What Are Push Notifications?

By Helen LinLast Updated Apr 30, 2021 1:43:34 PM ET
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Photo Courtesy: Tim Robberts/Getty Images

If you hear your phone vibrate or see that little notification ding in the tabs on your browser, you might be getting a push notification. Basically, push notifications are messages that apps and companies send to those who subscribe to them. Push notifications allow for a streamlined communication experience, especially if the app or service in question needs to reach a lot of different users.

Signing up for push notifications can eventually feel like accumulating clutter. So, how do you know which ones are worth it? Learning a little more about push notifications, how they developed, and the tech behind them can help you decide whether or not you want to sign up.

What Are Push Notifications: The Backstory and Different Types

Push notifications were invented in 2008 by Chilean designer, Matias Duarte, but the technology was made available to people via Apple in 2009. Since then, improvements have been made to the technology; in 2013, folks were able to add images to push notifications. Some places that help people develop push notifications of their own are Airship and OneSignal.

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Photo Courtesy: Westend61/Getty Images

To give you an idea of what kind of phones we were using and the technology available to us at the time, here are some fun facts about this time period: 3G was the standard for cell phone reception back when push notifications first came to be. Today, 5G is becoming the norm. It’s almost as if 2009 was the year of three and 2021 was the year of five. In 2009, Xbox 360 and PlayStation 3 were the standard in gaming, while in 2021 it’s all about the PlayStation 5 and Xbox Series X (or Series S).

The Blackberry Storm was one of the best-selling phones of 2009. The phone shared company with the LG Envy Touch, the iPhone 3GS, the original Motorola Droid, and the Samsung Eternity. Remember when cell phones used to be keyboard-based? The evolution of screens has helped improve the technology behind push notifications.

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Did you know there are different types of push notifications? It depends on what type of technology you’re using. This means you can connect with brands and websites no matter how you’re plugging in. It can get a little confusing as to which type is which, but know what type of push notification you’re signing up for can help keep things organized. Here is a list of different push notifications:

Web Push Notifications: you might be most familiar with this type of push notification. Many websites will have a pop-up notification that asks if you would like to receive notifications from that site on your browser. These can appear on your mobile device or a phone so long as the browser is active.

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Desktop Push Notifications: they are a lot like web push notifications, but they exist solely on your desktop. These notifications can be harder for developers to build, so they might not be as common as other devices. When you download an app to your desktop, you can opt to receive these types of notifications.

Mobile App Push Notifications: these are triggered by apps you download on your phone. Common apps like Uber, Doordash, or even Pokemon Go use this all the time. These can also be regulated in the "settings" section on your mobile device.

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Push Notifications on Wearables: if you’re wearing an Apple watch or a sport watch, this type of notification will come to you. Wearables have smaller screens, so you would be notified in a different way. The best part about these push notifications is that you can usually regulate them pretty easily on the product itself. If you’re getting too many, a couple clicks of the watch can put a stop to that.

Push Notifications in Pop Culture

To see the concept demonstrated in a real-life setting, television has a prime example. In 2006, Gossip Girl debuted and became the first drama rooted in technology. For those who haven’t caught the show yet, Gossip Girl was about private school students in New York’s lavish Upper East Side neighborhood.

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Photo Courtesy: IMDB

Strangely enough, the show used push notification technology before it had even been developed. It’s as if the writers saw the rapidly evolving technology in cell phones and knew it was only a matter of a time. The character of Gossip Girl was anonymous until the end, so push notification technology helped add to the show’s mystique and character development . Using push notifications to conceal a secret identity was also a focal point of Pretty Little Liars.

Push notifications were often a main driver of the show’s conflict. In similar shows like Dawson’s Creek or The O.C., characters had to travel to each other. But, through the push notification of Gossip Girl’s website, characters were constantly in the know.

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This did become invasive for the characters, since actions from their lives were being sent to strangers and family members, but thankfully, you don’t have to worry about that when signing up to get push notifications from apps and other services.

With that said, it can be helpful to take a close look at what information you’re actually getting from push notifications to see if they’re worth it. If an app or service is being too clingy or their push notifications aren’t telling you something you really want or need to hear, it might make sense to unsubscribe. To quote Salt n’ Peppa, "ah, push it. Push it real good."

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