Do You Check Facebook Compulsively?  Here’s a Solution That Will Shock You.

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
Aug. 23 2013 6:32 PM

Do You Check Facebook Compulsively? Here’s a Shocking Solution.

The "Pavlov Poke" might not be the most pleasant way to break your Facebook addiction.
The "Pavlov Poke" might not be the most pleasant way to break your Facebook addiction.

Screenshot / YouTube

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.

Will Oremus Will Oremus

Will Oremus is Slate's senior technology writer.

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”:

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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.”  

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

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