Coning (or cone-ing) involves ordering an ice-cream cone at a fast-food drive-thru window, and then taking it by the ice cream instead of the cone when it's handed to you. If you do a search for coning on youtube, you can see a lot of examples of it. Even Justin Bieber is a fan of coning.
It's a strange prank because it inverts the typical logic of pranking. Usually pranks involve humiliating or one-upping a victim. For instance, a victim sits on a whoopee cushion, prompting everyone to laugh at him. But in the case of coning, the prankster pays for the ice cream cone and then proceeds to ruin his own cone by grabbing it incorrectly. The person handing him the cone isn't put out in any way. They may be puzzled by the strange behavior, but they're not inconvenienced. In other words, in coning the prankster becomes the victim of his or her own prank.
I was confused by this until (at the risk of greatly overanalyzing this) I realized that coning is essentially a form of breaching experiment. Breaching experiments are a form of experimentation used by social psychologists. They involve acting in a way that violates an unwritten rule of social behavior, and then observing how people respond to this violation. The experiments reveal that society functions smoothly because we all (usually) obey these unwritten social rules. Sniggle.net has collected some examples of famous breaching experiments, which include volunteering to pay more than the posted price for an item, ordering a Whopper at McDonald's, or saying hello at the end of a conversation.
Breaching experiments are most frequently associated with the work of Harold Garfinkel (who died earlier this year). The NY Times, in its obituary of Garfinkel, wrote:
He wrote about so-called “breaching” experiments in which the subjects’ expectations of social behavior were violated; for example, a subject playing tic tac toe was confronted with an opponent who made his marks on the lines dividing the spaces on the game board instead of in the spaces themselves. Their reactions — outrage, anger, puzzlement, etc. — helped demonstrate the existence of underlying presumptions that constitute social life.
So all these videos of coning pranks on youtube can be viewed as examples of amateur breaching experiments. (It's good to see that today's youth has such an interest in social psychology.) And from this perspective, it's interesting to observe the reactions of the fast-food employees to the coning. Most of them simply look with bewilderment at the prankster. Some laugh nervously. But a few get quite angry, even though the prankster isn't doing anything to hurt them. In one video, as a young woman tries to grab her cone by the ice cream, a McDonald's employee pulls the cone away from her and says, "I don't know what you think you're doing, but I could actually mush this in your face." He's obviously quite mad at her attempt to violate the unwritten social rule of how to properly take ice cream cones. (via scribbal.com)