The Anatomy of a Successful April Fools Joke (Or Don’t Any of You do Fact Checking?)

Photo by Sean MacEntee
Photo by Sean MacEntee

With April Fools Day on Sunday, I started thinking about how to successfully prank everyone. There’s only been one successful prank I’ve participated in during my lifetime and it eventually ended up on Mashable – because, you know, Mashable is such a beacon of great fact-checking journalism. Zing! ;)

Realizing that I had two awesome calendar quirks upon me – that AFD was this coming Sunday, a weekend, and that the end of the government Q2 was today… I had plausible cover for a real awesome prank.

So I texted my good friend Amanda at the U.S. Department of Agriculture and floated an idea past her. I needed an alibi and some cover in the event I started to get questioned. My idea is that I was moving back to DC to take a senior level role at a federal agency. Given that she has such a role at USDA, the ruse went from there.

A made up position (but one that sounded totally reasonable to the naked eye) – Deputy Director of Online Operations – was concieved. Since it was the end of Q2, I had to make the decision by close of business today. My cover would include “budget cuts” and “workforce consolidation” as reasons for a new position.

The next step in purpotrating this lie was to ensure all the closest people in my life bought the lie. I could clue them in to a lie, but too many cooks in the kitchen could spoil the whole thing so I wanted the closest people buying it.

So I told my roommate and spun a story she believed. Then I told my friend Mike Neumann who bought in hook, line and sinker. I did let my girlfriend in on the secret since she would be likely to panic.

I reinforced the story again this morning with my roommate, referencing a conference call and a “letter of intent” from USDA. I don’t think the USDA even issues Letters of Intent and it’s the Office of Personel Management who actually does hiring on behalf of agencies and suggesting I had to make this decision today and that “it was a hard one” and “I really don’t want to leave Austin”. I knew when she started consoling my dog that she was thoroughly convinced. Good job, Aaron. Phase 1 complete.

Having suitably hooked my friends, it was time to start rumor dripping. IT started with an innocuos status update on Facebook (since, you know, that’s for family and friends and not the world): “Well, Austin… it’s been a fun 2 years. I’ll see you at SXSW, I guess”. In comments, I (intentionally) float DC as my destination but played coy on details citing “a gag order”. Enough information to be compelling, but also enough to maintain the cover of my story. Everyone buys in. Phase 2, done!

Awhile later I make my “official announcement“. This part of the prank is meant to provide even more plausible information, laced with real life fact. Every good lie has an element of truth. I describe the role in words that are believable… that it’s mostly technical, that it involves WordPress, that in Austin I’ve taken up more healthy eating habits – something that plays directly into the mission of USDA.

Since this was my “announcement”, I shared it back on Facebook as its own status update, as well as updated the original “float post” so that those who already saw my update would see the new update. I also tweeted it out to my 9500+ Twitter followers.

Everyone bites. No one questions anything. No one even thinks about AFD. Phase 3 complete.

The key to this joke was timing. To be plausible, I had to do it today. The government doesn’t work on the weekend and if I waited until Monday… my opportunity would be squandered because everyone would have their AFD defenses up. But 2 days before… no one saw it coming.

Additionally, it’s a prank. I don’t want this being on the internet forever and a day. I ensured the proper meta tags were added to my post so Google won’t index it and no one will be confused later down the road. Ha! But then, no one looks at source code. ;)

I’m sorry I’m not coming back to DC. Actually, I’m not. But y’all shouldn’t believe everything you read on the internet. :)

There is a Season, Turn, Turn, Turn: Back to DC.

Back when I moved to Austin in 2010, I was thrilled to be leaving the rat race that was DC. I was looking forward to a place when people did not watch presidential speeches to joint sessions of Congress in bars as if they were the Super Bowl and instead sat on patios with their friends eating chips and queso and drinking local craft beers while listening to live music.

I looked forward to a cheaper and easier way of living where summers were hot but not nearly as unpleasant and winters did not bring 50″ of snow in just a few days. It was a new life with new opportunities and new experiences far away from the northeast where I had lived almost all of my life.

I did not expect it would come to an end short of 2 years after I made that bold move. But it’s coming to an end, barring some unforeseen hitch.

I’m moving back to DC in the middle of July. Beginning mid-may, I will become a Fed. You heard that right… a Fed. I’m pleased to have accepted a position within Department of Agriculture to become Deputy Director of Online Operations – a far more senior position than I could have imagined since my only Federal job experience was on the corporate contracting side with Lockheed Martin, Northrop Grumman and CSC. However, I am uniquely qualified for this role.

The role is a new one that lies somewhere between an operations style role surrounding technical execution and communications where I’ll have my hand in some of the online community aspect. Mostly, it’s a technical role though. And WordPress is heavily at play here.

In a way, this is a dream job. To be able to use my WordPress experience to help direct a portion of public policy related to critical infrastructure around some of America’s greatest domestic assets, enabling analysts to develop partnerships with state and local school food programs, among other things… it’s incredibly sobering.

So while I don’t start in DC until July 16, I’ll be beginning my role on May 14 at the USDA office here in Austin.

Regrettably, I have to move, but I do so with a tremendous amount of perspective and new experiences from Austin to live with. One thing I take away from Austin is the importance of locally grown vegetables and grass-fed beef… this perspective will help make this role even more effective.

Thank you to all my friends here in Austin. I’ll be back. I love this place too much not to come back.

Twitter as a Protocol

Image from Shawn Campbell. Used under Creative Commons

Yesterday, I had lunch with a guy who was picking my brain about various topics. One of the conversations we ended up having was about the longevity of Twitter as a company. It hearkens back to conversations I had years ago when Twitter was barely making it as a service. It was down seemingly half the time, a problem they have long since solved.

In those days of 2007 and 2008, Twitter was just beginning it’s conquest of communication mediums. It was nowhere near as big, influential or necessary as it is today. It was getting there but it wasn’t there yet. And it was failing. And people were jumping ship to more reliable services.

In those days, I posed the concept that Twitter should not be a company alone. It should be an open protocol much like HTTP or email protocols (IMAP/POP). There should be an adopted industry standard that Twitter, the company, should and could (and still can) champion and work through with the guidance of other industry members.

The point is this: When Twitter, the company, goes away as it likely will at some point (hopefully years from now), then what will we as a society – and the human race – do?

Already, Twitter has had direct intervention from the State Department because governments are seeing it as a vital communication medium. Is anything classified as vital safe in the hands of a single private entity? Not that Twitter, Inc. isn’t doing a fine job of it, but there is a concept of continuity that is lost here.

To this day, Twitter is still trying to figure out how to make money. They are still trying to find their sustainable model. And that doesn’t even address the issue of infinite scaleability. What happens if every human being on the planet had a Twitter account (it’s a hypothetical as that will never happen)? What happens when the societal demand on Twitter, Inc. is so vast that no single entity can sustain it? It’s coming. Hopefully not for awhile, but it is coming.

If the State Department considers Twitter as an essential and vital service, necessary to Homeland Security and International Relations, doesn’t it go to wonder why the State Department, among others, isn’t pushing for a Twitter Open Standard.

This is what I’m thinking. Twitter (the protocol) would allow anyone to build their own versions of Twitter that communicate interchangeably over a common set of protocols. This idea was attempted with but without the support and integration of Twitter, it stands no chance on its own.

Of course, Twitter is going the exact opposite direction of opening and heading in the direction of siloed “walled gardens”. Even Facebook, the ultimate modern-day walled-garden is opening up their service in other ways – but even they are not doing what I’m suggesting.

There should be a non-profit, independent “Twitter Foundation” that champions this cause, brings trade organizations – including Twitter, Inc. – together to begin work on a public standard protocol. Companies like Twitter, Inc.  should champion and use this public protocol and build services around it. All of Twitter does not have to be public standard but common elements like “friends”, “followers”, “messages”, “direct messages” and “replies” should all be part of this standard.

Work on this needs to begin now. RFCs take a long long time before they are considered final. The first draft of the HTML5 spec was released in 2008 and it’s still not stable. The 802.11n wireless ethernet (Wifi) standard took 7 years from the time work began to the time it was published in 2009.

Honestly… at current growth and usage rates, can we wait maybe 10 years to begin moving toward decentralization and standards ratification? This needs to happen now.