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The Weird and Wonderful Notifications of 1SE

The one-second video app is a nostalgic, life-affirming dash of digital ephemera

(Getty Images/text via 1SE/Ringer illustration)

My phone buzzes. Is it a text? A Twitter notification? A Facebook message? No. Instead, the following appears on my screen:

“Remember you are just an extra in everyone else’s play.”

Aggressive, but so go the messages from 1 Second Everyday, or 1SE, an app that’s obsessed with time and consuming it in the form of daily one-second videos. I first started using it about a year ago, when I saw a friend post a video made out of the one-second snippets that 1SE captures daily. The result was more real and less static than scrolling through a year’s worth of Instagram or Facebook posts, and many times less performative. The video tugged hard at my nostalgic tendencies. I downloaded the app and, on and off for the past year, I’ve recorded my own daily seconds.

As these things tend to go, though, I was inconsistent. Weeks and sometimes months would pass, and I would slot random videos out of chronological order into my creation. So I did what few are brave enough to ever do: I turned on an app’s push alerts. I even specified that 1SE could notify me multiple times a day.

In came a flood of existential, mildly guilt-ridden messages. At first I hated them — harping on me about time and life and how I should be making the most of them. It’s especially disheartening to get a prompt reminding you that life is fleeting when you’re sitting in traffic. I get it: The mundane tediousness of the everyday is consuming me and I will never fully realize the potential of my life — thanks for the note! But then at some point, 1SE’s notifications felt different. I began to love them, in the way one might begrudgingly love a sophomore philosophy major who just got back from Burning Man and quotes Nietzsche too often. I had to know: Who was crafting these small, odd, strangely philosophical messages?

When I contacted 1SE’s founder, Cesar Kuriyama, he directed me to writer, designer, and composer Bruce Seaton. “He’s a man of many skills, and frankly we probably don’t use his writing skills enough,” Kuriyama said to me via email when I asked for an intro.

When I told Seaton about Kuriyama’s kind words, he laughed. “I went to Pratt with Cesar and the rest of the 1SE team,” he told me, explaining that most of the app’s small team overlapped at the Brooklyn art school.

“Originally, I wrote a small group of push notifications when the app first came out,” Seaton said. “We wanted something more interesting than just ‘Hey, take your second now.’” Seaton researched time and seconds, looking for interesting quotes — and then performing due diligence to properly source them. “You get totally lost in Wikipedia — ‘What is the origin of the second’ and then you end up on ‘Oh hey, so this is the type of clock that does this weird thing,’” Seaton said.

While Seaton handles many of the granular tasks behind creating the notifications, Kuriyama’s guidance is influential. “Cesar will shotgun a bunch of ideas out and I go look for things that are interesting and short,” he said. “Cesar is very purposeful about everything he does. If he can find a way to make the little bits make sense, he will.”

In a 2012 TED Talk, Kuriyama discussed his personal project to capture a second of his life every day. “It’s kind of a personal protest against the culture we have now where people are at concerts with their cell phones out the whole concert and they’re disturbing you,” he said at the time. “They’re not even enjoying the show. They’re watching the concert through their cell phone. I hate that.”

He told a story about how, when his sister-in-law was ill, he spent consecutive days in a hospital with his family — and about how when things are bad, it’s difficult to take that one-second video. “We tend to take our cameras out when we’re doing awesome things,” he said. “I found that it’s actually been very, very important to record even just that one second of a really bad moment.”

Kuriyama talked how he eschewes filters for more realistic videos, and said that after trying a few from the selfie perspective, he decided the first-person view was more accurate to his vision. 1SE is a departure from other “memory collecting” apps like Instagram and Facebook, which focus on highlights and favorable lighting. The messaging is a little different, too.

Seaton isn’t only responsible for the philosophical copy in the notifications; he also composed their sound. “Cesar was like, ‘Hey, can I have a one-second sound for the reminder?’ and that was all the instruction he gave me,” said Seaton. “So I made 20 and said, ‘Here, you pick one,’ and he didn’t like any of them.”

The sound proved harder to create than composing the notifications. “How do you make a sound that’s only a second long, and make it warm and inviting? It’s really strange, the stuff I compose on my own tends to be like eight to nine minutes long — but with this, you don’t have as much time to set up a mood.”

Except, apparently, you do — 1SE’s chimes have become as pleasing to me as its life-affirming messages. And there’s good reason: Just as the app preys on our nostalgia, so does its notification sound. “We wanted it to be like when you find a key in the original Zelda,” said Seaton. “And that’s sort of a generational thing — it’s an 8-bit, primitive, digital sound, but it’s so satisfying. You’re like, ‘Yes, that’s something cool.’”