Where apps once offered meaningful updates, now notifications are an untamed beast


In the last month I have deleted the Facebook app off my phone and turned off almost all notifications. I couldn’t be happier.

I have been slowly tuning out from Facebook – for a variety of reasons but principally that it is mostly being used not as the sharing of personal moments and life events but as a running commentary of what people are reading. After years of disdain and Twitter snobbery, I started liking Facebook for its insights into the lives of my friends and family, especially those living overseas. I wanted to read updates about family events, walks in the park with kids, beach holidays and everyday life. I get my news feed from Twitter. But Facebook has evolved into a new newsfeed. People post the stories they are reading (and the outrage at the end of the Jacob Zuma years) and other topics that aren’t what I really want to read. Facebook’s algorithm essentially shows you more of the same, based on what you liked in the past. It is an ever inward-spiralling echo chamber.

The less time I spent in Facebook, the more I was being increasingly pestered by the app to reengage. Instead of mildly useful notifications about people responding to my posts or commenting on them, I started getting a stream of meaningless alerts when “so-and-so has posted for the first time in a while” or “have you seen so-and-so’s update?”.

I was already oversaturated with notifications about things I actually cared about. In the last year, I have progressively turned off notifications from all my apps. There was a time when such alerts where useful and meaningful. But then the developers of apps realised they could use this back door into our attention to lure us back into their apps when we didn’t spend enough time in them.

The noise-to-signal ratio of what was once a handy tool has gone haywire. When notifications first emerged they were a useful feature. There were a handy way of being alerted to meaningful things without opening the app. Now it’s just out of hand. And the cost is our concentration.

The app makers have foolishly started biting the eyes that feed them. Trying to draw mobile users back into the app with pointless notifications has had the reverse effect on me. I resent the intrusion for something that is in the app maker’s interest (driving people to use the app and spend more time in it) and not in my interest (telling me about a message I might want to see).

Facebook is just the extreme example of this. Instagram got too needy… goodbye. Twitter spams me to say several people have liked or posted on some trending subject. The only notifications I still use are for breaking news or emails (because Apple lets you select whose messages you want to see) and messaging apps.

I also resent that the Facebook app is a 350MB download. A time thief that is also a data thief. There are also numerous reports about how the Facebook app drains a smartphone’s battery even when the app isn’t being used, although mostly on Android. I’ll know soon enough.

It seems contrary to the point of a smartphone to turn off notifications but it hasn’t affected my productivity in any way and remarkably my life is less cluttered. And I haven’t missed a thing that’s important.

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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