Foolish Research

google-maps-copy-4_3_r536_c534Today is April Fools Day although it is hard to miss it on the Internet. As this is a blog devoted to the more dispassionate investigation of the digital economy, I thought it would be appropriate to write a little today about several pieces of research that have been conducted by economists in recent years that investigate the impact of digitization on April Fools Day, or more generally, human incentives to engage in pranks and to screen out gullibility. Research on April Fools Day has been conducted before (see for instance this paper by myself and a now respectful Australian government Minister published in the Economic Record last year). But it is the relationship to digital technologies; especially the Internet that is of interest here.

First up is an interesting paper by Shane Greenstein and one of his current PhD students. In “Blind to Their Own Eyes: An Investigation of Pranks and Geography Using Wikipedia Data,” Greenstein investigates whether the Internet has changed the global research of pranks on April Fools Day. To do so, he looks at Wikipedia entries that document pranks that have arisen and correlates their location with the location of readers of those entries. The clever thing about the study is that Greenstein use the fact that the appropriate social norm temporal window for April Fools (namely, 12 midnight to 12 noon on April 1 each year) as an instrument. The idea is that April fools day officially starts in Australia many hours before it starts in the US. Indeed, the temporal window in Australia is closed by the time it reaches the East Coast of the US. That means that reputational effects are obscured by this allowing Greenstein to identify whether readers of Wikipedia entries on April fools pranks are likely to be taken in by those or already have passed the temporal window leaving the “joke on the pranksters.” This parses causation as opposed to correlation demonstrating that April Fool’s pranks despite the increased use of the Internet (and broadband) are still overwhelmingly local with the share of gullible readers that have the same point of origin as the prank being between 78 and 84 percent.

Next up is an interesting paper by Joel Waldfogel and one of his former PhD students. There has long been a concern about the piracy of April Fools’ pranks. Someone in the UK may come up with a devastating prank about spagetti growing on trees only for that to be done the very next year in New Zealand without attribution, credit or recognition of intellectual property rights. In “Tracking your Tears: An Empirical Analysis of the Diffusion of April Fool’s Pranks, 2000 – 2008,” Waldfogel carefully documents every video-based April Fools prank. Waldfogel use the introduction of YouTube in 2005 as a key event to see whether the Internet has promoted piracy of April Fools’ pranks or not. In contrast to music and movies, Waldfogel shows conclusively that piracy of April Fool’s pranks has been completely eliminated by the advent of YouTube; dropping from a hazard rate of 0.02% (adjusted for initial audience size) to 0.000000001% in 2008. Moreover, and somewhat surprisingly, this reduction in piracy has been associated with a 456% increased in video-based pranks but Waldfogel is careful to point out that this may be correlation and not causation and “should not be read to conclude that the elimination of piracy in any way fostered increased creativity in spoofs, jokes, or feints.” I should also add that lots of things have changed since 2008 so one has to question whether this study is of any relevance or holds any truth today.

Finally, two years ago Erik Brynjolfsson published a paper with four of his PhD students and a junior colleague in computer science on “The Long Tail in April Fools’ Memes: Evidence from a Very Large Dataset.” In the paper, Brynjolfsson, demonstrate that, while it appears that in the last decade there is been an increasing number of “big hit” April Fools’ pranks, once he factors in those pranks spurred by Google and its naturally long economic reach, the distribution of April Fools’ pranks has become marginally flatter. In particular, the long tail of April Fools’ pranks — that is, the share that only hit a very small number of people (< 50) — has increased. The paper speculates that this is due to pranks appearing on social media spurring friends to prank each other more often but does not have specific evidence to support that theory. Nonetheless, he estimates the total gain in consumer welfare resulting from these changes to be of the order of $1.453 billion per annum in the US and Canada (excluding Quebec).

I think all of this established the value of empirical analyses of these phenomenon. But, as a theorist myself, I cannot ignore the great post by Jeffrey Ely (click here) that argued against the sustainability of April Fools Day as an equilibrium. He argues that because everyone expects jokes on a day like today, they can never actually fool anyone. In that case, they serve another purpose. That makes some sense. For instance, Google today poked fun at Microsoft (with Gmail Blue) and themselves (with the shuttering of YouTube although that is a tad too soon for we Google Reader lovers). ThinkGeek again used April Fools day as an opportunity to test new product ideas — some of which actually will be produced. In other words, actually fooling people isn’t the goal of these endeavours.

Ely suggests that this will lead to pranks on March 31 (although an implication of Greenstein’s work is that that is unlikely to be successful either). Instead it seems to me that the only way to prank people would be to generate something that used the common knowledge of April Fools Day itself to subvert unsuspecting readers into thinking something is credible when it actually isn’t. I look forward to seeing more of those types of pranks in the future.

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