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Just Say No to Push Notifications

App makers are out to capture our attention with reminders and alerts on our phones’ lock screens. Do we really need a reminder to post to Facebook? Joanna Stern proposes a notification bill of rights.


Joanna Stern

I’ll bet [Buzz! Julie just posted to Facebook for the first time in a while] that you cannot make it through [Ding! Notafriend123 just started a live video!] this column [Buzz! Sunday Runday!] without being annoyed by a [Ding! A brunch spot for you] push notifications on your smartphone.

Here’s another bet: You’ve tried to silence unimportant push alerts but couldn’t figure out the complicated settings. Or worse, you thought you mastered the settings, but trivial messages still manage to sneak through like a mouse in an air vent.

Our attention has become such a precious commodity that apps, social networks and, yes, news outlets have deployed infuriating numbers of pop-ups to conquer it.

“Silence all the notifications!” is not the answer, however. Do I want Facebook to ding me to update my profile? Never. But I sure as heck want to be buzzed by the babysitter watching my newborn.

I polled readers on which apps they find to be the worst notification offenders—I’m looking at you, Facebook and Instagram. After digging deep into app and system settings, I discovered tricks to reclaim some power.

I also reached out to 10 of these companies to express my frustration. They all got back to me, most often directing me to buried, unclear app settings. There seems to be an industrywide belief that this is enough. But our time and attention deserve more respect. With that, I propose the Notification Bill of Rights.

Article I: The right to easier controls

Whether you have an Android or iPhone, there are two places you control your notifications:

The operating system’s settings menu. Here, app by app, you decide if you will permit notifications at all. If you allow an app to send alerts, you can then control when and how they appear—on your lock screen, in your notification center, etc. Before you read further, go through this list and turn off any apps you don’t care about. And when iOS asks if you want to accept notifications for a newly downloaded app, don’t just say “Allow.” Unfortunately, Android has no such option.

The app’s own settings menu. Here, most apps provide the ability to control notification content—friend requests, breaking news, music releases, new game levels. If you’ve left notifications enabled for an app, make sure to comb through these options.

The design of this system is confusing. Apple and Google should make it easier for us to get from system settings to individual app menus. It now takes about four taps to get from an app’s home screen to its notification controls.

And when you get there, you often see a long and messy list. The alternative is worse: a single on-off switch—or no notification control at all. Seriously, Lyft, I know when I need you, so alert me when my driver is arriving, not when there’s a sale on rides. A Lyft spokesman declined to comment.

Article II: The right to not be manipulated

No surprise that the abundance of Facebook and Instagram “So-and-so posted for the first time in a while” alerts prompted me to write this column. Tristan Harris, a former Google design ethicist, now runs the nonprofit Time Well Spent, which fights to protect us from “being hijacked by technology platforms.” He believes those notifications are the most manipulative.

First, Facebook gets you to post something (“You haven’t updated your profile in 52 weeks”), and then it taps all your friends to look at that post, Mr. Harris says. “They are orchestrating social interactions between people—like tapping two people on the shoulder and then running away—to keep people coming back to the app.”

A Facebook spokeswoman says, “We sometimes alert people to new content from their friends that they might find interesting. They don’t have to click on that post if they choose not to.” You can disable the alerts in Facebook’s often perplexing and unnecessarily personalized notification controls. In Instagram’s settings menu, you can disable the alerts under “First Posts and Stories.”

I decided to forget tinkering with controls in this case. I’ve turned off all Facebook, Instagram and Twitter push notifications, period. Now I decide when to visit the apps and check how many “likes’” my sunset photo has. I urge you to do it, too.

Article III: The right to more Do Not Disturb options

Do Not Disturb is one of the best features in both iOS and Android. Flip the switch before a meeting, movie or going to sleep and it silences almost all notifications and keeps the lock screen from lighting up. (As the ancient philosophers once pondered: If a notification doesn’t ding, is it a notification at all?)

In Android you’ll find the setting in the pull-down panel at the top of the screen. In iOS, it’s that moon icon in the Control Center. You can also set specific Do Not Disturb hours.

What’s missing yet again are simple and functional customization controls, specifically for iPhone owners. Android’s Priority Mode allows you to fairly easily allow calls and text notifications from favorites. In iOS, Do Not Disturb allows calls from favorites to ring through—or vibrate through on silent mode—but it doesn’t work for text messages. There is a buried setting called Emergency Bypass, but it makes every text chime audible. Your babysitter could reach you in a movie, but you’d probably get kicked out.

Article IV: The right to smarter notification-fighting tools

The real solution is artificial-intelligence systems that pick and choose what’s important to us.

Read More

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For instance, my phone knows I haven’t opened WhatsApp in four months. So why can’t it stop that “Please launch WhatsApp to receive messages” pop-up in its tracks? If there are 25 email and text notifications on my lock screen after dinner, why can’t it rank them by importance based on my everyday patterns?

Dennis Mortensen, founder and chief executive of X.AI, a company that builds smart scheduling assistants, envisions personal bots will start working on our behalf.

“If [app developers] apply machines to interrupt humans, then humans should deploy their own machines to fight back,” he says. “The only way to defend ourselves is to have machinery that protects our attention.”

Until then, or until companies agree to abide [Ding! New homes are hitting the market!] by our bill of rights, we only have ourselves. Take 15 minutes [Buzz! 50% off today!] and dig into those controls. You’ll [Ding! Several people you follow liked your post] thank me.