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 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, now in Facebook's Seattle office. But in 2008, he was simply trying to create a humanlike sound that was "not too annoying."
These days, notification sounds have become as ubiquitous as the gratification they promise, instant cues to our insatiable need for likes, follows and alerts.
Technology has redefined what we find gratifying -- the subject of today's installment in our series on "How technology has redefined our lives." We can binge on an entire season of "Breaking Bad" in a single night; Intuit, the maker of (yawn!) income tax software, designs its products to "delight"; and U.S. military bases have stopped selling Playboy mostly because troops can get all the satisfaction they seek online.
To watch the ping's transformation is to watch our evolving love affair with instant gratification, sometimes healthy, sometimes not. While technology has made it effortless to bask in good vibes, it also has fueled an unlimited source of digital gratification that competes with the rest of our life.
Consider Ajay Bhutoria, a Fremont 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 says of his constant drive to look at Facebook, and check for text and calls even at 2 a.m. "It's a new way of showing your love and kindness," he says of Facebook likes. "It gives you mental gratification, like someone patting you on the back, saying job well done.''
For Stephen Ferroni, who has been known to sleep with his phone next to his pillow, it's the "cha-ching" tone that he finds irresistible. That sound tells him that he has made another sale on his eBay site, and his hand reaches for his phone as soon as he hears it.
"That is really the most gratifying of all sounds, the cash register sound," says the owner of Play It Again Sports in San Jose's Blossom Hill neighborhood. Still, there's a dark side to being a junkie to these adrenaline rushes.
"It's almost controlling my life," he says. "I am always looking at my phone. Enough is enough."
Actually, enough is never enough.
"Constant and immediate gratification is the expectation," says Jesse Fox, an assistant professor at Ohio State University who researches social media and their impact on relationships. "It's like a little toddler pulling on your pants leg all day long. It's 'Hey! Hey! Hey!,' '' she says. "You can't ignore it. It is a state of arousal all the time."
When Robert A. Burton, a retired neurologist, gathers with a group of friends, including at least one Nobel laureate, they complain about not being able to get any thoughtful work done because they are so driven to check Google to see what someone has said about them or to log on to Amazon to see how their books are selling.
For an explanation, Burton, author of "A Skeptic's Guide to the Mind: What Neuroscience Can and Cannot Tell Us," says we need to look no further than our Pavlovian brains. 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. Eventually, the canines, just like monkeys in a more recent study, did not need the treat to react to the stimulus.
"Once you start listening to the ping of the email you can't stop, you are actually addicted to the ping," says Burton, a Marin County resident who can't otherwise explain the people he sees 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 says. "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 explains in an email. "So we wanted a new sound to bundle in the application, something distinctive enough that people could over time come to form an association between that sound and its meaning on Facebook."
Slee, who left Facebook in 2012 and now produces house music, says 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 explains. "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 Mom calling the kids for dinner or Timmy calling Lassie, Katigbak told Wired.com.
Building on the Pavlov analogy, Slee argues that tech companies don't make people want gratification, just as bells don't make dogs want food. "Humans want gratification because gratification is good!" he says.
"In this narrative, I think it's easy to paint tech companies as villains," Slee says. " But when I zoom out, it looks like most of it is developed by people in response to what other people want to do."
And, if Facebook likes and Twitter retweets are the currency of gratification, technology has made many of us as wealthy as the one percent.
Technology of all types showers us with positive reinforcement. The winks and flirts that abound on online dating sites may seem silly until you get one yourself and consider that digitally-sourced marriages are now commonplace. 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 $612 million invested in 110,000 projects so far.
Were it not for support from sites born of technology, Hyla Molander would probably not be writing a book on a very personal topic: the sudden death of her husband when she was pregnant with their child. The Marin County woman first turned to Facebook, then she started uploading excerpts on Scribd.com -- an online social publishing platform.
"As that insecure writer, I watched in absolute shock as the first chapter of my memoir accumulated 7,000 reads in just one week," she says. "The comments and encouragement from those readers gave me the courage I needed to push past my fears and launch my recently funded Kickstarter campaign,'' says Molander, 40, who raised $24,000 in 29 days for her memoir project.
The problem comes when we can't turn off or Facebook is our only friend.
Bhutoria, 40, who also runs a young leaders academy, says even when he disabled his Facebook notifications, "I still found myself checking it."
"Ask my wife, she would have told you the whole day."
His family tells him "you are here, but you are not here." As for his promise to his wife to keep the phone out of the bedroom? Well, she was on vacation when we interviewed him, and Bhutoria had fallen off the wagon.
Bhutoria is not alone. A recent study showed that British couples spend more time with their smartphones than each other, and a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project found that 44 percent of us sleep with our phones nearby, and 67 percent 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. Ferroni, the guy waiting for his eBay cha-chings, is in his 50s. And, women make up the majority of social media users. They dominate Facebook, Twitter and Pinterest, according to internetserviceproviders.org.
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. It's a little like chugging a bottle of single malt scotch instead of sipping it from a glass. Research by Ohio State's Fox, a Ph.D. 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." Some students, she says, "have taken it down and reposted on Friday night when more people are around." Being dependent on socially-generated feedback is short-term satisfaction that ends when the likes end, Fox says. "That is not the way life should work."
Natasha Schüll 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, Schüll'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 Schüll, author of "Addiction by Design."
For Alex Soojung-Kim Pang of Menlo Park, being in the zone meant sitting in front of the computer hours on end to do his job as a futurist, scoping out the latest trends.
But he also found himself unable to finish even a magazine article without losing track, just as Nicholas Carr discussed his ever shortening attention span in his seminal 2008 Atlantic piece "Is Google Making Us Stupid?"
Pang, who wrote the newly-published "The Distraction Addiction," says pleasure can be corrupted by overuse.
"I have a couple bottles of excellent scotch," he says. "I don't feel the need to chug it down.
He soon realized he needed to control technology instead of letting it control him. The iPhone has the social graces of a 4-year-old, he said. His solution? Sounds.
Using an iPad app called Ringer, he set up ring tones to create a sort of musical ranking of the people in his life -- a gratification barometer, of sorts.
The crucial connections, such as his wife, get Derek and the Dominos' soaring classic "Layla." Some get David Byrne's "Regiment."
"Everyone else,'' he said, "gets Brian Eno's 'Ambient 1: Music for Airports.' "