Backlash to SoundCloud hoax proves that April Fool’s Day pranks need to tread a fine line between absurdity and believability.

The tradition of light-hearted hoaxes on April 1st stretches back nearly two centuries, but for online media outlets and web-focussed businesses the custom has taken on new meaning in the 21st century. Companies’ attempts at April Fools’ Day humour are now a potential source of even greater publicity than ever before, but with that potential comes the scope for a much less easily controlled side-effect: the wrath of the comments section.

Get the April Fools’ Day prank right and you’ll win yourself a bunch of free media coverage. Get it slightly wrong and you risk pissing off legions of customers.

This year, the most embarrassing own goal came courtesy of SoundCloud, whose Dropometer prank backfired massively.

Shortly after the clock struck midnight at SoundCloud’s Berlin HQ, users of the service began to notice a new graphic appearing on their tracks. The Dropometer feature pointed to a random spot on the waveform and simply announced, ‘Here’s the Drop™’.

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The response from SoundCloud’s users probably wasn’t quite what the company expected. Instead of seeing the funny side and spotting that the Dropometer was a hoax, most users were apoplectic with rage at what they assumed was yet another unwanted change to the service. Many SoundCloud users have already expressed their discontent over recent ‘upgrades’ to the website, from the introduction of the New SoundCloud update to the automatic copyright detection service blocking artists’ own original material.

A minority of users spotted the joke, but for most the reaction ranged from ‘WTF?’ to ‘FFS’:

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A similar fate befell Fact Mag, who printed a spoof news story reporting a new Boards Of Canada album, prompting furious backlash from BOC fans. Fact‘s reaction? To post an article gloating about it.

Other hoaxes fared slightly better. XLR8R went into overdrive, publishing stories about Daft Punk cancelling their album, Skrillex’s guide to ‘underground Detroit BANGERZZ’ and BenUFO quitting house music (“It’s all a bunch of shit, innit?”) to play Borgore-style brostep. The articles were deleted later in the day.

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Mixmag reported that Justin Bieber was set to launch a DJ career, turning his back on exploring exciting new positions to wear his trousers, threatening to beat up paparazzi or whatever else it is he does these days.

The backlash to SoundCloud’s prank should be a stark warning to any companies planning their own hoaxes for next year. Why exactly did it go down so badly? Perhaps it’s something to do with SoundCloud’s global user-base. Reading a spoof article in your second language, the humour might easily be lost in translation. Equally, senses of humour are culture-specific; April Fools’ Day is fairly well known internationally, but what makes one culture cry with laughter may not necessarily amuse another. Of course, you could argue that SoundCloud users (and maybe even Boards Of Canada fans?) just need to lighten up and stop taking things so seriously…

But, most importantly, the nature of the prank is critical. SoundCloud’s hoax plays fast and loose with the company’s own reputation as a credible, reliable music platform. The best pranks straddle that thin line between the absurd and the believable. For many SoundCloud users, the idea that the company would introduce a feature like the Dropometer was clearly just too believable. At a time when users are already up in arms at recent changes to the site, that was probably a bad idea.

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2nd April, 2013

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