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The Biggest Little Internet Hoax on Wheels Hits Mainstream

Tuesday, April 22, 2008

It's the little Web hoax that got huge.

On April 1, thousands of Internet users clicked links to what they thought would be videos of preening supermodels or cute, tumbling puppies — only to find themselves watching a painfully awkward, decades-old music video by British pop singer Rick Astley.

They'd been "rickrolled" — fooled into watching Astley's 1987 hit "Never Gonna Give You Up." Click here and you can be, too.

On April Fool's Day, anyone who clicked onto any of YouTube's "featured videos" got rickrolled. Several other sites that day also redirected their links to the video. Over 25 million people to date have clicked onto the half-dozen YouTube copies of Astley's video.

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One week later, rickrolling went beyond just the virtual world.


The New York Mets announced that "Never Gonna Give You Up" had received 5 million online votes to become the team's new eighth-inning sing-along song — thanks to wise-guy Web sites like Fark and Digg that stumbled upon the vote and urged users to pick the Astley croon.

"We've probably not gotten that many votes for anything before," Mets spokesman Jay Horwitz said in a telephone interview.

It's all just a bit of harmless geek rebellion, say Web pranksters.

"It's just one of those things we do at Fark," founder Drew Curtis said by phone. "Just something silly. The moment we saw the possibility of voting for Rick Astley, they just started going for it."

Once the Mets realized what was happening, they quickly invalidated the results of the poll and decided that on Opening Day, April 8, they'd take the vote to the people.

When Astley's song was played, it was greeted with boos. The Mets had finally overcome rickrolling.

• Click here to see and hear thousands of Mets fans boo the song.

"We're not talking about a nuclear bomb here: It's a fun thing, it's in good fun, and we're not offended," Horwitz said. "But it wasn't a true indicator of our fan base."

The origin of rickrolling goes back three years and involves an egg, a duck without feet and the video game "Grand Theft Auto."

In keeping with silly Internet humor, the director of the image-sharing Web site 4chan, who goes by the handle "moot," decided he'd play a joke and change the word "egg" to "duck" every time a user posted a message.

In time the phenomenon spread, and the word "eggroll" was replaced by "duckroll." When someone came up with the idea to redirect Internet links to an image of a duck on wheels, rickrolling's forebear, "duckrolling," was born.

Then in March 2007 came the release of the eagerly awaited first trailer for the still-upcoming video game "Grand Theft Auto IV."

So popular was the response that it immediately crashed game publisher Rockstar Games' Web site.

In what was to become a pivotal moment in Internet hoax history, someone at 4chan took the now-useless Web link for the "Grand Theft Auto IV" trailer and duckrolled it.

But instead of linking to the image of a duck on wheels, he or she linked to the Rick Astley video on YouTube.

Rickrolling was born.

When interviewed by the Los Angeles Times last month, Astley himself said he was OK with rickrolling and had no plans to capitalize on it, but he found it "bizarre."

Even 4chan's "moot" was underwhelmed at first.

"When I first saw it, I thought it was silly, stupid," he said in a telephone interview. "After hundreds of times, it got really catchy, I knew all the words. But on April 1, it really blew up. I was frankly very surprised when I saw a certain number of Web sites outside of Internet-culture sites running rickrolling as a prank."

It was April Fool's Day, and in an apparently uncoordinated move, Web sites everywhere rickrolled their readers.

Then came the Mets incident. Rickrolling had truly hit the mainstream.

"I was actually getting gas at a gas station, and the song was coming on, and I had to look around at everyone else like, 'Is this for real?' " Curtis said.

Now that rickrolling has officially entered the popular consciousness, it's doomed to go the way of other Internet phenomena like "All Your Base," the "Hamster Dance," or "Prison Thriller," both Curtis and "moot" said.

"It's gone from silly Internet prank to entering the mainstream, so a lot of people are being elitist about it, saying it's beating a dead horse, and it has kind of lost its appeal," moot said. "At the end of the day, it's just a link where you get a guy singing an '80s pop song. There's only so far you can delve into the intricacies."

Even Astley, who goes on tour in the U.K. in May with other '80s chart-toppers, seems to have wearied of his newfound Internet fame.

In response to a request for comment, a spokesman for his record label wrote back a single line:

"I'm sorry, but he's done talking about rickrolling."

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