Getty/Facebook/New Statesman
Show Hide image

Pushier notifications: how social media is getting more invasive

Are push notifications getting pushier? 

I last updated my Facebook profile two weeks ago. I know this not because I obsessively reread my own Facebook page (I save that for Twitter), but because a few days ago the social network sent me a notification. “You last updated your profile two weeks ago,” it read. Beneath this was a picture of a little blue man with a pencil hovering above his shoulder – indicating either that I should write a post or invest in better pencils.

Facebook didn’t announce they were making this update, but complaints and jokes about it on social media began in May. It is just one of many new notifications that range from somewhat invasive to downright creepy. If you were to unfriend a Facebook contact today, you would get an update that said: “Your name, we’ve noticed that you recently unfriended someone”. Incidentally, did you know that someone you know is going to an event near you tomorrow? Also: remember that guy you kissed at your Year 6 school disco? It's his birthday today! Let him know you're thinking of him!

Why?

Although Facebook is rapidly approaching 2 billion monthly users, the network has seen a decline in personal posts. Every minute, half a million comments are posted on the site, along with 293,000 statuses and 136,000 pictures. That’s enough, right? Not enough for Facebook. Since 2016, the site has complained that people are no longer sharing things about themselves. We share political links and puppy videos, sure, but we aren’t pouring our hearts out on Facebook.

Push notifications have always been a way to get a user back on an app - and this is clearly the motivation behind this new, creepier breed. When Instagram noticed a fall in photos shared on the platform, it tested out a new push notification. “____ has posted a photo for the first time in a while,” the app will alert you when a friend updates their profile. Although there’s no indication of what “a while” is, I’ve had this notification about friends who posted as little as a week ago.

Facebook now also uses this message. Though we might never know how the masterminds at the company came up with this notification, it is probable that this wasn’t a spontaneous decision. Messages like “What’s on your mind?” are carefully crafted for the maximum psychological impact that will get us to post and share. “You last updated your profile two weeks ago,” is just the right amount of neutral – it isn’t a stern instruction to share, but nor is it a friendly reminder. It is clearly designed to provoke us to post.

Although these notifications might be easily ignored, things are more sinister when one considers Facebook's Safety Check feature. During a terror attack or disaster, the "mark as safe" option allows users to tell their friends and family that they are fine via the click of a button. When these messages are sent to a user via push notification - encouraging them to click through to the site - it raises ethical questions. Arguably, Facebook is capitalising on tragedy in an incredibly emotionally manipulative way. 

And here’s the thing: you can’t really escape. “You can’t turn off notifications entirely, but you can adjust how and what you're notified about,” says Facebook’s Help Centre, which also describes its push notifications as something that “help[s] you re-engage with your friends”. The site does have a guide for turning push notifications off on mobile, but you have to do this within your phone’s own settings. If you do it via Facebook’s settings, it doesn’t quite work.....

“I turned off push notifications on Facebook Messenger and WhatsApp because I was starting to find it overly stressful,” says my colleague Anna. “Push notifications meant I’d try to ignore a message, but the little red bubbles, like ripe spots, would sit there begging to be burst.” When Anna went into her phone settings, found Facebook Messenger, and turned notifications off, she still got a Facebook notification every day. The message? “Turn on Notifications”.

“As I didn’t do that, every 24 hours the notification would reappear. WhatsApp would also tell me to turn on my notifications (this time with helpful diagrams!!) each day, even if it didn’t push notify me.”

[Note, if you want to turn off Facebook push notifications on your own iPhone, go to ‘Settings’ and then ‘Notifications’ and turn them off. Don’t go to ‘Settings’ and then ‘Facebook’ to turn them off, as this is how you will get notified – like Anna – to turn them back on again.]

With these tactics, it’s clear that push notifications are getting pushier. In a world where our attention is divided between a multitude of apps, it makes sense for social networks to beg for us to notice them. But where do they - and we - draw the line? Notifications like the one above, telling a user he has, in fact, zero notifications, could clearly be upsetting for many. Sure, these messages might provoke us to post, but they are manipulating us in the process. 

Then again, they could easily backfire. I expect another notification from Facebook in two weeks.

Amelia Tait is a technology and digital culture writer at the New Statesman.

Photo: Getty
Show Hide image

Technology can change the world – provided we have a measure of democracy, too

You could say we need a technological revolution for the many, not the few. 

Over the last five decades, the American Consumer Technology Association’s annual jamboree has grown to become the world’s largest tech show: attracting over 190,000 visitors and 4000 companies, with 7,460 reporters filing 59,969 reports over the course of four days in Las Vegas. In the process, it has achieved an almost mythical status – from unveiling the first-ever home VCR (Philips 1970) to Bill Gates’ resignation from Microsoft in 2006, and has included cameo appearances by the likes of Jay-Z and Barack Obama.

As a fully qualified geek (Electrical Engineering degree, 20 years in tech – before it was cool) and the shadow minister for Industrial Strategy Science and Innovation, I couldn’t resist seizing the opportunity to venture to Las Vegas while on a family holiday to the US’ west coast; hoping, against all hope, to see the progressive future of a technology-enabled, more equal world.

If only.

But I did emerge with a renewed conviction that technology can solve our problems – if we use it to do so.

In some ways, the most remarkable thing about the International Consumer Electronics Show (CES) was the way it demonstrated how technology has taken over our entire world. CES was a car show in the middle of a health show, which happened to be around the corner from a home show, which was adjacent to a sports show that was next to an entertainment show. Just about every sector was represented.

Nissan had a huge stand for their new autonomous vehicle showcasing the ‘Brain-Vehicle Interface’, as did Philips for their new sleep enhancing devices, and Huawei for their connected home. In 2018, technology can be used as an enabling platform to aid just about everything. And in a world where near enough everything is politicised, technology is very political.

But this was not evident from CES: not from the stands, neither the keynotes, nor the participants. There were few speakers from civic society nor governments, and those politicians who attended – such as Donald Trump’s Transportation Secretary, Elaine Chao – talked only of their ‘excitement’ at the sunlit uplands technology could guide us to. The show existed in its own, largely self-sufficient world. While Ford created an entire street to show off its autonomous cars, there was no reference to who would pay for the road, pavements, lamp-posts and guttering if only robots worked.

And as a politician rather than an engineer, it is the societal impact that matters most to me. One realisation brought about by my visit is that I have greatly under-estimated the consequences of driverless vehicles: communications, parking, urban layout, and public transport are all likely to be deeply impacted. The automobile industry is working to position cars as your personal moving office-cum-front room-cum-hotel-cum-lecture theatre; where you can work, maintain personal and social relationships, unwind and learn – all while going from A to B. How will crowded, under-funded public transport compete?

At the show, Nissan launched its Brain-to-Vehicle technology, which reads the driver’s brainwaves to determine when the car’s intelligence should intervene. Although I'm personally unsure about the inclusion of brain surveillance in the driving experience, it may well be the next logical step as we increasingly give up our data in return for ‘free’ services. Certainly the anthropologists at Nissan argued that this was the very definition of assisted artificial intelligence.

Fortunately, autonomous vehicles are not the only way to get around. Improvements in battery technology mean that – between electric scooters capable of folding away into airplane carry on, and electric bikes with the power of motorcycles – personal mobility has become a market in its own right.

Personal health and sport were also big themes at the event. Philips has brought back the night cap, which not only looks far more fetching than the Victorian original, but is now also capable of lulling you gently into a slumber before monitoring the quality of your sleep. Orcam’s discrete camera-glasses for the visually impaired can read text and recognise people, whilst L’Oréal’s UV Sense is a sensor small enough to be worn comfortably on your fingernail that detects ultraviolet exposure.

One aspect of the show that has remained largely unchanged is its demographics. Whilst the glossy adverts on the walls depict women and BME people using technology, those actually designing it were, with a few exceptions, male and largely white. As always, there were no queues for the women’s loos and while there were not any ‘F1 girls’, the gender balance was improved largely by attractive women, who were not engineers, being employed to ‘explain’ technological advances.

Weeks later, the World Economic Forum Annual Meeting in Davos was also dominated by technology, which the Prime Minister used as a fig leaf to cover the absence of vision for Brexit. Lacking in both the CES and Davos, was any sense that the interests of the many had any significant stake in what was going on. We need a Labour government to help change that.

Chi Onwurah is the Labour MP for Newcastle upon Tyne Central, and the shadow minister for industrial strategy.