David Shing, the “digital prophet” for AOL, says he expects unfriending and unfollowing to become a major phenomenon, as more people become overwhelmed with social information. I know just what that feels like, because a friend unfollowed me on Twitter recently for that exact reason.

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Just when you think there couldn’t possibly be any more information coming at you on the social web (and I am using the term “information” very loosely), another source pops up. First it was just Facebook messages, then it was following people on Twitter, now there’s Google+ and LinkedIn and Instagram and half a dozen other newcomers — all producing streams of activity that compete for our increasingly scarce attention. David Shing, the “digital prophet” for AOL, said this week that he expects unfriending and unfollowing to become a major phenomenon, and I know just what that feels like: a friend unfollowed me recently, and it got me thinking about this attention economy we are living in.

As anyone who follows me through Twitter or any other social network probably knows by now, I am pretty active on a number of different services for a variety of reasons. I don’t use LinkedIn very much — mostly because it feels like a site where you go to post your resume, rather than a place you go to have a discussion with people about something — but I post links there when I have a new blog post, and sometimes check out LinkedIn Today for industry news. I mostly use Facebook for social reasons, to keep in touch with family, but I post links there too. And I am a fan of Instagram for photos, for reasons that Om has described, and have been trying to post more to Google+ as well.

Am I part of the solution, or part of the problem?

The result of all this is two-fold: I wind up posting many of the same links — to my blog posts, as well as to photos and other things — to multiple networks, because I don’t know which of them my friends and followers (and potential readers) are using the most. Like me, I suspect many of them use multiple networks for different purposes. And I often re-post links in Twitter, because as Bitly has shown with its link analytics, the “half-life” of a tweet is remarkably short, and so many people may not see it. The other effect of this is that in some networks, such as Google+, I don’t participate as much as I should, and I sometimes get criticized for just posting links and then not sticking around.

I try not to clog up my stream with unnecessary things, and I try to make my activity on any network a mix of professional and personal, with humor and conversation and photos mixed up amid the blog posts and other industry-related things. I think it helps when people, including journalists, are human in that way (although not too human, hopefully). But I can see how my stream could be noisy for some — and it certainly has turned out to be for one friend, who said recently that they were forced to unfollow me. I’m not going to name them because it’s not really important who they are, I’m more interested in their reasons; they said they unfollowed me because:

I’m frankly tired of people who talk about themselves or promote their work. Repetition just makes it worse. Bombarding me with the same content multiple times in multiple channels makes you uninteresting to me.

I was somewhat taken aback by this, I admit. I assumed people would just ignore the tweets or messages they weren’t interested in, as I do when I come across things in other people’s streams that I don’t find relevant. But when I asked this friend to explain, they described something that I thought was probably pretty common for some people — and something that might possibly become more widespread, as Shing described in his recent interview with The Guardian. In effect, this person said their attention was a precious resource, and that I (and presumably others) were wasting it:

Twitter is no different from any medium in this respect – I only follow what deserves my attention. Diluting my attention stream is a great way to tell me that you do not share my concern about allocating it.

Information overload and Shirky’s “filter failure”

I think this is a feeling we probably all have now and then, thanks to what some call information overload and Clay Shirky has called “filter failure.” Maybe we feel it when our inbox is filled with messages that have been sent by someone clicking “reply all,” or maybe when we get inundated with Facebook messages and photo tags, or — on the far end of the spectrum — when we try to follow someone like Robert Scoble on a new social network like Google+. The uber-blogger and social-media maven described recently how his own wife deleted her Google+ account because of the signal-to-noise problem caused in part by Scoble himself.

Facebook has only added to this phenomenon with its new “ticker,” which scrolls by as you watch the page, with every “like” and message and Spotify song appearing and then disappearing. Facebook seemed very proud of its new “frictionless sharing” social apps, but many expressed concern about the volume of noise that would be created — and I think rightfully so. In a way, these concerns are the same as the ones my friend has: where do I spend my attention? There is a finite amount of it, and so at some point we have to choose where to allocate it. I spend less time on Facebook in part because I have too many “friends” there and the signal-to-noise ratio is quite low.

How do we solve these kinds of problems? I don’t really know. Filters such as Circles and Facebook lists — or even a new network like Bill Gross’s Chime, which lets you follow only part of a person rather than everything they post — might be part of the solution, but they also just increase the flow. Do we have to get ruthless with our friend and follower lists, and prune them even if we risk offending someone? Perhaps. All I know is that the problem isn’t getting any better — if anything, it is getting worse.

Post and thumbnail photos courtesy of Flickr users John Lambert Pearson and Kevin Dooley

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  1. For about a day, I followed the excellent Guy Kawasaki on Google+. As nobody else I know used the service, his high volume of posts was undiluted and I found it hard-going.

    Doing so, and now reading this article, make me question my own posting habits.

    1. I know the feeling — on both sides :-) Thanks for the comment.

    2. Yeah, Guy posts way too much so I removed him from my G+ Circles.

  2. for me…
    FaceBook – rarely use
    G+ have lost interest but maybe will come back
    LinkedIn – pretty much same as you so don’t actively use except for occasional updates to my profile
    Chime – used for 10 min with lukewarm impression
    Twitter – most of my time where you must actively prune, add new, and just manage to get most value from

  3. Alan Langford Friday, October 28, 2011

    I use Twitter as a filter. I have a list of less than 30 people who I follow closely (you’re in it). The half-life of this stream is well over 24 hours. The people on this list are either consistent low volume generators of interesting content, or curators who resonate with my interests. I’m pretty confident that this filters the output from the social media fire-hoses (especially Kawasaki, Mashable, Scoble) to the point where I see maybe 1% of their output but 60% of what’s interesting to me.

    While I would prefer not seeing “reposting for the morning crowd” I recognize that I do things differently; I’m certainly not going to unfollow you for that.

    I use Facebook for real personal relationships. People who know of me but who don’t know me think I update once a month. My friends know otherwise. I’ve used AdBlock Plus to turn off their attempt to be Twitter. The signal to noise ratio there is pretty good.

    Google Plus has a lot of potential. As soon as it allows some logical operations with circles, like “exclude this circle”, I’ll use it a lot more. Same with the stream selector. One stream? No, let me turn each stream on and off. When they do that, it may start to compete with Twitter for my attention, instead of the “check once or twice a day” that they get now.

    1. Thanks, Alan — that’s a good approach. Glad I made the cut :-)

  4. I think there are a few things that need to happen. In no particular order:

    – letting go of number of followers as something worthwhile. You cannot follow thousands of people nor should you if your purpose is to actually follow what they’re saying

    – closely related to that is knowing WHY you’re using a service. Facebook lets me keep in touch with family, friends and some past colleagues. It’s fun, but not serious. It’s not a professional outlet. I don’t get news or interesting links there usually. Twitter I get interesting links, and a surprise or two from but I don’t expect to read every tweet. RSS via Feedly I use for news. I don’t need new services that closely duplicate any of these.

    – new services need to have a clear purpose that distinguishes them from other services quickly. When people question G+ I’ve noticed that the advocates of G+ say something like “well you need to explore it ann learn to use it…” BZZT! No, I don’t need to. Neither do most people. The service needs to give me some reason to spend time and effort there.

  5. Elizabeth Boylan Friday, October 28, 2011

    As soon as google+ came along I stopped paying attention to almost everyone’s posts, status updates and tweets. It was that little extra that push beyond reasonable information flow.
    Then on Sep 23, I decided to write ‘Twitter Klout and Padded Bras’ . Analyzing how much information our minds actually process 110 bits/ sec MAX. Instead of only focusing on the 20% to get the 80% rich value content that enhances our survival, many people are mass following and all for the wrong reasons. NOBODY is listening. We all need to cut the info fat.

  6. Interesting phenomenon and that its a concern.

    “I spend less time on Facebook in part because I have too many “friends” there and the signal-to-noise ratio is quite low.”

    Is the music too loud too? When will we reach digital nirvana? I guess these are the pressing issues in the developed digital world.

  7. Mahendra Palsule Friday, October 28, 2011

    We are all part of the problem, in being passive participants in multiple social networks created by competing companies. Instead of a unified online identity, we now have disparate and independent social networks, in which every marketer is trying his/her best to propagate his/her content. It’s a mess. I don’t see any solution to it in the near future.

  8. Thanks Mathew. I agree the social noise is overwhelming – but think the only way is forward. Email is another attention-grabber which I believe is now seriously impacting enterprise productivity. Random interruptions of varying importance can seriously affect your day. Like you I prefer to keep my worlds separate and believe this can really help. I use Facebook for friends and family, LinkedIn to network and I have gone back to RSS for keeping up with news. Companies now need to provide an integrated social environment to enable me to get my work done in a similarly collaborative and structured way. I can leave that behind when I want to and re-focus on the important things in life.

  9. Good to see that people are becoming aware of this situation. Social media and discusions with friends and family is part of it but when it really starts to get interesting is when advertisers start paying for our attention rather than just demanding it…

  10. It’s good to see that more people are becoming aware of this situation. Social media and discussion on there with friends and family is one aspect – and I delete/unfriend almost anyone that re-posts (through the same channel) – there are others aspects – for example it will really start to get interesting when advertisers start to pay people for their attention…

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