Founder at Write.as

Notify Me

I'm thinking about notifications and writing digitally. When do I need to be notified of something related to my digital writing?

If someone writes a response to something I've written, I would like to know about that. Maybe they did that on my blog itself through a commenting system; maybe they wrote a response on their own blog; maybe they know me personally and sent an email / DM / text message. Either way, it would be nice to know, so I can carry on that conversation.

If one of my articles gets a ton of attention, say, by spreading on an aggregator site, I would like to know that too. This would let me see the wider conversation my writing has started, and jump in if I want to. It might even encourage me to write something new in response to this bigger conversation, and start the cycle over again.

As a user, a notification is someone saying “Hello” unprompted. It's an interruption to my day that hopefully I welcome — otherwise it's an annoyance. (And as someone who wants to spend as little time as possible looking at a screen, most notifications in the modern tech landscape are annoyances.)

From a design perspective, notification is an incitement to action. It should have a clear action following it, otherwise it shouldn't exist. Good notifications are aligned with the user — they notify me only when there's an action to take that I want to take; they respect my time and attention; they err toward silence instead of talkativeness.

Bad notifications are pointless or irrelevant, like bad advertising, or self-centered on the platform, like most social media notifications. A randomly-timed notification for 5 free Lyft rides isn't a useful notification, it's just an ad for Lyft delivered into your pocket. A notification for a new “like” isn't a conversation starter, it's a chance for you to feel validated, and for the platform to get your eyeballs on ads. A notification for a new “follower” isn't a real connection, it's a prompt to quietly look up someone's profile and again for the platform to increase engagement.

Most of these notifications fail because they happen at completely random times, when there's nothing truly pressing happening in the world, and we don't actually need to drop what we're doing to feed the crying smartphone in our pocket.

Social media notifications could have some good uses — a “like” from someone might mean that I can talk about my post with that person later; a “follow” might mean I should start a conversation. But they're incomplete means to either of these ends. In practice, their half-assed implementation and insensitivity to our lives means they're used for their lowest utility — empty self-gratification on the user side and plain marketing on the platform side.

For the core Write.as platform, we haven't found a single need for unprompted notifications in our 5-plus years, outside of annual billing reminders. A simple writing and publishing tool has no reason to interrupt your life, much as a typewriter waits quietly for you to return to it.

This only changed with add-on tools like Submit.as, which sends an email when you receive a new submission. Beyond that, our upcoming Remark.as tool will notify you in social situations like I mentioned above.

In either case, we're looking for quiet, light-touch notifications. Email works great, as most email clients give you control over when they intrude into your life. If we ever have mobile apps, they'll offer respectful control over their notifications. We'll utilize features like low-priority notifications on Android, which let you push out notifications that don't buzz in someone's pocket — a more humane urgency level for the internet's heaps of garbage notifications.

I've talked about these problems in one form or another for years. It seems to me that this notification overload we have to suffer through is just another crucial pillar of the venture capital-backed, ad-funded web we all live on. Free cash flows into startups, funds thoughtless “growth” (with all the notifications!) and we consumers get to enjoy all these wonderful, annoying apps for the short time they exist.

A more humane tech ecosystem isn't just about products breaking away from the advertising business model that saps our privacy and autonomy every day. It also means building tools again. It means marketers driving fewer product decisions (sorry, marketers), especially if they can't see when their “growth” tactics are killing a product's utility. It requires a sort of humility that comes from only wanting to make something useful, rather than making a founder and some investors more money.

At times, it feels like the money men have taken over the web, and we're all stuck here with their crappy vision for it. But thankfully it lacks that critical component they need — the ability to “own” it. As long as that's true, anyone can build something that's open, accessible, and plain useful to everyone in the world — without annoying the crap out of them.