Successful pranksters seem to know something we don’t. They have the secret to breaking the norms of society and have everyone love them for it. But how do they do it? Why is pranking such a thing?
Is it to break up the drudgery of everyday life, to add some light relief, or is it actually a really awesome sociological tool that brings people together? In this article I’ll let you in on:
- What prank culture is
- Why we have a prank culture
- Why prank culture can be dangerous
- How to not be a dick about pranking (you can always just buy a prank candle for someone)
Some of the best memories I have of pranking come from my days at college. Being part of a rugby team it was part and parcel of the life. We put one of the girl’s whole bedrooms in their kitchen and completely covered another’s car in post it notes.
Typical stuff. But it was super fun and a bonding experience between friends.
You know the joy of pranking; it’s the glory of knowing you’ve done something naughty. It’s the reward of all the time and effort you’ve taken mixed with the anticipation of them finding out it was you.
What is Prank Culture?
You are in the midst of prank culture. Your social media feeds are constantly buzzing with viral videos of girlfriends being rudely awoken, all sorts of social experiments on strangers or scaring the living crap out of your kids.
Pranking is power and it has always been a huge deal. I mean the couple responsible for PrankvsPrank have nearly 10 million subscribers on YouTube!
Prank culture is a ‘three-way relationship’. There’s the prankster, the victim and you as the witness.
It’s a form of humiliation and a way to break down the barriers of power. It takes away the high-low, outside-inside stuff.
Think about court jesters. They were so close to a monarch and their job was to rip seven shades of shit out of them.
And with the more and more pranks being televised, or shown through social media, the ability to humiliate is even more powerful.
The prankster also tends to be someone who really likes the attention. But these pranks create a sense of community and social acceptance.
Pranks take you out of reality for a minute. It’s a (mostly) playful form of escapism. Our lives are pretty stressful nowadays and watching pranks, or performing them, helps release a bit of tensions. And in a time when you can share anything, anytime, anywhere it’s never been easier to have your prank seen and heard.
But do we need to tread lightly?
Why Do We Prank?
There’s a huge difference between pranks on friends and pranks on enemies, or unsuspecting innocents.
Pranks between friends are part of the bonding process as they bring you together as a group. It also gives you something to laugh about for years to come.
For example, did you know that calling someone a “cunt” in Australia is a term of endearment? Much to the confusion and dismay of the rest of the world, the C-word is dropped into conversation with a warm smile and a beer. It’s a way of welcoming you into the fold.
So despite the fact that a lot of psychologists focus on the bad side to pranks, sociologists tend to argue that pranks are a form of bonding. It’s a way to welcome someone into a social group, rather than driving them out.
To be pranked in the name of fun and friendship is a blessing and a compliment to your friendship status.
It’s a matter of form, not function as sociologists argue it’s an ‘increase in status’ and a form of flattery.
But what if you are the prankee?
Well, then your role is to decide whether you accept it as flattery or not. It’s a test. You reaction decides your fate in being part of the group.
Will you receive the prank in a good-natured way or dismiss it altogether?
Another cultural role to pranking is the self-reflection and re-assessment it can bring about. Being duped holds up a mirror to yourself.
When you’ve fallen for a prank you go through a process of ‘counterfactual thinking’. This means you assess what happened for you to fall for the prank in the first place, and how you can stop it happening again.
The Problem with Pranks
Although as a general rule pranks are a way to create some light-hearted mockery of others there is a line. But where do you draw it? And how do you know when a prank has gone too far?
Let’s get serious for a second. You may or may not remember that back in December 2012 Jacinda Saldanha, a British nurse, was prank called by a pair of Australian radio DJ’s. When they pretended to be the King and Queen Jacinda revealed private information about a member of the Royal family. Following this, she committed suicide.
This particular prank raised the awareness of how differently people react to pranks, especially when it comes to having a mass audience.
The danger with videos we see on YouTube or Facebook is the distance. As an anonymous viewer you have a huge step away from the prank and voyeuristic pleasure in the misery of someone else.
The problem comes when the need for social gratification takes the lead. ‘Lolz’ can come at a price. Putting the needs of anonymous viewers ahead of your family and friends is a recipe for disaster.
Don’t Be a Dick
Pranking is an art form. You can be awesome at it or be really, really bad at it. As much as pranking is about stagecraft and learning to do it well, you need to have your head in the right place.
So how do you not be a dick about it?
- Keep things above the belt
- Don’t maliciously intend to degrade and humiliate
- Be ironic
- Mix in a little drama, but not too much
- Play on your prankee’s weaknesses, without completely destroying their self-esteem
- Keep it legal
There are three different types of pranksters. The good, the neutral and the bad.
The bad sway towards things like head-shaving or leaving people naked in the cold etc. Think the worst kind of frat parties ever. The neutral do stuff like mess with keyworkers keyboards, or phones, or place cellophane over door frames. And the good sway towards more ritual type pranks, like coming-of-age rights of passage and cultural initiations.
These kinds of initiations have been studied in certain tribes and cultures such as the Daribi in New Guinea who ask their young children to bury a box in the ground. The story is they’ll find treasure in the box once they unearth it. Although when they do eventually dig it back up, it’s got human shit in it.
These pranks are examples of other people showing you a mirror to your weaknesses, so you can learn and work on them. It’s about pulling you down a little before you are raised back up in being accepted as part of the group.
We are all human after all and wanting to be included into a group is still very much in our DNA so pranks are totally part of that. But with that in mind it’s important to think about the effect your prank will have on someone else. Who are you pranking and how do you think they’ll react?
Go nuts, by all means, if you think they can take it. Just don’t be dicks about it, okay?!