the tone of a headline or a hashtag. So if you were basically a prankster of the 1.0 mold with HRO, what made it so successful?

A good prank challenges people who have faith in humanity, societal constructs, and the goodness in your common man.Afterwards, there are a few people who 'get' the prank and can rationalize it as an artistic language, making them feel less alone.

A prank acknowledges that the generally accepted version of reality is worth challenging. Sometimes there are angst bubbles upon which to capitalize.

That is a fairly somber exegesis of the idea of a prank. But I also think it is generally correct. What angst bubbles are you seeing now?

@Socalitybarbie on Instagram capitalized off the artisan/Pacific Northwest angst. Dank meme facebook groups started as a 'prank' against the mainstreaming of memes. Some of my friends have some great 'millennials hitting career ceilings' angst, too.

Is there a prank going now in the vein of HRO, that you respect?

If ello was a prank, I think it was probably a good one. I think the future might be in 'pranking yourself' until you create some sort of alternate reality.

What is your favorite "prank" right now?

Anything that is a relatively good idea just gets ruined anyways, so I think if you launch something that is a good idea, approach is as a long-term prank. Like Buzzfeed is very funny if it is 'a prank to ruin the internet.' Then if you are at the controls of your internet prank, you can feel like you are in more control of the direction of your project.

I guess in some ways Buzzfeed is indeed a prank on us all.

I don't mean to single out BF. Things like Amazon Prime, Uber, home loans, feeding the entire world [via Monsanto], and Favor are 'great ideas'. But they are 'funny' pranks because they are also kinda ruining everything anyways.

Do you want to end with one final profound thought about internet pranking in honor of April Fools' day?

'The greatest prank the internet ever played was convincing every one it was more than just a wire in the ground.'

For April Fools' Day, we're doing stories and interviews about trickery. Check 'em out here.