The Rickroll prank (you know, you show a link pretending it's something else but it's really the music video for Rick Astley's "Never Gonna Give You Up") is just "made you look!" for the web. Worse: It's "sure thing...not!" for the web. That's why it caught on so damn well, because every idiot can enjoy a good laugh ("ha ha fooled you that was not the web page you intended to see"). Here's how it began (as a kind of funny joke), how it took over, and why using it makes you a moron who should be strapped down in front of a loop of "2 Girls 1 Cup."
Rickrolling began last year in 4chan's video game forum. (The 4chan forum site is the sewer of the Internet, but the worst griefing and fighting happens in its /b/ forum. The other forums stay somewhat on topic but are still perverse and often baffling.) Anyway according to the Encyclopedia Dramatica, when Grand Theft Auto IV's official web site launched, everyone rushed to see it and the site got overloaded. Back on 4chan, some people pointed to exclusive videos of the upcoming game, and the frustrated GTA fans clicked the links. Instead of game footage, they got Rickrolled.
The fad caught on, then spread to other popular forums like Fark and Slashdot, which share some users with 4chan. From there it went to the 250, the bloggers and nerds who think they are the center of the Internet — these people. Those people spread it to the web at large and now it's a trend story in the Guardian.
Before (or maybe slightly after) the Rickroll came the duckroll, which was the same thing with a picture of a duck on wheels instead of "Never Gonna Give You Up." The absurdity was funnier, but still rather pointless. It still wasn't impressive to, gasp, send someone to a web page they did not expect.
A more heinous variety of Rickroll is a trick that resizes and animates the victim's window and pops up messages, making it very hard to close the window without hearing the whole song. Jesus, never do this. How is it funny? You're just making someone click things, listen to banal noise, and resize their windows. You're replicating the banner ad experience from 2003.
The problem with Rickrolls is the lack of sufficient setup. When you link to something, you set up a tiny expectation in me. That doesn't make for much of a fall when I see the punchline. So the few redeemable Rickrolls must come at the end of a long setup in which a link is discussed at length before it's given. Even real-world Rickrolls are disappointing because they ride on the cultural capital of the web's worst joke.
I was goatseing long before Rickroll. Goatse, the image of a man stretching his own ass open (described at length on Wikipedia), triggers an actual moment of horror (though it's funnier if a first-time victim isn't really bothered). There are other shock sites like meatspin, which humiliates the viewer for watching. A Rickroll is like poking someone in the chest; Goatse is sucker-punching them. Still obviously for teens, college students, and the sort of guy who likes ads by Crispin Porter + Bogusky.
But lately I've switched to "happyrolls," my stupid word for surprising people with good things. "Ha, you thought I was linking you to a spreadsheet, but it's a really cute cartoon about history!" I know, this is so "pay it forward" or whatever, but it's not Rick Astley.