Notifications: Tyranny of the Red Circle

They say that in this modern age, we have the attention span of a goldf— hold on a sec, did my phone just vibrate? Let me just…

Oh, that’s nothing important.

What was I saying?

There’s one surefire way to really get on my last nerve: Have your smartphone alerts set to this sound. (That’s the sound of the SungSam* whistle ringtone, in case you resisted the urge to click the link and were wondering.) It’s like fingernails on a chalkboard to me.

I’m not alone; if you skim the comments on that YouTube clip you’ll read comments like:

“The WORST ringtone in the world.”

And: “I just want to strangle someone whenever I hear this.”

And somewhat confusingly: “Are drug dealers meeting and whistling to signal each other to make a drop?”

A few years ago, it seemed like every phone was under contractual obligation to make this noise at least every 3 minutes. It even prompted an article entitled, “8 reasons why the world needs to stop using the SungSam whistle ringtone.” When it was finally axed by SungSam’s S6 in 2015, the world rejoiced, per another article entitled “With the Galaxy S6, SungSam has finally eliminated the widely-hated Whistle notification.”

Since the only use for an S5 today is as an overpriced paperweight, you never hear the whistle, but the memory of it clearly lives on in my autonomic nervous system’s stress response. Occasionally I’ll hear a subtle vibrating buzz, but this cheerful, birdlike tune has gone the way of the dodo. (See what I did there? No? …never mind.)

Today we are living under the occupation of a silent, yet even more pernicious tyrant:

The notification.

That seemingly innocent number in a little red circle can be even more oppressive than the whistle.


Fascinating research out of Nottingham Trent University in the UK shows that notifications can have a pronounced effect on a person’s mood. Dr. Eiman Kanjo published a study in 2017, NotiMind: Utilizing Responses to Smart Phone Notifications as Affective Sensors.

Over a 5-week period, study subjects downloaded and used a smartphone app that kept track of their notifications, both the number and type of content. She used a shortened version of a tool called the Positive and Negative Affect Schedule, or PANAS, to measure the mood of subjects three times each day.

What Makes Us Smile

The results were really interesting. They showed that some notifications produced positive mood characteristics, and other notifications did the opposite. When using the keyboard function to send a message to an individual through an app such as Instagram, Facebook or WhatsApp), the subjects reported positive “affect,” a term which in this context refers to mood characteristics. The number of emojis in a message also correlated with good mood. As a result, I will sprinkle emojis liberally throughout the remainder of this post. 👋🏼😸🦋

What Irritates Us 😡

What caused a negative affect, you might ask? Emails from work of course, and LinkedIn messages. Yup, they classified LinkedIn messages differently because they are work-related, and lumped them in with work emails and business communications. According to Dr. Kanjo, the data “indicates that people like to engage with social messages and family and friends, and become stressed when interacting with work-related messages.”

Don’t Make Me Use the LinkedIn App 😒

When I think about this dichotomy, it makes me realize why some of my clients are so reluctant to install and regularly check the LinkedIn app on their smartphone: it feels too much like work. It’s an unpleasant obligation like answering that email from your boss asking, “Is that report done yet?”

In my next blog post, I’ll talk about ways to reframe the reaction to a LinkedIn notification from one of annoyance or dread to a welcome, positive response much like that of an Instagram “like.” Some of the strategies can be implemented by customizing your settings, but much of the change can come from how you utilize LinkedIn. Positive energy going out to the members of your network will result in positive returns!

Self-awareness and Smartphone Use 😄

In the meantime, try to notice how you feel when you pick up your phone and see that little red circle. Be aware of which apps bring which emotional responses. Become a more self-aware smartphone user, and you may be able to guard against the tyranny of the red circle.


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*The name of a certain smartphone manufacturer has been changed to protect the guilty. 🤔