Article development led by
Being funny is serious work.
BY THOMAS A. LIMONCELLI
AT 10: 23 UTC on April 1, 2015, stackoverflow.com enabled
an April Fools’ prank called StackEgg. 1 It was a simple
Tamagotchi-like game that appeared in the upper-right
corner of the company’s website. Though it had been
tested, we did not account for the additional network
activity it would generate. By 13: 14 UTC the activity had
grown to the point of overloading the company’s load
balancers, making the site unusable. All of the company’s
Web properties were affected. The prank had, essentially,
created a self-inflicted denial-of-service attack.
The engineers involved in the prank didn’t panic.
They went to a control panel and disabled the feature.
Network activity returned to normal, and the site
was operating again by 13: 47 UTC. The problem was
diagnosed, fixed, and new code was pushed into
production by 14: 56 UTC. The prank was saved!
Was Stack Overflow lucky that the
engineers had designed the prank so
that it could be easily disabled? No, it
was not luck. It was all in the playbook
for operational excellence in AFPs
(April Fools’ pranks).
A successful AFP depends on many
operational best practices. In this article, I will share some of the key ones.
What Makes an April
Fools’ Prank Funny?
Before discussing the technical details,
let’s look at what makes an AFP funny.
The best AFPs are topical and absurdist.
Topical means it refers to current
events or trends. This makes it relevant
and “a thinker.” Topical would be displaying your website upside-down after
a large and highly publicized acquisition by a major Australian competitor.
(Australians tell me that kind of joke
never gets old.) Doing that to your website otherwise just announces that your
Web developers finally read that part of
the CSS3 spec.
Secondly, it must be so absurd that
it reveals a hidden truth. Absurdist
humor is not simply silly for silliness’
sake. Absurdism acts as a crucible that
burns away all lies to get to the truth.
Stack Overflow’s 2017 prank, “Dance
Dance Authentication,” was both topical and absurdist. 3 The prank was a
blog post and accompanying demonstration video for Stack Overflow’s
new (fictional) authentication system.
Rather than the usual 2FA (two-factor
authentication) system that requires
an authenticator app or key fob, this
system required users to turn on their
webcams and dance their password.
This was topical because recent growth
in 2FA adoption meant many Internet
users were experiencing 2FA for the
first time. It was absurdist because it
took the added burden and nuisance of
2FA to an extreme. It revealed the truth
that badly implemented security sacrifices convenience.
Inspiration for absurdity should
come from reality. For example, the
Go programming language is an intentionally minimalistic language—
in April Fools’