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Why 2017 Was A Big Year For Push Notifications

In a year full of seemingly constant breaking news, push notifications from The New York Times, The Washington Post and even Facebook took center stage on many smartphones across the country.

Here & Now‘s Jeremy Hobson speaks with Will Oremus (@WillOremus) of Slate about the year in push alerts.

Interview Highlights

On the new level for push notifications

“The urgency of the stuff we were getting on our phones through push notifications seemed like it was heightened, in a lot of ways, due to various cultural and political forces this year, but also just the importance of push alerts to media companies has increased as time has gone by. Companies especially like the New York Times and Washington Post now see these alerts as one of their core ways of connecting with their readers.”

On “alert fatigue” for news organizations

“They actually, they worry about sending too much. For this story I wrote for Slate, I talked to the push alert teams at both The Washington Post and The New York Times. They both told me independently that they worry about something that they call ‘alert fatigue.’ And that’s the idea that if you send too many alerts in one day or in a short period of time, some people are going to say, ‘You know what? Stop bothering me.’ And they are going to turn off their alerts for your publication, or the worst-case scenario is they actually go and uninstall The New York Times or Washington Post app because it’s too much for them.”

On reaching readers directly with push notifications

“Well there are at least two ways in which these push notifications have been crucial, especially for organizations that specialize in hard news, breaking news. One is that the economy of online news uses attention as a currency. So anything you can do to get people’s attention and to get their eyes on your site is going to drive your business. And the second is that just getting people to click on your stories or just getting people’s eyes on your site when you have a particularly sensational headline or a provocative tweet or Facebook post is not enough because what these platforms like Facebook and Twitter have done is to untether the headlines you see from their source, right? So you see the headlines in your Facebook feed, but who they’re coming from, what news organization those headlines are coming from is — you know, that’s not the first thing you see. And so you click the headline rather than selecting your source, as you used to do in the print days. You know, you would buy the Times or the Post and then read whatever headlines they had. And the issue for the media companies has been that that has eroded their direct connection with readers. They now are reaching readers via these intermediaries and their algorithms. Push notifications restore a little bit of that direct connection with readers because if readers turn on push alerts from your publication on their phone, all of a sudden you have a direct line to them that skips the Facebook and Twitter algorithms, and so you can finally reach them again with stuff your editors think is important, rather than just whatever headline happens to surface in their social feeds.”

On whether these notifications lead to an unnecessary level of stress

“Yeah, and I think anybody who’s feeling that might want to consider doing … the same thing I do: By default, I turn off all my push notifications, and then I can sort of opt in, on a case-by-case basis, say, ‘You know what, I do want to get notifications from this one app.’ Because it’s too much. I mean, it really has changed the way we use our phones. We used to open our phone and then sort of proactively decide what we wanted to do on it, right? We would look through the home screen and maybe another screen full of apps, choose the app we wanted to spend some time with and then spend that time. Well when you give your phone over to push notifications, the phone sort of controls you, right? Like you don’t decide anymore, ‘I’m going to open my phone, I’m going to do this on the phone.’ You know, your apps decide, ‘Hey I’m going to reach out and tap you on the shoulder and force you to look at me for a little bit,’ and that can just — I mean, it’s already hard enough to control the time you spend on your device without having your device constantly nudging you and saying, ‘Hey, look at me, listen to me. I’ve got something very urgent.’ “

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

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