The noise-to-signal ratio from notifications have diminished their usefulness


I got a very important message on my phone the other day. I saw it on the lock screen when I picked up the phone in the morning, but after half an hour of searching – whether it came via iMessage, SMS, WhatsApp, WeChat, Twitter, Facebook Messenger, Telegram, Skype or plain old email – I still couldn’t find it.

What’s worse is that most of the messaging apps use the same green icon, making them harder to differentiate.

iphone_ios_messagesI used to despair at the volume of email I get every day (there are 6,218 unread emails on my phone alone) but now I am drowning under the deluge of messaging and, worse, notifications from these apps my phone and laptop spew up every day. Every new messaging service comes with a painful codicil — you have to check it.

I’m a big fan of all of these services – they all have their own advantages or unique selling points – but I’m just tired of being on a never-ending treadmill to check them all.

Years ago I wrote a column using that immortal line “not waving but drowning” to describe the sensation of information overload. This was from just email alone.

My day starts and ends with me checking what messages came in, what needs to be urgently responded to, and what can wait – until later in the day when I do it all again.

Somewhere in between, I try to work. I often wonder what “work” actually is. Is it writing, which is what a journalist is supposed to do? Researching, reading, data gathering? Is it running my small media business? Networking with customers, advertisers, suppliers?

Or is it – as it seems – mostly just beating my inbox down (despite never succeeding)?

So much of the way the world works is via email, especially when you’re dealing with external parties, so it still has primacy.

Slack, that remarkable coordinating app which is a darling of the tech startup world, is rightly seen as a new way of working. I’ve used it very successfully on various projects. But it’s just yet another messaging service to monitor.

I habitually turn off notifications for apps on my phone, to cut down on the already unsustainable noise-to-signal ratio from the messaging services alone; although I allow high-level notifications from news apps like The Guardian, New York Times and CNN. I am a news junkie after all.

I’ve been using WeChat – which is superior to WhatsApp in numerous ways – but the network effect means more people use Facebook’s billion-strong app. WeChat had voice and video calling long before WhatsApp, allows you to “pin” important chats to the top of the screen (so useful), let’s you send files via its desktop app and has that very useful Wallet – which uses SnapScan to pay (and even gives you a rebate).

WhatsApp is increasingly popular for group messaging – it has a billion users worldwide – but the fact that anyone can add you to a group without your permission is a problem. When everyone sends a “thank you” to these sprawling – mostly personal, groups – it’s the instant messing equivalent of Reply All in email. It serves no purpose and just clogs your inbox, as it were. I feel like some kind of emoji Grinch, mostly because of these groups where people seemingly have the time to add lines and lines of tiny, indiscernible icons that all look like the “tears of joy” emoji.

Messaging, far from making our lives easier, is now a never-ending treadmill. And it’s only going to get worse. We haven’t even started with the chat-bot evolution of messaging yet….

I eventually found that important message that came in the other day. It was a direct message via Instagram. Sigh.

This column first appeared in Financial Mail


About Author

Toby Shapshak is editor-in-chief and publisher of Stuff, a Forbes contributor and a Financial Mail columnist. He has been writing about technology and the internet for 20 years and his TED Global talk on innovation in Africa has over 1,5-million views. He has written about Africa's tech and start-up ecosystem for Forbes, CNN and The Guardian in London. He was named in GQ's top 30 men in media and the Mail & Guardian newspaper's influential young South Africans. He has been featured in the New York Times. GQ said he "has become the most high-profile technology journalist in the country" while the M&G wrote: "Toby Shapshak is all things tech... he reigns supreme as the major talking head for everything and anything tech."

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