Notification Saturation

Notification Squad IconsNotifications are important. Without such alerts, we wouldn’t know when one of our friends or family members tries to contact us. We would miss out on important information. But in this age of information, it’s easy for the important things to get lost in a sea of noise. I’ve noticed this especially with web and mobile applications, social networks and the like. This notification saturation makes life harder for the average person.

A Brief History of Notifications

Up until the modern era, notifications were largely done person to person. A guest knocking on your door or a town crier yelling in the streets. Still, there were some automatic notifications, most prominently clock bells reminding people to go to church. But notifications didn’t really take off until the modern era, with alarm clocks and telephone bells. Then came emails, chat notifications, text messages, ringtones and that little red circle popping up on the top corner of your Facebook page. Suddenly notifications were everywhere, and each one meant less and less.

Personal vs Impersonal

There are different kinds of notifications. First there are the personal notifications, like a friend calling, texting or knocking at your door. Then there are more impersonal notifications, like group texts, mass emails and the like. Things that are sort of spammy, but still sent by a human being. Finally, there is true spam, junk mail, robocalls, and other annoyances. These are the kind of notifications that you don’t want and can’t opt out of, no matter how hard you try.

Email Spam vs Notification Spam

Email spam has been a problem since email was invented. Nowadays, it’s mostly under control, but if you click the spam box on any email application, you’re sure to find a few offers from the Prince of Nigeria. This kind of spam is looked down on, and even illegal, and we as a society have methods for dealing with it. And yet, I’ve noticed a new, more subtle type of solicitation. I call it “notification spam” for lack of a better term. This is things like Facebook telling you that you haven’t updated your profile for a while, or that a friend has posted for the first time in a couple of months (without saying what they posted.) My biggest pet peeve is LinkedIn’s “work anniversary” reminders, which constantly clog up my notification feed, and I can’t seem to turn off.

Why Does Notification Spam Exist?

In the world of modern web design, you need to be able to measure how people engage with your site. For a small site like mine, that means looking at my Google Analytics from time to time. But for big companies like Facebook and Google, every level of engagement needs to be measured. Every view and every click is worth real money. The more clicks you get, the more money you can earn from advertising. So in a way, this notification spam is a sort of clickbait. By constantly giving you news to engage with, companies can show their sponsors how popular their sites are. So notification spam proliferates. It’s good for revenue, even if it ultimately degrades the user experience.

Unplugging from Notifications

Given how much money is riding on modern web engagement, notification spam is not going anywhere anytime soon. Many apps and sites do allow you to control how many notifications you see, though none are perfect in this regard. It’s up to us as users to mentally unplug and decide what is or is not important. Because as far as I can tell, the online world is only going to get noisier.

What do you do to keep from being overwhelmed by notifications? Let me know in the comment section.

Steve Lovelace

Steve Lovelace is a writer and graphic artist. After graduating Michigan State University in 2004, he taught Spanish in Samoa before moving to Dallas, Texas. He blogs regularly at

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3 Responses

  1. landpope says:

    I’m desensitized to alerts and notifications unless I receive one from the Emergency Broadcast System. My exposure’s limited, but I decline when given the option to be added to a site’s notification list. I also SPAM notifications I didn’t request. That seems to work well for me. My mortgage company is the worst. They send me an ominous looking alert every month to let me know they received my payment. It’s the price I pay for conducting paperless business.

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