A Shocking Solution to Facebook Addiction

What lengths would you take to stop looking at Facebook? Would you build an electric shock contraption? Something that zaps the crap out of you anytime you visit the site? Would you hire paid crowdworkers to call you and curse you out? Probably not, but that’s precisely what my buddy Dan and I did recently.

We called our machine ‘Pavlov Poke’, and it was built using various odds and ends we found lying around the MIT Media Lab – a place we’ve called home for the past half-decade or so. The setup is pretty simple.

First, we have some code that monitors the sites we visit on our browser. If we visit Facebook too often, a nasty shock is sent through a peripheral device hooked up to our keyboard. The shock is not dangerous (we think), but it is definitely nasty enough to get your attention.

User getting shocked by Pavlov Poke

Did it work? We’re not sure. To be truly effective, many shock exposures are probably needed. Proper conditioning procedures should be followed. Sadly, we found the shocks so aversive, we removed the device pretty quickly after installing it. Anecdotally, however, I did notice a significant, though temporary, reduction in my Facebook usage. Prior to using ‘Pavlov Poke’, my Facebook habits were so ingrained that I would often find myself visiting the site and logging in well before I noticed any conscious intention to do so. I would be on Facebook, gorging on pet photos, stuck in some weird hypnotic trance, and it would be minutes or even hours before I realized I had no desire to be there in the first place.

After a few shock exposures, these automatic behaviors seemed completely rewired. I no longer visited the site unless I wanted to. My fingers no longer started spelling Facebook as soon as I opened a browser window. I still visited the site, but I wasn’t dragged there by some mysterious Ouija-esque compulsion.

A few months after building the shock device, we read about a guy who hired someone to sit next to him and slap him in the face anytime he engaged in online distractions. This is a fantastic idea. But it may not be practical for most workplace settings. It’s also not automated or scalable. To solve this problem, we built a system that automatically recruits and hires paid crowdworkers to call you and curse you out anytime you overindulge in Facebook. Here’s how it works:

First ever system designed to prank call yourself!

If you exceed your Facebook quota, our code automatically posts a job on Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service. The job is simple – workers call your number and then yell at you, reading from a pre-written script designed to be maximally humiliating. If you’re curious, check out our video to hear some of the phone calls we received.

While this whole project is intended to be somewhat of a joke, we believe a serious discussion is needed about how communication technologies are designed.

Technologies like Facebook are addictive by design. According to comScore, Facebook users spend an average of 400 minutes per month on the site. A recent study from the University of Chicago suggests that Facebook and Twitter are more addictive than cigarettes and alcohol. Further, there is increasing evidence to suggest that, over time, Facebook use reduces subjective well-being. Would you still use Facebook if you knew it made you unhappy? Probably, if you’re addicted to it.

All too often, people assume they use a given technology because they want to and because it is in their best self-interest. Unfortunately, this assumption does not align with how these technologies are designed. Sites like Facebook are crafted on the basis of something called engagement metrics, which measure the number of daily active users, the time people spend on the site, etc. Unfortunately, these metrics are not designed to assess well-being. A product can have incredibly high engagement metrics, and yet be extremely bad for its users (cigarettes, for example).

One approach is to build devices like ‘Pavlov Poke’ to help eliminate the online habits we already have. Another, perhaps more enduring approach, is to change the norms around how technologies are adopted. If a technology appears especially sticky, users should proceed with caution and take pains to assess how the technology affects their mood over time. New innovations around experience sampling could help facilitate this form of affective self-discovery.

Unfortunately, as new technologies become more mobile, they become harder and harder to resist. Indeed, the more ubiquitous and accessible the technology, the more addictive it can become. This is why Facebook built Facebook Home. This is why extra care should be given to technologies built for devices like Google Glass. Personally, I don’t want to try Glass until I know I can manage its potentially addictive properties. The last thing I want is to have to build a shock device that’s hooked up around my eyeballs. Eek!