The Age of Notifications

We’ve gone from portals to feeds to little bulletins on your lock screen. Smart watches will move us to crisis mode. But there’s a solution…

Steven Levy


A few weeks ago I was crossing the street. It was cold — late February in the Winter From Hell here on the east coast — and I was wearing a heavy coat with an inside pocket for my iPhone. The device buzzed and vibrated. My heart quickened. I ran the remaining few yards to the curb. I pulled off my gloves, fumbled to open the buttons of the coat, and almost dropped my bag in the process. Finally I managed to pull out the phone. On the screen was the following message:

This was delivered to me in the standard message format, no different than a New York Times alert informing me a building two blocks from my apartment has exploded, or an iChat message that my sister is desperately trying to reach me. Please note that I am not a blood relative of B.J. — sorry, Melvin — Upton, nor am I even a fan of the Atlanta Braves. In other words…this could have waited. Nonetheless, At Bat apparently deemed this important enough to broadcast to hundreds of thousand of users who had earlier clicked, with hardly a second thought, on a dialogue box asking if they wanted to receive notifications from Major League Baseball. No matter what these users were doing — enduring a meeting, playing basketball, presenting to a book club, daydreaming, watching a movie, enjoying a family meal, painting their masterpiece, proposing marriage, interviewing a job candidate, having sex, or any combination thereof — the news of The Melvin Renaming (the next Robert Ludlum novel?) penetrated their individual radars, urging them to Look at me! Now! Even if they kept the phone stashed, the simple fact that there was an alert burrowed in their brains, keeping them just a little off balance until they finally picked up the phone to discover what the buzz was about.

The Melvin Renaming was just one interruption among billions in what now is unquestionably the Age of Notifications. As our reliance on electronically delivered information has increased, the cascade of brief urgent pointers to that information has been funneled into our devices, lighting our lock screens with these brief dispatches. Rarely does an app neglect to ask you to opt-in to these messages. Most often — since you see the dialogue box when you are entering your honeymoon stage with the app, just after consummation — you say yes.

The makers of the major mobile operating systems do attempt to manage this deluge: Android has a “notification drawer,” and Apple its “notification center.” (For instance, Apple is considerate enough to set a “do not disturb” status to prevent those things from waking you up, oh, a hundred times a night.) But that’s barely working — and now, with the impending shipments of the Apple Watch and subsequent wearables, we are about to experience a hyperdrive acceleration of notifications, propelling us to a crisis situation.

This has been long in coming.

Let’s unearth the eras of knowledge distribution, as if we were geologists exploring layers of subterranean rock. The first period of online information delivery was focused on the portal, an omnibus collection of news, sports, weather, and mail notices on the front page of a service like AOL or Yahoo. These portals were supposed to occupy the niches that newspapers once held in the pre-digital world.

The portals haven’t gone away, exactly, but they have been supplanted by feeds that live inside services such as Facebook. The idea of organizing content in a constantly updating stream is simple, compelling and wonderfully suited to our constant visitations to services we love. The two giants of feeds — still at the top of their games — were Facebook and Twitter. Meanwhile, many, many other services and apps adopted the feed approach. Yahoo uses it for its home page. LinkedIn has rejiggered its entire website to put its stream in your face. And newer entries such as Snapchat embrace it from the get-go. But as time went on, the two big feed giants, Facebook and Twitter — and don’t count Google out in this competition — began to entertain the idea that their service could be a kind of an uber stream, where other applications and services would hop into the their waters and become items in that mighty flow. Users would still use those other feed-based services and apps (Snapchat as a stand-alone app isn’t going away), but the holy grail for those big Internet companies was to have their feed morph into your numero-uno feed, the go-to feed, the feed that supplies you with news, music, uplifting animal videos, and the latest on what your friends are up to.

But the idea of One Feed to Rule Them All is ultimately a pipe dream. It’s unrealistic to think that the streams of Facebook, Twitter or Google can handle everything in their feeds. Also, because most people are on mobile these days, there is much less time to scroll through feeds. This idea becomes even more ludicrous as the Internet of Things materializes. The IoT will add an entirely new corpus of items to your information budget, as your personal sensor net surfaces relevant data on everything from the detergent level in your dishwasher to the progress of the suit you submitted to the drycleaner. Can you trust Facebook to properly rank an alert announcing that someone has broken into your house? Will Twitter abandon chronological ordering to put a robo-tweet on top of your Timeline?

No, for those things you want instant alerts, and that’s partly why the mobile age has helped usher in the Age of Notifications. Instead of making you compulsively visiting dozens of apps, the apps vow to send you the most important items they generate, so you can get a taste of what’s happening without opening the app. Done right, notifications are a wonderful Feed of Feeds, weeding out the stuff you really need to see from all the usual chaff in the stream.

But it’s hard to do this right when every single app wants to send you notifications. Even given that the system will limit itself to notices worthy of instant notice — and The Melvin Renaming is evidence to the contrary — there are just too many notifications elbowing their way into what should be a narrow passage labeled, “Stuff I absolutely need to see.”

This decreases the value of all notifications. If you want an example of another realm, consider the situation of “alarm fatigue” in hospitals, as recently exposed in a book by Dr. Robert Wachter, excerpted here on Backchannel recently. Of the 350,000 drug prescriptions a month that Wachter’s hospital issues, pharmacists get alerts on nearly half of those. In the hospital’s five Intensive Care Units, bedside cardiac units alerts go off 187 times — per patient, per day. That’s 381,560 a month. If you weren’t inured, you’d go crazy. But what about the really serious ones?

We aren’t at that level of desperation yet with online notifications. But the Age of Notifications is about to face its biggest mess yet, as alerts move from phone screens to watch faces. Notifications are just about the entire point of a smart watch — you’re not going to be reading books, watching movies or doing spreadsheets on them. And a tilt of the wrist is the perfect delivery system for those little blips.

But having that delivery system on your body makes notifications much harder to ignore. It’s jarring enough to get a phone-buzz notifying you of an alert. When it’s something zapping your skin, it’s even more compelling. What’s more, because it’s so easy to simply twist your wrist to see what the fuss is about, the temptation is all the harder to resist. The result will be incessant interruptions for things not worth being interrupted for. Virtually every single reviewer of the Apple Watch complained that to avoid this particular hell, he or she spent hours paring down their notifications to the bare bones.

So what’s the solution? We need a great artificial intelligence effort to comb through our information, assess the urgency and relevance, and use a deep knowledge of who we are and what we think is important to deliver the right notifications at the right time. As time goes on, we will trust such a system to effectively filter all our information and dole it out just as needed. (Of course, that system will be able to assess each notification for its appropriateness on a given device. A laptop computer will have a relatively low bar; a phone will require more stringent criteria. As with Seinfeld’s Elaine and her sponge, only the really crucial stuff will be determined watch-worthy.)

I do expect such a system to eventually work well enough to lure people into widespread adoption. Just as pilots now “fly by wire” with planes that operate pretty much autonomously, and soon our cars will “drive by wire” as they allow us to snooze at the wheel, the automated intake of our information will allow us to “know by wire,” as super-smart systems learn how to parcel things out in the least annoying and most useful fashion. They will curate better than any human can.

I suspect though, that something may be lost in the process. As we rely more on what we need to know, we’ll probably see less of what we’d simply kind of like to know. To really be educated and entertained on the world around us,, we’ll have to pull our attention away from our wrists and do what Apple seems to be urging us not to do: pull our devices out of our handbags and pockets, and thumb through our feeds to gobble up information that may not be urgent, but in the aggregate is essential in creating a mental picture of the current zeitgeist.

Take The Melvin Renaming. Though I almost threw down my phone in fury when that notification first appeared, looking up the story while writing this column unearthed a piece of data I never knew: the monicker that Mr. Upton abandoned, “B. J.,” was not the name on his birth certificate but an abbreviation for the nickname “Bossman Junior.”

Pretty interesting. But certainly not watch-worthy.

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Steven Levy

Writing for Wired, Used to edit Backchannel here. Just wrote Facebook: The Inside Story.