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Stuart Dredge Headshot

The Fretful Downside of Notification Culture

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Remember when BlackBerry was CrackBerry? Hardcore BB users were simply unable to leave their smartphone in their pocket if they heard the telltale bleep of an incoming email. People's lives were ruled by those bleeps, and in many cases still are. Addiction isn't too strong a word. And that was just one device.

The problem in 2011, though, is that there are more bleeps from more devices in the average geek's life. Somehow, we've dived headlong into a notification culture, where we have to know now, Now, NOW! about incoming tweets, comments, likes, check-ins, instant messages, emails...

Some days, I wonder how much time I spend working, and how much time I spend jumping to the beat (or bleeps) of sundry social networks and communication services across my computer, tablet and smartphone.

Twitter sometimes manages a quadruple whammy when I have a new direct message, making two mobile devices bing-bong in quick succession, while sending me an email and switching on the little white marker next to the DM icon in my Twitter Mac client. STOP WHAT YOU'RE DOING. THIS IS IMPORTANT! It's so important for Facebook, it now has a new dedicated Facebook Messenger mobile app, in case we were getting blase about message notifications in its main app.

When I was a magazine journalist back in the day, I was sent on a day-long time management course (which, beautifully, half the group arrived late and flustered to). One of the key points was the idea of not being ruled by your inbox: of setting aside one or two blocks of time during the day for emailing, and sticking to them. I doubt that's taught to journalists nowadays: the constant deadlines of online publishing leave no scope for letting press releases moulder in an inbox until 5pm.

Our notification culture in 2011 also challenges those time management techniques, emphasising real-time alerts over the kind of asynchronous communication that my trainer that day was trying to instil in us as habit.

As my introduction hopefully made clear, I'm not suggesting this is a new thing: bleeping BlackBerries and computers chirping 'You've Got Mail' have been pulling people to keyboards of varying sizes for many years. The difference today is the sheer number of services flinging alerts at you, all day long. If you let them.

Yes, that's the point. If you let them. You can turn off notifications on your iPhone, tell Facebook to stop sending you emails, and politely check the box in Foursquare to not receive breaking news that your mate has just checked into his local gym/kebab house/brothel. Turn off all the notifications, and dip in to these services when it suits you. Stop whingeing and take control of your social media life.

I'm trying, but it's surprisingly hard. Those CrackBerry addicts often had a semi-sensible reason for their behaviour: once their boss had given them a BlackBerry, they might get sacked for ignoring emails. With social media, it's a bit less cut-and-dried. I worry about what I might be missing if I drop the notifications, and fret about offending someone by not replying to a DM quickly enough. Plus, shamefully, no bleeps at all can feel as panic-inducing as lots in quick succession.

The conclusion? I want a middle ground between staying connected, and jittering in a permanent state of distraction. If you've found it, let me know. I'll be waiting for the bleep.

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