News services need to focus on pushing stories that are actually important instead of celebrity trivia and sports results.
Recently, my phone notified me of a system update. Like many of us, I ignored that message for several weeks until I finally grew tired of the persistent notification and caved in. Oh dear hell, how I wish I hadn’t. Typically, system updates are a mild inconvenience. Ten minutes of your life wasted while your phone downloads a big chunk of data and heats up like a nuclear reactor while it installs that data, reboots, and finally lets you get on with your day. Your day now consists of determining why your icons have changed and where certain settings have relocated. A pest, but one you quickly deal with.
On this occasion, however, the update did something else: it reset all of my push notification settings. For as long as I’ve had this phone, which is a while – I’m a ‘use it ‘til it breaks’ kinda gal – I’ve been silencing a lot of push notifications. I don’t need all of the apps on my phone bothering me with unnecessary information. With my settings reset, however, it became abundantly clear just how much crap app developers want to bother you with every single day.
My phone incessantly beeped to notify me of all sorts of pointless shit. Whether it was Skype pushing a notification at 11pm to let me know I could use it to make video calls or Medium bothering me with the latest rewriting of a 1990s sociology textbook parroted by somebody farming claps for their ‘original insights’, my phone became a source of extreme frustration. It just wouldn’t shut the fuck up.
Obviously, I get it. Because of our wonderful culture of ad-based business models and subscription upsells, app developers are incentivised to bother you repeatedly to get you to engage with their app. However, their method of soliciting engagement bothers me the most because it’s a fundamentally flawed principle – that what is popular is also interesting.
This really isn’t the case. Let’s take Reddit, for example. Millions of people use Reddit every day, and even an old codger like me can appreciate that there are many insightful discussions to be found on Reddit. In fact, there’s a lot of good content on Reddit, such as James Corden’s ill-advised Ask Me Anything (AMA), where the whole thing descended into a hate-fest directed at the television equivalent of ringworm.
I even appreciate how dedicated subscribers to The Sopranos subreddit are at ensuring that every single discussion turns into a quote-fest from the show. There are some truly creative ways of using the line “When you’re married, you’ll understand the importance of fresh produce” that can elicit a favourable smirk. However, although I can appreciate that, I don’t need my phone alerting me to threads on The Sopranos subreddit because I know what they contain. While amusing, an entire thread of quotes doesn’t strike me as requiring my attention. If I want to see that, I know where to go.
Similarly, a lot of the most popular posts on Reddit are memes. As I’ve been preparing for the release of Baldur’s Gate 3, I’ve spent a bit of time on the subreddit, and as a video game, it’s no surprise that it attracts a lot of meme creators. Some are actually quite funny or insightful. Most, of course, have all the creativity of a McDonald’s salad. More than a few have been created by people who probably should be on some sort of watchlist.
None, however, are ‘must-see’ content because memes are disposable content. People see a meme, if they like it, they upvote it, and then they move on. Of course, memes are one of the easiest ways to gain a lot of upvotes simply because they’re content that requires little engagement or thought and your interaction with them is done and dusted a few seconds after you’ve seen them.
However, Reddit sees the upvotes, assumes popularity, and concludes that they are also interesting, so it’s precisely the type of content that meets the criteria for a push notification. Reddit isn’t the only app that does this. Twitter (or X, apparently) does the same thing. By default, it’ll giddily push a notification that somebody you’ve never heard of has tweeted something popular. Medium does it. Facebook does it. In fact, pretty much every content-heavy app will try and do it.
Now okay, for the most part, this is one of those things you just have to deal with. Inconvenient as it is, the solution is to silence these pointless notifications as they come in. Eventually, the phone ceases to beep incessantly, and the risk of you tossing it at the wall diminishes. However, there is one type of app that you probably don’t want to silence, yet makes the exact same mistake as Reddit and the like – news apps.
We live in a world where things happen, and we probably want to know about these things. I, for one, would like some sort of warning if the situation in Ukraine spirals out of control and I need to quickly dig myself a basement. If the government announces some new policy decisions, I probably want to know about that too because they’re almost certainly bound to be cretinous and I’m not convinced that ‘kill all the poor’ won’t one day make the government agenda. If there’s a terrorist attack or some kind of killer clown on the loose in my local area, it’s probably worth letting me know.
What isn’t worth a notification is the results of fucking Bake Off. If I gave a shit about that show, I’d have watched it, or I’d have DVR’d it, or planned to watch it on catch-up, in which case I wouldn’t want the bloody spoiler, would I? The same goes for a lot of popular events. Why would you need to tell me that Manchester City just won the Champions League or that some Z-list fame whore was just voted off a reality show?
Desperate as they are for clicks and engagements, even the BBC News app will resort to such tacky engagement solicitation. They will unashamedly bother you with asinine nonsense about pop culture, which isn’t remotely newsworthy to me and probably not even to people who care. Google, Bing and the like take it even further, by using your search history to have a guess at things you care about. A couple of searches on one topic, and suddenly Google thinks that you’re the type of person interested in what Stephen Amell has to say about the SAG-AFTRA strike.
It’s not even a simple case of just telling the app not to notify you about Entertainment or Sports, because so often they’ll bundle the football results or celebrity gossip into the UK News category. The same category that covers stories about terrorist attacks and MPs on the fiddle, so you probably don’t want to silence it.
Worse still is that these nonsense stories often seem to trump actual news. I’m sure other things must have happened in the world around the time Gary Lineker had the temerity to express an opinion on the app-formerly-known-as-Twitter, but that was the story the BBC and Sky felt I needed up-to-date information on. The same goes for the recent social media-fuelled nonce-hunt, and while I’ve swiped away whatever inane drivel is going on with the Barbie film, that’s a ‘newsworthy’ thing too, it seems.
To a point, you could forgive the likes of Sky for this bullshit. After all, they’re a corporation that derives substantial revenues from driving people to their ad-riddled UX clusterfuck of an app, so exploiting every potential angle to do just that makes sense for them. However, the BBC, and other news services that bemoan our post-truth, fake-news, politically ignorant culture have some responsibility to not contribute to it. Yet they are contributing to it, by encouraging me, as a user, to silence or delete their stupid application because I don’t care about Strictly Come Dancing or the shower thoughts of Katie Price.
Just because something is popular does not make it interesting, nor does it make it important or meaningful. It is far too much for the developers at Reddit, Medium, and other such apps to appreciate this distinction, but those behind news applications really need to do better.
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