Ray Shan
4 min read

Undead Notifications

I have a confession to make: I’m that user who religiously turns off all your carefully crafted notifications. For every app I install, I always say no to notifications. For every automated email landing in my inbox, I click on the unsubscribe link. For every piece of unsolicited junk mail I get, I dig up the contact info in the Privacy Policy and ask the company not to mail me. It’s not that I think they’re not useful, I just don’t want the cognitive load from seeing them in my inbox. If you’ve seen me with my electronics, it’s the same reason why I tape off all the branding.

Several years ago I successfully purged all my Facebook email notifications. But recently they came back in full force, as if someone raised them from the dead. For example, I just received this notification from Facebook:

An undead Facebook email notification

An undead Facebook email notification

Let’s unsubscribe. Hmm. I don’t remember “Recent checkins from your friends” being a thing, and I definitely didn’t subscribe to it.

Opting out of Facebook email notification

Opting out of Facebook email notification

Now let’s dig up this notification in Facebook Notification Settings:

Facebook Notification Settings - Email

Facebook Notification Settings - Email

“Recent checkins from your friends” doesn’t exist under the Email section at all. Apparently this notification is something you’re not supposed to control unless you discover the hidden path to its setting via the email. Or maybe this is part of “Important notifications about you or activity you’ve missed”? Who knows. "Live Video" and "Offer" definitely weren’t there before.

I also had the same problem with in-app notifications. These started to show up a few months ago:

New 2018 Facebook friends and family notifications

New 2018 Facebook friends and family notifications

Why don’t my friends’ activities stay in the News Feed? There is also no way to turn these notifications off:

Facebook Notification Settings - On Facebook

Facebook Notification Settings - On Facebook

I think these notifications are rolled out with Facebook’s push to showcase more friends and family content. These notifications help offset the lost usage from removing clickbait content. They also caused me to stop looking at Facebook’s in-app notifications completely, even if that meant I’ll miss something important like event invites.

Undead - adjective - technically dead but still animate.

― Oxford English Dictionary

People in tech know the cost to creating notifications is practically zero, so they keep raising notifications from the dead by inventing new ones and retargeting you. I get the need to drive metrics, and notification is a great way to drive DAUs. They just need to be done in a way that’s transparent, with easy opt-out for users. There are laws protecting consumers from direct mail and email spam 1. The platforms are also giving users more control 2. But we don’t do enough as product owners. If we don’t curb our enthusiasm and let notification volume continue to grow, we’ll only invite more GDPR-esque regulation, and users will turn us off.


P.S. So I turn off my screen, but the physical world isn’t any better. Have you noticed how every time you move, all the physical mail you unsubscribed before, like RedPlum coupons, are in your inbox again? There are companies selling physical address databases for marketing, and I’m pretty certain the USPS Change of Address service flips the “fresh” flag on an address, causing a bunch of junk mail to show up for the “current resident”.

A stack of direct mail catalogs I previously unsubscribed, but showed up anyway after moving in. No need to buy coffee table books anymore.

A stack of direct mail catalogs I previously unsubscribed, but showed up anyway after moving in. No need to buy coffee table books anymore.

  1. MailChimp does a great job in this area. They provide plenty of guidance. They even build software smarts into their product to help you do the right thing, such as by always inserting an unsubscribe link. 

  2. One of my favorite features in iOS 12 is the ability to turn off notifications as you see them, instead of wading through the ever-expanding Settings app. 

I'm building products that build the next generation of companies at LTSE. This blog is where I share my thoughts.

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