Notifications are broken. Here’s how Apple and Google can fix them.

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  • 3 years ago

Nothing epitomizes our love-hate relationship with today’s tech more than the push notification.

Our hatred of those badges, banners, and little red dots has never felt more visceral. To anyone with a smartphone, the device often feels like a devil’s bargain: You get to carry around knowledge and communication beyond what anyone in history has ever wielded at the cost of getting interrupted several times a day by default.

It’s not just smartphones. Desktop operating systems have borrowed heavily from their mobile counterparts in recent years, bringing with them notifications galore. Even the web itself won’t leave us alone: our browsers are continually bothering us to allow some sites and services to send alerts, adding to the cacophony of dings.

The tech industry brought this on itself. John Hermann at the New York Times does an excellent job of pinpointing the origin of the problem, correctly ascertaining the simple reason that every service is sending us red dots: they work. Someone, somewhere is tapping on that badge that just appeared on your lock screen. What other reason would any service send something this ridiculous?

The problem has a seemingly simple, if extreme, solution (and one that I’ve clearly been tempted to do myself): Turn off notifications — all of them. Tech columnist David Pierce makes a strong case for this, advocating that it “puts you back in control.” He’s far from alone. Farhad Manjoo at the Times recently decided to get all his news from print for two months and found the freedom from social media and notifications liberating.

Act vs. react is a false choice

All this shut-it-down talk certainly feels empowering: Damn little red bubbles — you’re not the boss of me! Knee-jerk emotions aside, it’s also philosophically comforting: Turning off notifications forces you to be more proactive than reactive.

The thing is, sometimes we want to be reactive. If a family member is sending me a message, I want to know as soon as possible, whether it’s a crisis or not. I find calendar alerts to be invaluable in helping me stay on schedule. And there are certain things — individuals I deem important, franchises I’m a fan of, and news sources I trust — where I genuinely desire (or a least don’t mind) hearing about new stuff.

The argument against all this is, “But you’ll still get to all that later, just on your own time.” First, while that sounds right, it could mean missing out on cultural conversations I want to be a part of. You could question the value of those in the first place, I admit, but then we’re veering further into self-help and not an actual tech problem (which, to be clear, does exist).

Second: Would I get to it later? I’m not so sure. “Take on the world, head on, on your terms,” is great general life advice, but the day-to-day often doesn’t lend itself to such constant invigoration — at least outside of “Type A” personalities. In other words, for the rest of us, we’ll probably never get to it. Though we probably don’t want to admit it, we need the kick in the pants in the moment if we’re going to take any action at all.

All of this is not to say push notifications aren’t broken — they are — but I’ll dare to voice an unpopular opinion on the subject: They’re worth trying to fix rather than throwing them out altogether.

Unpopping the red bubble

To do so, I propose a more nuanced look at notifications, recognizing that a text from a loved one isn’t the same as a colleague with a routine question, which isn’t the same as a suggestion to “rediscover this day.” Everyone could probably separate the notifications they get into 3 levels of urgency:

  1. Must have: Texts from family, work projects, actual phone calls would all fall here.
  2. Would be nice: This is stuff you’re interested in that isn’t life-affecting (including content you’ve recently interacted with and would like to know about new activity)
  3. Who cares? Unsolicited alerts just mugging for your attention — all the crap, basically.

It would be great if every app and service recognized this pretty obvious hierarchy of urgency and simply get rid of No. 3 wholesale. That’s never going to happen for the same reason email spam will never fully go away: There will always be some percentage of people who respond to the alert, and as long as the service is providing something essential enough that the bulk of users aren’t tossing it, some amount of dross will continue.

A straightforward solution is to put the burden on users: customize your notifications so you only get the ones you want. That’s great in theory, but in practice few will actually do so. And even if you do take the time to tailor your notifications, there’s always the risk that this or that app will get thirsty and tap you on the shoulder about your “burrito crush” or some other such nonsense. The solution needs to be system-wide.

Short of a broad rethinking of notifications in the tech industry, I believe the only solution to the notification problem is… wait for it… AI. I know: It’s an overused buzzword, but hear me out: Your phone, laptop, and web browser all know your habits — which apps you interact with, how long you typically spend in them, which notifications you’re likely to respond to, and the way in which you’ve customized those notifications.

Taking all these signals, your devices could start to massage the notifications you see, regardless of what the originator of the alert wanted to send you. It’d be controversial (you can bet most services won’t like the idea) but you could avoid much of the controversy by making the — let’s call it auto-curation — of push alerts opt-in.

I challenge smartphone makers and platform stewards like Apple, Google, Samsung and others to figure this out. The half-hearted guidelines on push notifications clearly aren’t working. Larger solutions are needed, lest the multiplying red bubbles on our devices pass the point of no return and truly become the new spam: something to be eradicated, not fixed.

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