Once, in a bygone century, in the half-forgotten place called USENET, there were masters of satire and parody who could be an example to us all in these latter days. Among the greatest of their arts was the AFJ – the April Fool’s Joke, yes, but in the hands of these masters the AFJ could become minor epics of elaboration, subtlety, and Zen-like enlightenment.
Today, Grasshopper, we shall speak of the four levels of AFJ mastery, and how the aspiring student may attain them.
A parody consists of the exaggeration and mocking of a source known to both writer and reader; the reader understands it to be false in fact. A satire employs the methods of parody to make a serious point; the reader understands it to be false in fact, but it succeeds in making some point about the real world by exaggeration and mocking of the real world. A hoax is distinct from both in that it attempts to convince the reader that its falsehoods are true.
The AFJ, as a distinct art form, uses the methods of parody and satire to achieve the condition of hoax. It is a subtle art, because the objective of the AFJ author is to achieve suspension of disbelief in the reader, then strain it as near as possible to the breaking point without actually snapping it. This is how the AFJ is distinct from a normal instrumental hoax, for which it is good play not to strain the suspension of disbelief at all.
The AFJ author aims at the strongest possible moment of cognitive rupture – when the reader realizes it was a joke and his perception of the content undergoes a catastrophic lurch. In the hands of a true master the rupture induced by AFJ can become something akin to a Zen moment of enlightenment, changing the reader’s relationship to the subject of the hoax in a lasting way.
There are four levels of possible reader reaction to an AFJ:
Level the Zeroth: AFJ attempted, humor not achieved.
Level the First: Obvious humor, immediate cognitive rupture. The reader instantly catches on that an AFJ is in progress, and laughs. Perhaps he entertains fleetingly the thought that others less perceptive than he might take it seriously.
Level the Second: The reader is briefly taken in, but reaches some assertion or train of phrase that strains his credulity past the breaking point. He re-evaluates what he has read, enjoys the rest as a joke, and entertains rather more seriously the thought that the less perspicacious might be fooled.
Level the Third: The reader swallows it all, hook line and sinker; cognitive rupture does not occur until afterwards, he realizes (or has someone point out to him) that it is April 1st and he has been had.
Level the Fourth: The reader swallows it all, has it pointed out that the work is an AFJ, experiences cognitive rupture, and then repairs the rupture by insisting that the hoax is actually true!
You have achieved the fourth level of mastery of the AFJ when you utter examples in which the distribution of responses includes a large number of Level Threes and a handful of Level Fours. Achieving too many Level Four reactions goes over the line from an AFJ into founding a religion; that is not the AFJ author’s objective, though some examples of hoaxes such as Discordianism and the Rosicrucian Manifestos resemble long-form AFJs and straddle the dividing line with religion in interesting ways.
I said previously that the intent is to produce maximum cognitive rupture, but there’s also in element of differential scoring like Martin Gardner’s Eleusis game – you also win by inducing the widest possible range of reactions and exposing the failure of critical-thinking skills in those who in fact failed to apply them.
Application of this framework to my previous post and the reader reactions to it is left as an exercise for my commenters.
For readers not native to the hacker culture, I will point out a few things obvious to hackers. I did not invent the AFJ form; it has been a central, almost defining feature of hacker culture since the beginning (which is why I said of my previous post that it is in what I like to think of as the classic style). Less elaborate relatives of it exist elsewhere. And I didn’t pull the rules of the form out of my butt, though I think I am the first to write them down.
You have 364 days until next April 1st. Go, Grasshopper, and hone your skills. When you can snatch the cognitive rupture from my hand, it will be time for you to leave.