How Tiny Red Dots Took Over Your Life

The prototypical modern dot — stop-sign red, with numbers, round, maddening — was popularized with Mac OS X, the first version of which was released nearly 20 years ago. It was used most visibly as part of Apple’s Mail app, perched atop an icon of a blue postage stamp, in a new and now ever-present dock full of apps. It contained a number representing your unread messages. But it wasn’t until the launch of the iPhone, in 2007, that dots transformed from a simple utility into a way of life — from a solution into a cause unto themselves.

That year, we got the very first glimpse of the iPhone’s home screen, in Steve Jobs’s hand, onstage at MacWorld. It showed three dots, ringed in white: 1 unread text; 5 calls or voice mail messages; 1 email. Jobs set about showing off the apps, opening them, eliminating the dots. Eventually, when the iPhone was opened to outside developers, badge use accelerated. As touch-screen phones careered toward ubiquity, and as desktop interfaces and website design and mobile operating systems huddled together around a crude and adapting set of visual metaphors, the badge was ascendant.

On Windows desktop computers, they tended to be blue and lived in the lower right corner. On BlackBerrys, red, with a white asterisk in the middle. On social media, in apps and on websites, badge design was more creative, appearing as little speech bubbles or as rectangles. They make appearances on Facebook and across Google products, perhaps most notoriously on the ill-fated Google Plus social network, where blocky badges were filled with inexplicably, desperately high numbers. (This tactic has since spread, obnoxiously, to news sites and, inexplicably, to comment sections.) Android itself has remained officially unbadged, but the next version of the operating system, called Oreo, will include them by default, completing their invasion.

What’s so powerful about the dots is that until we investigate them, they could signify anything: a career-altering email; a reminder that Winter Sales End Soon; a match, a date, a “we need to talk.” The same badge might lead to word that Grandma’s in the hospital or that, according to a prerecorded voice, the home-security system you don’t own is in urgent need of attention or that, for the 51st time today, someone has posted in the group chat.

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