Sunday, November 17, 2013

Pings Plings And Rings

It’s hard to know whether to thank or curse Wayne Chang. When he was 24, the Facebook engineer went home one night to his downtown Palo Alto, California, apartment, fired up his computer, pursed his lips together and recorded the popping sound he made. His colleagues made a few electronic tweaks, and just like that, the first official Facebook notification “ping” was born. The pings, plings and rings of social media have grown up along with Chang. In 2008, he was simply trying to create a human-like sound that was “not too annoying”. These days, notification sounds have become as ubiquitous as the satisfaction they promise, instant cues to our insatiable need for likes, follows and alerts. To watch the ping’s transformation is to watch our evolving love affair with instant satisfaction, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. While technology has made it effortless to bask in good vibes, it also has fueled an unlimited source of digital indulgence that competes with the rest of our life.

Consider Ajay Bhutoria, a Fremont, California, IT strategist who recently promised his wife that he would shut off his phone at night because she is so weary of being awoken by the pings that beckon her husband at all hours.

“It’s just a habit that has built up,” he said of his constant drive to look at Facebook, and check for text and calls even at 2am. “It’s a new way of showing your love and kindness,” he said of Facebook likes. “It gives you mental gratification, like someone patting you on the back, saying ‘job well done.’ ”

Humans are as vulnerable to classic conditioning as the dogs which Russian physiologist Ivan Pavlov taught to expect food at the sound of a metronome. Once you start listening to the ping of the email, you can’t stop; you are actually addicted to the ping. People are staring down at their phones while hiking, even hugging. For former Facebook engineer Mark Slee, the explanation is basic: “People have been drawn to communicate for as long as we’ve been on this planet,” he said. “We don’t communicate because these things exist. Rather, these things have all come to exist because of this strong impulse to communicate.”

Indeed, in 2010, when Slee sat down in his San Francisco apartment to create a whole new round of Facebook tones, the iPhone was three years old, and auditory interruptions once seen as rude were becoming commonplace in meetings, at restaurants, on trains. The iPhone was getting more and more popular, mobile notifications were becoming a more common thing, and lots of the sounds for these actions are very iconic. Slee, who left Facebook in 2012 and now produces house music, said he was no sound expert at the time. The tones he created for Facebook were born of some basic concepts, but they were symphonic compared to Chang’s tone in the key of mouth. “To feel positive, a sound should use notes in a major key,” Slee explained. “And it should end in a rising note, rather than a falling note. The timbre of the sound is quite soft, not robotic.” In the end, Slee, who joined Facebook in early 2006, brought about 20 different variations to Facebook co-founder Mark Zuckerberg, and one was selected. Both Slee’s and Chang’s notification tones are still used for various Facebook applications, a Facebook spokesman said.Facebook would soon produce tones that tapped even deeper into its users auditory catalog of memories. The sounds that Everett Katigbak, now at Pinterest, created for Facebook in 2011 with Jim McKee, an audio engineer who owns Earwax Productions in San Francisco, hark back to the doorbell, telephone, even Mum calling the kids for dinner.

By some estimates, one-third of all marriages between 2005 and 2012 were couples who met through online matchmaking sites. With crowdsourcing sites such as Kickstarter ready to pitch your wildest ideas, the gratification currency is real: a total of US$612 million invested in 110,000 projects so far. A study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 44 per cent of us sleep with our phones nearby, and 67 per cent of us check our phones for messages even when it does not beep. It is not only young people or men who have gone from being smitten by technology to having a full-blown affair with it. In the end, it may be a question of quantity over quality when it comes to the happiness people feel when a ping lets them know that a friend is texting or likes a photo they posted. Research by Ohio State’s Fox, a PhD who did her graduate work at Stanford University, shows that if Facebook users “post something and they do not get feedback, they feel terrible about it, and they do for a long time.”

Natasha Schull studies what happens to people when they play slot machines in Vegas, and a recent story in The Atlantic magazine compared her findings to how Facebook can hypnotize its users. Slots players get into a zone where everything else - the kid’s tuition bills, the dirty laundry piling up, the miserable boss - fades into the background, Schull’s work shows. There is only the game in front of them. Some players get annoyed even when they win because it interrupts that state of mind, according to Schull, author of Addiction by Design. We face a challenge in the coming months and years with an increase in notification based communication and learning processes yet (as the research shows us) climbing trends in attention deficits, multi-tasking crises among other personal, organizational and at times psychological issues should force us to pause for concern.


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