Is April Fools' Day Dying?
Say goodbye to pranking? Is this a joke?
Credit: Dmitriy Shironosov | Shutterstock.com

No joke: Researchers say we are moving away from personal, real-world pranks and into a world of media-driven jokes and Internet tomfoolery. Does this spell the end of April Fools' Day as we know it?

Though pranksters and joke-lovers in many countries now gleefully prepare to dupe friends and loved ones on April Fool's Day, no one knows exactly when or why, or even where, this tradition began.

A giddy spurt of practical joking seems to have coincided with the coming of spring since the time of the Ancient Romans and Celts, who celebrated a festival of mischief-making. The first mentions of an All Fool's Day (as it was formerly called) came in Europe in the Middle Ages.

The importance of this day of prank-pulling freedom is no laughing matter. It's integral to American culture, a day of funny is important to society, and also helps humans bond. Researchers say our take on comedy is changing, though. And that may mean fewer pranks in the future.

"The usual pranks that we would see 50 years ago are much less common," Gary Alan Fine, a sociologist at Northwestern University in Illinois, told LiveScience. "I think we are seeing the decline of interpersonal pranks." [5 Fake Scientific Breakthroughs]

Pranking or bullying?

"At one time, prankstering played a bigger role in American society. Some of the prankstering was also very harmful," Joseph Boskin, a professor emeritus of history at Boston University, told LiveScience.

This type of harmful prank-playing was usually directed toward marginalized sections of society. "Pranks have played a very big role in this situation, so I'm glad that the prankster part of it has declined, but the poking fun at life in general goes on," Boskin said.

The big problem is knowing where to draw the line between playful pranks and meanness on the verge of bullying, Fine said.

"Practical jokes of a certain sort shade into bullying, they shade into meanness and we are very concerned as a society about meanness," Fine said. "Finding out what that point is, is difficult for a society."

Equality and social control

Because of our conscientiousness and desire to ensure equality, Americans may have drawn that line too far along the spectrum, hedging out playful pranking. And traditional pranking may be left out in the cold, Fine said.

Sometimes, a funny prank pulled in one group would be seen in another group of people as inappropriate.

"Treating every incident as unique in itself on one level makes things easier, but then it means that someone who did X [a given prank] would be treated differently than someone else who did X [the same prank in a different group]. In society, that's not fair," Fine said. "How do you find that balance in that society where there needs to be rules that apply to everyone?"

This focus on equality may mean fewer interpersonal pranks are being played on April Fools' Day. "That's not a bad thing…the world's not a worse place without practical jokes. Without pranks, it might even be a slightly better place," Fine said. "On the other hand, the downside is we put all of these institutional controls on people, and that may not be such a wonderful thing."

Corporate pranking

While personal pranks may be on their way out the door, the spirit of April Fool's' Day is still alive in corporate hoaxes, Alex Boese, curator of the website Museum of Hoaxes, told LiveScience. When asked if April Fools' Day is dying, he said:

"I think it's just the opposite. It's more prevalent and stronger than ever, because it's been so strongly embraced by advertisers and corporations."

"It’s a great marketing opportunity for them," Boese said. "They come up with … these elaborate April Fools' Day jokes because these jokes turn viral, and they get quite a bit of free marketing out of them."

You can follow LiveScience staff writer Jennifer Welsh on Twitter @microbelover. Follow LiveScience for the latest in science news and discoveries on Twitter @livescience and on Facebook.