You probably know the feeling: You’re staring at some spreadsheet on your computer screen, your eyes begin to glaze, and you involuntarily scan your bookmarks bar for something—anything—that might offer a moment’s respite from drudgery. For a lot of people, that something often turns out to be Facebook. And that “moment’s respite” turns out to be the next hour and a half.
A pair of Ph.D. students at MIT’s Media Lab, Robert Morris and Dan McDuff, know that feeling too well. So, in classic MIT form, they came up with a hack to keep their social-media impulses under control. They call it the “Pavlov Poke”:
Did it work? Well, sort of. In a blog post about the project, Morris reports: “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.” You don’t say!
Having dispensed with the Arduino-and-electrode approach, the pair next came up with a less physical form of self-inflicted punishment. They programmed their machines to respond to Facebook overuse by posting a job to Amazon’s Mechanical Turk service, paying a random stranger to call them up and brow-beat them. They recorded some of the results:
Hijinks aside, Morris writes that part of the stunt’s intent was to call attention to the addictive qualities of social media. “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. … A product can have incredibly high engagement metrics and yet be extremely bad for its users (cigarettes, for example).”
Whether or not Facebook actually reduces people’s sense of well being, as a recent study claims, Morris is right that its increasing mobile presence makes it harder than ever to resist. That’s why he says he plans to steer clear of Google Glass: “The last thing I want is to have to build a shock device that’s hooked up around my eyeballs.”