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The season of 'seenzoned' and too many notifications

The unbearable weight of too many notifications is leading to a shift in the way people communicate on the internet

Smartphone users get an average of 50 notifications a day, many of them unnecessary and irrelevant.
Smartphone users get an average of 50 notifications a day, many of them unnecessary and irrelevant. (Picture courtesy: Dall.E 2)

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Nipun Jain has a complicated relationship with social media notifications. When she receives one, the 26-year-old artist finds herself reacting to it in her head but often forgets to share her reaction with the sender. “If it’s something funny they send, for instance… I see, I laugh, I move on.” Two days later, she realises she has missed responding but a “haha” won’t suffice now, “so you tell yourself you will send a proper reply in a bit”. That almost never happens. “I think I have lost touch with several acquaintances because I didn’t reply to their mention or message. And they stopped engaging after a while,” says Jain, who works as a marketing professional in Gurugram, Haryana.

Incoming notifications drain her but when the tables are turned, she doesn’t like being seenzoned, a situation where your text is seen but not replied to. Recently, she left a heartfelt comment on a writer-lifestyle-creator’s Instagram post. It has yet to receive any form of acknowledgement, be it a thank you, a smiley, or even a simple heart reacji (reaction emoji). Generally, people don’t expect to be acknowledged by celebrities with millions of followers, though some still reply to their posts, especially on Twitter, as it allows them to be discovered by more users. But this was not even a popular account, Jain says, adding that the user had no more than 3,000 followers.

“Somehow, I have already started disliking this person now. It has gotten to a point that I skip their Instagram Stories when they appear in my feed,” she adds. “I have revisited the post in question a few times to check if the user has replied to other people’s comments. (They haven’t).”

The discrepancy in her attitude towards incoming and outgoing notifications isn’t lost on her. It does, however, encapsulate the growing chaos in the notification-to-acknowledgement pipeline. It has made room for a new content subgenre where reels and memes are capturing the sentiments of many boomer parents who are tired of reacting to every post in the family WhatsApp group, and younger folks whose unread Instagram messages are piling up because all of them carry reels and memes from friends they cannot just see without sharing their reaction. Smartphone users get an average of 50 notifications a day, many of them unnecessary and irrelevant. “It is easy to expect someone to respond to 50 notifications across apps in a day. But 50 people in front of you demanding the same kind of time in a physical space can be quite overwhelming,” says Taamra Ranganath, counselling psychologist with MindPeers, a mental health consultation platform. Globally, over one-fifth of smartphone users choose to disable push notifications—pop-up alerts on their mobile screens—from certain apps. This is reflected in a 2021 report from Airship, a mobile marketing platform, which states that roughly 19% of Android users and 49% of iOS users opt out of push notifications. Fun fact: Android automatically enables push notifications but iOS users have to proactively consent to receive them.

In addition to excessive notifications, technical glitches on platforms can mean some notifications do not appear, heightening the fear of not receiving or offering acknowledgement online. This is leading to a shift in the way people communicate on the internet, especially with the “extremely online” millennials and Gen Zers, many of whom keep oscillating between dopamine hits and digital detox. “I don’t tag anyone on social media any more,” says Mehvish M., 33, a technology writer from Kashmir. “It keeps me from wondering: Why haven’t they replied yet? Is it because they missed seeing the notification, they never got it, or because the content wasn’t up to snuff? This is too much anxiety for me to take,” she says.

Srishty Ranjan, 25, has 20 unread messages on Instagram right now. “I am just not able to open my DMs and reply,” says the corporate account manager from Delhi. “I struggle to interact on social media. I read somewhere that my online behaviour is similar to those who have social anxiety in real life. Every message and mention on social media feels like a missed call to me and I am hesitant to call back, fearing it will escalate into a meeting.”

Ranganath says social media places an unrealistic expectation on us to constantly stay connected. “Someone not replying to notifications due to anxiety is drawing a healthy boundary for themselves. But on social media, people can interpret it as plain rude without any context. Applying real-life boundaries on social media gets complicated,” she adds.

Some people increasingly prefer messaging an acquaintance directly in response to their social media post, rather than leaving a public comment. An unacknowledged public comment hurts far more than a message left on “read”, says Tanisha Sabherwal, 23, a software engineer from Bengaluru. “We tend to passively stalk other people’s public replies and when we see a reply not getting acknowledged, we do wonder what is happening between those two. You know others do this, too. And nobody wants to be that person who’s being judged by a passive stalker,” she adds.

Further, you can always follow up on a direct message. “With mentions in public, you are a lot less in control,” says Shriya Karanam, 23, a community manager at a SaaS-tech startup. “It’s weird to ask someone to acknowledge your comment on their post. You just end up waiting and wondering, ‘Is this not giving?’ (slang for: Is this content not giving a good vibe?).”

This preoccupation with “acknowledgement in public” is making people neglect basic messaging etiquette too, it would seem. “Earlier, people at least apologised for seeing a message and forgetting to reply,” notes Pragun Dua, a 22-year-old product designer. “Now, missing texts and not caring to explain has almost become the norm, at least in your inner circle,” he says. That’s why you have memes that say “your best friend will die for you but won’t respond to your texts”.

Jokes aside, lack of acknowledgement on social media can have consequences in real life too, says Ranganath. “It could trigger feelings of loneliness if you weren’t acknowledged, or guilt if you failed to acknowledge someone.” Identifying the boundaries of your online comfort zone is a constant process, she adds, and hard to enforce. Memes, on the other hand…

Also read: A clear-cut way out of digital clutter

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