Get Lost!

By Chamil Chandrathilake

In one fine Saturday evening, I sat in my long armchair with a coffee in my hand and started to think about the good old days we had before the pandemic changed our lifestyles. We used to come to work all five days and share a casual chat, and we got together at the carom board with a cup of tea and played a game, and every once in a while we were either on top of a mountain freezing inside a tent or chilling in some beach, having a sea bath! The memories of the singing sessions carried me further away and the music of the guitar and drums around the bonfire started to fill my mind. ‘Beeeep’!

It was my phone. It vibrated all of a sudden and my service provider had a message for me. ‘Your account balance is less than 15/- Rupees. Please reload before…’ “Ah really?, I’ll just reload in the evening, now let me dive into the memories once again. Where did I stop? The bonfire!”. And I started to memorize all the fun things we did. Just as I tasted my coffee once more, came a beep again, troubling my flashback. ‘Checkout the Coronavirus update for today..’ It was from the news app I got in my phone. “Later! I got no time for that now. I’m gonna go into the memories once more”. And it was only a couple of minutes I could do that before I got the third beep, this time from Facebook. ‘Your friend Amarabandu Rupasinghe has commented on your photo’!

“Wait a minute, did it say my friend has commented on my photo? Must be some silly thing as he always does. I need to check what the comment is. Oh I couldn’t check how many likes I got for my photo in a while either. Let me open Facebook and have a look…”. And that was the end of my beautiful journey to the good old memories.

Coming back to the present tense, let’s analyze what really happened above. Did you think I got 3 notifications to my mobile phone? From the look of it, yes, but not really, there’s much more than that! Two years ago, I did a tech talk session on how notifications work. I explained the flow of a notification from the server to the Azure Notification Hub, then to Firebase and finally to the mobile phone. Two years later, I realized that I had known nothing about the real deal about notifications!

If you look at the three notifications I got carefully, the purpose of each notification is similar in a higher level but the approaches they have taken are totally different. In other words, ‘How they work’ is totally different. All three senders want us to get involved in their businesses more and more but one of these three has crossed the line in doing that. If we look at the first notification, it was from my service provider reminding me to perform a certain action. The most important details of the event was included in the notification itself and I only needed to open the message if I wanted to know the additional details. If we look at the second notification I got, it was from my news app and an overview of the event is sent to me in the notification. It suggested me to open the news app and read the full story in detail but I could choose not to.

Now let’s have a look at how social media notifications work. When LinkedIn sends you a notification saying ‘Someone has viewed your profile’, can you just stay there without clicking it and see who that is? Or when Facebook says ‘Someone has replied to your comment’, would you dare ignoring it? I guess you would click the notification 9 times out of 10. But have you ever wondered why the notification wouldn’t mention the name of the person who viewed your profile straightaway? Or why Facebook wouldn’t show the comment or at least a part of it in the notification?

Here is the answer. As opposed to the notification I got from my service provider, the strategy of social media apps is not to provide you the information of the event. Nor it is to show a part of the event and invite you to check out the rest, like the notification I got from my news app. The strategy in fact is to create a Dopamine kick in our brain!

Yes, you read it right. The pleasure chemical, the ‘feel-good’ hormone – Dopamine! The same chemical that rushes to your brain when you find a 5000 Rupee bill on the ground. Or when you see a new coffee shop opened next to your office when you go to work after a long time. Or when you get a dose of heroin for that matter as the experts say! The kick of Dopamine creates the thirst in you to get the next available pleasure and that’s how the poor souls get addicted to drugs. Unfortunately, the ‘Addiction Engineers’ in social media companies have designed the notifications in a way to trick you into getting a Dopamine kick and make your brain search for the next available pleasure immediately, which is, opening the app and scroll an scroll and scroll down until your eyes hurt, fingers get tired or the battery gets dead. But never until ‘you are satisfied’, which is not something that would happen. If not for the external reasons, Dopamine would keep you scrolling for days!

In our day to day programming work, we often use event handling. We program our software to act in a certain way when it receives certain events. But did you ever know that social media companies have programmed us to open their apps and scroll at the event of receiving a notification?! What a mind blowing design by their engineers but sadly, the effect of Dopamine gradually destroys our long term thinking and makes us focused on short term goals and pleasures according to the experts.

So what can you do at the end of the day? Now that you know what they are up to, you can draw the line between using and getting addicted. You can also use the not-so-promoted features of those apps themselves to restrict your time spent on them. Or if you are a lot more serious about this, you can go on and uninstall these apps from your phone, like I did, and avoid all the tempting notifications. This way, you can use them when you really need to use these apps. The documentary movie ‘Social Dilemma’ can be recommended to get more insight in this regard and find out how you are being programmed by a set of supercomputers residing in the other side of the world. And here’s my message in short. Get lost in the real world, not the virtual world!