Notifications

Posted by on 10th Jun 2015

We're living in the mobile future. This future is bright, colorful, endless but also very limited to one screen only. This is the screen of your phone. This phone rings for attention -- constantly. It wants to tell you when something new is happening.

In this post I want to argue that modern technology is not so useful to us anymore. We have surpassed the time where computers were built to "work for us". It is evident now that computers won't do the work for us. They can do only parts of our work, but they can't replace the entirety. We've tried it.

About 10 years ago there was a nice app for the Mac named Growl. Growl used to be a third-party framework which allowed developers to show notifications about finished long-running processes, or when something important happened in the background. When the iPhone, and with it iOS, was introduced, it gained the same capabilities. These were later transferred over to the Mac, and since then have replaced Growl entirely.

On a phone notifications are really useful. They can show when we missed a call, or when an appointment is coming up. They can show when a player has finished their move. This is all fine and good, but right now notifications are used, even when there is no need for them. We are bombarded with notifications, badges, sounds, alert styles. I'm guilty too. Motion graphic design in apps is supposed to grab users' attention and make them aware of important things.
The only downside that I see at the moment is that many apps use notifications, and motion design, to indicate important things that are not really that important. It feels like we've come to a point where each notification doesn't stand out anymore, it's just one more annoying thing in the noise of other things to look at.

As an example. I can think of text editors that asked to display notifications. Single-user text editors. Recently Instagram started posting notifications for their "official Instagram photo of the day". There's stuff I care less about than what Instagram takes a picture of.

My argument is not only that we see a lot of notifications, which is fine, but that we see a lot of unasked notifications as well. Let's take that Instagram example. If I say that I want to see notifications when someone new follows me, or someone likes a picture, then I want to opt in to have them delivered to me. That is my choice. What's not my choice are all the other things, what a developer believes, are important to me. So we can opt in to display new follows, but we can't opt out from "photo of the day". If enough users complain, we get a feature that makes us configure notifications, and everything's good again.

That's not particularly bad. What is bad is the thought developers have in their mind, and not only them, but with them all the marketers, managers, and salespeople too. An app that I downloaded once told me about the other apps this developer has. Super-interesting; insta-delete.

So, we're getting more notifications than we ask for, and it can't be fixed, unless, of course, everyone on this earth stops to think we need to "engage" with everything we own. All this engagement nonsense is serious and utter horse shit. I can see that metric "engagement" in itself has a use - it tells people what folks spend their energy on - but now we need to engage with app update descriptions now too. Agile Bits had a period where they packed a "story" in their update. Seriously, what is wrong with those people?

But I start to become emotional, and that is not good for my argument. Also this is not about update descriptions. It's about attention grabbing, or, in other words engagement.

My point is not that I'm against notifications. I am all for notifications, the configurability, Do Not Disturb, etc. But what I'm against is what they make with people.
I have business colleagues who, when they receive a notification in the midst of a meeting, pick up their phone, while they talk with me, swipe through the Facebook app, like a couple of entries, still while they are talking with me, check a couple other apps for "new" stuff, then put down the phone, and continue the conversation as though nothing happened. I don't want to write about this disrespectful behavior. That is a whole other topic (and the perceived disrespectfulness ranges with age). The point is that people can't control themselves. It is not in their might to let the phone just ring. It is not in their might to turn the phone upside down.

I argued about how computers became our number 1 media consumption machines, and this is the result of 10 more years of mindless media consumption through computer technology. If I argued before that consuming TV was bad, I would now argue that consuming social is even worse. What's worse is that we're using "big data" to figure out exactly what draws people's attention. We're using that data to make people consume media, with such a scientific level of guarantee, that it's irresistible to them. The approach is so scientific because the Internet collects the knowledge, willpower, and behavior of millions of clicking monkeys. We create headlines, with A-B Testing, to tell which one drives more "engagement", right?

But media has always been this way. We've always done this. We've always optimized media so that it sells more, so that it grabs more attention, so that it shocks more people. Right? It's always been this way. It's nothing new. It's just the same stuff over and over again.

The thing is people can't control their attention anymore. When you watch someone else using their phone, it's a if the machine controls what the person does. One minute they read an article and within a second they write their far-away friend in Helsinki from WhatsApp. Again, I'm not against all that technology. I believe that all this technology has brought us a lot of good things. The way it has evovled, on the other hand, has brought us not so many good things. Most notifications are beyond useful.

So, where does this all lead to? I don't know. It leads, apparently, to a world where more and more people create content where they tell us about our own ridiculous behavior. That we stare down, and not up. That we could miss the one opportunity in our life, when we always stare down. We retweet, share, +1 this stuff, and laugh: "What the world has become. I'm glad it's not just me."