LinkNYC Mister Softee Prankster Comes Clean

Filed under: Creative Activism, Culture Jamming and Reality Hacking, Media Pranks, Prank News, Pranksters, The History of Pranks

Payphone performance artist/activist drops a dime on himself…

My Summer of Softee Prank
by Mark Thomas.

In this year of 2019, I use payphones regularly. As such, I feel fortunate to live in New York City, where thousands of old-fashioned landline payphones still line the streets.

A few years ago, when news came that the City decided to replace every single outdoor payphone with LinkNYC Internet kiosks, preëmptively pronouncing this unproven replacement the “payphone of the future”, I felt a bit of an affront. How could a decision reaching so deeply into the social fabric of New York be made? Was public input ever solicited regarding this decision that all payphones must be replaced by an unproven, unneeded alternative?

I gave LinkNYC a chance but soon came to loath not only the program but, in almost all respects, the so-called “Smart City” itself. Born of unearned municipal privilege, the arrogant ineptitude of the LinkNYC rollout at times made me cringe.

To express my sentiments about LinkNYC, I subverted their intended purpose. I regarded these kiosks as unwanted, unneeded irritants and turned the machines themselves into irritants, using them as a broadcast platform, blasting ridiculously loud noises and music out of the kiosks’ loudspeakers.

This became a social media engineering project for me for most of 2018.

I use Twitter begrudgingly and claim no mastery of its socially oceanic nuances. But I had a hunch. If I persisted in blasting demented noises and randomness out of LinkNYC machines then social media would do what social media does and make a much bigger deal of it than it really was. It worked. My project bewildered unknown numbers of people, possibly millions, after videos started appearing on social media and, most notably, in several stories posted to

Since the earliest days of LinkNYC in February, 2016, I had used the kiosks as broadcast platforms, at varied levels of determination and with unpredictable degrees of success. In May, 2018, social media tuned in loud and clear. Over the ensuing months Gothamist would write 6 stories about this, as other media outlets around the world picked it up as well.

Reading all 6 of the Gothamist stories in order shows how the lunacy of this project accumulated. They are mostly short, very well-written, and it’s just a lot of fun to see good writers at work.

In the first piece, headlined Why Is A Spooky, Slowed-Down Mister Softee Jingle Blasting Through LinkNYC Kiosks?, Jake Offenhartz asked the question that served as an incantation of sorts: “What the hell is going on here?”, adding that city agencies were “befuddled.”

The second story posted about a week later under the headline
LinkNYC Kiosks Still Possessed By Mister Softee Jingle, Still Creeping Out New Yorkers, contained a line that would resonate with me for the duration of this project. A spokesperson at LinkNYC described my shenanigan as an “old-fashioned phone prank”, a characterization I dispute, but not too righteously. A lot of planning and smarts went into making this work the way I wanted it to. But that phrase, “old-fashioned phone prank”, became a running gag among my cadre of friends who kept it on the lowdown that I was the one doing this, as press coverage continued.

Gothamist’s third piece from July kept the ball rolling, announcing that the Creepy Mister Softee LinkNYC Jingle Nightmare Enters Month Three. That piece included a number of videos posted to social media by New Yorkers who encountered kiosks I had activated with a slo-mo version of the notoriously irritating Mr. Softee ice cream truck jingle.

I blanched a bit at the headline. “Month Three”? By July of 2018, I was well into year three. I’d done stuff like this since LinkNYC kiosks first appeared in 2016, though I gained little social media traction until around February or March of 2018.

Gothamist’s story number four, titled Summer Is Fading But Creepy Mister Softee LinkNYC Haunting Continues, evokes the image of “a bloodthirsty Conehead in a bowtie”.

The fifth story had me thinking I should get this over with. The headline — We’re Getting Closer To Cracking The Creepy Mister Softee LinkNYC Jingle Mystery — made me nervous. Were they on to me? Could I expect the Smart City Police to raid my apartment, busting through my door with a payphone they had replaced with one of their kiosks?

I read to the end of the story and chuckled. After 6 months, Gothamist was no closer to figuring out who was blasting ice cream truck music out of LinkNYC kiosks, or why.

It took me a couple of weeks, and I was reluctant about doing so, but through a burner email address I contacted Jake Offenhartz, anonymously identifying myself as the clown behind the LinkNYC/Softee shenanigan and offering enough evidence to leave no doubt I was who I said I was. All along, I had no intention of stepping forward. I consider anonymity an almost impossible commodity to maintain, and an exhilarating one at that. But the scope of the project made coming forward seem necessary.

Gothamist’s final installment, Creepy Mister Softee Mystery Solved: Meet The Man Who Uses LinkNYC To Freak Out NYers, posted on December 13, 2018. In addition to the front-page article’s 1600 words, there is a sweetly produced video that I think complements the piece perfectly. I do not like seeing myself on video, and I did not even want to be in this one, but I did it anyway and it turns out I liked it a lot.

Mark Thomas’ website, The Payphone Project, described by AT&T as “The best — and most entertaining — website that tracks the de-evolution of payphones and phone booths”, has been featured in the New York Times, CBS Sunday Morning, the Los Angeles Times, and many other media outlets.