"This is a test," I write to my editor over Slack. "Does talking to you make me HAPPY? Or make me SAD?"
"Oh no, so much pressure," she responds. "Uh . . . I think now is a good time for me to make coffee."
And with that, a web plug-in I’d installed just hours before froze Slack, informing me that, "This page has been blocked by Blissify for making you unhappy."
(What can I say? I’m a millennial. I take this happiness at work stuff very seriously.)
Let's rewind. Earlier this morning, I downloaded Blissify, a free Chrome extension by Alexander Taylor, featured recently on Prosthetic Knowledge. Blissify monitors your responses to websites, and if you become too unhappy, it will freeze you out from the page. Technically, it uses your computer’s webcam, plus some open-source face-tracking technology, to measure your frowns and smiles throughout the day. It cross-references this data with whatever tab you currently have open. And what it generates is like a Fitbit graph for your happiness, a line chart of peaks and valleys of happiness (hover over any point, and you’ll see the site that made you feel that way). There’s also a little emoticon that sits in your browser’s toolbar, which smiles or grimaces along with you.
Installing the extension takes seconds, and I consent to activate my webcam. My MacBook’s green on-air light kicks on, and I’m my own fully consenting lab experiment.
I try not to think about the green light. Instead, I begin my morning as normally as possible, ping-ponging between Gmail, RSS feed, and the real-time traffic measuring service Chartbeat—a tool that allows journalists to follow the exact count of people reading our stories at any given moment, creating an addictive, if ever-varying drip of self-worth. An hour in, having checked my happiness chart a few times, I notice a trend.
Every time I go into Gmail, and each time I visit Chartbeat, my measured happiness plummets into a deep, immediate valley. Then it recovers when I tab away. It’s actually unbelievable, as if the data is too perfect. It’s like, tick tick tick, neutral neutral neutral maybe a bit happy neutral neutral OMG MY LIFE IS OVER neutral maybe a bit happy neutral.
It’s hilarious, to be honest. I don’t think I hate dealing with emails as much as most people do. And Chartbeat? Sure, on a bad day it’s horrible. But I was checking in on a hit story. I was taking two-minute victory laps in between other tasks, reading how people on Twitter were responding and which other publications were linking my piece.
I began to suspect that the machine was misunderstanding me. I’d calibrated it to my resting-computer-face—a face you make when staring at the screen that, trust me, you don’t really want to see. But my concentration face, or at least my reading-a-lot-of-information face, might be different.
I couldn’t help but wonder if Blissify was telling me to smile more. Soon, I began glancing at the little emoticon miming my facial expression. Was I browsing HAPPY? I needed to know. As silly and obsessive as it sounds, I actually learned a bit from this feedback mechanism. It often showed a big smile when I was chatting with friend in GChat—even when I wasn’t loling, or perceivably smiling. Earnest smiles are created by your limbic system—your lizard brain—unconsciously and automatically. And research has found we’re at our happiest often when we're socializing. Piecing together all these data points, it seems that the mico-chats I have with friends might really be making my day measurably happier.
But as my day progressed, I couldn’t help but notice that Blissify hadn’t blocked any of the sites I was using yet. I’d tried the usual suspects, too, like Facebook and CNN. If depressing world news and Facebook friendvertisements weren’t enough to make me miserable, what was?
Then it hit me: Donald Trump.
I hopped over to his campaign site. Without even glancing at the results, I could tell, the rage and disgust wasn’t hitting me with the level my study required. So I upped the ante. I hopped over to his Twitter. I made myself read his tweets. I felt my heart begin to pick up pace in my chest, and I hopped over to the Blissify chart—a rapidly sinking valley of unhappiness—but could I push it? I kept reading. Reading more. I spotted a speech he linked on Facebook. I began reading it. And . . . nothing, nothing could push me over to the blocked edge.
If not Trump, then what?
That’s when I realized, there were sensitivity options. I cranked them up. Still nothing. Then I realized, there was another millisecond delay option—meaning, how long I had to be upset before the site was blocked. I turned that down from 1000 ms to 10 ms. I paused the app. Ate a sandwich to cleanse my emotional palate. And when I returned, my editor asked if I’d tried Slack. I hadn’t! I use the standalone Slack app, which Blissify doesn’t see because it's not a web tab. So I loaded it in Chrome instead, millennial sensitivity settings at full throttle, and had the aforementioned conversation with my editor.
I loaded Trump’s Twitter.
Okay, but I had to get work done. I imagine Blissify could be improved by some machine-learning calibration that takes the sensitivity slider out of human hands, but I was on a deadline and didn’t have time to tune the perfect settings to my toddler-level emotional maturity. So I turned the app back to its original defaults. Then I cleared the blocked sites list to start over.
Everything was getting blocked. Again.
"LET THIS BE A BUG," my inner monologue cried. "IN THE SOFTWARE, I MEAN. NOT MY SOUL!"
I fully deactivated Blissify, afraid to turn it on again. I’d have thought that would be the end of it, but new habits can be learned quickly. As I went about the rest of my day, I found myself instinctively glancing up to that now-missing emoticon to translate my emotional response to things I read and sites I visited. Did I miss Blissify? Yes, strangely. Did I need Blissify? I don't know.
It just goes to show how this simple question, "Is this making me happy?" can be an extraordinarily difficult question to answer—especially when our day is filled with so much diverse media, blaring at us from half a dozen tabs at once.
(And as for my boss, let it be clear that the algorithm was being unfair. She’s really no worse than Donald Trump.)