The Rise And Fall Of Push Notification, And How "Anti-Notification" Wants To Replace It

Notifications can be either gratifying, or equally annoying. But in fact, there are very few tech inventions which affect our relationship with our devices, as much as push notification feature.

Before modern-day notifications, users of devices are the ones who decided whether or not they want to interact with technology. We at that time, were in control of accessing technology when we want. But with push notification, things changed.

Tech wants that role, and we surrendered.

It started back in 1971 when computer programmer Raymond Tomlinson figured out a way for users to send messages to others.

Before his invention, messages could only be sent to users who had their accounts on the same computer. But when Tomlinson added the now ubiquitous @ symbol, the ingenious addition allowed users of separate devices to send and receive messages.

This started the shift.

Later, as the demand of email increased, Tomlinson addition subsequently led to the creation of the simple mail transfer protocol (SMTP), which soon became the standard for sending and receiving emails. It was described as a "nice hack", and this "hack" stayed and eventually changed the modern digital culture.

Smartphone notification

While SMTP introduced push-style networking, the technology wasn't widely used since few people were permanently connected to the internet at that time.

But when smartphones and other internet-capable devices reached the market, things changed drastically.

It was in 2003, when Research In Motion (RIM) became the first company to successfully commercialize push notification to the market. The company's BlackBerry devices were the first smartphones with the ability to send push notification to users whenever they received new emails.

This was certainly a handy feature, which critically made BlackBerry the most popular smartphone at that time, as people in the business world were all over these high tech euphoria.

As with technology in general, things evolve extremely fast.

With BlackBerry conquering the business world, it didn't take long until others in the competition realized the potential of this push-driven network architecture. The result was inevitable: smartphone manufacturers started baking this feature into their devices, no matter the cost.

BlackBerry was followed by Apple, with iPhone opening up notifications to the general public and made it available under the name of Apple Push Notification Service (APNS). This was one of the most significant changes to mobile operating systems since the iPhone itself.

Soon, the infamous tone when receiving notification started being heard everywhere.

From other smartphones, to operating systems, apps, and ultimately to websites themselves.

Over time, the notification tone quickly became the representative of a simple idea: There is something new, and we users must quickly see it. Soon, everyone wanted to be in the stream of notification, as information started to be sent more and more to users' devices.

This kept people hooked.

Smartphone notification

It's easy to blame technology for this. After all, tech made it, and we are all over it.

But we can't fully blame technology by saying that it is at the heart of the problem. In fact, we are the reason why notification conquered our ways of interactions. The problem came from our own inability to handle it: we tend to submit ourselves whenever we hear that notification tone; we are desperate to hear it, and we want to hear as often as possible,

But here is the thing: the amount of incoming information can leave people frustrated and overwhelmed.

It's not the fault of companies and the technology, as they are only the providers of such feature. But the process of generating those notifications come from us users. We can't say not to it.

As the competition for attention became more and more fierce, users started to get bored. This is when another type of notification entered the scene.

It's called "anti-notifications," said Adrian Zumbrunnen, a designer at Google in a Medium post, and it's something people have never seen before.

They aren’t meant for users; they’re meant for everybody else. Their sole purpose isn’t increasing value, but optimizing for short-term engagement. What this means, the tone that was once used to keep users in the loop, became something that is mostly used to bring users back into the loop instead.

This is the moment people became aware of how increasingly noisy notifications are, making notifications losing their efficacy.

"Anti-notifications are like the Aesop fable where a shepherd boy repeatedly tricked villagers into believing a wolf was attacking the sheep. When a wolf finally did appear, the boy desperately tried to warn everyone, but no one listened. Needless to say, it didn’t end well for the sheep."

"We ignore a shepherd who always sows panic just like we ignore a bell that always rings. Anti-notifications that solely aim at increasing engagement without providing personal value work the same way. They’re a powerful tool to increase engagement in the short-term, but they might very well be what makes the entire notification bubble burst."