The rise of Anti-Notifications

The evolution of a well intentioned technology to what it is today

Few inventions affected our relationship with technology as much as push-style notifications. Whereas before modern day notifications, most of us felt in charge to decide when we want to use and interact with technology, it is technology that is now largely making that decision for us.

This all goes well as long as these notifications provide value and meaning to enrich our lives. As soon as relevancy drops however, it results in a system that isn’t just malicious, but a collective distraction costing us more than we might be willing to pay.

It’s always easy to blame technology, but it’s important to note that it isn’t technology itself that is at the heart of the problem, but our own inability to handle it. After all, not all notifications are created equal. And in order to better understand the evolution from relevance to noise, we need to briefly talk about how we got to where we are today.

In 1971, Raymond Tomlinson, an American computer programmer from Massachusetts, had a daunting task that would turn out to become one of the critical cornerstones of modern day digital culture. While working on ARPANET, the first version of the Internet subsidized by the U.S. government, Tomlinson needed to figure out a way to let users send messages to one another. Before his invention, messages could only be sent to users who had their accounts on the same computer. This changed when Tomlinson added the now infamous @-symbol. This ingenious addition allowed users to separate the recipient’s name from the name of the machine he or she was using.

One of the first users of this new system famously described it as a “nice hack”. This “hack” has stayed with us ever since and soon led email to make up 75% of all early internet traffic.

The high demand of email subsequently led to the creation of the Standard Mail Transfer Protocol (SMTP). This new protocol would soon become the global standard for sending and receiving emails. Surprisingly enough, SMTP already had push-style networking baked into it. But it wasn’t used widely because only very few users were permanently connected to the internet at the time. [1]

This changed when the first internet-capable phones, aka Smartphones, reached the market.

In 2003, Research In Motion (RIM), was the first company to successfully commercialize push notification in an end-user product. Their flagship phone called BlackBerry, was the first Smartphone with the ability to immediately notify users when they received a new email. This wasn’t just a handy feature—it became a critical reason for BlackBerry’s mass adoption in the business world. [2]

It didn’t take long for competitors to realize how much potential a push-driven network architecture has—in particular on a device people always have with them. That’s why in 2008, after soaring interest in the developer community, Apple opened up notifications to the general public and made it available under the name Apple Push Notification Service (APNS).

This was one of the most significant changes to mobile operating systems since the beginning of the iPhone itself.

Notifications didn’t just become an essential part of the phone. The infamous bell icon soon appeared everywhere. From operating systems, to apps, and ultimately websites themselves.

Over time, the bell icon’s meaning quickly became representative for a simple idea: “There is something new for you.

You. You. You.

You, coupled with the notion of new, made one of the most potent dopamine cocktails in tech’s history.

Unsurprisingly, users were exhilarated. This highly personal system would ring in a radical change in the attention economy: to deliver highly personalized content on the fly.

The rise of anti-notifications

It didn’t take long until everyone wanted to be in our streams.
Today, the most random websites ask us for permission to bombard us with content. The amount of incoming information left many of us frustrated and overwhelmed. It wasn’t just the fault of the companies generating the notifications however, but instead our very own inability to say no.

This changed when a new type of notification entered the scene.

As competition for attention became more and more fierce, big players started to use new tactics to increase engagement on their platforms. Whereas we used to get notified about things that were all about us, we now get notified when two random friends like each other’s Avocado toast.

This is a new type of notification, unlike any type we’ve seen before, and I call these anti-notifications. They aren’t meant for you, they are meant for everybody else. Their sole purpose isn’t increasing value, but optimizing for short term engagement.

The bell that was once used to keep us in the loop, is now mostly used to bring us back into the loop instead.

The users who got annoyed the most, are still browsing through tips and tricks on how to get rid of irrelevant notifications on Stackoverflow.

Through variable rewards, notifications became one of the most potent ways to keep people hooked. And while some people teach designers and product managers how to create addictive products, others are helping and advising companies on how to create products that respect peoples’ time.

Long live notifications

There is an end in sight to this. The moment we become aware of the increasingly noisy character of notifications is the moment they lose their efficacy.

Anti-notifications remind us of the fable of Aesop, in which a shepherd boy repeatedly tricks villagers into believing a wolf is attacking their sheep. When a wolf finally does appear, the boy desperately tries to warn everyone. This time however, no one would listen to him. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for the sheep.

We ignore a shepherd who always sows panic just like we ignore a bell that always rings.

Anti-Notifications that solely aim at increasing engagement without providing personal value are the same. And while they are a powerful tool to increase engagement in the short run, they might very well be on their way to make the entire notification bubble go bust.

Time will tell. And we’ll probably hear about it through the sound of a red badge popping up on our screens.

Thanks for reading!

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