Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

On the Internet, every day is April Fool's Day

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LIVR, the social network for drunk people, had all the trimmings of an ascendant tech startup. A slick promotional video featuring two Eisenbergian CEOs. A hip website littered with buzzwords and trademarks. Press releases. Stickers. Posters. T-shirts. An auspicious, grassroots buzz that began in Reddit's technology forums and bubbled into the mainstream press.

Livr's only problem? It was all fake -- an elaborate hoax engineered by Brandon Schmittling and Brandon Bloch, two Brooklyn creatives with a lot of free time and little patience for what they call the "absurdity" of modern Internet culture. After dreaming up an idea for a startup so ridiculous no one would believe it, Bloch and Schmittling set out to entice people to buy in. They bought a domain name, designed a website, enlisted actors to play Livr's earnest co-founders; they "leaked" a fake news release on Reddit, promising an improbable "online party at all times," a social network limited only by the user's blood-alcohol concentration.

First Engadget blogged about it. Then Next Web. Soon Mashable and CNN. Within hours, one of Silicon Valley's top investment firms contacted the Brandons, asking if they needed venture capital.

"Livr was one of those ideas you have when you're sitting around the bar with your friends, and someone says, 'Wouldn't it be crazy if... ?' " laughed Bloch. "But these days there's no such thing as too crazy. The cultural landscape is just getting more and more absurd."

In the purer, wide-eyed days of yore, April 1 marked a once-in-a-year opportunity to print phenomenal whoppers in newspapers, tell your children penguins can fly and otherwise violate the everyday norms of human behaviour. But pranksters hardly need an annual indulgence for their hijinks anymore: On the Internet, after all, every day is April Fool's Day.

In the past week alone, online hoaxers convinced wide swaths of the online world a deranged man dressed as a clown wandered unchecked around Staten Island; Dutch Prime Minister Mark Rutte casually biked to his meeting with Obama; that R&B singer Trey Songz was gay; and that searchers finally found Malaysian Airlines Flight 370... about 15 times over.

There's no denying the reality-bending, eyebrow-arching absurdity of these times, where "reality TV" denotes one of television's more fictionalized outputs and the news swims in headlines too crazy to be true. It's kind of like the classic icebreaker game two truths and a lie: A bank mistakenly deposited $31,000 in a teen's account, and he spent most of it in days. North Koreans must cut their hair like Kim Jong Il. A major chain restaurant will offer milkshakes made with wine. Can you tell which story is fake?

"I don't see the distinction much anymore, between fantasy and reality," explained Bloch, who spends his days making "corporate documentaries" -- a field that surely straddles the two. "In my mind, the line is blurred."

Exactly who is doing the blurring, though, is up for debate. Although it's easy, and perhaps comfortable, to blame the deceivers, the reality is far more complicated. The web incentivizes page views, no matter how they're racked up. And so hoaxes are hatched not only by lone pranksters but also by web-savvy marketers and public relations firms eager for attention. They're often propagated by journalists hungry for clicks and starved for time. Then they're swallowed whole by an audience drowning in so much information -- such a cacophony of demands on their eyeballs and attention -- only the truly crazy stuff stands out.

It's easy to condemn the wide-eyed naØveté of the Twitter dolts sharing the latest hoax: Haven't they learned yet? Couldn't they just Google it?

But condemnation is futile. The web, after all, is an organism spun to divert and distract attention. Might as well condemn the entire multibillion-dollar industry of display ads, or the fresh-faced 21-year-olds graduating from journalism school and disappearing into an industry where their worth is judged by the clicks they generate.

Better yet, blame the very foundations of human nature, which wants to trust. To believe. To experience real awe -- even for a fiction. As Plato wrote 2,300 years ago, before even the Bible told a story about turning water into wine, "everything that deceives may be said to enchant."

"People are interested in trading this reality for another one," Brandon Schmittling, Livr's co-founder, said simply. "They want life to be entertainment."

It's no wonder one day in April is no longer enough.

-- Washington Post-Bloomberg

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 31, 2014 A2

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