In Luo Weiyong’s line of work, success means crafting a 7 a.m. push notification catchy enough that his company’s app is the first thing people open when they wake up in the morning. Or, it means sending messages personalized according to users’ online behavior every 39 minutes–an interval extensive testing proved optimal.
For the companies Luo has worked at, as well as for countless competitors vying to get noticed, time equals money–literally. More user attention translates to higher advertising income. But Chinese apps are finding they need ever more aggressive tactics to achieve their growth goals.
For years, China’s internet industry knew nothing but rapid expansion as millions upon millions of people went online for the first time. But with smartphones now in the hands of just about everyone who wants one, growth has slowed to a crawl. According to business intelligence service provider QuestMobile, the number of active monthly mobile internet users in China reached 1.135 billion in 2019, just 2.3% more than a year earlier. In 2020, this figure fell further to 1.7%.
The only way to increase traffic is to out-compete other apps for users’ time, a battle in which push notifications are the most potent weapon. To wield them most effectively, apps collect and analyze all possible user data, reducing every one of China’s 1.1 billion phone owners to a set of tags that can be used to target them with barrages of tailor-made messages.
According to big data solutions platform Aurora Mobile, China’s mobile internet users had an average of 63 apps installed on their phones in the first quarter of 2021. Statistics produced by Unified Push Alliance, a government-affiliated organization, show that from September to October 2020, China’s Android users received an average of nearly 100 push notifications a day. The daily total number sent by all mobile apps was almost 100 billion.
All’s fair in an app war
About four-fifths of Chinese smartphone users have a device that runs on a version of Android, Google’s operating system. Every message they see pop up on their screens is the result of a unique three-way game that exists in no other country.
Usually, phone manufacturers provide the hardware, Google maintains the operating system, and developers are responsible for the apps. But since Google withdrew from China in 2010, the country’s phone manufacturers don’t use the mobile notification service the company launched two years later. Called Google Cloud Messaging (GCM), it has apps send push messages to Google’s servers, which then send them onto users’ cellphones, allowing users to easily manage all notifications and their phones to consume less power.
In China, the world of push messages is instead a lawless Wild West. Competing handset-makers developed their own separate modified Android versions, each with their own notifications systems. Developers, meanwhile, scheme to keep apps active in the background to ensure users can receive their messages. One common tactic is for apps by the same company or several cooperating companies to continuously “wake each other up.”
Over time, a situation arose in which phone batteries were being drained so their owners could be inundated with aggressive notifications. In October 2017, the Ministry of Industry and Information Technology led the establishment of the Unified Push Alliance to end the chaos. Its secretary general, Wang Jingyao, spent three months lobbying app developers, handset-makers, and other related internet companies.
The idea was to unify all the separate push services to cut down on battery use, data traffic, and user annoyance. Wang remembers that in 2017–before the ministry began trying to regulate the sector–some Android phones would lose half their battery power in a morning despite having done nothing.
Experience has shown it’s difficult to align all the players’ incentives. App developers rely on push notifications: “When people open an app, 60% of the time it’s because of a push message,” says Wang. But handset-makers, who handle the distribution of notifications, bear the costs of their excesses.
So far, although the Unified Push Alliance claims to have provided standardized services for at least 10 phone manufacturers, the results have been far from ideal. While some phone manufacturers, including Huawei, nominally agreed to cooperate, they still use their own push message systems. Practitioners also think that expecting a third party to sort out the mess is wishful thinking: “China has so many apps, how can they be unified?!” one operator with four years’ experience in push messages said.
On May 8, 2021, government departments proposed regulating news and information pushed via pop-ups, prohibiting content which is illegal, vulgar, and “undesirable,” as well as excessive push messages.
On May 20, phone maker Xiaomi implemented new rules on push messages to provide a simple set of classification methods for developers, dividing information into two categories–important and ordinary. There is no limit to the number of important messages that can be sent each day, while ordinary messages are limited based on app designation.
However, Wang suspects that developers may use the “important messages” channel to push ordinary messages, saying “How do manufacturers know if a developer is following the rules?”
Birth of a push message
The moment an app is downloaded, its algorithm kicks into action. Every phone has a fixed device number, which is the online equivalent of a personal ID card. Zhang Yiming, the founder of tech giant ByteDance, described the recommendation system of Toutiao, ByteDance’s popular news aggregator, in an academic journal article. “Within five seconds of a user linking their Weibo account to Toutiao, the system builds up a personalized map of interests for them,” he wrote, referring to China’s biggest social network.
Users are classified into various groups which subsequently determine what information appears on their screens. For example, vulgar posts are less likely to be sent to users in bigger cities like Beijing, Shanghai, and Guangzhou, and people with iPhones, who are also regarded as “high-end users.” But location, phone brand, age, and gender are just the basics. Internet companies go to great lengths to tag people’s habits and preferences more accurately. It’s not enough to know a user is into watching variety TV shows; companies want to know exactly which show is their favorite.
In order to prevent the abundance of data from slowing down Toutiao’s recommendation system, the company launched a specialized computing system in 2014. Since the usefulness of data decreases over time, it must be processed as quickly as possible. Toutiao’s system is capable of updating people’s interests within 10 minutes of a change in user interactions with the app.
With nearly infinite server storage, internet companies record data based on every action by users, including when their screen lights up and when they plug in their headphones. All of this information becomes the basis for pushing or not pushing a particular message to someone.
When it comes to push notifications, technology is gradually replacing labor. Toutiao internally divides push messages into two categories: machine-generated, which are mainly personalized around different interests, and manual, also known as “forced push messages,” which are outside of the algorithmic rules and used for important news. At web portal Netease, content is organized into different pools, allowing workers to just select a list and batch-send messages to tens of thousands of people.
Relying on automated systems can also produce errors. He Shuang is a white-collar worker in Beijing, a top university graduate, and an iPhone user–all data points that should slot him as a “high-end user.” But because he set his location in his QQ web browser to the comparative backwater of Zhoukou, in the central Henan province, he feels like “a garbage can for news messages.”
On April 21, between 6:48 a.m. and 10:48 p.m., He’s browser sent him more than 40 messages on topics such as sex, violence, and accidents, with titles such as “Man in Henan province found dead on the street: the police uncovered a big secret” and “Woman dies in bed during extramarital tryst.”
Users can’t simply solve the problem by turning off notifications, either. Doing so is also an action that the platform will detect, which in turn allows it to further optimize its algorithm. What’s more, the app will prompt you repeatedly to turn notifications back on. Even if you choose to uninstall the app, a company may send you text messages instead.
Despite advances in automation, human labor isn’t easily replaced. At the end of last year, Luo changed jobs. Just two months later, his new company handed over its push notification business to a branch in a province with lower salaries in order to cut labor costs. But due to disappointing results, the company soon decided to bring the business back to Beijing.
Workers like Luo spend their time–and overtime–fretting over how to craft two or three lines of text that will elicit a tap, and then monitor various metrics to gauge how well they’ve done attracting attention, including click-through rates and daily active user figures.
At 35 years old and with previous work experience at big tech companies like Sohu, Netease, and Xiaomi, Luo is a veteran in the push notification cottage industry, which is dominated by recent graduates. He knows people’s deepest desires. They want to read about sex, violence, and power, he says–“Extramarital affairs, crimes of passion, and crooked officials.”
Whether stories draw people in depends on how the corresponding push notification is phrased. “Man sentenced to seven years in prison for intentional homicide,” for a story about a man who killed his cheating girlfriend’s lover, won’t move many to tap through. “What matters isn’t his sentence,” Luo says with a calm confidence, “It has to conjure up an image and directly appeal to the senses.” For example, he said, a more effective notification might read: “Man lost control after finding his girlfriend in the throes of passion with her lover and stabbed him to death. Afterwards, he wept and said his mind was blank.”
In the eyes of push notification writers, sending out these messages is like teasing a cat. In order to “wake up” users who haven’t clicked on messages for a long time, Luo will test their interests. He starts by sending vulgar content, but if the user doesn’t bite, he moves onto entertainment news. If that doesn’t work, then he’ll switch to another interest. He won’t give up until he has tried for six months.
Zhou Qi, a college senior who interned at short video community Tencent WeSee, explained how apps use push messages to attract new users: Male users are enticed with attractive women, while older women are presented with content on cooking or antiques, and younger women are shown entertainment and beauty. “All the platforms use these same tricks,” he said.
At a previous career stop, at content aggregator Qutoutiao, Luo’s job included keeping one eye on the messages competitors are sending. A variety of phones–Huawei, Xiaomi, Apple, Oppo, and Vivo–are lined up on his desk. On almost 24 hours a day and constantly charging, their batteries had visibly deformed. Each device was equipped with Qutoutiao’s in-house monitoring software, which collects other apps’ push messages. Sometimes, Luo says, “I could even copy the headline.”
Writing push messages isn’t a core part of any internet company, but it’s still a stressful job. A lot of work has to be done before news happens. For example, Toutiao’s approach is to obtain first-release priority from local government offices and sign exclusive plans with media outlets in advance. NetEase News operates 24 hours a day with staff working in three shifts, since they have to be ready whenever news might break.
He Yu is responsible for push message operations at ByteDance. Requirements are high, and competition among employees is intense. In He’s department, even the intern with the least impressive degree attended Communication University of China, a top media school in Beijing. In a horizontal team where everyone has the same educational background and the same abilities, He wonders, “how do you boost your own performance? In that case, aren’t you just relying on involution?”
He’s boss not only requires push notifications to be fast and accurate, but more importantly, “we must contribute to the big picture, to the number of daily active users, and to the brand image,” He said. If a push message manages the feat of connecting ByteDance’s core products of Douyin, Toutiao, and Xigua Video, that’s still only considered a passable result. A message will only be seen as truly excellent if it is so creative that it goes viral, outperforms competitors, and receives plaudits from company higher-ups.
Most of the time, what should and shouldn’t be sent out depends entirely on an individual worker’s self-discipline, but more than one interviewee admitted to having done things they wouldn’t normally do when under pressure. Some commercial media are drawn to sexual assault news “like flies buzzing around a rotten egg,” Luo says. Although he feels bad, he has to send it for fear of losing traffic. The only way he can feel a bit better is to send the message out to as small a group as possible.
During her fourth year at university, Cheng Li once wrote push notifications for the financial lending platform “Weimob Loan King” with enticing phrases like “Get a loan using just your ID card: 5,000 yuan in 3 mins.” Text that calls users to action can achieve a higher rate of return and user retention, which are the core indexes Cheng was assessed by. In six months, Cheng sent one or two posts to 2 million users every day. On the best days, the platform earned 10 yuan for every 1 yuan spent.
Cheng feels uneasy every time she reads news about a family suffering because of loans. “Why would I encourage people to borrow money?” She thinks that she has played a hand in many societal issues. She even refrained from telling her classmates what she was doing. She felt liberated when she quit her job.
But to those who have stayed in the industry, the money they can make keeps them from leaving. Luo has been working in Beijing for a decade, with little time for himself. At first, he felt a sense of accomplishment in his work. The former journalist liked sharing the news with as many people as possible.
Now, Luo mostly just enjoys the pay. The data that shows how his push notifications perform is directly linked to his salary. In good months, he has been able to earn 50,000 yuan. “I come from the countryside–I want to make money,” Luo says. In 2018, he bought an apartment in Tianjin as a consolation.
Bytedance’s He has been working for tech giants for three years and plans to retire when she’s 45. “My goal is very clear,” she says.
I just want to make money.
Additional reporting: He Qianming and Yao Yinmi.
A version of this article was originally published by LatePost. It has been translated and edited for length and clarity, and is republished here with permission.
Translator: David Ball; editors: Xue Yongle and Kevin Schoenmakers.