People are complaining that Facebook is ruining its products with an onslaught of relentless notifications

Getty/BI Graphics
  • People have reported seeing more and more notifications from Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook.
  • They aren’t happy about it.

Cesar Kuriyama, who created the popular app 1 Second Everyday, is sick of Instagram.

“Telling Instagram ‘no’ is like a part-time job,” Kuriyama said.

Kuriyama is referring to Instagram’s repeated requests to send push notifications, the regular alerts sent to users about activity relating to their account. While the idea behind push notifications is that they keep users tuned in to relevant information, people are complaining that the alerts are not only relentless, but unnecessary.

“It’s like harassment,” Kuriyama said. “It’s like, please stop trying to get me to click ‘yes’ on notifications when I’ve told you ‘no’ like hundreds of times already.”

Notifications on both Facebook and Instagram, which is owned by Facebook, have inspired plenty of criticism in the past. But in recent months, people are complaining that they’re getting worse.

After Facebook acquired Instagram in 2012, Greg Hochmuth, an early Instagram employee, noticed a shift in the company’s direction, he said. At its core, Instagram had been centered on its users, Hochmuth said. But Instagram’s focus gradually shifted from user experience to a different area: metrics.

“Increasing usage was key,” Hochmuth said. “The motivation for why things were added to the product became very different than the user-centric framing which I think Instagram used to have.”

That Instagram had become increasingly preoccupied with garnering new users under Facebook’s newfound ownership wasn’t all that surprising, Hochmuth said.

A controversial memo from the Facebook vice president Andrew “Boz” Bosworth leaked earlier this year emphasised the company’s quest for growth by whatever means necessary.

“Growth tactics are how we got here,” he wrote, adding, “We do have great products but we still wouldn’t be half our size without pushing the envelope on growth.” (Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on its notification policies.)

‘It’s all about getting you to respond: What can they do to keep you in the app?’

“Facebook, for better or for worse, is extremely metrics-driven,” Hochmuth said. “Once it picks a metric, it will optimise that metric to a tee. Over time, that’s what happened to Instagram more and more. It’s all about getting you to respond: What can they do to keep you in the app?”

Facebook’s answer to this question seemingly lies in a barrage of pesky notifications from its two leading social-media sites. While the motivation behind notifications is presumably to engage users, people are complaining that both companies’ alerts have begun to rub them the wrong way.

Mark zuckerberg instagramBI Graphics/Getty Images

For Steven Schlafman, a New York-based investor at Primary Venture Partners, Instagram’s repeated requests to send notifications have been an enduring source of tension.

“Whenever I opened the app, I’d find the ‘turn on notifications’ prompt every single time,” Schlafman said. “I kept saying no, but then, sure enough, there it was again and again: ‘Turn on notifications! Turn on notifications!'”

Schlafman estimated that Instagram had asked him to turn on notifications at least 50 times. Finally, Schlafman said, he decided to take a break from the platform.

Schlafman’s point of contention with Instagram is simple: “It’s just not a good user experience.”

“They’re clearly not listening to their users,” he said. “They’re putting their growth goals above their current users’ experience … and it’s like, blech.”

Issues with notifications aren’t relegated to just Instagram either.

Julius Dein, a social-media influencer who has 15 million followers on Facebook, said he had noticed a gradual decline in the quality of notifications he receives.

Dein said that since April, he had “been alerted to far more ‘junk’ notifications.”

“Ninety per cent of it is irrelevant – groups I followed years ago, people commenting in groups I followed years ago,” he said.

Dein said he found the deluge of alerts to be so meaningless that he had given up on them altogether.

“I’m not even checking my notifications anymore at this rate,” he said.

These “junk” notifications have crept into Facebook Messenger’s app as well. It, too, has begun sending a redundant form of alert, letting users know they’re successfully connected to a new friend on the Messenger app.

The notification, which appears as a new message in both Facebook’s primary platform and the standalone Messenger app, is such an obvious ploy for attention that BuzzFeed called it “the worst thing on Facebook.”

While notification settings can be managed and changed, the default alert for Facebook’s products is set to the maximum amount of noise. When I checked my notifications, I found that 44 Facebook-connected apps, most of which I had never used, were set to send notifications. By default, Facebook had my profile tuned in to multiple expired fundraising events, 38 Facebook groups, birthday alerts, close friend activity, and its “On this Day” feature.

Because the alerts often don’t contain meaningful information, people like Dein are choosing to ignore them altogether, allowing potentially important information to slip through the cracks.

Mark Zuckerberg politicsGetty Images

It’s easy to dismiss these notifications as trivial annoyances, but Kuriyama believes there’s something more insidious at stake within Facebook’s product design.

Kuriyama described Facebook’s incessant notifications as “mind hijacking.”

“Facebook keeps coming up with more pointless things that they need to notify you about,” Kuriyama said. “These are stupid, lazy excuses to send you notifications. It’s pure noise.”

At best, the notifications are irritating. At worst, they’re intrusive.

Former Facebook President Sean Parker once described the company’s notifications as “little dopamine hits” and acknowledged that the company had wired its product to exploit human psychology.

At best, the notifications are irritating. At worst, they’re intrusive.^tfw

Joe Fasone, who describes himself as an infrequent social-media user, experienced the company’s intrusive tactics firsthand when he deleted Instagram’s app from his phone in February. In his absence, the company reached out via SMS messages in what Fasone described as a tenacious attempt to lure him back to the site.

The messages, which Fasone posted on Twitter, inspire a particular strain of internet FOMO. “You have 6 new notifications on Instagram,” the company nudged on Valentine’s Day.

From February to May, Fasone received at least 15 SMS messages from Instagram, he said.

“The persistence was impressive,” Fasone said.

One wrinkle in Instagram’s outreach process: Fasone said that he didn’t remember ever opting in to receive SMS notifications and that he’d never been contacted by SMS before deleting the app. Facebook did not respond to a request for comment on this issue.

“I feel like there is this inclination to push the envelope beyond the users’ practical privacy expectations and to get more engagement,” Fasone said. “It’s a big turnoff for me and many others.”

Kuriyama believes Facebook’s push for deeper engagement is fundamentally misguided.

“Facebook’s badge of honour is how long they can get people to stay on the app,” he said. “It should be the opposite. They should be asking themselves, ‘What’s the value that we add?'”

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