The scourge of overeager notifications
I am at the mercy of the red notification dot. I take each outstanding, un-checked badge on my phone screen as a personal affront. I spend a ridiculous amount of time clearing alerts that I never should have received in the first place, because if I don't, they continue to spring up like weeds.
All I want to know is: When will it end? Because notifications have become an inescapable scourge.
I'm not talking just about push notifications, which are equally unmanageable, but specifically about that red circle that pops up on an app icon to flag what might be an urgent Slack message from your boss, or a status "like" on Facebook, or an email informing you that your long-lost uncle has died and bequeathed his riches to you and you alone. You know, something important.
More likely than not, though, a notification these days heralds some useless bit of information intended only — only! — to suck you back into the app. Based on my personal experience, there is about a 50-50 chance of a red dot actually being something "real."
Today on Instagram alone, for example, I had a dot alerting me to a "suggested highlight" I could make; a dot telling me I can "discover people;" and a dot that wanted me to know there was a new post under my "home" tab — I follow 1,250 people, so there almost always is. I even had a dot informing me that there was an advertisement waiting for me to watch. The only notification that was in any way relevant was one alerting me to a reaction to a story I had posted.
It is exhausting. I have come to regard the red dot as an enemy, like the unblinking eye of Hal in 2001: A Space Odyssey.
The reason we are assaulted with notifications in the first place, of course, is because of companies' ever-desperate attempts to tempt users into "engaging" with their products for as long as possible. Facebook, for example, doesn't especially care that we're clicking into their app only to learn that our group project partner from our freshman year philosophy course is going to a DSA meeting in Brooklyn — it just cares that we're clicking into their app at all.
Even in the early days of SMS messaging, phone alerts provoked an excited response from users, and in the years since, notifications of all kinds have been harnessed to get us hyped about the possibility of what might be waiting under that bright red circle. "Tech companies understand what causes dopamine surges in the brain and they lace their products with 'hijacking techniques' that lure us in and create 'compulsion loops,'" explained The New York Times in 2017. Facebook's notifications and "likes" in particular have been described as the "bright ding of pseudopleasure" and "little dopamine hit[s]." "It's all about getting you to respond," explained Greg Hochmuth, an early Instagram employee, to Business Insider. "What can they do to keep you in the app?"
If I am a representative, then this is a very short-sighted strategy. It's like the boy who cried wolf or Pavlov's ringing bell without any dog food at the end. I have basically been trained to suspiciously eye every red circle that appears in-app or on my phone. The meaningless updates have become so overwhelming that I even hide from some of them — deleting my Facebook Messenger app and its constant barrage of notifications that I've connected with someone, and turning my Gmail notifications off entirely so I can't see the judgmental number of emails resting unanswered in my inbox.
damn facebook, can you be a LITTLE more desperate about trying to get us to see our facebook notifications? i’ll delete instagram too, don’t tempt me. pic.twitter.com/9xnXoED4ty
— kamilah taylor (@kamilah) May 20, 2018
I can't believe it has to be said, but notifications should serve a useful purpose for the user. Let me know if someone is trying to reach me. Maybe — maybe — tell me when there's an essential software update (but don't tell me twice!). And getting bombarded by every notification certainly shouldn't be the default setting when I download an app.
For the sake of everyone's sanity, tech companies, please heed a bit of timeless (and slightly-paraphrased) advice: If you don't have something useful to say, don't send a notification at all.