Essays on Technology and Culture

Freedom from Notifications

How many apps do you allow to interrupt you on your devices?

Notification fatigue is a real issue, and with seemingly every app on phones asking if they can pester you out of the gate, it’s way too easy to get overwhelmed. Enough so that there’s a new, growing market for gizmos you can wear on your wrist that’ll keep you from pulling out your phone to see what stupid app just buzzed you. At least, that’s how a lot of companies market smart watches. Is moving notifications from the pocket to the wrist going to be an improvement? I doubt it. As evidence, even Apple Watch is going to force you to winnow down your notifications anyway if the rumors are true. So why wait?

Real data on push notification adoption is hard to get. A cursory Googling says either 52% of people turn notifications on, or 60% of people turn them off. And with the granularity of app-by-app notifications settings, there’s really no good way to tell from here. I am confident enough in user behavior to say that most people, once they allow push notifications for an app, will never turn them off—though they might uninstall particularly gross offenders. Regardless, it’s time we take control over the things that make our phones beep, buzz, and shake, for a quieter, saner technology lifestyle.

How many of the notifications you get are things you need to deal with right away, anyway? Merlin Mann was harping about this sort of thing in 2007, with the original Inbox Zero talk. If an email client on your phone, or your desktop, or both, is dinging you with a new email every 5 minutes, you’re getting a notification 24,000 times per year. Even if you have Do Not Disturb turned on while you sleep, you’re still getting nearly 200 buzzes per day. For email. And moving it to your wrist is supposed to help?

Look at the apps that you have given explicit permission to bother you. Do it now. How many pages is it? I have twelve apps that are allowed to interrupt what I’m doing, though when I started this, I had closer to twenty. Look at each of them and decide if each app is allowed to pull you away from whatever you’re doing, be it playing Threes! or doing your day job. Think about how often they interrupt you, and what they interrupt you for. I love Overcast, and I love podcasts, but do I need to know the moment every podcast I listen to updates? Of course not. So I took it out of my notification center, and denied it the right to make my phone buzz and beep when a new podcast comes in.

One of the great things in iOS 8 is that there’s now a global toggle for notifications for each app on your device in the Settings app. When an app has pushed you past the limit, just go into Settings, scroll to the listing for the offending app, tap it, tap “Notifications”, and turn it all off. Banish the banners and the pop-ups to the hell from whence they came. [1] I can’t speak for Android, but I imagine the process is similar. All too often, however, we’re left to inertia. Changing settings remains a power user move that the average person doesn’t do. It’s time to start.

Repeat after me, friends: “And if thy new app’s push notifications offend thee, cut it off!”

  1. One reason I didn’t get that App Store push notification to promote Project (RED) is that I turned off notifications from the App Store. I don’t need to know when there’s an update, or if apps were updated. I’ll know—though I do keep the badge on.  ↩

I’m Afraid

I’ve been thinking a lot about unpleasant things in my past, and unpleasant things in my present, and how they all relate. Not all of it has been the healthiest kind of thinking, either. But, as is the nature of the human mind, we dwell on the unpleasantries of our past, and the things we cannot change. This is the stuff that keeps so many of us up at night. Through all the thinking, I’ve found a common thread to unite the dark moments in my past, and explain the situations of my present—fear.

A while back, there was a small Twitter meme on determining your “burlesque name.” Your first name is your favorite drink, your last name: your greatest fear. I couldn’t decide whether I would be Bourbon Failure or Bourbon Success. The only thing I was sure of was bourbon.

Fear of failure is easy to explain. In the aftermath of failure, things are often measurably worse. You’re our time, money, possibly a home, or friends, or even your entire way of life. “They can’t eat you,” the saying goes. That’s true. I’ve failed many times, and I’ve managed to survive each time, but I always worry that the next one will be the end. I worry, no matter how many times I remind myself that there are nets to catch me when I fall.. I worry that the nets will fail. That I’ll be falling so fast, carrying so much dead weight, that each and every last net will snap as I hit it. And where does that leave me?

Fear of success? That’s a harder one to explain. The thing about success is that it means the expectations get higher with each success you had. The higher the bar is set, the harder you have to work to reach it, the more ends up at stake. There’s more to lose, and then we’re back to fear of failure. I hate the push to compete. The most immediate experience of this came in my first full-time job out of college, working for an abysmal B2B telemarketing firm. The attitude when I walked in every morning was “What have you done for me today?” Even if you managed to hit your expected lead count for the day, or for the week, or for the month, each day the slate was wiped clean, and everyone knew it.

I’m afraid when I’m not in control, because the unknown force of the universe’s apathy could choose to destroy all I’ve built. I’m afraid when I am in control, because I could just as easily destroy it all through my own action. Or inaction.

So I’m afraid. Because of the fear, I’m overly cautious. I often don’t make a change until the way to go is either obvious, or when there’s no other choice. I cling for dear life to whatever handhold I can find. It’s easier than fighting the fear. I’m even afraid as I write this piece. I’m afraid that it’s too honest in a social media age where one is expected to project unwavering confidence at all times, the better to attract whatever metric you want to grow. I’m afraid that it’ll be seen as disingenuous, that I’m faking it to earn sympathy. I’m afraid, as I often am, that it’s the last thing I’ll ever write, and that when I sit down to write again, there will be nothing to say.

There’s solidarity in fear, I suppose. Before I wrote this, I re-watched Merlin Mann’s “Scared Shitless” talk from Webstock 2011. It’s worth a watch for all of us. Even people who have succeeded by some measure are afraid—often of their success, or the potential to fail again. There’s always something to keep us up at night, worrying, wondering, angry, miserable, or some combination thereof. We’re all scared little animals in the dark, and I’m trying to take some solace in that.

“Not Everything is For You”

Part of maturing, I think, is realizing that charges of acting in bad faith are often themselves made in bad faith, an attempt to explain away gaps in understanding between two people rather than trying to bridge them, or even make peace with them. That’s as true in politics and in relationships as it is in music, but in music—arguably the strangest and most subjective art form there is—the best option often is “make peace.” Not everything is for you, even you of eclectic tastes and voracious listening appetite.

Making Peace With Music That Everyone Loves But You – The Atlantic

As passionate as people can be about what they love, they can have equal passion about what they don’t. Back in the Crush On Radio days, we often talked about bands and music that we should like “on paper” that fail to click. There was never judgment—we were there to share what we love, but nobody was wrong for loving something that wasn’t for the rest of us.

Something we all should learn, and it extends to so many things in life.

Beyond Patronage

Matt Gemmell has stated the case for supporting, monetarily, the creators whose work we choose to follow.

The reality is that creative output involves cost – whether it’s at the professional end, with staff and materials and print runs or editing suites, or in the spare-bedroom office of the independent artist, where the cost is time, and what else might have been accomplished during it.

If we don’t support the things we love, with actual money, those things will go away. If we ignore the kickstarter campaigns, and block the ads, and read the content without supporting the author, and pirate the apps, sooner or later we’ll lose those things altogether.

So many of us in the technology space bemoan the rise of clickbait articles engineered for maximum virality on Facebook, top lists on App Stores of shitty, whale-chasing games loaded with In-App Purchases and ads, and then—in the same breath—gripe about the New York Times paywall and how noble print magazine brands are being shuttered because they can’t pay the bills. We groan every time we see “a change in a privacy policy, or a string of banner ads, or a new newsletter you never had the chance to opt out of.” These are all symptomatic of a greater cancer, and that is the rampant devaluing of creative work.

It’s not a new problem. People have been asked to work “for exposure” since time immemorial. What make things more problematic now is that awful mixture of too much “content,” too few ways to make it easy for people to pay for it, and the jury-rigged solution of maximizing ad views to make ends meet. It’s particularly galling in the face of “free culture” wonks that played a major role in defining the Internet we use, and still define a large portion of discourse in the tech sphere. They’ve done some good, of course—campaigning against Digital Rights Management, for example. But until we reach a Star Trek style post-scarcity economy, creative people will still need to eat.

The typical reply in these sorts of arguments is: “Hey! I gotta work a day job too. What make you so damn special?” I subscribe to the theory that an artist makes their best work when they can focus entirely upon it. A world of permanent part-time creatives, banging out everything from apps, to albums, to novels, to podcasts on nights and weekends is a recipe for a world of half-assed, sub-par creative work. Without the ability to make one’s craft their primary means of income, we all suffer for the loss. An artist or an artisan need not be “rich” but they need enough to make a comfortable living, to support themselves and, ideally, a family.

If any of this is going to change, it has to start with us, the people who read, listen, and use the amazing creative things that people make every day—from full-time, and part-time creators alike. There needs to be a real understanding of the value of creative work, and a rethinking of the relationship between artist and audience. I know my own relationship, as a music fan keen on cheap, easy piracy, changed when I made close friends who are professional musicians. I want them to succeed, make art, get paid, and use the money to make more art. It’s hard for any creative person to do much of any work when they’re scrambling to pay bills, put gas in the car to go to the next gig, or even put food on the table, so I go to their shows, buy their albums, and do my best to be a good fan.

And it would be disingenuous of myself to say I don’t have any skin in the game. I would love to make enough money from writing out my thoughts about technology and culture to pay the bills. Hell, I’d be happy if I was making enough per year to cover hosting and domain registration. [1] I can’t even afford a “spare-bedroom office.” I’m typing this up in the combination living room/dining room of my one-bedroom NYC outer-borough apartment. Sure, I have ways of getting paid for what i do, and i’m not shy about asking for someone to stick a buck or three in my tip jar. The tricky part is proving that what I do has value for a patron in a world where thousands, if not more, are giving it away for free. Including people are better than I will ever be.

I don’t want to come off as if I’m calling sour grapes. Even if I don’t make a dime more than I already have from writing, I’ll keep doing it in some form or another until I can no longer make the words come. The creative staff of Macworld and MacUser will land safely somewhere, and the non-creative staff—whose roles are just as valid—will probably find work of their own in time. They won’t all be Jason Snells, parlaying their status in the community into (what looks like) a successful solo career, but they’ll do fine. Even if he has to take a straight job somewhere, he’ll probably keep writing for himself too.

I do worry about the scaling of a patronage system. Maybe it works if your niche is just the right size to bring in your one thousand true fans, or whatever number times price of entry leads to making a living. Not everyone is going to want to take the solo route, and the more people you need to bring forth your vision, the more patrons you’ll need. I don’t think Dan Benjamin would ever be able to run 5by5 at the level he wants from Patreon donations alone. I would suspect Matt agrees. There’s no easy way to cut through the Gordian Knot of creators getting paid, especially independent ones. Patronage seems a good way to start.

  1. (Approximately $135 a year for shared hosting on Dreamhost and a domain through  ↩

The Parable of the Megaphones

In the beginning, there were megaphones. These megaphones were expensive, and hard to use, so the only people who used them were ones who knew how, and could afford them. Over time, the megaphones got cheaper, and easier to use. So, more people got megaphones. The cheaper ones weren’t quite as loud as the expensive, fancy ones, but they were often loud enough. Not everybody could afford a megaphone, and fewer still knew how to use the cheaper ones, of course. Sure enough, though, they found a way to make cheaper, easier to use megaphones that were louder than the second batch.

And so on, and so on, and so on, until now almost everyone who wants a megaphone has one. The new megaphones are almost as loud as the fanciest, most expensive megaphones, and they’re easy enough to use that some people only ever use their megaphone to communicate. Naturally, this makes things very chaotic, loud, and bothersome. To make matters worse, not only the megaphones are pretty easy to use, but they’re easy to misuse too. And nobody’s read the damn manual, if they even came with one. And more people are getting megaphones every day.

Of course, not everyone has a megaphone, but a lot of people do. Until fairly recently, the only people with megaphones were either big companies who could afford the biggest, loudest, and most complicated megaphones, or early-adopter type people who had the cheaper, almost-as-loud ones. There were just enough people with megaphones that it wasn’t overwhelming, but progress marches on. While those of us who have had megaphones for years are trying to figure out how to handle a noisy world with lots of echoing feedback, the people who haven’t had megaphones are anxious to jump in.

To make matters more complicated, a lot of the people picking up megaphones have seen us using ours in public view. They’re used to just hearing our amplified voices, and not being heard over the din. Now they have an even footing. Their megaphone is as loud as ours, and all the other new people with megaphones can listen to anyone, or amplify what either person says. No wonder it’s so noisy. So the old megaphone users aren’t happy with all the noise, and they aren’t happy with how the new people are using their megaphones, and fights are breaking out.

And that’s where we are today.

The thing is, none of us know how to use our megaphones. Some of us think we’ve got it all figured out, since we’ve been using them for so long. Then those upstarts come up and starting using their megaphones differently, for different reasons. Even if they’re not directing their megaphones at us, it’s annoying. Thing is, they’re going through the same learning process we did when we got megaphones. Not only are these new megaphone users learning the ins and outs of megaphone etiquette, they’re learning it in a different environment than we, the early-adopters did. There weren’t many rules when we picked up our first megaphone—we made them up as we learned, and what we made were rules that fit a world where fewer people had megaphones. As the new megaphone users learn how to use them, we’re being forced to adapt how we use our megaphones to the louder world, and that’s hard to do.

We’ll probably never agree 100% on how we should use our megaphones. Time will sort out most of it, until the next batch of people get newer, cheaper megaphones, and the cycle will begin again.