Social media: You can check out, but you can never leave


Social media: You can check out, but you can never leave

Beware the curse of ‘zombie notifications’ – when you think you have killed them, they rise from the dead

Olivia Rudgard

In years gone by, communities might have gathered at church or in the pub to share gossip, form friendships and update each other on their lives. Today, these two great institutions are in decline and instead we have the smartphone.
The little devices in our pockets repeatedly grab our attention, prodding us with alerts and bleeps all day and often all night too. In the decade or so since the creation of the smartphone, we have come to accept this as part of life, sometimes handing over whatever information we are asked for just to keep them quiet. The dopamine hit we get from tapping at our smartphone screens is addictive. But what makes these alerts so irresistible? And what happens when we say we don’t want them – but social media refuses to leave us alone? 
Ivo Vlaev, a professor of behavioural science at Warwick Business School, says consumers are being seduced by the “expectation of reward behind the click”.
When our smartphone gives us a nudge, we expect to see something funny, or interesting, or which makes us more informed about our peers. Our brains are constantly on the hunt for new and surprising knowledge, to improve our understanding of the world and our survival skills. “We are consistently on the lookout for new information, for discrepancies between what we expect and what’s actually out there,” he says. 
The problem comes when new information is neither funny, nor interesting, nor useful. Take “zombie notifications”, so-named because when you think you have killed them, they seem to rise from the dead. This reporter has her own Facebook notification settings dialled up to exclude all alerts not directly related to her own posts, photographs, events and messages, but until earlier this month was still receiving alerts when distant acquaintances and old schoolmates posted photographs, status updates and links.
Tapping through on the alert to a page entitled  “manage settings for this notification” simply brought up a page showing that they were already (in theory) disabled. At peak, these “zombie notifications” were arriving two to three times each week, for months. They only ceased when Facebook was directly asked to turn them off.
A cursory search of Twitter found many other people complaining of the same thing. Asked about this, a Facebook spokesperson initially said the incidents appeared to be a “bug”, but the company did not respond to further questions about how widespread it was or who it was affecting. 
Users also complain of being repeatedly directed to the Marketplace section of the app even when they have nothing to buy or sell. 
It’s not just Facebook. Twitter once told you only about interactions with your own tweets, but now alerts you to tweets it thinks you might be interested in, based on your relationship to the people liking or posting them. A long-term offender is LinkedIn, which regularly alerts its users to posts added by people they rarely interact with, as well as job suggestions and site-generated news and events. 
Why are unwanted alerts so irritating, given the dopamine rush notifications usually give us? Vlaev says we are like gambling addicts who have asked for voluntary exclusion from a bookmakers and been sent promotional e-mails anyway. By turning them off, he says, we are essentially recognising the pointlessness of the alerts. We are saying: “I’m not going to optimise my evolutionary fitness by doing this all the time, clicking on this link.” But this self-preservation instinct is being ignored. 
Steven Weber, a professor at UC Berkeley’s school of information, is unsurprised. “Facebook’s business model is it sells advertising. Everyone kind of knows that, but sometimes I feel like it’s not really fully understood, that is the core engine that drives the company, and so everything is about engagement with users, because that’s the fuel,” he says. “Data is like an intermediate product. The fuel that really drives it is your eyeballs on the screen.”
In the disaster zone of social media PR, this might seem like small fry. People are being prompted to look at an app that they have already willingly downloaded and signed up for. It’s nothing when compared with incitement to genocide, anti-vaccine rumours, or dangerous and harmful conspiracy theories which have been seen on Facebook and elsewhere.
Nevertheless, it can be a distraction and a productivity killer, and there’s evidence that social media addiction can eat into sleep and decrease well-being. But until it drives significant numbers of users away, it’s unlikely to stop. “People might express a little annoyance but ultimately that’s not the metric that they measure, the metric they measure is user engagement. So unless and until that annoyance translates into less user engagement, there’s no reason for them to really act on it," says Weber.
They might be forced into change. A bill has been debated in the US Senate which would curb the ways companies manipulate our behaviour. Known as “dark patterns”, these are confusing pages and unclear default settings which trick users into giving over their personal information.
“Misleading prompts to just click the ‘OK’ button can often transfer your contacts, messages, browsing activity, photos, or location information without you even realising it,” said Deb Fischer, one of two senators who introduced the bill. It is also designed to curb “compulsive usage” among children under 13.
The website that popularised the term,, has a “hall of shame” with some of the most egregious examples. In one case, a user was shown a red “1” next to his name while logged out, but upon logging in had no notifications. In another, users have red dots that are impossible to clear next to the Facebook watch tab, or the messenger tab. Other companies use these tactics to confuse users into agreeing to new privacy policies, prevent them from unsubscribing to e-mails and dissuade them from cancelling subscriptions.
But Weber thinks the bill is likely to fizzle out. “I don’t think we’re going to see any federal legislation that is going to regulate practices on platform firms in any significant way this year.” Tech regulation is not a vote-winner in the US, and the election coming up next year means this is a top concern for politicians. The technology industry has also been lobbying hard to make sure it isn’t subject to punitive regulation, and he believes companies have been doing “just enough” to ensure it doesn’t happen.
Very strict laws, such as those recently passed in Australia, are also helpful, because tech companies can hold them up as examples of overreach for wary US legislators. “It would be different if there were Christchurch kind of event inside the US, and a mass shooting in a New York city subway was streamed live on Facebook for 15 minutes,” he says. “But the zombie notifications? It’s just like a bunch of mosquito bites, at the end of the day.”– © Telegraph Media Group Limited (2019)

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