The Four Levels of AFJ Mastery

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.


  1. Level 3.5 here, I was gonna email to a friend who is pondering developing WP7 apps but fortunately read the comments first… :p

    1. >Care to speculate on Scientology as it relates to this discussion?

      Instrumental hoax. Though, from what I know of its inner doctrines and Hubbard’s personality, there may have been elements of AFJ until Hubbard realized he could run with it.

  2. Indeed, you had me all the way into the comments. What tipped me off were not the ones that pointed out the date, but shortly before that when Scott Lawrence attempted to extend the joke. I read his comment and thought, “This couldn’t possibly be serious”—and then enlightenment dawned.

    Lawrence’s comment was too strong—a level 2 a best. Without that giveaway, you might have taken me all the way to Level 4.

    1. >Lawrence’s comment was too strong—a level 2 a best. Without that giveaway, you might have taken me all the way to Level 4.

      Scott Lawrence’s comment was brilliant. He very nearly trolled me.

    1. >FWIW, I was at level 2, but mainly because I knew there was no way you’d cite IDC as authoritative.

      Yes, I knew that sentence would pop the bubble for a fair number of people. But it was too funny to leave out.

  3. Scott Lawrence’s comment was brilliant. He very nearly trolled me.

    Really?! I guess that goes to show how idiosyncratic reactions to such things can be. One person’s transparent hoax is another’s brilliant troll.

  4. Obviously, I did not get eric’s joke until it was pointed out to me.

    I think there is a point to make that you should take your audience into the loop for determining levels. A level for readers. If you know nothing about a subject, fooling you is too simple. The challenge is fooling those who know as much, or more, about the subject than you do.

    I consider two examples:

    BBC Panorama “The Swiss spaghetti crop”

    RFC 1149 “A Standard for the Transmission of IP Datagrams on Avian Carriers”

    The first might now be seen as targeted at rather ignorant people. But at the time, not that many people went abroad and consumed “foreign” food. So they may be absolved for not knowing how spaghetti came into being.

    The second one was at one hand obvious for anyone who knew about networking. But only they would get the joke. But to me the real joke was that the protocol actually worked. As was proven in Bergen. So if you knew more about networking, you might start to get confused as it was actually a valid protocol.

  5. The problem I ran into is that the RSS feed (at least as displayed by Google reader) gave that post a date of March 31st. So while I wasn’t sure what to make of it and was inclined to be skeptical, the thought that “well, if it was an April Fool’s Joke he’d make sure to post it on April 1st” definitely muddied the issue for me.

  6. It’s much more difficult to achieve a level 3 in the modern day, when most people have already been put on alert for hoaxes by much more obvious jokes on other websites they read. I suspected esr’s post was a joke as soon as I saw the title, simply because it was so out of character for him. The line “the third is a revealing report from an informant on the hardware side who I’ll call Deep Chip” removed all doubt.

    Charlie Stross came up with a good one last year that had me for four paragraphs, and was so well disguised that it got me again when I saw it come up in an archive search.

    Perhaps a minor factor is creating an AFJ that someone WANTS to be true.

    1. >Charlie Stross came up with a good one last year

      Charlie and I are on each others’ I-knew-him-before-he-was-famous lists. That he could write an AFJ that good doesn’t surprise me for a femtosecond.

  7. Level 1 here; I knew it was humor as soon as I saw the title. If I hadn’t known it to be April Fools Day and I hadn’t had my coffee yet you might have gotten me to Level 2; I’d have snapped half-way into the sentence, “Microsoft has successfully prevented the carriers from issuing its March WP7 upgrade before it was fully baked.”

  8. FWIW, I think you have broken one of the cardinal rules of the AFJ. Specifically, the perpetrator of the joke is not allowed to comment on it at all. And a whole follow up post of navel gazing and taxonomy seems rather gauche. Leaving your intent unconfirmed is the delicious treat that is an AFJ.

    Of course to do so leaves you open to the irony that people will in the future claim you think Microsoft rocks and is going to beat Android. But, heck that is going to happen anyway.

    1. >Of course [leave it unconfirmed] leaves you open to the irony that people will in the future claim you think Microsoft rocks and is going to beat Android. But, heck that is going to happen anyway.

      Perhaps, but at least now I only have to point at the record to make such accusers into laughingstocks. Good on you for figuring out that the following post wasn’t merely showing off.

  9. This was one that Eric brainstormed with me. Much of Eric’s account of having used a Windows Phone 7 handset is a reasonable recollection of my phone call of having used all three families of device side-by-side-by-side back before Christmas.

  10. Heh – about 3 here – I didn’t catch the IDC until I went back (puzzled) and reread it.

  11. P.S. I miss the old USENET. Even the trolls in the early days were fun. (FIDONET trolls too but that’s waaaaay back, for me at least.)

  12. I miss usenet too. To paraphrase greenspun’s tenth law:

    Any sufficiently complicated blog commenting system contains an ad-hoc, informally-specified, bug-ridden, slow implementation of half of USENET.

    In particular, I miss kill files. adblock plus helps but…

  13. Level 3 here, you really had me going. I guess this is what I get for reading it the day *after* April 1, when I’d let my guard down.

  14. The title pretty much gave it away for me, and the IDC thing confirmed it. Level 1.

    In all fairness, I’d already hit /. and a couple of other sites to read the 4/1 fun before I checked here, so I was on my guard and expecting something like that.

  15. I must say that when I read Fawn Brodie’s biography of Joseph Smith, it made the religion he founded sound an awful lot like an extended hoax that got out of control. . . .

  16. Oh, I meant to say full disclosure, I was a raving level 3. Congratulations, it was extremely convincing.

  17. > Lawrence’s comment was too strong—a level 2 a best. Without that giveaway, you might have taken me all the way to Level 4.
    Actually, his comment had me so outraged I was musing the possibility of writing a whole book back at him just to explain why he was wrong on the Internet, which I think makes it a successful troll of the highest order. (Maybe it would have been more obvious to someone who actually knew him.)

  18. I know this might be a strange reaction and not shared by your other readers, but the moment you wrote supporting Microsoft I suspected that the article wasn’t totally serious and then I looked at the date. I must admit I didn’t bother either way because we don’t have a strong April Fools culture really though we are aware of it and we do practice it. But nowhere near as seriously as the West.

    Besides not being fully involved in the topic or really interested in the discussion might actually have some kind of effect in analyzing an AFJ. What do you think?

  19. 0.5

    Sorry man…I can tell you crafted it well, and I didn’t even realize the date, but it just fell flat for me.

  20. When I read it, I went,

    “Huh, when I’ve seen ESR make mistakes in the past, they weren’t this obviously stupid. ‘Make the icons bigger’ is something that trivially could be adopted by rivals, the IDC report was worthless, and how the hell can an open source product create a hardware monospony? Eric must really trust ‘Deep Chip’ to the point where it impaired his critical thinking. He’ll be so embarrassed when the commenters point out the date and he realizes that ‘Chip’ was pulling his leg. Okay, close the tab.”

    I think that works out to a 0.

  21. This year’s IETF AFJ RFC’s were distinctly lame. Really disappointed. Kinda shows how far systems engineers have taken over the organization (and how derivative systems engineering is…)

    BTW: Rosicrucian Manifestos are completely lame, although they require some interpretation in the context of Freemasonry. As it is pointed out to all newly raised Master Mason, the Rosicrucians are a concordant body of Freemasonry that is “esoteric”. But without the context, they can read as being ridiculous.

  22. > FWIW, I think you have broken one of the cardinal rules of the AFJ. Specifically, the perpetrator of the joke is not allowed to comment on it at all.

    Or, in other words: Don’t Explain The Joke.

    Incidentally, I was at about Level 1.5 all day, just because I knew it was April Fool’s Day (the only universal Internet holiday) and knew people would be trotting out their best hoaxes on this day.

  23. Level 1.5 here, because I was already pranked by our CFO in the morning, asking me if I could catch the 11AM plane to Beirut, and therefore I’ve read / heard everything on that day with great suspicion :) I think linking CNET gave it away, as it is widely regarded as only about one level more reliable as the Daily Fail.

  24. Level 1, definitely. I enjoyed the cleverness, but it was just too obvious that it was a practical joke. For whatever reason AFJ’s (or any similar kind of practical joke) don’t work on me- they can make me laugh but they never pull me in.

    Scott’s comment was a Level 0, BTW. Sorry.

  25. I have to say, I’m pretty much with Don here. I was already expecting an AFJ, but I think it should have been obvious just from the fact that esr was praising microsoft. Still, there was no difference in the tone or style of the AFJ and other esr posts, which is a lot more than I can say for most blogs, which often only aim for level 1.

  26. I go back to the old days of USENET when Spafford would put out a warning message on March 31 about the upcoming April Fool’s Joke spoofed messages.

    Remember the “KREMVAX” one?

  27. Oh, and the Level 3 that go me was General Protection Fault’s “ICE confiscated this domain” joke.

  28. @Dave Taht:

    I think the original source was actually Henry Spencer’s observation that “those who do not understand Unix are condemned to reinvent it. Poorly.” which I personally first heard in a variant concerning Usenet, but can’t source at the moment.

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