UnHookathon: Why & how

In my talk at AnxietyTech, I showed many ways we can use tech to fight tech; technological tools that can help us use other technology in a more healthy and less addictive way.

Many of the tools that I showed were ones I built myself: tiny Chrome extensions like YouTube Unhooked, Medium Unhooked, & Twitter Unhooked. I wanted an excuse to work more on extensions like that, plus I wanted to empower other people to build extensions to improve their personal web experience.

So I decided to hold the first ever “UnHookathon”: a hackathon where the end goal is to unhook ourselves from technology. The term “hook” is from Nir Eyal’s book “Hooked: How to Form Habit-Building Products”. That’s a great book if you want to form habit-building products OR if you want to figure out how to make a product less habit-forming.

We started off the day by choosing a website that hooked us and analyzing the psychological mechanisms in play. (See slides & worksheet)

After a lunch of “hackwiches”, I gave a brief talk about how to build Chrome extensions, starting with the simplest examples, CSS-only changes, and then showing more complicated extensions and HabitLab nudges.

Now that we knew how to hack, it was time to decide what to hack. We brainstormed, doodled, and discussed.

Here’s a great brainstorm from Nick Barr:

Once we’d settled on a few ideas, we got to hacking. Most everyone was new to Chrome extensions, so there was a lot of learning about what was actually possible (a lot, but alas, not everything we hoped!).

In the course of just a few hours, we actually made some hacks happen, and everyone had at least a first draft to present.

Inspired by the “Gate Keeper” nudge in HabitLab, Luise Valentin created the “Double Checker” Chrome extension that double checks if you want to visit a site before letting you continue.

Nick Barr created a “Only Pets Allowed” Chrome extension that finds all tweets with images, uses the IBM Watson API to determine if they show a dog, and hides the tweet if the image is not a dog. Read his post to learn more.

I made another simple CSS-only extension, Berkeleyside Unhooked. Berkeleyside is a local news site with fantastic articles that I love to read, but I often get addicted to the gossip in the comments. The extension removes comments, social media, and even desaturates the entire site.

I also played around with a “Bit rot” extension that would decay a website the more times I looked it each day, but that idea needs a bit more hacking time.

Eliott Gray demo’d an extension that redirected Youtube.com to his TODO list, and Alex Lopatin demo’d fun experiments with exploding a page, inspired by Nick’s doodle above.

These extensions are just experiments. Human psychology is complicated, so we don’t know whether these digital interventions will make our digital life better. But now we can easily prototype and find out for ourselves!

This first UnHookathon was tiny: just 6 friends in my house. My hope is for others to be inspired to hold their own. I’ve written up the schedule, and published the slides and worksheet. It could be fun to do in your house, or in a classroom, or with a club.

If any of you hold an UnHookathon, please share the results with me and of course, with the world.

“Making the web less addictive, one browser hack at a time.”