Rickrolling; The Death of a Viral Joke

By Charles Hickmott, Staff Contributor

The golden age of the internet is over.

Okay, so that’s probably a bit melodramatic. The modern internet is pretty amazing, right? Amazon Prime Now, Netflix, Uber Eats; we’ve got a lot to be thankful for. But so much of it is monetized by selling ad space, or asking us to pay to access it. In Silicon Valley terms, a paywall.

What I should have said was, the golden age of internet jokes is over. That wondrous period where internet entertainment wasn’t hidden behind a billboard. Why do I say that? Well it all comes down to this one, inconspicuous URL:

Now, people of a certain ilk will already know what I’m talking about, but for those who aren’t sure, go ahead and click on that link. We’ll wait.

Ha ha, gotcha. That classic ruse. That ageless gag. If you clicked, you were unwittingly sent to the YouTube video for Rick Astley’s 1987 hit ‘Never Gonna Give You Up.’ This is known as a Rick-roll.

Rick rolling has been around since 2006, on early social sites like Fark, Digg, and the infamous 4chan. A spin-off of another prank (duck rolling), rick-rolling soon became the industry standard for internet pranks.

Here are just a few high profile examples:

  • In March 2007, Rockstar Games released the first official trailer for Grand Theft Auto VI. One enterprising 4chan user tricked several readers into clicking his link instead, which turned out to be the distinctive rich, deep voice of one Rick Astley.

  • On April Fool’s Day of the same year, more internet jokers copied this modus operandi, sending countless hapless rubes to YouTube to confront the visage of the pale, red-haired crooner dancing, in a trench-coat.

  • On April Fool’s day of 2008 YouTube itself routed various links on its site to the video, confusing thousands of users.

  • To cap the meteoric rise of the joke, Rick Astley himself performed a surprise version of the song during the 2008 Macy’s Thanksgiving Day Parade.This is still the largest Rick-roll to date.

With that, the singer seemed to give his tacit approval of the joke, and it became mainstream. By April 2008, it was estimated that 18 million U.S. adults had been Rick-rolled in some form or another. Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi even had a Rick-roll video on her official YouTube channel. It’s still there. It’s weird, but it’s funny.

By 2009, Rick-rolls had extended from video only, to text based pranks, by hiding the lyrics in plain sight. The video was classified as viral on YouTube, and the joke became an immortal prank. Many people, the kind of people that have friends that Rick-roll them a lot, started to recognize the URL just by sight. And even though you know you’re getting pranked, it’s comforting to be pranked by such a familiar and friendly joke.

It’s not a bad song by any means. He’s a wonderful singer. Sometimes, even though I just got Rick-rolled, I’ll sit and watch the whole video. It’s sentimental, and now, it’s nostalgic. For 14 years this joke has roamed the internet and made people laugh...

Until now.

Okay, well again, that’s a bit overly dramatic. The video is still there. You can click on it, and it will play.

But now, there are ADs.

The version that was used for all those years was a bootleg version of the video, and when you clicked on it, it would play immediately. But the corporate internet overlords couldn’t have that, oh no.

They wanted to make money on the video. It has over 650 million views, and 99% of people who get Rick-rolled will click ‘like’. It's a hugely popular commodity. So, why not make a quick buck?

Rick Astley (who still performs today) and his managers have now monetized the official video, and taken down all competitors. The only full version of the video you can find is preceded by insurance ads of all things. It’s like wallpapering a giant Geico ad on the Statue of Liberty.

So, okay, yes. The Rick-Roll is not technically dead. Internet jokers will find a way. But this is only a tiny example of the rapid monetization of the web. This last vestige of the golden age of memes, this monument to early internet jokes, could not be left well enough alone.

Because if the corporate internet overlords can find a way to make money off it, then they will.

Rest in peace Rick-Rolling. Killed too soon by corporate greed. You were a fun and fond memory of my youth. May you surprise us every day, in our hearts.


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