Misunderstood Prank on Email

A fake photo of an orca attacking a bear. It is a prank photo that has gone viral on social media.
Orca & The Bear. A Misunderstood April Fools’ Prank. See Snopes.org

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Can you help me understand this misunderstood prank?  On April Fool’s Day (this past Thursday) I posted an email to the town’s listserv. I  invited fellow board members to a special Transportation Meeting. My email strongly recommended that they arrive on a scooter or bicycle. At the end of the email I wrote ‘Happy April Fools!’  Despite this, two or three people immediately called the town administrator to say they had a conflict with the date. Another person called the accessibility commissioner and complained about scooters! Honestly, I sent the email in humor but it came off as a misunderstood prank. Do people not have a sense of humor anymore?  Craig (name of town withheld)

Dear Craig: Hopefully by now this misunderstood prank has sunk to the bottom of the  email well and you and the town are happily reconciled. My sympathies. All of us have sent emails that we wish to have erased.  But here is why your email “blew up.” 

First, it’s April 2021, and the pandemic has made people edgy and anxious. It’s been a stressful 13 months and many have checked out, literally.  For them,  April 1 was just another new month when the rent was due and there were bills to pay. They probably forgot the occasion unless they were tuned in to jokey-jokey morning radio or TV. The Onion is not the reading choice of your listserve friends and the media they consult may be too fragmented.

Second, and this ties into a recent DearSmartphone post, we seem to be experiencing weird, wacky, and woke decision making by public groups. Why?  Perhaps the majority of people who meet on Zoom don’t speak up, and a vocal minority lead the charge.  Your April Fool’s  email that required board members to arrive by scooter or bike might have struck them as another wacky iteration.

Jumping to Wrong Conclusions

Obviously, you are grieved because people did not read the email to the end. That would have clarified it was an April Fool’s lark. But, in my post on the weird and wacky, note that disassociated publics can jump to quick  (and wrong) conclusions. Most likely, the members read the email from home, alone, and for some, still in their PJs. The post would have been received differently had they congregated at the water-cooler or conversed about it over the office cubicles.  

While I hate to be a spoiler, there is a larger, sinister issue surrounding your innocent April Fools prank. Increasingly our media seems to be hijacked by fake news and fake followers. For example, nearly half of the Twitter accounts spreading messages about the pandemic this past summer were probably bots, according to researchers  at Carnegie Mellon University. And, recently The New York Times has started publishing ‘Daily Distortions’, a feed to chronicle and debunk false and misleading information. Meanwhile, it’s not just the news stories that are co-opted. There is increasingly sophisticated  software that alters and fabricate images.

Check Hoax, Check ‘Snopes’

You might get a smile from the site called hoaxes.org where I found the river image (above). Quite to your point, someone posted the image and a  prank story on April’s Fools day, 2015.  Snopes, a useful fact-checking site, says people continue to stumble upon the image of an Orca attacking a bear.  Bearware?!  It’s beginning to feel like everyday is April Fools!

Does Social Media Run our Lives?

A photo of a young girl in Paris near Eiffel Tower taking a Selfie with Phone.
Does Social Media Run our Lives and Our Travel too? (Getty Image)

Dear Ms. Smartphone: Does social media run our lives? My college roommate is a teacher in Los Angeles. He and I stay in touch, and we had planned to take a Spring Break trip this month.  This is a tradition  since we roomed together (except in 2020). Now he heard on Facebook that he was not supposed to post pictures. And he wants to cancel the trip and not travel. Is this fair?  Christian, San Francisco

Dear Christian: When I started this column, I expected that the majority of letters would be about bad digital behavior and public shaming, but now that seems wrong. Human behavior is so much more complex. It’s too easy to blame the Internet for our woes.

Travel for younger people is often inspired by photo-opportunities and bragging rights. In a 2018 travel study, Millennials and GenZ noted that posting travel pictures was also artistic and helped them feel connected. They hoped to visit exotic or scenic locales, and use smartphone cameras to record the moment. That’s not so different than the behavior of old-fashioned tourists, except that elders did not share their photos as publicly. 

More Than Pictures

But, photos are the superficial issue. Your friend may not want to go because of a larger, more pressing issue brought on by social media. The teacher’s union worries  that parents, and other members of the public, will find the holiday photos online.  Social media would reveal if teachers are straying far from home.

A similar issue occurred in Broward County (Florida). There, the School District reopened schools after they scoured teacher’s Facebook pages, and found some of them posting pictures from restaurants, Disney, and beach vacations. The teachers and lawyers went head to head. 

It is likely that your friend wants to cancel the trip because social media might “follow” him. That is the overarching concern if someone takes vacation pictures and then posts them on social media, even if they can obscure the time and date of the posting.

Whose Social Media?

Your friend is posting on his personal account, so the vetted social media policy for the school district does not apply.  But, it’s a slippery slope. School districts have challenged the rights of students to post on social media when their posts do harm and injury to classmates. When private posts go public, we begin to change our behaviors.

The way I see it, and you may disagree, teachers are opinion leaders, role models, and upholders of community values. They can’t be willy-nilly about their social media posts, any more than a federal judge, a medical doctor or a rabbi. Each profession upholds a duty and responsibility to their constituency. So, for your friend, it’s not about travel photos per se, but about the milieu of leadership and values. 

Digital Literacy for Adults too

Ironically, some school districts instruct students in a curriculum called “digital literacy.” It’s designed to make students better digital citizens. We should not neglect teachers and educators. We expect adults to be good role models, but most of them have not grown up with the technology, and are in some ways, less informed than the ‘digital native’ students. Skills like privacy controls, identifying deep fakes, and manipulating images may not be in the adult’s toolbox. 

The University of San Diego publishes a “9 P” digital literacy curriculum, one of many out there.  Their fourth “P” is about photographs- with content on geotagging, facial recognition software, and general precautions on photo posting. 

So take heed! Teachers and parents learned in more traditional ways and have a lot to learn from the digital literacy classes. It makes sense to assume that the more digitally literate our teachers are, the more they will employ these skills inside the classroom…and outside of them too. During these days when our travel trips are limited, and we are on social media more, it could not be more important. 

Why Use Voice Message, Not Text?

SmartPhone mockup has a giant megaphone (in 3D) emerging from the screen.
Use Voice Message for a change, not text

Dear Ms. Smartphone: When I long-distance with family in Israel they like to send voice memos instead of text. Mostly they have iPhones and they use a messaging app. It works for me. Why don’t more people here use a voice message instead of text? Len, Palo Alto

Dear Len: ” Paja Escribit”– that means too lazy to write! But you are on to something. The spoken word carries more weight and it expresses emotions and meaning more fully than text.

Your question prompted me to learn more about voice messaging.  WeChat introduced it to China circa 2013. It seems to have caught on there because linguistically speaking the Asian alphabets are complex for keyboard entry. In South America, What’s App caught on as messaging was free, but texts were not. It also got established in countries like India where there were multiple languages and regional dialects.

For readers who are not familiar with voice messaging, it’s like text, except that you speak the message. They are also called voice notes or voice memos.  Initially, the audio was limited to 15 to 30 seconds, but today it can be as long as 15 minutes. There are different platforms for sending the audio file, that I won’t  elaborate on here. The CEO of Viber, a large  messaging app, says his platform  is popular in the Middle East, as well as South East Asia and  Eastern Europe. Most of the users (75%) have Android phones. 

Voice Commands Are RISING VOICES

Now that smart devices like the Amazon Echo and Google Alexa  use voice commands instead of  keyboards, this could become the norm. Voice messaging is praised by senders who enjoy the spontaneity and informal nature. Voice commands provide greater clarity-  less ambiguity, more emotion. And, they are superior when you have detailed instructions that are too knotty to explain by text. 

And, voice messages simply go deeper. Think of exchanges where distant lovers  (or foes) are separated over time or distance. The specific words may not count but their tone and emotion convey everything.  

Voice Commanding?

But, there are two sides to an interchange. On the other hand or (ear), it’s often cumbersome to play back voice texts.  You have to be mindful where you listen and whether you have headphones on. Otherwise a quiet private message can become loud and public. Another drawback is the recording- words get garbled and sentences run on. Mostly, it’s hard to skim for content, so audio recordings demand a greater time investment. If you shun listening to stored voice mail, you get the idea. 

But, that’s my perspective. Three years ago, Facebook’s What’s App  boasted more than 1.5 billion monthly users   (Q4.2017) so clearly the rest of the world may be on to something that North America and Europe have yet to discover.

On balance, I think that voice messages are about the user (easy to send, fast, fully expressed) while they have some imbalances on the part of the listener.

Still, they do seem like the perfect instrument when you need to convey more meaning than a text, and you don’t have time for a full blown phone call.  Perhaps when you just need to say to your family overseas “I love you” and miss you so much.