There’s someone in my building that leaves their Facebook open with their speakers turned up loud. I don’t know who it is, other than that I think they live upstairs, but unless I’m imagining things, I swear I’ve heard that little ‘bloop’ message tone drifting through the walls. More than once, I’ve turned to my own laptop and checked my messages, just to be let down when it wasn’t the real source of the noise. I probably have an unhealthy addiction, but who doesn’t these days?
Anyway, that shouldn’t happen again – at least not quite. As you may have already noticed, Facebook has a new notification noise.
Twitter reaction seems mostly negative. You can say that about a lot of things, but I have to admit, when I first heard the new noise it weirded me out.
The addition of sounds for Facebook notifications goes back to early 2013, its introduction helpfully documented for posterity by this youtuber, whose video has become infinitely more useful now that people no longer experience its subject several times each day. The tone played when receiving messages, which has also been replaced, dates back further, and today its fans have been leaving fond farewells on this two-second recording:
“Goodbye old Facebook message sound,” writes youtuber ATtaK, “You will be missed.”
User finnzokid123 is less composed, replying: “+ATtaK I HATE THE NEW ONE”.
Also: a bit strange.
How has such a seemingly neutral noise so ingrained itself in our collective psychology that people are turning to the caps-lock key to mourn its departure? When Microsoft was working on the start-up chime for Windows 95, they asked ambient music innovator Brian Eno to create a sound that was, in his words, “inspiring, universal […] optimistic, futuristic, sentimental, emotional,” and only 3¼ seconds.
But you can’t imagine that much thought went into the Facebook bloops. They were just bloops.
However, when the average human being now spends 1 hour and 40 minutes browsing social media each day, they are bound to become more than bloops. The noise, at first innocuous, quickly becomes associated with positive social feedback – a like on your photo; a message from a friend; in other words, validation – in a process a report from Lund University calls evaluative conditioning. You associate the sound with positive experiences until eventually the sound itself makes you happy, regardless of the wider experience.
This technique is used in dog training. When you’re training a dog properly, you reward it with affection and treats relatively rarely. For most things you use a clicker. At first, when it does something right you give it a treat and click the clicker, making a noise. As the dog starts to associate the noise with the positive experience of the treat, you give it less and less in the way of treats until eventually you hardly need to do it at all: the sound of the clicker is its own reward.
Science fiction writer Cory Doctorow, speaking at TEDxObserver, talks about the “powerful, game-like mechanisms” that Facebook uses to keep people using the site and, importantly, feeding it information. He compares the buzz you get when people respond to your Facebook posts to the food-pellet rewards received by mice in lab experiments when they exhibit certain behaviours. The Facebook bloop, as a Pavlovian aural signifier of this social reward, becomes an intrinsic part.
The gaming comparison is an apt one. Writing for designingsound.org, Jack Menhorn connects the sounds heard when you discover a new area or level up in online role-playing game World of Warcraft to the “dopamine rush” of progressing through the game. Novelty gift company Think Geek has recently started selling a physical ‘ding button’ that you can press to hear the game’s level-up noise as you go about your day. One comment reads: “After about 8 years of WoW I am conditioned to feel happiness whenever I hear the ‘ding’ sound, so this button is the best way to ensure I am forever happy.” Flawless logic.
Facebook and World of Warcraft alike use these aural cues to keep users coming back, but where they differ is how they make their money. While WoW charges its players a subscription fee, Facebook is primarily funded through advertisements. However, Facebook’s immense power as an advertising tool comes from the information it gathers about its users – everything from your age and location to hobbies and relationship status – which makes it convenient that the positive feedback the site gives you is so often connected to sharing information with your friends, and, by extension, with Facebook’s databases.
But now the sound has changed, is that two years of conditioning out the window? Well, probably not. The sound was never what was really important, and it shouldn’t take long for our brains to wire the new sound into the old bloop’s place as long as it fulfils the same purpose.
The question is how long it will fulfil the same purpose as Facebook’s demographics shift. Teens are leaving the site at a rate of up to a million a year for the greener pastures of Twitter and Instagram, while for the rest of us, Facebook is becoming more an organisational tool than a social one. Even qmunicate is powered by its Facebook groups, and it seems more common than ever to see the site used in the workplace for tasks like organising shifts and rotas. What this means is, while the old bloop had two years associations with positive social stimulus, the new sound is likely to end up tarnished by its association with the mundane chores we have more recently started conducting through the network.
So goodbye bloop, hello… ba-ding? Even as I’m writing this, I can feel my reward-centres slowly rewiring every time I get a message. All I know for sure is, whatever social network we have in 2030 is sure to be full of posts saying “you’re only a true ‘10s kid if you recognise this sound”.
[Neil Weaving – @weavo2k6]