Rethinking My Social Graph

I’ve had a number of interesting conversions about the intersection of the virtual and the physical world since I wrote the post Did Someone Ruin Foursquare For Me Yesterday? Kashmir Hill in Forbes did a quick email interview with me titled Venture Capitalist Gets Creeped Out by Foursquare which captured a few new thoughts and I spent some time the other night at a TechStars Mentor dinner talking with Alex Rainert, the head of product for Foursquare, who had spent some time digging into this issue to try to figure out what was going on.

When I reflect on this, it’s clearly a “me problem” and not a “Foursquare problem.” Specifically, I’ve been chaotic and much too promiscuous with regard to my social graph. I don’t have a clear rule set about who I accept as friends on different services (I pretty much accept everyone) and as a result don’t have much control over what I broadcast. When I reflect on this, I also realize that it has rendered services like Facebook and LinkedIn largely useless to me as an information consumption mechanism.

Given my social network promiscuity I realize that I’ve fallen into a broadcast-only trap. Basically, I’m broadcasting on all the various services I use, but not consuming much new information, except on Twitter. When I extend this to my overall information consumption pattern, I realize that a lot of signal is once again getting lost in the noise, especially around the RSS feeds that I try to read regularly versus the endless amount of web media that is now distributed by RSS.

Toss in Quora, Stack Exchange, Disqus, and a few other high signal services into the mix and my approach has broken down. While I’m still able to manage my email, I’m struggling to get the right kind of utility out of my social graph.

As a result, I’ve decided to make one of my Q2P1s to rethink and re-architect my entire social graph. While this will require lots of effort, my expectation is that I’ll get two clear benefits out of this. First, I’ll reset how I use my social graph. But more importantly, I’ll get a better handle on the dynamics – and gaps – that exist in using and managing a very active social graph. Once again, I get to use my corner of the universe as a laboratory and hope to find some new important technologies and companies as a result. And I’ll blog the experience so you can help me figure it out while learning from what I do.

  • just delete everyone you don’t really know off facebook. it’ll totally change how you look at it

    • Yup – that’s part of it. But I’ve got to solve for (a) the apps, (b)
      LinkedIn, (c) Foursquare, and (d) friends / followers / notifications on a
      bunch of other services.

  • You’re right doing that. Services like Facebook are really funny to use just if you use it with whom do you really care about.

    I’ve taken the decision to use Facebook just with real life friends (someone with I would like to take a beer at least once a year). I follow on Twitter just who say interesting stuff, I use a lot the Lists to manage the different kind of sources (via HootSuite). LinkedIn with everyone I got in touch.

    Else you’ll not love use that tools… Don’t you think?

  • I do a pruning every 6 weeks and only accept / follow / friend people I’ve actually met in real life. Granted, I’m not probably as big of a target as you, but I think it’s right on to realize that all these apps don’t manage your social graph, they just respond to what you tell them to do.

  • Sounds a good plan: whether on-line of off-line surely we are always people and services designed to enhance social relationships will work best when they reflect who we are and who our friends are?
    Maybe Twitter / Blogging is different because you’re publishing to anyone who takes the trouble to find you and the “relationship” is only one way, reflecting the structure of the service?

  • Frank Miller

    I have to respectfully disagree with you. This is not a you issue, its definitely a social graph issue, whatever service you’re building your social graph on.

    IMHO, the underlying issue you are eluding too is the biggest weakness of all these services right now. I don’t use 4sq or similar services and probably never will for the simple reason that I really don’t want people to know where I am pretty much all the time. I think my attitude is much more prevalent than you may want to accept. I’m really annoyed at all the location tracking stuff thats in my phone for the same reason. I spend lots of time trying to figure out how to turn it all off, knowing full well they all probably have some secret location stuff going back to Verizon pretty often I would guess. Unfortunately, I can’t control it.

    In a similar vein, my biggest gripe about fb is the inability to easily (aka, by default) segregate my friends into groups. This has led me to be very selective about who I accept as friends. The weirdest thing about this is this mish mash of different people that I’ve known at different times in my life all being lumped together. People I knew in my last job are listening to posts from my high school friends. How many times have you wanted to post something to your college friends, but you decided not to because your work “frends” are on your list? I know I can make groups, but its too hard to be something that just happens as I use the service day to day and its not integrated well with things like posting and replying and notes and chat. Most of the time this isnt a big deal, but there have been times when its been really awkward, to the point where I think its a serious.

    From what I can tell, this is primarily a maturity issue, i.e. its an issue of the maturity of these services implementations. They’ve been developed quickly, without thought to these problems. The result is that their users are people that don’t care about these things, or don’t care enough to not use the services. However, I know lots of folks who just don’t use the services at all because of them. So when fb or 4sq goes out and asks people what they think, they’re mainly getting answers from these early adopters, rather than the wider population where i think these attitudes are more common.

    I think this issue will limit location services dramatically, to the point where I would never invest in them unless they specifically address this problem. I think they’ll have trouble getting over the chasm because of it. It’s also my opinion that this is the single biggest feature problem that fb has and I wish they would address it substantially. For example, when I friend somebody on fb, the next thing that should happen is I am forced to put them in a group. When I post, I should be forced to pick a group(s) to which the posts will go.

    I know this post has some PR facets to it because of your position, but please please, do not think this is your problem. Its definitely the responsibility of the services to address it meaningfully.


  • I have this sinking feeling that I’m about to get pruned!

  • “Social Network Promiscuity” – love your terminology Brad! In all honesty, this affects us all. We’ve all been social sluts, gyrating our chats, locations, likes and dislikes to all and sundry. Even worse for celebrities like you (yes dear boy- in the geek world of VC followers you are a celebrity).

    Will be most interested to see how your social graph study goes and whether there is an option available to be promiscuous and secure at the same time!

  • I’ve had this inclination lately as well, and @ev’s post on identity got me rethinking how I’m allotting, focusing, and leveraging my own graph (and identity).

    If you haven’t test drived Summify, you might consider it. I’m admittedly biased as friends of the founders but it’s really done a good job of surfacing signal for me in a way a regular Reader didn’t, because of its insight into my graph. It’s made me more thoughtful about my Following decisions.

    I’m also of the notion that I’ll never be able to ‘control’ the volume of noise, and shouldn’t try to. Unfriending/following is fine, but on some level I can’t imagine that five years from now I won’t be friends with twice as many as today, and following a number on twitter that’s 5x today. To me I think I need to become more adept at curation, using tools like Hootsuite and various platform’s Lists functions that I don’t have perfect, but already surface the truly valuable stuff I’m glad I see.

    • I think you’re right Derek. Better to find ways to deal with the flow than try to cut it back. My Facebook stream was trivial to manage when I had just close personal friends. It wasn’t until I mixed in professional contacts that it got interesting.

  • Ever consider the Marine approach? – “Kill them all and let God sort it out?” Interesting that your only real measure seems to be in “able to manage” email. I am kind of waiting for a platform neutral – trust-able “advisor” that can measure / assess all the various online social interactions – in terms of time, engagement, and somehow translate to my different value scales – equitable, employable, educational, entertainment. Maybe even cut you off when you’ve had too much fun or are working too hard.

  • You’re not the problem here, Brad. The infrastructure is the problem.

    You’re not just Brad Feld. You don’t have one identity — you have many. You’re a Husband. You’re an Entrepreneur. You’re a Boulderite. You’re a College Buddy. You’re a Close Friend. You’re an Anonymous Individual. Etc.

    You need a central way to manage all of your identities. And each identity needs its own social circle, and its own data (profile information, posts, likes, images, videos, etc.).

    What you choose to Like, or the image you choose to represent yourself, may be very different for Husband versus Entrepreneur. You may choose to share some of your beliefs or controversial thoughts under your Close Friend identity, but not under your Boulderite persona. You may choose to use your Anonymous persona to surf or comment on some sites. And so on.

    When you decide to share information, you should be allowed to select the relevant identities. When you decide to connect to a consumer service like FourSquare, TripIt,, GetGlue, etc., you should be forced to choose the identity the service will know you by (and implicitly, the social circle that will be used for sharing information through the service).

    It shouldn’t be “Connect”, it should be, “Connect As: [Husband|Father|Boulderite|…]”. And it shouldn’t be, “Accept Friend Request”, but “Accept as: [Husband|Father|…]”. Our differing identities need to be embedded into the fabric of a centralized identity management platform.

    When you connected to FourSquare, you probably would have chosen your Close Friend identity. Then if you had chosen to share inside FourSquare, the information would be broadcast only to the Close Friend social circle. The 10,000 people you connected with under your Entrepreneur identity would be none the wiser.

    Last year, I was interested in solving this problem with a startup called “” or some such, building the consumer-facing platform that app developers could use to create conscientious, socially connected applications that would take privacy very seriously. But it’s a really big problem with all the usual network effects obstacles, whose monetization comes very late in the game, and the chances of failure are too high for my tastes.

    Maybe that’s what Color should spend it’s $40m on? 🙂

    • While I’m interested in seeing what you’ve developed, I think an “identity management platform” oversimplifies the way one would separate distinct identities. I think we’ve all encountered this at even a basic level by determining where to draw the line between professional contacts and personal friends on social networks. Relationships aren’t that easily classified and neither are “identities.”

      There’s an authenticity that comes through when one communicates through the separate roles in their lives (spouse, parent, professional, etc.) over a common platform, and through this one can achieve greater simplicity than one would attain by managing distinct “identities” over multiple platforms. Once you’re past the age of not wanting photos of drunken college shenanigans to be seen by employers/co-workers (i.e. you have nothing “to hide”), there’s really not a downside to being yourself, as a person and a professional, in any form of communication.

      • I call this the “myth of transparency,” or equivalently, the “Facebook myth,” i.e. the view that at some point, all of society or all of a generation will suddenly decide to embrace transparency in every aspect of their lives and with everyone.

        It’s a myth because it ignores the evolutionary basis of human psychology. In large part, we aren’t the way we are because our “blank slate” minds were imprinted by a societal stamp. Rather, we are the way we are because of our evolutionary history.

        It’s not an age issue, although in early reproductive years when humans are most fertile they engage in more behavior they have strong incentives to hide. But similar behavior occurs at every stage of life and in every arena, and for excellent reason: humans who have been able to successfully hide different facets of their lives from different circles, as well as project different traits to different circles, enjoy higher success, evolutionarily speaking.

        The husband who manages to conceal his flirtations with young attractive women will get away with more than the one who embraces transparency (reproductive module); the job seeker who manages to conceal his racism or slovenly lifestyle will attain greater success in his career than the one who embraces transparency (survival module); the friend who manages to hide his taking advantage of other friends will attain more and longer friendships than one who embraces transparency (reciprocation module), etc.

        And that is why individuals of the human species will continue to have extremely strong interest in managing the ways they are perceived by differing groups of people, and why the “myth of transparency” is nothing more than a fantasy.

        Facebook got it wrong (and no, “Lists” won’t fix what’s wrong with Facebook).

        Either someone will win this game by getting it right, or services like FourSquare, etc., will evolve to become your online identities. Indeed, there’s some evidence now that people are using different services for different social circles, indicating people are trying to fix the problem themselves.

        Unfortunately, it’s an imperfect solution because the companies don’t understand the issues involved and often only have a single identity to work with for things like sharing.

    • I think that you’re on to something. I don’t think that I’d call it “personas” but the idea of segregating what information one shares with whom is spot on. In “real” life, we choose, in all of our dealings, what information to share. In one-on-one conversations, we’ll tell most or all of our real friends about our search for a new job but we won’t tell that to many of our coworkers (which is where I run into problems with your “personas” approach – many will share job search information with some but not all coworkers). We’ll discuss politics, religion, and sex with different subsets of our acquaintances.

      The social networks don’t seem to have a way for users to segregate, on an individual basis, how each status update, announcement, whatever is shared. All of them are shared with the same set of people even if that doesn’t make sense.

      • Personas solve that problem, too, because you can be a Close Friend and a Coworker to the same person, just like I’m a Husband and Close Friend to my wife, and an Entrepreneur to my Close Friends. When you accept a connection request, or connect with an application, you choose however many personas make sense at the time.

        I think if you go more granular than personas / roles / identities, you’ll end up with insurmountable usability problems. Users won’t choose which of their 10,000 connections they want to share content with.

        But I’m betting if names and profile images of your 5 personas appear as you’re posting content, you’ll be willing to check the 1 or 2 personas that make sense. To improve usability, the context of the post, as well as machine intelligence, can help decide on reasonable defaults (as long as you have a feedback mechanism that is good at preventing mistakes).

        Facebook didn’t take this approach from day 1. As a result, they’re going to have a hard time pivoting toward this direction, because it requires that users “sort” all 10,000 connections. Fat chance that is going to happen (of course, analysis can suggest reasonable defaults, which may be a path toward a more sensible identity management system, but the Facebook philosophy of transparency will hinder attempts to reform the core platform).

        The nice thing about a new service is that categorization becomes an “insertion sort”. You sort every user and every application as you add them to your connections and applications. So the cost is tiny and spread out over your entire lifetime.

    • @John: Eerily, if feels like you’ve been reading through my development notebook. This approach is very similar to what I’m implementing on my most recent project. While your vision is where we want to be eventually, we are focusing on the “identity management” end of things first.

      @Brad: By funneling relationships toward the communication channels of our preference based on their contexts, it’ll become easier to know which communication channel to refer to for a specific type of resource or social interaction.

      A lot of this thinking stemmed from observing how complex it has become to describe “who you are”. We don’t consciously think about that as we’re talking about ourselves so when we have to take these steps online, we have a very unintuitive dialog in our head to decide which parts of our online footprint do we want to share with this person. And we have to do this each time we interact with someone new.

      Usually, it’s easy enough to say “Facebook is for friends, Twitter is for News, Linkedin is for Business, etc…” but sometimes the context of your relationship and who the other person is are just as important. I’m betting that a solution for users to get contextual “glimpses” about another person would help relationships improve for all parties involved.

      Once we have a better identity management system, things like managing relationships across networks (among other interesting applications) become incredibly easier!

      @John: If you have some time, I’d love to pick your brain about what I’m doing and get some thoughts from you about our direction.

      (Coincidentally, we were using “Personas” as the name for the objects which organize common identities together. Other were getting confused and we decided not to use it in any consumer-facing copy.)

      • Happy to chat about what you’re working on, it’s a topic near & dear to my heart. Ping me on Twitter at @jdegoes, or by email (first name at last name dot net).

  • Hi Fred… Completely agree with you…I have been trying hard to figure out the appropriate use case for each of these social services.. At one point in time I even deleted my fb and twitter accounts. Wonder if co-mingling (read intrusion) of these services with each other is of real use at large or just generating redundant data… Nevertheless, like you I am working on finding the right mix for myself… Let us know your experience.

  • Bwmcnea

    Agree with Brad and it seems like an opportunity for the verticalization of social networks. There’s too much chatter on Facebook linked in etc. And it’s hard to break it out from the network you are in….too much junk on most linked in groups IMHO. So tight vertical networks with topic, member, discussion control have an opportunity here. as for advertisers obvious targeting benefits.

    I know the trend has started, I think it’s about tonreally explode.

  • Facebook Lists (not groups) work fairly well from the newsfeed interface, but you have to stay disciplined when adding friends (interface isn’t bad) and when posting (interface obscure – padlock then custom then specific then type list from memory). The big win though is the newsfeed has a selector for lists on the top so it’s easy to consume what you’re looking for. But ultimately I think we’ll need algorithmic help, plus API stuff for external inputs such as 4sp & Twitter.

  • Like David Smuts I too like the phrase “Social Network Promiscuity”. You probably have engaged in this behavior.

    My rules, which might be helpful for your pruning process:
    – LinkedIn – only connect with people I can recommend! (not my rolodex/contact list – just people I can say some good things about!)
    – Facebook – only friends/family with which I am willing to share my vacations and family pictures.
    – Twitter – I follow only people that are interesting or share interesting stuff and I allow to follow me most people, but once in a while I block the bots / spammers.
    – 4sq – what’s that for? kidding – but that’s where the creepiest part starts – advertising where you are and therefore, where you are not, doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I use location-based-services only where they can be practically anonymous. I know that’s now how many would like them to be used. But that’s how I use them for now.

    Good luck with the process. You must have hundreds, if not thousands, to clear. It might make sense to just send EVERYBODY a note saying you are disconnecting from them and if they are legitimately fitting a specific criteria that you set per social network, they should ask to be invited back in.

    Finally, I don’t completely buy John’s view that we are many personas. While we do have different roles in life, we are one person. The fact that I work with someone, doesn’t mean I only have a working relationship with them. I have a relationship with them and it may have many facets. I think the relationship is what matters – and that may have different properties…

    • Personas are a simplification of a more complicated model, which is that different people fall into different buckets based on how we are benefiting from the relationship right now and how we expect to benefit from it in the future.

      Buckets are something like, “People whom I can have fun with,” “People who can benefit my career,” “People who interest me romantically,” etc.

      But the average person can’t map relationships into buckets like this, and probably isn’t even aware of the different reasons they seek out relationships.

      Personas / roles / identities are a more relatable concept for most people. We can all relate to, “Yeah, sometimes I’m a spouse, sometimes I’m a manager, and I don’t want my employees to know about my role as a lover — how I describe myself, what I like, what thoughts and fantasies I choose to share, etc.”

  • I would love to have you check out as one of the tools to help with this process…the basic idea is “priority inbox for your social data” and we start with “stuff you are probably missing”…still super early days, but it’s something you can play with and lots of our users are already getting a lot of extra value out of their social streams because of it.

    Anyway – if you (or any of your readers) want to give it a try, just use the invitation code ‘alpha’ when signing up ( ) and you should get straight in.

    *side note* this topic actually got me back to your site (even though you’ve still got that bar on here)…I guess content/relevance still always wins! =D

    • Glad you came back! I’ll definitely give a try as I figure this

  • Once you solve the problem of men being too promiscuous, let me know. I’d invest in that.

  • You’ve hit a hot button for a lot of people here Brad.

    When “friendship’ as in ‘knowing’ someone is the decision point for connecting eventually it will get out of hand. This starts to question the usefulness of these explicit and loose social connections from a marketing perspective. More and more companies are finding it harder to translate 30K+ Fans on FB into their business model. Starting to feel like ‘boil the ocean’ marketing if you will.

    But…I wonder if sanitation will work. I can’t find any energy or value for cleansing Linked In and because many cultures use Facebook like LinkedIn if you work internationally, Facebook becomes like Linked In with just more personal chatter.

    For myself, I’m finding myself leaving these channels and searching out more personal, topic based networks and friendships where the exchange is more about the topic info than the historical connection.

  • The most critical aspect of tinkering with your social network is who you pick to follow — see — because this is how you can close the distance to other social scenes, and by extension, make the world a smaller place. We should not follow others casually.

  • DaveJ

    I don’t know whether anyone has already said this (I read your blog consistently but your commenters are not part of my social graph ;-), but to some extent you need to think of your social graph as a celebrity – in addition to having a regular Facebook profile, you also need a “page” that people can like. You have a fully “public” persona, but that persona should be about truly public things. Separately, you have a “network” persona – people with whom you work or have real business interactions. That’s where you need to have a cutoff rule of some sort. I don’t think just meeting someone is probably a good enough filter for that.

    • James Mitchell

      Dave, people get annoyed if they send you a friend request in FB and then you say, “I really only met you once, sorry, join my FB page, be part of my cult.”

      I don’t spend a lot of time thinking about this. I would not post anything on FB that I would mind being on the front page of The New York Times. If you really have something personal, then send a private email.

  • I’d love for you to share the rules and filters you wind up applying to different services. It’d be nice to have a standard.

  • That’s why I find the group text messaging phenomenon so interesting (no vested interest, just a casual observer). It is an implicit social graph that you don’t have to build or manage – it’s built as you use it, so less friction. It’s more restricted – you’re not going to use TextPlus or GroupMe with that guy you knew in 8th grade but haven’t talked to since that you’ve reconnected with on Facebook. It’s inherently mobile, and you’re probably far more likely to be influenced by your text messaging graph into action (to play a game, to buy something) than you would be by someone you’re connected to on Facebook, especially for those who aren’t actively curating their friends lists. A mobile game built on the “communication graph” could be really powerful and compelling. This would be a great layer for future apps to develop on, particularly mobile.

  • shows you a visual of your social graph. it takes information about who you follow and who follows you on twitter to pull out interest groups and show you a “people cloud”. i recommend checking it out!

  • Ben Casnocha

    Just piling on to say, yes, keep blogging about this! 🙂

    Huge question / problem in all of our lives…