A sign’s ability to do its job depends on where the sign is located. Robert Frank’s latest book on social norms opens with this reflection on signs — a small sign, with no signs around it, will be more powerful than a large sign with larger signs around it.
This human truth gives businesses an incentive to put up larger and larger signs so that their sign is more noticeable than their neighbor’s sign. In the US, zoning laws are enacted to prevent this domino effect and to maintain a pleasant downtown aesthetic.
Even Houston, famous for its lack of zoning laws, has regulations on signs. A person in Houston is paid to be the “Sign Administrator.” And the city of Houston requires permits for signs that are over 6ft by 5ft and more than a name/logo. Other places have even stricter guidelines that aim to protect the aesthetic fabric of the downtown. Menlo Park includes a very specific diagram of how it wants its signs.
While this may be annoying to the individual businesses, the net outcome benefits them. It ensures their city isn’t littered with large neon signs, which makes it a less desirable place for their customers and makes it harder for them to get noticed.
As Frank points out, there is a slight tension between individual and group freedoms. Strict individual freedom has every business owner creating a massive neon sign — no business owner would self regulate themselves if their neighbors have big signs. And yet, when the ‘Sign Administrator’ regulates the group as a whole, no individual business is worse off than another business, and in fact, they are likely better off because they don’t risk their sign getting blocked by other signs or risk driving away customers with obnoxious street corners.
The internet may be in need of some basic sign laws.
TikTok can send me 5 notifications a day. Walmart averaged 3 a day for two weeks during the run-up to Black Friday last year. When Facebook recently changed their UI, they added MORE red notifications to my nav.
The result? Our virtual downtown is littered with signs and the only way businesses can compete is by making more signs. And so they make more signs (read: notifications).
Are customers leaving downtown? Not entirely. But we’re starting to. Notifications are the top reason people uninstall mobile apps. And, there is a whole new industry of apps just for digital well being — 30 Android apps, 47 Apple apps. And of course, we all know people who have deleted FB, IG or TikTok (at least for a day).
Who zones the Internet?
As Tristan Harris points out in his talks, our urban planners are Apple and Google. They set the rules of how apps can engage (or not engage) with us.
Right now, they have created some sign laws but it’s more of a reactive approach. If an app goes overboard on notifications and you ignore the notifications over time, they ask you if you want to turn off notifications.
But this is likely too late. It would be like limiting signs to 8 by 10ft in size, which is definitely better than nothing, but would still result in a very cluttered downtown.
It’s a tough problem, but it’s not a new one.
The internet is just behaving like local retail shops. They are posting more and more signs so they can get noticed. It makes sense. And they will continue to post more signs if their neighbors are posting more signs.
Good news — American cities have learned how to deal with this.
If we take a page from their book, the solution is much more obvious. We’re just in need of a few more ‘sign laws’ on the internet. While at a quick glance this may seem too paternalistic, we may just remember that even Houston has sign laws. Otherwise, the internet is well on its way to becoming the Las Vegas strip.
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