Chicago Public School HQ's Shames Naughty Web Surfers

By Matthew Harwood

The administrative headquarters of the Chicago Public Schools (CPS) knows how to keep its wireless network users from accessing Web sites it doesn't like: a shrieking alarm.

A friend of New York Times Freakonomics blogger Steven D. Levitt dropped him a note to explain her run in with this oh so simple but brilliant behavioral modification device. Tired of checking her business e-mail on the CPS wireless network, Susanne Neckermann made the mistake of clicking on a link to Facebook. She received an ear-full.

Apparently, the use of such internet sites is not tolerated by CPS and rather than block those websites altogether, accessing them causes this ear-piercing noise to go off that sounds something like a fire-department wagon passing directly by you.

Horrified, I was able to navigate away from the page as fast as I could, which made the noise stop. I must have looked quite stunned and glanced over at the CPS person that was with us in the room. She stated quite matter of factly, “Oh, did you try to go to facebook or youtube? They instituted that alarm as some sort of public shaming.”

As Levitt points out, this really is a novel way for an organization to deter employees and guests from surfing Web sites that are inappropriate, productivity sapping, or just plain dangerous. Rather than blocking specific Web sites, administrators can inform network users that certain categories of Web sites should not be visited and gives an incomplete list of such Web sites. Strategically, this makes perfect sense. "For instance,if the goal is to prevent workers from looking at pornography, there are thousands of competing sites, Levitt writes. "It might not be easy to figure out how to ban every one of these." Therefore, users play a virtual game of Russian Roulette every time they try to test the CPS censor. When they fail, the alarm sounds, which preys on a common human fear—embarrassment.

The economist Levitt explains that this approach turns a weakness into a strength: "The firm turns the information asymmetry that exists between the worker and the firm into a tool that works for the firm instead of against it."

But there's also an upside to this approach for the network user, Levitt notes. This approach allows people to go to a prohibited site if they desperately need to. By accessing it, they accept the consequences of the alarm and whatever discipline administrators dole out. If that Web site was blocked, however, the person with a legitimate need could not do so and something worse than setting off an annoying alarm could occur.

♦ Photo by debsilver/Flickr


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