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It’s Not Easter, but There Might Be a Surprise Hidden on This Article

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The email seemed normal enough. It was a note from Kathleen Kingsbury, The Times’s deputy editorial page editor, to James Bennet, our editorial page editor, updating him on the Opinion desk’s article lineup for the following weekend. There were 11 stories on the docket, with the possibility of a 12th written by Mr. Bennet, “if you can actually get it done in time,” wrote Ms. Kingsbury. It seemed routine, if a little curt, but the email had one glaring abnormality: It had been placed in inactive source code on every page of The Times’s website. It looked like a major leak.

But it wasn’t a mistake. It was an Easter egg: a surprise hidden on the site for readers to find.

Putting a fake email in the code of The Times’s website was Ms. Kingsbury’s idea. It was a promotion for Opinion’s Privacy Project. “The leaked email format was a wink at the idea that privacy is often in someone else’s hands — in this case, emails that are forwarded beyond your control,” wrote Ms. Kingsbury via email (a real one).

Sort of like an architectural blueprint for a building, a website’s source code has all the elements that make the website run. Most web browsers provide tools that will show a website’s code, and developers often use these tools to troubleshoot issues that come up during the development process. Many people casually browse the web with the tools open because it gives insight into how a site was built. And sometimes it reveals Easter eggs, like the leaked email, left by the website’s developers.


Knowing that technology-minded people often browse the internet while looking at websites’ source code, the Opinion desk editors hoped they could “start a discussion on the future of privacy among those most steeped in the tech world,” Ms. Kingsbury explained.

It worked. She received responses via Twitter and email written by everyone “from tech executives to 13-year-olds, warning that our digital security had been compromised.”

Ultimately, the source code led readers to the Privacy Project’s landing page.

There is a rich history of hiding Easter eggs on websites and in video games. In a recent Times article, the reporter David Pogue detailed how in 1976 the first Easter egg — a credit line — was concealed in an Atari video game by a developer who wanted recognition for his work. Over the years, the art of the Easter egg has been perfected by designers and developers for fun and for recruiting prospective employees.

The Times is no stranger to this trend, though many Easter eggs have been decidedly reader-centric.

When Tracy Ma and Umi Syam from the Styles desk were designing an F.A.Q. page for the royal wedding last year, they decided to hide Easter eggs throughout. They filled the page with digital glitter, a hyperactive squirrel, a silly selection of extraordinary hats and a sneak-attack cat, among other things. There’s even an option to blow up the page (digitally), for those who dislike the art direction — hint — but enjoy watching gifs of explosions. All this to keep readers engaged to the very end.

“If we could trigger a reward for every click we put in, would that cause people to continue interacting with it?” Ms. Ma wondered. It did.

A year later, Ms. Ma and Ms. Syam reused that template for an F.A.Q. about the royal baby watch. This time, rather than placing Easter eggs throughout, the designers decided to surprise the most diligent readers by changing the language to baby talk. (Hint: Read the very last question.)

Some of the Easter eggs that have made it to The Times’s site were hidden simply for the fun of it.

Ahead of the 2008 Olympic Games, the Graphics desk produced an interactive article that covered the history of Olympic torch design from 1936 to 2008. Using side-by-side photos, the interactive showed the evolution of the torches as shapes, materials and colors changed over the years. While hovering over the torches revealed details about each one, click-happy readers discovered that clicking on specific torches produced a deLIGHTful surprise. Hint: first, last and first again. (Note that the article will work only on computers with Flash installed.)

An article published in early 2018 about the demographics of dog registration in New York City featured a couple of visual treats, including animated illustrations of very good dogs. Although the Yorkie came out on top as the most popular pooch in New York City, the news designer Rumsey Taylor decided to give his own terrier mix, Sprout, a moment in the spotlight. “I just think dogs are great and wanted to add mine somehow,” Mr. Taylor said. Typing “Sprout” while viewing the page will play a recording of Sprout’s bark.

But perhaps what’s most notable about Easter eggs is that once they’ve been published, they’re quickly forgotten. Of all the current and former Times people I spoke with for this article, most said they could remember only vague details about the hidden messages they embedded in articles. By design, Easter eggs are meant to delight, if just for a moment.

Building Easter eggs into a project can be a way for a web developer or designer to infuse an often exacting and time-consuming job with a little whimsy. While stories like “The Yorkie’s Dominance” and “The Royal Wedding F.A.Q.” might seem simple, they most likely took days, if not weeks, to produce. “If you can make each other laugh,” said Ms. Ma, “it makes it a little better.”

The ideas for Easter eggs often start as conversations with colleagues and later become elements of the project. Sometimes they are a sneaky way to test out a design feature that doesn’t quite fit the narrative of the story. The lessons learned might then be carried over to future articles.

In the past, Easter eggs at The Times have often been products of inside jokes with colleagues and the few readers who discover them. But as more people become technically savvy and read our website while also looking at the code that powers it, Easter eggs become shared jokes with them, too.

Oh, and if you’re wondering if there’s an Easter egg in this story, I recommend tapping/clicking on the tissue in the illustration.

Related CoverageThe Secret History of ‘Easter Eggs’Aug. 8, 2019OpinionThe Privacy ProjectApril 10, 2019The Royal Baby: Frequently Asked QuestionsApril 9, 2019

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