Well, Facebook is officially the bad habit of internetting—that fixation you can't seem to kick, feel really guilty about, but sneak it anyway at night while no one's looking. As studies have shown, using Facebook makes us feel depressed and lonely, yet we still spend almost seven hours a week browsing, stalking, and “liking” the time away, because social networking is super addictive—perhaps even more so than cigarettes or alcohol.
So, a couple of PhD students at MIT—finding themselves too addicted to do their actual research—developed a system that tracks your online activity and zaps you with a painful shock if it sees you’re spending too much time on Facebook.
They’re calling it the Pavlov Poke, after 19th century Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov, famous for discovering classical conditioning—the concept of using positive or negative stimuli to encourage a behavior change. We employ the psychological trick all the time: Finish homework, get cookie, the homework gets done. Cat jumps on counter, gets sprayed with water bottle, it no longer jumps on counter. The Pavlov Poke works like an electric fence: you're the dog and Facebook is the neighbor's yard.
“To be truly effective, many shock exposures are probably needed. Proper conditioning procedures should be followed," wrote Robert Morris, one of the students, for an article on Medium. However after electrocuting themselves several times in the name of science, the pair decided the shocks were a bit too unpleasant, and decided to try a different approach: peer ridicule.
They enlisted Amazon's Mechanical Turk and paid strangers $1.40 to call them up and yell at them for wasting too much time Facebooking. The callers read from pre-written scripts: "Hey, stop using Facebook! What the hell is wrong with you? You lazy piece of garbage. You're a dumb freaking idiot, you know that? Get it together!”
Here’s how the technology works. Computer use is tracked with a Mac UI Inspector. If a distracting site is visited too frequently, a processing script sends an alert to the screen, or onto the Mechanical Turk workers, who then call and scold you. Or if that isn't enough, an Arduino connected the computer can activate with the alert, and start the shock circuit, sending up a current through metal conductive strips on the keypad, up through the palm of your hand.
“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,” Morris wrote. “I still visited the site, but I wasn’t dragged there by some mysterious Ouija-esque compulsion.”
Clearly, the project is testing a concept; the students won’t actually be selling the device—it's meant to start a conversation about the growing problem of addictive technology and possible solutions. But I wouldn’t be surprised if in the not-too-distant future the shelves of Best Buy are lined with products like this, say, for parents to censor or limit the time their kids spend online.
Already people have been turning to slapdash DIY tricks to try and resist the temptation. A friend of mine has a piece of masking tape that says NO FACEBOOK stuck to his computer screen. And this guy hired a girl on Craigslist to sit next to him while he worked on his laptop and slap him upside the head every time he strayed off task. There's also the iFreeFace application that, when downloaded, blocks online distractions and lets you set a limit for the amount of time you're allowed to spend on the site. The app's website boasts that it "Helps to cure mild Facebook addiction."
"As new technologies become more mobile, they become harder and harder to resist, writes Morris. “Indeed, the more ubiquitous and accessible the technology, the more addictive it can become.” More than a billion people around the world are on the social network, and the company just announced a plan to spread internet access (and Facebook) to the next five billion. Hopefully the voracious netizens of the future can muster a little self control, before the shock treatment starts in.