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We Need Better Filters, Smart Alerts

We Need Better Filters, Smart Alerts When I review the research and write about the intersection of human behavior and technology, I’m constantly amazed by how far we’ve come.

In just 5 years, social networks have become not only “all the rage,” but also a must-have for a significant portion of the U.S. population. In just 10 years, video online went from a mess of different, incompatible formats to YouTube and its competitors, revolutionizing the way many people engage with entertainment online (and to a lesser extent, information). In just 15 years, the Internet and technologies it has enabled has transformed not only many people’s workplaces, but the very connectedness and relationships we have with others.

Let that sink in for a few minutes. In just 15 years, a set of technologies has started a trend that won’t be stopped, changing the very ways we communicate and socially interact with others in our lives.

But for as great as it all is — and believe me when I say I still believe in the positive potential of the Internet — it still is leading us down social roads that make no sense.

Take, for instance, the prehistoric era we find ourselves in with smartphone alerts.

On the iPhone, any app can send you an alert if you allow it to. These are little tones (and/or vibrations) accompanied by a pop-up screen on the phone’s display. Great!, you think, these can let me know when someone has posted on Facebook wall or sent me a new email.

Smartphone alerts on the iPhone, Android and Windows devices is what leads us to the fear of missing out addiction, or FOMO addiction. We must always check every alert we get, to make sure it’s “not important.”

And that’s the problem. The state of smartphone alerts is that they don’t currently differentiate between letting us know something important — your friend just got dumped and needs a virtual hug — and something dumb that doesn’t require any of your attention or brain cycles — like one of your friends just got a new cow on Farmville.

Smart alerts would know what’s important to us (based upon how we interact with the device, who we most often text or call, etc.), and limit their attentional interruptions of our actual lives to things that are the most important. How do you define what’s “important”? That should be up to the user, but in a very easy to define manner. For instance, a user-defined setting that could be set to anything from, “Show me all alerts from anything, anyone, at anytime” — the current state of affairs — to “Show me only alerts from my partner and close friends via texting, not Facebook or Twitter”.

In other words, smartphones should be a lot smarter. They should know that it’s not cool to send a Facebook update notice at 3:00 am when the phone hasn’t been moved for 3 hours (because I’m sleeping). As opposed to it may be okay to send me such an update when it senses it has been moved (because I’m out partying). It should know it’s never okay to send me an alert from a person I’ve never communicated with personally before. Put it in a queue for my review later, since it’s unlikely to be important.

Sure, you can cobble together a bunch of stuff that may get this to work better, but that’s not intuitive. That’s not the tool working for you — that’s you working for the tool.

Technology is a tool, and as a tool, it should empower and work for us. When I find myself adapting my life or my needs to the limitations of the technology, I get frustrated. I often dump the technology, because my life is my life — I’m not changing how I interact with the world to meet the arbitrary limitations of a “dumb” digital device like an iPhone.

This limitation isn’t limited to smartphones. Spam — and their resulting dumb filters — remain one of the banes of our modern online existence.

The other day I got a notice that our weekly mental health newsletter wasn’t delivered to one of our recipients because of “pornographic language” (from some spam filtering service called MailMarshal). We’re a mental health site, and as such, sexual concerns sometimes come up. The stupid spam filter couldn’t differentiate — in 2011! — a legitimate health topic discussion of a sexual issue from pornography. It’s astounding to me that in over 14+ years of spam filtering technology, this stuff still is an issue.

We need smarter filters. We need smarter alerts. We need technology to spend more time getting to know us, rather than the other way around.

Perhaps these features will be found in the iPhone 10. Until then, I’ll grudgingly continue putting up with (mal)adapting my life to the technology.

We Need Better Filters, Smart Alerts

John M. Grohol, Psy.D.

Dr. John Grohol is the founder of Psych Central. He is a psychologist, author, researcher, and expert in mental health online, and has been writing about online behavior, mental health and psychology issues since 1995. Dr. Grohol has a Master's degree and doctorate in clinical psychology from Nova Southeastern University. Dr. Grohol sits on the editorial board of the journal Computers in Human Behavior and is a founding board member of the Society for Participatory Medicine. You can learn more about Dr. John Grohol here.

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APA Reference
Grohol, J. (2018). We Need Better Filters, Smart Alerts. Psych Central. Retrieved on October 27, 2020, from
Scientifically Reviewed
Last updated: 8 Jul 2018 (Originally: 16 Jun 2011)
Last reviewed: By a member of our scientific advisory board on 8 Jul 2018
Published on Psych All rights reserved.