On Notifications

Welcome to the world.

You will have survival needs. You will have aspirations. As a relational and finite creature, you will not be able meet these needs and aspirations alone. Regardless of how self-sufficient you may deceive yourself into thinking you are, you ultimately will need the assistance of other people.

Their time, their talent, their money, their presence, their attention.

It looks doubtful that they will come to you on their own. It is quite possible that you will need to find a way to get to them.

Have you considered sending a notification?


The analysts talk about how social media and the corresponding hardware are changing the world. This is the new human experience: we are closer than ever before. We are lonelier than ever before. We are more visually-oriented than ever before. We are more creative, at least up till 140 characters, than ever before.

They say that our private has become more public, as we can now both update and check up with our entire community from the comfort of our living room. Meanwhile, our public has become more private, as we can put our ear buds in and listen to our favorite song, texting our best friend, all while walking straight through the park where children are playing and the homeless are taking shelter.

This inverted life comes with its own flow of steady, expected interruptions. Instead of the girl asking you to kick her back the out-of-bounds soccer ball, or the tired man with alcohol-stained breath reaching out his hand to ask for change, the interruption flow now originates from our pockets. With a beep! With a vibration!

No surprise here, it is just a notification.


On my iPhone home screen, as on my Facebook toolbar, notifications are aggregated and symbolized by some sort of integer greater than zero, placed against a red background. Red, the color of McDonald’s and Kentucky Fried Chicken and Wendy’s. Red, the color of Walgreens and Costco and Office Depot. Red, the color of consumption.

Confession: I judge people who have miscellaneous quantities of notifications littering their smartphone screen: 27 unread text messages, 4 “your moves” in that one game app, 2 weather alerts, 519 unopened e-mails, nevermind Facebook with 13 friend requests and 40 direct messages and 112 at-large notifications.

In the spirit of humility and self-improvement, I am trying to not look at people like you as if you are three months late for your haircut. I am trying to hold out for some sort of explanation. Maybe you really are that popular. Maybe you just went viral. Maybe you just do not know better.


There is such a thing as a notifications diet.

Like pulling weeds, I go through my phone and unsubscribe from push notifications all the time. For example, I won’t hear about any Facebook notification until I am actually on Facebook.

Most apps remain safe on my phone if they just stay quiet. If you were an app, you probably could sit there all year round, but the moment you wish me Happy New Year for no explicable, pragmatic reason, consider yourself trashed.

Roughly once a week, I try and purge the system of all notifications. Get my e-mail inboxes to zero, my iPhone screen free of zits, and my social media presence all caught up. Whatever caught up means.


Confession: I really like receiving notifications.

Notifications often mean that somebody out there has liked something involving me. It seems as if this person may almost love me.

I don’t know much about neuro-chemical-ology, but I know there is a hormone called dopamine that supposedly makes me happy and I think I get a dose of it running through my veins with every notification I receive.

Unless, of course, I find out that notification was a mass invite to play Candy Crush Saga.

In that case, they may just as well have sent a “poke” — a notification for the sake of notification.


Then there are those phantom notifications. I can’t trace them down. I can’t unsubscribe from them. I swear, my phone just vibrated. It made some sort of noise!

But the screen looks like the normal background, which is just a heavily filtered photo of the waterfall that I snapped when I went on a hike the first week after getting my new phone.


Tap on the shoulder. Someone wants my time, my talent, my money, my presence, my attention. Who is it? Is it the girl wanting to play soccer? Or the homeless man asking for change?

There is a moment of suspense.

My phone promised instant connectivity, but I can almost always take a pause before responding to this-or-that beep, this-or-that vibration. There is always the “oh-sorry-my-phone-was-off” card.

Except for when it is a tap on the shoulder. These sorts of notifications have been around since the beginning, since babies could cry and trumpets could blare.

And so I turn around.

“Oh, it’s you.”

On Notifications

6 thoughts on “On Notifications

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