The Link Prank: A Legacy of the Internet Cowboy

Curator's Note

In his classic genre analysis Sixguns and Society: A Structural Study of the Western, Will Wright describes the way in which masculinity in western films has reflected contemporary social and institutional contexts.  While charting the evolution of the genre, Wright identifies a consistent relationship between masculinity, group activities and social meaning.  In essence he argues that stories of the Wild West are pivotal spaces in which masculine values are expressed through the activities and behaviors of fraternal groups.


 During the end of the last millennium the culture of the internet was often described as a modern Wild West.  Just as stories of the Wild West feature rough and tumble men exploring the possibilities of the new frontier, stories of the early internet were primarily stories of men (as entrepreneurs and users) and masculine groups engaging in highly coded activities (pornography, fantasy sports, video games, sci-fi/fantasy/comic book fandom).

 The Wild West of Wright’s analysis and the Wild West of the internet share a common trajectory.  Both have undergone major changes in the name of social progress and civilization and yet certain masculine characteristics and activities have persisted.  Wright describes the way in which masculine western violence helped to frame American foreign policy.  Similarly, Andrew Ross has argued that the culture of masculine prankster hackers has influenced social interactions on the web, particularly in the realm of practical jokes and absurdist humor.

 One such practice that seems to have become conventionalized within internet culture is the “link prank.”  Made famous by the internet meme known as “Rick Rolling”, “link pranks” are practical jokes in which a link is sent via email or instant message and is labeled as one thing but is actually something unexpected and absurd.  Often these pranks take on a taboo nature that would be right at home in a frat house.  There is even vocabulary established around this activity particularly in the case of the workplace where “link pranks” are labeled as “NAFW” (Not Appropriate for Work). 

 Recently, Sam Anderson of New York Magazine wrote a piece about the website, a web camera chat service which connects random strangers for impromptu exchanges. Part of the allure of the website is the possibility of finding something shocking.  Anderson asserts in the piece that the site is reflective of the excitement of a previous era of internet culture that was more masculine, violent and sexual. 

 Anderson sees ChatRoulette as cultural reaction to the more organized web culture of social networking.  I would argue that the site is not an isolated example of the legacy of internet masculinity but rather an extreme case along a spectrum.  The attached reaction video of ChatRoulette participants demonstrates that the larger cultural significance of the site is its value as a prankster game.  Just as the John Wayne persona impacted American masculinity, link pranking will continue to be an important trope of masculine internet interactions.  



Thanks for shedding some light on the growing phenomenon of chatroulette. Appropriately enough, my only experience with it before your post was from Comedy Central's Internet clip show Tosh.0 where the edited version of the host's exploratory visit focused heavily on continual (blurred) exposure of male genitalia. It seems that James Brown's oft-repeated take on gendered divisions of labor may be even more relevant in describing certain corners of cyberspace than it is in for contemporary workplace.

It's a provocative connection you make between the link prankster and the cowboy, but I wonder if there's another masculine archetype that may also be viewed as forebear. Whereas the cowboy is most often a skillful hero who, though born of the wildness of the frontier, ultimately sides with forces of civilization, the link prankster is in fact an opposing image. Most of the young men who fill their hours with rounds of chatroulette or incessant visits to 4chan and other message and image boards are those who've grown up with various tamed versions of the Internet. Their attempts to inject unpredictability into online experience seem to be less born of its wildness than in exercising their percieved mastery over routinized Internet culture. In this way, they seem more like the conman figure, both the (mostly) harmless comedian and the more nefarious huckster, who relies upon social conventions and mores in order to create his bait-and-switch scenario. Whatever their basic motivations, they counter expectations with their incursions into online discursive formations. There is a certain, however feeble, anarchist spirit in their acts that make the more civilized Internet less predictable.

And yet, given the fleeting nature of the Rickrolling phenomenon, we can see how the link prank can rather quickly go from surprising to anticipated and ultimately played out. It seems that these masculine interruptions may serve less to forge a new frontier than to ultimately be incorporated into, or at least to reinforce, hegemonic Internet behavior. So maybe they are really unwitting cowboys, gunfighting in the streets to perversely make things safe for the rest of us? It will be interesting to see if and how long it is before these early wild days of chatroulette slip into a more regimented system, and how new pranksters find ways to upset that.

Thanks for bringing this phenomenon to light, Ethan.  I had no idea it existed until now.

I really like Dave's final thought that it will be interesting to see how long it takes before this unpredictable, unregimented activity becomes predictable and regimented -- signs, of course, of economic institutionalization.  Seeing it on Comedy Central is probably a sign of some meandering down that path.

What stood out to me here is the way the phenomenon in the video is coded as taking pleasure from watching spectators rather than the original source material, which only has a few seconds of referential screen time.  I'm reminded of the endless clips of people watching scary youtube clips, disturbing pornography, and other "surprise" videos.  What is the pleasure of watching other people taking pleasure in something?  How is it different and why?  How do the editing and music, both clearly coded to make the piece humorous, inflect this process?  Following Kuleshov, could we re-edit the piece to emphasize different emotions and responses?  

Finally, I'm struck by the basic conceit of using a faceless, nameless nude woman to summon these reactions.  Is there a critique of masculinity happening alongside the prankster behavior?  Why did the pranksters choose this image?  What if it had been a nude man -- how would the editing and reactions have been different?  Given that 4Chan discourses (to name just one similar subculture) are often homophobic, racist, and misogynistic, even as they are dismissed as "humorous," what does the phrase "anarchistic internet" really mean?

I am glad that both of you discussed the way in which these pranks fade and get quickly institutionalized and coopted as either played out or momentary distractions.  Certainly internet memes come and go but I am fascinated by the way in which there is a consistent pseudo-anarchist feeling and locker room humor associated with the "bait and switch scenario" (as identified by david) and the pleasure from watching spectators (as identified by peter).  Though the internet is not the place it was in the era of internet cowboys I believe there is still something unknown about it that nurtures these memes and creates a space for them to emerge as a popular fad.  The fact that it is an infinite space where anything could be lurking a link a way is the legacy of the internet cowboy that I think will continue to impact interactions.  The pleasure in the prank, for me, signifies a shared acknowledgment of the bizarre that is lurking on the internet, a reminder that the google spreadsheet that one is working on is not the only thing on the web. 

 I guess what strikes me most about chatroulette, as this video illustrates, is that users are both content consumers and generators at the same time. So, while it does away fairly quickly with something like unreconstructed gaze theory--the guys here are pretty okay with "showing off" just as much as the ladies whom they're watching--it accordingly asks another series of questions, as Peter points out. With that in mind, apart from the element of male-bonding made pretty clear here, and the actual 'joke' or 'surprise,' what's going on?

Is the "clip" being shown pre-recorded, or is a woman actually showing her breasts to each new viewer? Is there a negotiation happening, a la more traditional cybersex, so that the guys show off in return, or is the mutual peep show pretty much spontaneous? The clip is notable in its own right, of course, but it seems to elide the actual dialogue taking place in favor of generating its own micro-meme from assembling the accompanying responses through editing.

Reflecting on David's response, I guess I'm wondering if we can really think of the internet as "anarchistic" as a whole--especially in light of certain efforts to privatize it, or at least control access to it on a national scale--or if there are simply portions of it that are more or less "adolescent," like a number of the respondents in the video, as with your idea of a continuum. So, while we tend to think of the internet as a large, but singular entity--albeit an entity with very heterogenous purposes and playgrounds--because of its seemingly singular technological apparatus, your use of the "frontier" idea here seems particularly apt with regards to some internet spaces (so, 4chan).

At the same time, certainly a large swathe of folks on the net are either unaware, or simply wouldn't consider all that noteworthy or even humorous, any number of internet phenomena which are more geared towards the collegehumor crowd. With this in mind, maybe the adolescent tricksters who popularize shocksite memes aren't "expanding frontiers" towards anything or any goal, they're simply oblivious to their own niche knowledge within a technology that, as you point out, might be ultimately geared towards helping highly situated knowledges reflect back upon themselves. Maybe the generator-user relationship of web 2.0, despite its elasticity, is still a closed circuit in the overall scheme of things.

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