A Plea For “Soft” Push Notifications in Our Sad, Scary 24/7 News Cycle

The sad and scary truth is that terrorism is increasing.

Since March 2014, the Islamic State has carried out or inspired at least 29 deadly assaults targeting Westerners around the world, killing more than 650 people, according to a New York Times analysis of such attacks.

As a writer and news hound, I indulge in push notifications on my smart phone from a number of news outlets. I demand to know what’s happening around the world as it’s happening, and news of terror attacks is no exception. That is, until now.

Screenshot of author’s NYTimes push notifications

I live in Brooklyn, which means that most European news alerts ping on my smartphone in the very early hours of the morning. For example, 3:17am: An EgyptAir flight has been hijacked and forced to land in Cyprus, officials said.

These alerts don’t always wake me up but in this case I was returning to bed from the bathroom and saw the alert illuminated on my phone, which, to say the least, made it difficult to return to sleep. Another recent early notification came after the Brussels terror attacks on March 22nd. I’m sure like most of you, the first thing I do in the morning is reach for my smartphone, which also functions as my alarm clock. Before getting out of bed that morning, I was devastated and disconsolate.

Yes, I want to be informed. Yes, I want to access the news on my smart phone. Yes, I want to receive alerts and notifications. But I generally don’t want these notifications to wake me up, and more so I don’t want to learn of terrible acts of violence and terrorism before I get out of bed in the morning.

Short of eliminating all notifications or switching my phone to airplane mode before bed, I don’t see many options to control this.

Perhaps one solution would be to establish a range of sentiment for the news, like on a 1–10 scale: 1 would be a beautiful, uplifting photo essay and 10 would be reports of mass murder and terrorism. Users could establish a timeframe based on the sentiment range, for instance, blocking notifications of news rating 5 or higher before 10am?

Or better yet, we could incorporate what I’ll call a “soft push” notification. This may read as coddling but quite frankly you wouldn’t just announce terrible news to someone straight away, without warning or context. You’d probably say something like, “Hey there, I have some bad news.” And then you’d relay that bad news. Why should a push notification be any different?

Screenshot of the Quartz app

With the personable and affable tone of intelligent computer programs like Siri or Alexa who often “speak” very candidly and even colloquially, why can’t we receive news updates in the same manner? Why can’t push notifications be delivered more… humanely? That is to say, delivered tenderly and with sympathy.

One news app, Quartz, delivers closest to what I’m trying to describe. Not in its push notifications, which are still just news headlines, but in the tone and design of its app that closely resembles a text conversation, complete with flashing ellipses as the app “types” the news update. Within this texting-ish experience, the user can decide for each news story whether to learn more or move on to another story, giving some control to the user if only in regards to the depth and length of engagement for each curated story. It’s a good start!

Instead of waking up to a push notification of a devastating and atrocious news headline, as happens seemingly more and more frequently, what if we could wake up to a somber, sober “soft-push” from a trusted ally?

“NYTimes: Good morning, Andy, unfortunately we have some bad news from Europe.”

Or…

“NYTimes: An awful event has occurred, would you like to learn more right now?”

Or…

“NYTimes: We have something to show you, please swipe right when you’re in a comfortable, private place.”

In today’s hyper-connected, constant information, over-consuming newsfeed, I believe we should be able to stay informed without being dejected first thing in the morning. I’m not saying don’t report it, I’m not saying I don’t want to know. I’m simply suggesting a gentler approach to the experience of breaking news delivered straight to my smartphone.

I read the news every day: The New York Times, BBC, Quartz, Forbes…. It’s not a very PG world we live in today and I get that. As wars continue, as terrorism increases, I want to learn about it and try to fully understand the events and news of the day.

All I ask is, please, let me have a coffee first?