The drug we call “notifications”

In the golden days of social networks—Friendster, Myspace, the early days of Facebook—notifications as we now know them were in their infancy. Mobile push notifications and realtime alerts were mere figments in the imaginations of innovative engineers and social scientists. Exchanges on these networks were largely one way, and leaving a message on somebody’s Myspace or Facebook “wall” required you to all but follow up yourself if you expected a reply.

But now it’s all about notifications. At the beginning it was a notification that a friend posted to your wall. Then notifications that a friend had replied to something you posted on their wall. Then you got notifications when your friend’s friend replied to what you posted on your friend’s wall. Then for birthdays. Then for every time somebody who shared several mutual friends with you joined the network. Then event invitations. Then for every event RSVP. Then for every message posted in an event you RSVP’d for. Now for events near you, *or events your friends happen to be going to, or sponsored events. All of which isn’t to mention the News Feed, a literally *unending list of amalgamated, unsorted junk mail.

For better or for worse, I’ve resisted closing my Facebook account. My usage has fluctuated since 2006 when I joined, but the fact is this: it’s simply the easiest way to organize groups of people, and it’s the most reliable platform for broadcasting information. Facebook’s unveiling of their “safety checks” feature during the recent tragedies in Paris illustrated how powerful of a network it truly is. Yet studies, and more than one now, confirm that Facebook usage can contribute to scientifically observable mood decreases. Scary stuff.

When I returned home from a trip abroad in mid-March, I duly noted that I’d accrued a hefty 80+ Facebook notifications in the mere 10 days I was away. Despite this, I had only one or two missed text messages, zero phone calls, and exclusively work-related emails. What could those eighty notifications possibly be about? Without giving much more thought to the matter, I stopped clicking (or tapping) on that attention-seeking red notification counter.

I’m certainly not the first person to propose such an experiment, and of that group I am unlikely to be the first to state the obvious:* the degree to which my quality of life decreased, or to which I became less informed or less connected to my social circles, has measured precisely zero.*

Did you know that on, when you reach 99 notifications the number simply stops increasing? But of course it does, because Facebook as a marketing company—and make no mistake that Facebook is one of the most influential marketing companies on the planet—has a vested interest in you clicking that red box with a number in it, and clicking it often. Facebook would prefer that those little white digits rarely progress into the double digits, never mind triple.

Truthfully, I can’t pinpoint anything I’ve lost in the month since I’ve abstained from notifications (“gone sober”, as I’ve been phrasing it to myself). What I’ve regained, in a small sense, is time, and a clearer intention for using the service. Messaging, organizing events, keeping up with friends who live in other cities. Open the browser, do those things, move on.

If no other, my reward has been escaping, in some way, the powerful addiction of FOMO and the social reinforcement that accompanies it.

For your consideration.