Do you spend too much time on Facebook? Why not administer non-lethal shocks to your body when you click over to your News Feed! Two Ph.D. candidates at MIT, Robert R. Morris and Dan McDuff, did just that when they realized that they were spending over 50 hours on the service per week combined, and the results – and questions their project raises – are quite interesting.
“The shock’s unpleasant but it’s not dangerous,” said co-creator McDuff. However, they do hurt. The system watches your actions and sends a signal to an Arduino board that, in turn, administers the shock. Over time the user will tend to avoid Facebook and/or rock silently in the corner, quietly weeping. The system uses a specially wired keyboard rest to send the pain.
Did it work?
“We’re not sure,” said Morris. “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.”
The pair also created a less invasive version of the system by using Amazon’s Mechanical Turk to ask strangers to call the Facebook user’s phone and tell them to get off Facebook. The results, at once frightening and hilarious, are far less painful than the shock treatment. Callers would read off prepared scripts that berated the Facebook user for using Facebook.
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).
Facebook is junk Internet – it’s not good for us, it’s pleasant but vaguely dissatisfying, and it makes us feel good for a short while and then bad for the rest of the day. This project, as tongue-in-cheek as it is, addresses some important issues that all of use face in our online behavior and, more important, makes us reconsider just why we’re visiting Zuckerberg’s Timesink every few hours in the first place.
“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,” said Morris.