Notifications, part 2: Gradually, and then suddenly

Last week, I wrote a post about notifications– how they’ve evolved, why they matter, and where we’ll be able to handle more. (We also talked about notifications at length in the most recent episode of Emergence Podcast, which you can check out here.) Rereading it now, I realize that I left out something very important: I didn’t offer any explanation for why we need to care. Specifically, why will the number of notifications and the amount of inbound information we receive keep going up and up? What is driving this forward, and what will be different in the future?
Notifications exist as a part of a broader ecosystem: us, our friends, our devices, our apps, the cloud, and more. And the best way to think about interdependent, multi-factor problems like this is to think of the whole arrangement as a complex system that exists in a state of equilibrium. For anyone who remembers college chemistry, you’ll recall spending a lot of time calculating equilibrium points between a variety of molecules or factors. As factors change, the equilibrium point shifts; sometimes slowly, sometimes quickly. Those who understand the notion that ‘change happens gradually, and then suddenly’ will recognize that it’s describing change that happens in a complex system when an equilibrium point gradually and then suddenly shifts – sometimes to dramatic effect. And the resolutions to these shifts can sometimes be surprising.
This kind of thinking about equilibrium points and system change can be applied to non-chemistry problems as well. (Surprise!) As an illustrative example, consider the evolution of email. During the early rise of email in the 90s, email worked pretty well – we sent and received email to our friends, family and colleagues just as we’d done with snail mail previously, and it worked fine. Our inboxes existed in a state of equilibrium: our available attention and ambiguity resolution capacity was roughly in balance with the load and relevance of our incoming messages. Email was okay.
But then, a shift happened: companies began to realize that email was a very cheap way to reach customers and get their attention. A new factor was introduced to the system –  sales & marketing dollars – resulting in a major equilibrium shift. So what happened? We adjusted to the new equilibrium in a variety of different ways. Some were relatively obvious: spam filters, for instance. But others – especially the human adaptable elements of the system – changed in more interesting manners. Consider, for instance, the common strategy of creating multiple personal email accounts – one for correspondence, one for purchasing, one for junk subscriptions. This isn’t an optimal solution for anyone: having to check three email accounts is certainly inferior to checking one. Yet it emerged out of that equilibrium shift, and largely persists to this day. It isn’t what any individual person wanted, but it’s what the system wanted, and the system usually gets its way.
If we’re trying to forecast the future of notifications, we’d better learn this lesson: the system usually gets its way. And right now, with respect to notifications and inbound information on mobile, we’re about to experience another major equilibrium shift – major enough to make all of the world’s A/B testing for mobile notification user experience in today’s context all but irrelevant. And just like with email in the 90s, this shift also has to do with money: specifically, the imminent tidal wave of advertising dollars that are about to migrate to the social mobile internet.
If you think there’s a lot of advertising on the internet today, I regret to inform you of something: in ten years, there’s going to be more. A LOT more. And these advertising dollars are not going to arrive quietly: they’re migrating to mobile because that’s where our attention is. But effective advertising doesn’t just require attention, it feeds on it. This is especially obvious when we think about our evolving relationship with ‘media’; it’s not just a handful of TV channels and newspapers anymore. The evolution of the phone as a social platform has dramatically expanded our capacity to take in information and to do stuff with our time, and one of the consequences of this expansion is that media is pretty much everywhere now, and for the most part that media is powered by an advertising business model. While there are already some ads on the mobile internet, the clock is ticking down until the floodgates open and we start to see the real advertising dollars – when all that money currently going towards car commercials, beer commercials, and late-night infotainment comes crashing onto our phones. (I don’t think TV is going to go away – but I do think that a lot of those advertising dollars are due for a change of scenery.)
The crux here is that we have a finite amount of attention: it’s a zero sum game. And if you think ‘Well I’ll just avoid ads, and only pay attention to what I want to pay attention to’, well, good luck with that. As Jeffrey Hammerbacher lamented upon leaving Facebook, “The best minds of my generation are thinking about how to make people click on ads”; soon, these minds will have an order of magnitude more money behind them. And with notifications currently sitting at the rate-limiting step of our information intake, and the information going through that pipe set to increase drastically, I’d bet on some major changes coming to the way we receive notifications. And I’d also bet that these changes aren’t going to look like something that we necessarily want. Instead, they’ll look something like the multiple email inbox solution: not exactly something that anybody designed intelligently, but rather the inevitable consequence of the system getting its way.
So what’s going to happen? I can offer three predictions:
1. As I wrote before, it’s not all bad news: we have a lot of bandwidth available to process incoming information that isn’t being used right now. We’ll probably see the system respond to this new equilibrium by expanding into this unused bandwidth, specifically by taking advantage of our ability to resolve ambiguity in physical space. We’re not saturated yet, even if it feels that way.
2. The whole notion of ‘contextually relevant notifications’ is, I’m afraid, overhyped. That’s what we might want, as users – but it’s probably not what the system wants. Wishing for contextually relevant notifications now is a little bit like wishing for smarter email fifteen years ago. Hey, I’d love a genuinely smarter email inbox – who wouldn’t? – but that’s not exactly what we got. Instead, email got (partially) unbundled, first into multiple accounts and then into a multitude of apps, taking some pressure off of our inboxes and focusing our attention elsewhere. In other words, email is still pretty dumb; we’re just able to tolerate it better because it’s not the only game in town. I think we’re going to see something similar with notifications. Given the current state of equilibrium and the incoming advertising dollars that are about to flood mobile, I don’t really see a path forward whereby contextually relevant notifications (at least, the way I hear most people describe them) can evolve organically in a way we’d like. We’re not going to get ‘Smarter Email 2.0’. Instead, we’re more likely going to see notifications get unbundled out onto some other dimension (Physical space? Or who knows), and our attention will get focused elsewhere.
3. If you want to predict the state of notifications five or ten years ahead, my guess is that the best way to do so is to focus on the human adaptable element of this complex system. Just like we saw with email in the 90s, when new money added to the system caused an equilibrium shift, humans adapted to this new reality with strategies like having multiple email inboxes. (In turn, humans on the other side of the system also adapted, and created tools like Mailchimp in the hopes that better email would get through more effectively.) Instead of asking ‘what will notifications look like in 2020’, we should probably be asking ‘what strategies will humans have evolved in 2020 to adapt to this new equilibrium’, and then work backwards from there.

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