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They're never gonna give you up, Rick

From Friday's Globe and Mail

The time, I think, is nigh for the Internet to give up Rick Rolling, but we all know what Rick Astley would sing in response.

The phenomenon of Rick Rolling is the closest thing the Internet has to a Three Stooges practical joke. It refers to the act of fooling someone into clicking a link, but instead of transporting them to their desired destination, taking them to a video of Astley singing his 1987 pop piffle, Never Gonna Give You Up.

To properly Rick Roll someone, the trick is to cook up a link that's just lurid or implausible enough to entice readers to click. One might inform a forum of animal lovers that you've found a video of baby tigers taught to dance the Macarena in unison. You might claim that the long-lost Stéphane Dion sex tape has finally surfaced. It doesn't matter.

What matters is that when the link is clicked, some poor punter instead finds himself staring at a YouTube video of Rick Astley bopping around in a denim suit with a pair of iffy backup dancers, singing "We're no strangers to love! You know the rules, and so do I!" (This is as far as most people get before slapping their heads at having been Rick-Rolled and walk away. The 1987 music video does have its appeal, though, in an anthropological sort of way.)

I first heard about Rick Rolling at a social gathering last year, when discussion turned to Things People Have Seen On The Internet. My host reported that people were seeing Rick Astley in unexpected places, which seemed like a sign of the apocalypse. In the months that followed, the meme spread across the Internet, until Never Gonna Give You Up was everywhere. It began to feel increasingly unsafe to click any link that seemed particularly interesting, lest Rick Astley and his floozies pop up and make a fool of you.

Things reached their unfortunate zenith on the first of this month, when an Astley epidemic swept across the Web in a wave of April Foolery. YouTube itself jury-rigged its front page so that every featured video redirected the user to Rick Astley. A few days earlier, in a somewhat more elaborate Rick Roll, The New York Times was hoaxed into reporting that a college basketball game was interrupted by a Rick Astley impersonator re-enacting the Never Gonna Give You Up video. (Their reporting was based on a video of the event, which turned out to be a cleverly edited fake.) Meanwhile, Internet fans — who can reliably be whipped into a frenzy where it comes to causes that don't matter — swarmed an online poll put on by the New York Mets, and saw to it that Never Gonna Give You Up was played after the eighth inning at Shea stadium. The Rick Rolling meme, it is safe to say, has not just ripened, but fallen off the tree and started to rot.

But where did it come from in the first place? I tend to think of these things in terms of the flu, which, I was taught, can come from far-off places where humans and animals live in close quarters. Similarly, many of these bizarre Internet memes come from claustrophobic little Web communities, where in-jokes are rampant, and by all appearances half the participants are livestock. Occasionally, a carrier leaves one of these forums and visits another site, from which the in-joke starts to infect the rest of the Internet. A global pandemic of puzzlement is the usual result.

Among the most notorious of forums is one called 4chan, an anarchic, entirely anonymous bulletin board where people are encouraged to post pictures. It is variously credited with fostering not just Rick Rolling, but the LOLCATS craze of cats speaking like hacker kids, and the "Anonymous" anti-Scientology movement that has been harassing the organization with leaked videos and live protests. In this instance, it appears that the original in-joke among the denizens of 4chan was to trick each other into clicking links that led to a picture of a mallard duck on wheels, above the caption "DUCK ROLL" (get it?). Eventually, Rick Astley was substituted for the duck, and the Rick Roll was born.

The question now is, what happens to a viral meme now that the pandemic has passed? The novelty may be gone, but old memes never die. They just become nostalgia pieces. The Rick Roll will be with us for years to come.

And on consideration, it's not without its merits. True story: Looking into the origins of the Duck Roll, your columnist found a page on Yahoo Answers that promised an explanation. "Some people have made a video explaining it," read one link. No sooner had I clicked, then the familiar music started up. "We're no strangers to love!," sang Rick Astley, unbidden. "You know the rules, and so do I!"

I slapped my head and felt profoundly gullible, but in a way, I had my answer. Not only is the Rick Roll a way of pointing out naiveté, it's became the very embodiment of a non sequitur. It's a voyage to nowhere, a dead end made flesh and given a bouffant hairdo. It's part of the vocabulary now, the bearer of an existentialist message that should have people reaching for their black turtlenecks, clove cigarettes and Camus.

Sometimes we get the things we want in life. Sometimes we just get Rick Astley singing Never Gonna Give You Up.

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