Happy Birthday, I’m Unfriending You

In December I wrote a post titled It’s Not About Having The Most Friends, It’s About Having The Best Friends. Since then I’ve been systematically modifying my social networking behavior and cleaning up my various social graphs. As a significant content generator in a variety of forms (blogs, books, tweets, videos) and a massive content consumer, I found that my historical approach of social network promiscuity wasn’t working well for me in terms of surfacing information.

I made two major changes to the way I use various social networks. I went through each one and categorized each on three dimensions: (1) consumption vs. broadcast and (2) public vs. private, (3) selective vs. promiscuous. These are not binary choices – I can be both a content consumer and a broadcaster on the same social network, but I’ll use it differently depending where on the spectrum I am.

For example, consider Facebook. I determined I was in the middle of the consumption/broadcast spectrum, public, and selective. With Foursquare, I determined I was closer to broadcast and private and very selective. With LinkedIn, I was 100% broadcast, public, and promiscuous. With Twitter, I was similar to Facebook, but with a much wider broadcast and promiscuous. With RunKeeper, very strong on broadcast, public, but selective.

I then looked at the tools I was using. Yesterday I noticed Fred Wilson’s email The Black Hole Of Email and it reminded me that I view email as my primary communication channel for broad accessibility (I try to answer every email I get within 24 hours – if it takes longer you know I’m on the road or got behind) and often respond within minutes if I’m in front of my computer. But I’ve worked very hard to cut all of the noise out of my email channel – I have no email subscriptions (thanks OtherInBox), I get no spam (thanks Postini), I run zero inbox (read and reply / archive immediately), and am very selective with the notifications I get via email (i.e. I check Meetup.com daily, but the only email notifications I get are for Boulder Is For Robots.) As a result, I find email manageable and a powerful / simple comm channel for me.

Tuning each social network has ranged from trivial (15 minutes with RunKeeper and I was in a happy place) to medium (Foursquare took an hour to clean up my 800+ friends to 100-ish) to extremely painful (going from 3000 Facebook friends to a useful set seemed overwhelming.) I decided to clean up the easy ones first and then come up with manual algorithms for the harder ones.

My favorite approach is what I’m doing with Facebook. Every day I go into the Events tab and look at the birthday list. I then unfriend the people whose name I don’t recognize or who I don’t want to consume in my news feed. Since Facebook’s social graph is on the public side, people can still follow me (ala Twitter follow). I view this as a reverse birthday gift which probably enhances both of our lives.

In contrast, I’ve continued to just accept all LinkedIn requests except from obvious recruiters or people who look like spambots. I know they can pay to get access to my social graph – that’s fine – I want them to have to pay someone or work a little for it, not just get it for free, but the benefit of having a wide social graph on LinkedIn for the one time a week I use it to hunt someone down somewhere far outweighs the pain of being promiscuous.

I’ve continued to find and use other tools for managing all the data. One of my new favorites is Engag.io. Rather than getting a stream of Facebook email notifications, I check it once a day and respond to everything that I see. I’ve noticed that I find comments in other services like Foursquare that I was previously missing, and rather than having a pile of clutter in my inbox, I can interact it with once a day for ten minutes.

When I reflect on my approach, it doesn’t surprise me that it’s very algorithmic. That’s how I’ve always driven my content consumption / content generation world and part of the reason it doesn’t overwhelm me. Sure – it spikes up at times and becomes less useful / more chaotic (like it did last year when I realized Facebook wasn’t really useful for me anyone.) This causes me to step back, figure out a new set of algorithms, and get it newly tamed. And yes, Facebook is now much more useful and interesting to me after only a few months of cleanup.

I’m always looking for new tools and approaches to this so if you have a great one, please tell me. For example, the “unfriend on birthdays” approach was suggested several times in the comments to one of the posts and after trying a Greasemonkey plugin, manual unfriending on the iPad while watching TV, and other brute force approaches, I just decided I’d clean it up over a year via the birthday approach. So – keep the comments and emails flowing – they mean a lot to me.

  • How often are you using your phone these days?   has your accessibility in these other mediums altered that?

    • I schedule 100% of my phone calls – I view them the same as an in-person meeting. So for phone / Skype / Google Voice – they are all “meetings.”
      Re: email on my phone – I use it regularly throughout the day to check / do quick responses.

      • I knew you sked’ed phone calls – I was more curious abt how/if use of the other tools impacted the frequency / need for the calls /meetings.

        Or is this simply orthogonal?

        • Probably orthogonal.

  • Good move.

    People are out of control in terms of how they direct what they say.  

    I don’t broadcast stuff I would say to a business partner or close friend.  If you did, they quickly no longer be close.

  • It’s be really cool if there was a plug-in for GMail (or any email client) that showed you which of your social networks the Sender belonged to.  So if you received an email from me, for example, and you were connected to me in LinkedIn and Google+, it would display that to give you the context for our relationship.

    Is there anything like that?

    • Gmail has a good starter at this. Gist, Rapportive, and Mingly do this (we were investors in Gist – now part of RIM).

    • Brooke

      I use Rapportive (Chrome plug-in for gmail), and it displays that info in a sidebar. It also allows you to follow/friend from the sidebar.

  • My move is similar, I look at the birthday notifications and un-friend anyone I would feel awkward wishing one for. 

    • There is something beautiful and wonderful in this approach.

  • (1) consumption vs. broadcast and (2) public vs. private, (3) selective vs. promiscuous.
    You’ve hit the nail on the head for something I’ve been trying to figure out for the past few months, mostly prompted by people asking me why I’m on G+ and what’s so great about it.  The other question I ask myself is “Do I get more out of the community than I put into it?”  Besides a $5 Amex coupon from Foursquare last week, I put more into all my communities than I get, which gives me pause, now that I think about it.

    • Tuning this so you get at least the same amount out that you put in is critical. I have a premise that you have to put a threshold amount in but once you do if you get more out than you will build a virtuous cycle that will continue to scale up.

    • Carter Adler

      Yes, after 9 months of fairly heavy use, I realized that I got *absolutely nothing* out of using Foursquare and just dumped it.

  • Wouldn’t it be nice if you had a “starting lineup” and a “bench/bullpen” for each network. How would it work?   So let’s say you are going back to  the 2012 blur conference (thank you brad for bringing this conference to our attention and to stanford for your  machine learning and AI classes this past semester). Good things happen to people who prepare so you want to get up to speed and on the thoughts and  energy of the people that you met last year and/or new  attendees/speakers. So what do you do?  Take these players off the bench and put them in your starting lineup. And give some of your starters a break. ( Why do people take unfollowing/defriending so personally? ) Just remember to stay within your cap. I’m working up the wireframes for   a dashboard to help implement this. thoughts?

    • Great thought – love to see the wireframes when they are ready.

  • I’ve tried to “optimize” my social networks for deeper and closer engagement but I have realized its a futile task.  Even if i cut my number friends to a handful, my mom is still there, I can’t unfriend her, and I can’t share what I want because she could read it.  I could try to hide it from her but that feels wrong.

    Replace “mom” with boss, girlfriend, neighbor, and you see why any network based on the social graph will always lead to a very surface level of sharing.  boring and sanitized.  it’s not what I would call social and feels as exciting and engaging as email.

    • I’d challenge your premise. Unfriend your mom and then have a long conversation with her about why you did it. Release yourself from the constraints you are placing on yourself.

      • Its the only way she can see photos of her grandchildren.  I suppose I could use another photosharing platform but thats just a bandaid to the larger problem of always being over exposed on facebook.

        • Interesting. I heard from a friend recently that his kids (teenagers) are now using Google+ for exactly this reason as they can better segment who sees what.

          • I tried to do that in G+ too, but the problem is fundamental.  I have stuff I only want to share with my friends, not my mom.  But I don’t want to share it with my friend George, because it concerns his girlfriend Wendy.  I could craft highly targeted status updates by picking each recipient, but fuck, might aswell just use email.

          • [consolidating my reply here]

            Man, that sounds complicated. Not sure what else to say.

    • “…and I can’t unfriend her”   Why not?

      What’s the purpose of using such a system if your use is wholly constrained by what you’re willing to say in front of your mom / boss / whatever?  Isn’t that the system (read: real life) that you already have?

      • What is the purpose indeed!  That’s my point, facebook and any “social graph” is designed for surface level sharing.  I can’t go on there and share what I’m really feeling.  In todays age we are all brands with images to maintain.

        What if the biggest issue in my life currently is that I am struggling to juggle many things like my mothers illness, my spouses employment snafu, my childrens autism, etc, etc.  These are important issues and I want to share with someone… but not everyone.

        the above is just an example and not true.  My mom may be reading my disqus feed.

    • Hi, Jess, I feel your pain. My parents are on facebook, my kids are there too, very actively, That’s why we are working on something that might solve issues you described. You can sign up for early beta, coming in March, at http://this.is.osom.me

  • Be careful who you unfriend! http://news.yahoo.com/facebook-defriending-led-double-murder-police-014442236.html

  • Really smart ideas about how to manage and use your own social media channels. I found it really helpful to publicly state ‘How I use Social Media’. It is a great reference for me and allows people to know exactly how I use the various networks. 

    Here’s a link if you’re interested http://facethebuzz.com/2011/03/25/how-i-use-social-media/

  • Inbox Zero – you’ve gotta love it! 

    • Yup – it’s a beautiful thing.

      • I think of it akin to being able to sleep well at night.. 

        One of those things with massive psychological impact IMO 🙂
        That said, it’s friday evening here in London. Happy friday and weekend, Brad! 

        • Back at ya – enjoy the weekend!

  • I almost want to steal the title of your post “It’s not about having the most friends…” and repurpose it my startup’s tagline. We do very private network for ~10 best friends to know each other’s thoughts/events at any moment. Our current motto is “Where the best friends are. No noise, no taboos”.

  • Good post.  I have been experimenting with segmenting FB friends, and find I am hiding updates on all but about 75 friends and groups.  I am not convinced of the value of twitter and why over 300 people follow me.  Linkedin I cut over 1000 people years ago.  I do think that eventually there will be a better platform than FB for communication and updates with friends. 

    scott cohen
    red tie media

  • This is an extremely interesting post and it hits on what is a really tricky problem for startups designing products with a strong link to social.  If you flip what you talked about on its head and put yourself in the position of the product designer one of the trickiest questions to answer is – what is my model for social behavior?  Reading Paul Adams on social groups in the real world doesn’t solve the problem. Many startups are still faced with difficult decisions. Friending vs following.  Groups of friends and if so how fine grain?  If groups how prominent do I make the filtering controls?  Does the UI at the point of posting as a producer introduce undesirable friction?  There are tools to ease the pain but even such smart tools as machine learning to create your groups so your group management is minimised don’t make the problem evaporate and what’s left can be a user experience problem. These are all difficult questions even if you are tightly focused on a single well defined demographic and have reason to believe you know what their preferred model will be.  But sadly things aren’t that simple.  Many products overflow such demographic segments.  If you were to design Facebook now you couldn’t afford to be paralyzed but on the other hand, the Facebook community clearly includes many segments with many very different attitudes to social behavior and with very different propensities and competences to manage controls.  Path’s decision to restrict the size of one’s ‘friends’ is an interesting approach to a tough problem.

    • Super insightful. And it’s a continually challenging landscape. For example, pinterest is growing incredibly fast but they feel extremely spammy in how they exercise the Facebook social graph. I don’t know if they are over the line on Facebook’s TOS but if they are this will become an issue. In addition the iOS address book upload issue that surfaced last week is another example.

      • Abusing the social graph is a big deal, no question.

        Here’s why I think Pinterest is ‘better off’ than many social startups:  Pinterest is not primarily focused on the social graph but rather on the interest graph.  Setting aside for the moment the business model implications of this (which I suspect are favorable for Pinterest), it is MUCH easier for people who are from what would be very different social groups to share interests!  So with the interest graph the refinement required is more like an ontology of content which can successfully span social groups than it is like trying to design the perfect social grouping support. So as a rule of thumb my hypothesis is that interest graph focused companies have it easier in this regard.

        • A great comment.

          There’s a correlation you are implying that I’ve been noodling over.

          Yes…this is an interest graph spread not a friendship graph one. So in essence each posting is a social object in its own right and a pin on a bunch of interlocking interest graphs.

          The real thing, beside this, that struck me about Pinterest is that there was no real early adopter techy community that I can see. It’s a mass market social object, one-plane massive community from first blush. I think this attributes to its astonishing growth.

          I’d be interested in hearing your thoughts on this.

          I’m looking at the Pinterest model for a wine community I’m designing.

          • I have no first hand knowledge of Pinterest’s adoption metrics but everything I have read suggests you are absolutely right.  If the reports are to be believed women skew high as so people in the red states.

            I suspect that a reason for its massive growth is precisely that its usefulness is not entirely dependent on the network effect.  Whilst people like Andrew Chen argue that any product must have intrinsic worth that can be enjoyed for its own sake it is hard to see Facebook through that lens.  FB and other such communities are about social communication and sharing and in such cases the network effect is a drag on adoption.  Unless you can find a way to concentrate your adoption to provide network benefits it is likely to be a slog.  FB focused on Harvard, then other Ivy’s then other schools…  Yelp focused on San Fran, then…  In both cases the concentration provided early adopters with more network benefit than would otherwise have been the case.  If you now consider Pinterest it is clear that any user can derive real benefit from an easy to use beautiful online pinboard.  They can use it to collect and order content of interest to them and revisit such organized content even if they don’t share it with anyone.  It is more similar to Evernote than Facebook. A person has interests irrespective of their groups!  And products can be built that address a specific interest (eg wine!) or provide a platform to support any interest – Pinterest.  I think Pinterest is indeed an interesting model for a wine site because whilst we enjoy drinking wine with others many people’s interest in wine may well not map naturally onto their social graph.  The clever thing about Pinterest is that it is the combination of user generated content and the interest graph.  And because it is just pinning it is incredibly easy to use.  This suggests a very different model for a wine site than a traditional magazine format where the user is relatively passive and of course that passivity is harder to reliably mine than when the user actively selects the material and pins it.  ‘Like’ buttons and the like are, IMHO, a weak substitute.

            I suspect Pinterest will be VERY monetizable.

  • I saw that – I didn’t mind, because it’s been a long time since I started adding people “just because,” and now Facebook is really becoming the only place I can post whatever without feeling pressure to appear a certain way. And if someone doesn’t like that, well, whatever, it’s Facebook forchristssake. I at first very much disliked the idea of being picky with friend requests, but now I have easily 20-30 requests sitting there because I just don’t know someone well enough. Or I don’t care. Just not friending is easier than unfriending. 

  • My Twitter timeline is precious to me, so I savagely unfollow people there. Given its asymmetrical nature, it’s not as complicated a proposition as unfriending my mom. 

    One way I can tell if a follow has turned spammy or too noisy is when I search my timeline on PostPost.com (my company) and if an acct chokes the results there I am more likely to kill it off. 

    One common victim: the orgs that the journalists I follow write for. Lots of redundancy there. And following the journos is often more interesting.

  • I like your systematic approach – almost like a divide & conquer strategy. Indeed, social has become fragmented, but our use of it doesn’t have to be.

    Glad that Engagio is a small part of making things a little bit easier to manage for you. This validates what we thought- ie that Engagio is a productivity tool & a necessity if you value social.

  • LinkedIn tip: enter your board memberships/affiliations individually in your profile, instead of just one job at Foundry Group. This way people who know you and who want to reach someone else at another company you work with, know that you’re connected to that specific company. Check out Ryan McInytre’s or David Cowan’s LI profile to see how they do it.

    Hyper promiscuity — as opposed to just people you actually know, even if very very loosely — will render LI less useful. But it’s the tradeoff between having to make a “decision” every time a request comes in, and long term usefulness of the product….

    • Board – ill go fix that. I used to do a good job of that but apparently forgot to keep doing it.

      Hyper promiscuity – can you go one more level down on why this diminishes value?

  • Interesting post.

    My use of Engagio is the same as yours today. Organizational and cross network. Like my presence itself on the web.It works really well for this purpose. I use it daily and like it. 

     My sense as I use it more and more is that it could make a leap from an organizational tool to a connector. Now it is an dashboard for dynamic content, the comments themselves. A possible and useful direction that is stirring under the covers seems like the inbox itself could have some ‘social’ capabilities to filter people and topics by engagement and direct you to new conversations of interest or connect you with commenters.

  • Anonymous

    I actually set up a separate facebook account just to interact with my mom and the people I knew as a child. Early on I saw the problem with bleed-through. And I do mean bleed.

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