Gilster: Facebook’s Notify app has potential to improve smartphone notifications

Every time I get fed up with Facebook, the company manages to do something that redeems it in my eyes. The latest example was its response to the horrific events in France. Facebook was quick to enable a tool called Safety Check that helped people to connect with friends in Paris. As it happens, I did have a friend fairly close to the Bataclan concert venue, though he contacted me by email before I had the chance to track him down on Facebook.

Still, I appreciate how a social media site can use its connections to help in a crisis. Twitter, too, was filled with helpful connections, especially those centering on the hashtag #PortesOuvertes, which covered the open door policy of local residents to shelter people looking for safety while the attacks were still going on. Things like this renew my faith in human nature.

And whatever my gripes with Facebook’s ever mutating privacy policies and advertising efforts, it’s clear that being the biggest kid on the social media block carries serious clout. A billion and a half people use Facebook, with fully 400 million tapping the company’s Instagram product and another 700 million using Facebook Messenger to keep in touch. As has been noted in many media outlets of late, CEO Mark Zuckerberg keeps talking about his commitment to bringing the Internet to the four billion or so people who are not yet connected.

Tighter control

That’s a grand thought even if one fraught with a thousand problems in execution. We’ll see how it plays out. Meanwhile, I had meant to talk about the company this week anyway because of its new Notify app, which looks to upgrade a “News” Feed that I’ve never found useful for news or much of anything else. Notify is a mobile app just made available for iOS, with an Android version released soon after, and on that score it enters an interesting ecosystem.

Notifications on a smartphone are still a moving target. Both Android and iOS can pop up a box on your screen telling you of an event in your calendar or a missed call, but I get too many notifications I don’t want to see and long for tighter control. Notify is an attempt to lose the clutter while offering content designed to do more than take you back to one of your apps.

Log in to Notify and the app will extract your Facebook page “likes” to create a set of personalized recommendations. All that time you wasted clicking “like” buttons, in other words, is finally going to have a payoff. The emphasis is personalization. Working with a wide range of content providers, Facebook Notify will select those that fit your interests and begin to deliver alerts to your phone’s lockscreen, where they can be read without opening your phone. A tap of a notification link opens the story, while the app builds a 24 hour feed of your latest notifications.

Central hub

I think publishers are going to like this, because Notify allows them to reach a large audience without building their own smartphone app. Customization comes into play with the first use, because each feed contains a way to explore the providers available and drill down to specific information. You can easily track news about a specific place and narrow your sports interests to the teams that matter. Most of this is available right now with current apps, but Notify becomes a central hub that allows you to forego downloading individual providers’ apps.

The key to notifications is to make them track your highest priority data. If Facebook can use Notify to make it easier for me to simplify my notifications and weed out the clutter, it will hold my interest. Upgrading smartphone notifications is long overdue. Available notification managers (I use Floatify for Android) attempt the same thing but lack Notify’s deep hooks to content. I expect a battle for the smartphone lockscreen as this niche defines itself.

Paul A. Gilster is the author of several books on technology. Reach him at