Notifications: Wasting My Precious Time

I’m not sure I can track the actual number of messages, updates, and notifications increasingly nibbling away at minutes in my day. But I’m sure that the number is growing — and those who send me those notifications, much like junk mail lenders, don’t have any concerns about my waste of time.

Here are a few examples. See if they sound familiar to you.

Over the holidays, I sent a bunch of gifts via UPS. A slew of notifications followed, and it turned out that one of the packages didn’t arrive. It appears it was stolen — and, from my engagement with UPS, the situation got much worse. I filed a claim, they opened an investigation, and then closed the claim because they saw “evidence” it was delivered: a photograph of it sitting in an alley. From here, you end up in a labyrinth of automated “assistants,” phone bank workers, and a promise that UPS will “investigate” with the shipper. I point out that I’m the shipper and ask to speak to a manager. Twenty minutes later, a manager told me he could forward me to the investigation, but the company was closed on the weekend.

It’s a Kafkaesque hell that is designed to over-notify and under-serve at the same time.

Over at Facebook, the problem is stranger still. Every day, I get between five and 10 urgent messages on Facebook Messenger saying that my page is being flagged to be taken down. The messages are poorly worded spam. They claim to come from Facebook, but they are from random names and random accounts. It’s bad spam, certainly. But each one takes 10 seconds to read — and triggers a brief spike of rage.

I get it. They want you to click on a link, and at that point, they are going to ask you to enter some personal information to verify that you are really the Facebook user you claim to be. Then, they steal your data. But why does Facebook let messages with sources that are not authorized Facebook domains deliver messages that claim to be “official” Facebook takedown threats? I presume it’s easier to inconvenience users than to solve spam problems.

Which brings me to weather. Two things collide here: Weather is getting more extreme and unpredictable. That means that threats of extreme cold, wind, floods, and hurricanes show up on data dashboards with growing urgency. That puts companies like Jet Blue in a tough spot. And so, as I prepared for a three-day trip last week, Jet Blue texted me with weather warnings and updates with growing urgency. Notifications about ticket flexibility, rebooking, and potential delays flooded my texts. In the end, the plane left on time and returned on time — but my increased awareness of potential changes left me in a state of impending weather danger anxiety.

UPS, Facebook, Jet Blue: Each is using data to keep me informed, some with accurate information, or in the case of Facebook, with absolute spam. Having engaged customers with increased frequency, trying to respond with a question leaves you in the hands of virtual assistant chatbots, poorly trained robots that act as a barrier to a human operator.

It all comes down to time: the value of my time, the cost of human interaction, and bad data that drive up the digital zigs and zags of our data-driven world. Don’t expect things to get better any time soon.

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