Notification panel visualisation — panel waits behind your smartphone screen, you pull/roll it down over what you’re looking at (drawing by myself)

Push Alienation

You wake around an hour earlier than her. She doesn’t work an office job so she’s used to lie-ins. You? Your daily routine’s permanently hobbled your ability to sleep in and take full advantage of the weekend for catching up on sleep. It’s a thoroughly modern problem — I wouldn’t say that medieval farmers and serfs didn’t have it rough, but for all the plague and scurvy at least they didn’t have the peculiar torture of the “missed opportunity” — the weekends taunting them with lie-in possibilities that their body clocks couldn’t possibly let them enjoy.

You reckon you might as well use this time to catch up on some emails, do some social networking, while your significant other sleeps. You’ve left your phone plugged in by the bed upstairs. No sense in unplugging it until you’re about to leave the house. Camera, Pocket, Nuzzel, Twitter, Facebook, Google Maps, Pocket Casts, VSCOcam and Instagram are all power-hungry apps that you are confident you will use multiple times during the course of the day. And you don’t want to run out of battery at 8pm. While you’re in the house, you decide to use your laptop to get some “real work” done.

Except you can’t.

Your laptop shipped with Windows 8. You quite liked the OS — especially with Classic Shell enabling the familiar Start Menu of yore — but you couldn’t wait to trial Windows 10 Insider Preview. Cortana, Edge, all that jazz. During the course of upgrading & wiping the system a few times to solve driver issues (really not as much of a hassle as it used to be, now that all your important documents are spread across a few cloud storage services), you kind of learnt to do without most native apps apart from Microsoft Office Suite (because going all-in on Google Docs is still insanity).

You weren’t using that cracked copy of Adobe Creative Suite anyway, other than neurotically creating endless variations of your fancy resume using InDesign (landscape orientation never helped you get your dream job, big shot, and it never will). Traktor and Audacity aren’t getting much action these days, either. You can mix every 96kpbs mp3 that exists on the internet in a gadget that fits in your pocket now. You apologise to 25-year-old you for acquiescing to the evil of lossy audio formats, but dusting off the old Midi decks just isn’t worth the hassle.

You’re part of the Oregon Trail Generation,

just as hopelessly addicted to your smartphone as these pesky millenials, but on the inside an old-school elitist who believes that the high demands you put on computers means that you’ll be one of the last to let go of PCs and go whole hog on mobile devices. The browser’s The One. Your window onto the entire digital world. You can get everything in it now — Gmail is good enough in-browser, even Instagram’s now got a decent enough website, and besides, Facebook has always been better in the browser than in their sucky mobile apps, right? The PC’s your workhorse.

So why does it feel so clunky, like you’re operating through a layer of abstraction? It’s the social media equivalent of wading through a vat of treacle, or trying to stack shelves with a space suit on. Everything should be there, but something is preventing you from fully unleashing. What’s missing?

Push notifications. It could be a form of Stockholm Syndrome — they used to overwhelm, scare and annoy you, but you’ve come to rely on them and it feels weird not having them around. Sorta like a phantom limb.

Push Alienation — n. the feeling of profound disconnect felt when using social media sites in the web browser in the absence of push notifications

Tech and media pundits like to say we’re in the age of the push notification and the death of the web browser. You don’t realise how true that is until now.

The punditry goes that as the number of available apps explodes, notifications are becoming increasingly indispensable as a way to direct your limited attention (i.e. when to pay attention to which app).

Yo, the single-function smartphone app that sends one word: “Yo”, to your contacts, is only the most naked expression of innovation in this space. The push notifications are 99% of the value (the app’s user interface is negligible). It is designed explicitly to take up space on someone’s push tray, and they’re building a market to trade in this attention. Apple doesn’t yet have a killer use-case for the Watch (the immediate application being notification triage) but they’re sure as hell that a web browser ain’t part of it.

You’ve been so conditioned by this state of affairs that using a browser now gives you a peculiar feeling of being isolated from your network even as you’re perfectly capable of accessing all your social networks. “Push Alienation”.

The browser’s future

Google et al are backing the browser as a new push platform, but will the average user get around to using them? Here’s how I see browser notifications working for most people:

Day 1: browses section A of news site X, chooses to “allow browser notifications”
Day 2: sees push notification from section A, clicks to browse it
Day 3: gets push notification from section A, ignores it
Days 4~6: ditto
Day 7: turns off browser push notifications forever

Perhaps more likely, for less technically savvy internet users (probably a larger % of people than you think):

Day 1: browses section A of news site X, hits “allow browser notifications” in the mistaken belief that it’ll be in email update form
Day 2: push notification from site X pops up in the browser while browsing Facebook, freaks out, disables push notifications forever

So perhaps browser notifications are DOA. It’s just too difficult to shift user behaviour on a top-down basis.

Still, I believe that if anyone can do it, Google has the best shot at getting this right, as their (vast) experience in information curation encompasses Search, Google Now, and most recently Inbox. They’ve even introduced a developer API for Google Now to open this up, a la Yo.

Conversely, a platform-neutral standard just wouldn’t have enough data at launch to make these things immediately useful and lead to mass adoption. Unless you’re conceptually on-board with the end result, it just won’t be worthwhile to users to provide a lot of information up-front (it’s the Twitter problem of onboarding). Can you imagine manually setting notification parameters for each news source that you use? Geeks would go to the trouble, but the average user definitely would not.

Let me know your thoughts on push notifications and the browser. Comment on this article, or alternatively I’m @philgpearson on Twitter.

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