Attention is the main prize of the internet. Everyone is fighting for it, and the phone is the prime battleground. The most potent of weapons in this war is the incessant, whining notification trying to pull your attention away from whatever you are actually doing and into some other app.
The notification may also be a major source of modern technological madness, due to the harmful cognitive consequences of having one's focus continually shattered and reset. A recent study found that a majority of users who made a deliberate choice to turn their notifications down as part of an enforced break were not likely to turn them back on. This got me wondering: What would happen if I cranked them in the opposite direction? What might I learn about how phones are reshaping minds? What might I learn about my own mind?
So for a few days a week on and off over the past month, I cranked notifications up to max. These were the ground rules I laid out to ensure I was getting the full, mind-splintering effect:
- Turn on all notifications for all apps, without exception.
- When a notification arrives, go straight to it and consider fully what it wants me to do, unless I'm driving or am otherwise completely indisposed.
Although I'm sure you can do this experiment with Android, I used an iPhone. Everyone's app profile is different, but I'm close to a baseline profile: I use a mix of news, social, reading/writing and dating apps. I'm probably more slanted toward news than the average user.
The first thing I noticed is that it actually takes some effort to enter Push Hell. You have to dig into settings, toggle notifications on, then go through your app list to make sure they're on for each individual app. And then in some cases, you need to visit the apps themselves to make sure notifications are on inside of their own settings profiles.
The latest big version of iOS -- iOS12 -- was supposedly designed in part to help users limit and monitor their screen time. It changed notifications so that they would stack when they came from the same source (a feature that was already part of the Android experience). This doesn't change notification frequency or obnoxiousness -- it just makes them easier to sift through. Though incremental, this is a welcome improvement in notification management. People forget, but there were years during which notifications would mandatorily yank you out of whatever you were doing on your phone by default. By degrees, the system is improving.
So after a month of full blown alerts, here are my findings, grouped by app category.
News is sometimes news but usually not. Notifications for news apps seem like a good idea: Things are happening quickly, and you want to keep up. I get it. But after a few full days of news notifications, I quickly realized that most notifications are not "breaking news." In fact, there's no real logic about what qualifies as worthy of an alert. I've gotten important breaking events, and I've gotten alerts that have yanked me out of work to tell me that downtown Indianapolis is going through an urban renewal. Recently, I had a brainstorming session interrupted for Google News to tell me the guy who played Big Bird is retiring. Weekends are the worst for this kind of frivolity: Every news org is going to push the entirety of its weekend magazine fluff at you, piecemeal. The only time a news alert matters is if you get a bunch of them in a row from different news organizations. This means actual news has occurred.
Despite the fluff, I think overall it's worth having news notifications on for those rare moments when you can get the actual news earlier than those around you, giving you the chance to look up smugly and "break" it to them. Just find a good news aggregator -- Google or Apple News are both fine -- and go deep into those to carefully prune which sources you're getting alerts from. If you can micromanage this to three to four news headlines mainlined into your brain per day, it's OK.
Side note: I've found the fastest news breaker out there isn't in app form at all. It's Axios.com. Its email alerts tend to always beat out The New York Times, even though they come in through your email. (You do have email alerts on, right?)
Social media notifications are incredibly pathetic and unnecessary. There's no good reason to have any social media notifications on. If someone really wants you, they will text you or message you on a chat app. Maybe they'll even call. Facebook notifications -- event invites, friend requests, trending posts -- are nothing but a sad, transparent plea to get you to open the app. I was getting about two of these begs a day, and that was two too many.
You can definitely skip Instagram notifications, which usually take the form of "someone posted for the first time in a while" or "someone added to their story." Again, these are just pathetic and desperate reminders to open the app. Now, there are definitely people out there who try to have conversations with you on Instagram, but I find you can deal with these people on your own terms -- unless you are in high school, because Instagram is where apparently a lot of adolescent conversation (and bullying) happens these days. Excluding conversations, I was getting about one Instagram alert per day: better than Facebook but still totally unnecessary.
TikTok is the worst notification offender among the socials, which is fitting because it is one of the most facile social media networks out there. It's a Musical.ly-Vine mashup with an embarrassingly huge fan base (if its numbers are to be believed, it has 500 million active users). TikTok stars are lip-syncing/lifestreaming high school students, nurses on break and cops (seriously, there are a lot of cops on this thing!). You don't need notifications to stay on top of this network, but TikTok pushes me on average five to six alerts per day. TikTok was truly the worst part of this experiment: getting yanked out of a book on my Kindle to watch some muscle-bound idiot do push-ups to a Drake song. This happened to me multiple times per day, seemingly randomly. I began trying to put a positive spin to it. I'm a writer, and I tried to find some writerly advice here: Look, I thought, every time a TikTok alert about a rapping granny came in, it's OK to dumb it down.
NextDoor is by far the most hilarious notification sender. Once per day, I'd get a trending headline that would be something along the lines of "Found gerbil on Echo Park Ave!" or "Weird guy breaking into car????" The worst offender was the person who initiated an "emergency" network-wide push alert asking if anyone had seen his keys in the park. This went out to every phone with the NextDoor app. I received this alert -- loudly -- during an important meeting. Opinion: There should not be "emergency" push alerts on NextDoor at all. This option should not exist. For real emergencies, dial 911.
Twitter notifications can be useful in certain circumstances, such as turning on a good reporter during a major political event. The fact that Twitter lets you set notifications for specific people is a great thing -- one of the best thing about notifications, actually. And yet despite this one good thing, Twitter also engages in that same sniveling, shameless begging of you to open the app for non-reasons that all the other social media companies do: This person liked a post, these people have followed the same person. It's actually pretty pathetic how badly the social networks want you on them. If someone is that desperate for your attention, constantly pulling at your sleeve, begging you to look at them, they're usually someone you want to avoid, right?
In the spirit of going full Push Hell, I turned on Tweet alerts for the president of the United States' personal Twitter account. These alerts came in randomly but more often hot and heavy in the mornings, usually right before my alarm. Quite often, they woke me up. But only rarely did I get any real news from them. You probably don't need me to tell you that they are mostly just complaints, name-calling, shot-taking, score-keeping and lots of feel-good messages about America, with the occasional surreal typo-ridden missive. Regardless of your political affiliation, I highly suggest you do not turn this on.
Dating and the rest
Facetune occasionally talked to me. That's even sadder than a social media network reminding me it exists, because I've opened Facetune maybe once in my life. Also, I'm on to you, Amazon Prime Photo: You tell me to revisit my memories every single morning. Once per week might actually make me want to check in on the past, but seriously, every day? And it comes on a schedule: 11 AM Pacific, on the dot. I actually started keeping time by it. A midmorning ding from my pocket? It must mean that Amazon wants me to engage with one of its products, and it's about time to get to my gym appointment. Even Kindle sent me notifications about what's trending. I'm sorry, Kindle, but you should be a safe, zen space. I go to Kindle to get lost in long text and block out the world, so stop chirping at me.
Yelp gets the award for creepiest notifications. Whenever I arrived in a new place, I'd get an alert to the effect of "Hey! We see you're in Glendale. Have you tried the Starbucks?" This is actually disturbing, and I never really got used to it, even though I was getting them multiple times per day. Please stop following me around and telling me to eat and shop. It was so nakedly dystopian at some point that it was either a post-capitalist parody or someone at Yelp HQ was making a plea for help: "Hi! I see you're near Yelp headquarters. Can you save me?"
Much ink has been spilled on the dating-app ecosystem's game theory to keep users engaged and swiping. The notification plan is as you would expect: match and chat notifications and the occasional reminder that no matter whatever else you are doing right now, you could be swiping instead. The only observation I'd throw into the mix is the question of what the hell is up with Bumble? At some point, it began pushing me mushy, feel-good self-help messages like it's a lifestyle brand and not a place to meet Instagram thirst traps. Dating apps may be many things, but one thing they are not: life-affirming.
Weeks of this nonsense wears on you, and through the experiment one thing became abundantly clear: The off days, when notifications were on zero, were a true blessing. They provided not only a relief but also a whole new outlook on life. Days without notifications felt more full, and more full of possibility. There's a simple reason why: I could hold my concentration for longer than half an hour.
At some point, thinking about notifications and attention becomes an epistemic, if not existential, question. What is attention, actually, and what happens when you fraction it, when you commodify it? Many philosophers say that attention is consciousness. You are only yourself through the act of concentration, through your reaction to what you are focusing on. But then, if this is true, the internet is literally trying to exploit and monetize your consciousness, your very being. In this light, the idea of an "attention economy" is a freakish perversion and the notification itself an assault on humanity.
Maybe I'm overthinking this. On a simple level, during these weeks, I learned that as a writer, I need a good chunk of uninterrupted time (2-3 hours) to allow the creative process to unfold. Sure, I like and need distractions, but those only work on my own terms -- not on my phone's terms. In fact, when notifications are on, it's not hard to start seeing your phone as a toxic presence in your life, a friend who saps your energy, drags you down and begs you to pay attention to them but offers you little in return.
Do yourself a favor: Turn all of your notifications down to the bare minimum for a week and see if it improves your attention span and, by extension, your entire self. Chances are you won't go back. Just, whatever you do, don't crank them to maximum.