On Internet Fatigue

The constantly-connected nature of our lives is unlike anything the human race has encountered before. Over the course of 20 years, we’ve become accustomed to a new normal that appeared fairly abruptly. This new normal has its (well-known) costs — we exercise less, strain our eyes, invest less in our real-life encounters, and so on. We make this tradeoff in return for the blessings of high-speed internet access: always-available news, information, opinion, art, and entertainment.

As someone born in the 90s and raised in the 2000s, it’s hard for me to remember the world before the internet, but I suspect it was a little easier to focus back then. Today, it takes discipline to stay on track. Getting any amount of work done probably involves turning off notifications, finding a quiet room, and avoiding social media, news media, email, messaging apps, games, and everything else the internet has to offer. The internet in its entirety is too stimulus-heavy for us to be productive in its presence.

Consequently, products have to compete for our attention, and compete they do. Almost every service I sign up for nowadays puts me on their email newsletter by default, presumably because they hope I’ll convert into a paying customer, or start using complementary products. Many mobile apps I install have ads and push notifications enabled by default. Almost every time, my response is to opt out of these communications if I can. I unsubscribe from newsletters immediately, disable push notifications, and even uninstall apps when their ads get too invasive.

This makes me wonder whether competing for attention is really the best strategy for new products. I think the best strategy here is instead to manage attention. People who create online experiences (including designers, programmers, and writers) should have empathy for the plight of the modern internet user, and try to build around that. Some ideas:

  1. Let the user set the schedule. When my phone lights up at an odd time of day, I expect it to be a person or organization I care about. It’s a waste of my time when it’s an unexpected promotion. That being said, there are a few email and notification lists I’m okay with being a part of because they involve products and services I’m actually interested in. Having a clear, flexible opt-in/opt-out policy is a pretty good ROI for the sender as a result. The users who care will stay, the users who don’t will leave, and the users in the middle can adjust their message frequency to something more manageable.
  2. Summarize well. My biggest pet peeve with online content today is that it focuses too much on generating inbound traffic. This wastes users’ time when these tactics materialize as (basically) false advertising. We have the “BuzzFeed effect” as a result. It wasn’t so bad for BuzzFeed itself to write clickbait headlines — who cares, right? It becomes a problem, though, when Forbes and CNN start to do it.
  3. Reward loyalty. With almost unlimited consumption choices, it’s the brands that reward their loyal customers the most that actually win the war for attention. This is usually more effective than buying ads. I trust my friends more than a banner ad to tell me which products are good. Rewarding loyalty encourages these network effects.