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Summary:

I recently unfriended almost 80 percent of the people I was connected to on Facebook. Part of the problem was the way I was using it, but part of the problem was that Facebook has simply become a lot less relevant to me.

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There have been a rash of posts of late from people who have quit Facebook or decided to unfriend everyone they know on the network. I haven’t gone that far, but I recently went through what I like to call “The Great Unfriending,” in which I unfollowed or disconnected from almost 80 percent of the people in my Facebook social graph. Doing so has changed the way I use the network, and I think that change — and the reason why I felt compelled to do so — says a lot about some of the challenges Facebook is facing.

Unlike Julia Angwin, who says she unfriended everyone she was connected to because Facebook “cannot provide me the level of privacy that I need,” I don’t really have any issues with privacy on Facebook. Angwin said that she was troubled by the fact that “when I share information with a certain group or friend on Facebook, I am often surprised by where the data ends up,” and I respect her decision. But that’s not what bothered me about using the social network.

It’s not the privacy, it’s the overload

For better or worse, I made a deliberate decision when I joined the service (and Twitter, and almost every other social network) to be as open as possible, and to share almost everything about myself, within reason. I would never say that everyone should do this, and there are plenty of reasons why people keep certain things off the web — information about their children, for example — but for the most part I agree with Jeff Jarvis that the benefits of “publicness” outweigh the disadvantages.

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So if privacy wasn’t the problem, what was it? In a nutshell, information overload. In the same way I’ve had to struggle with my addiction to real-time connectedness on a mobile device (something I wrote about recently that many readers disagreed with), I started to find that Facebook was a painful experience. And the more I thought about it, the more I thought that the problem was partly me — and the way I was using it — and partly the way Facebook was changing.

I started to think about how some people I admire, including Union Square Ventures founder Fred Wilson, had pared back their use of Facebook by unfriending a lot of people. And such thoughts don’t seem to be unique: a recent survey by the Pew Center showed that two-thirds of users had taken an extended break, and close to 30 percent were planning to use Facebook less.

Partly Facebook and partly me

The part of this that I think was my fault stems from the way I set up my account when I first joined Facebook in 2006: in keeping with my desire to push the limits of openness, I accepted friend requests from almost everyone who sent them, even if they weren’t actually “friends.” And yes, I knew at the time that doing this carried some risk, but I didn’t fully appreciate what it would be like, or how it would eventually ruin the experience for me.

What I wound up with was almost a thousand “friends,” many of whom were people I had met at conferences, or people who were connected to me through others, or some who were just fans of my writing (who can still use the “subscribe” feature). To these people — all of whom I have since unfriended — I would just like to say that you are all wonderful, but I couldn’t take it any more. My stream became a sea of information I had little or no interest in, with only a few scattered pieces of flotsam and jetsam from the people who I am actually close to.

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The part of this that I see as Facebook’s fault has to do with how cluttered my stream became, especially with all of the “sponsored stories” and “liked” pages that began to show up more and more — when a “friend” liked a page about Coca-Cola or Ford, for example. And yes, just like the notifications I complained about on the iPhone, I know that Facebook has knobs and dials that you can tweak so that you don’t see certain things. But who has the time to spend twiddling all those dials all the time? I certainly don’t.

Facebook has just become less relevant

So what happened after The Great Unfriending? Facebook became a whole lot more usable as a particular kind of network — the one that lets me see what actual friends and family are doing, including those who are far away (the kind of “ambient intimacy” that researcher Leisa Reichelt talks about). Except for my teenaged daughters, of course, who don’t even use Facebook any more, preferring to spend all their time on Tumblr and Twitter. That’s just one of the things that should worry Mark Zuckerberg, I think.

What I am left with is a more useful network, but also one that I only use for very specific things, and don’t really spend much time on. If I want to connect with people related to work, I do it through LinkedIn; if I want to connect to people through photos, I do it on Instagram or Flickr (which is why Instagram was such a smart acquisition for Facebook to make); and if I want to connect to people I don’t really know, I use Twitter. If I could get more of my friends to use Path, I might use that for friends and family, in which case I wouldn’t need Facebook at all.

Facebook has a whole series of challenges as it tries to grow and justify its $65 billion market value. But its biggest problem — bigger than the shift to mobile or the need to generate ad revenue — is that it has to not only remain relevant in people’s lives, but offer them more and more things that will keep them engaged. For me at least, and it seems for others as well, they are losing that battle.

Post and thumbnail images courtesy of Shutterstock / Stuart Jenner and Flickr user Pew Center

  1. I believe Fred stopped using Facebook altogether – even his Page (http://www.facebook.com/fredwilson) no longer updates.

    I think, and following the reaction to your recent iPhone post, this:

    “I know that Facebook has knobs and dials that you can tweak so that you don’t see certain things. But who has the time to spend twiddling all those dials all the time? I certainly don’t.”

    Is basically the gist of it. If Facebook’s important to someone then it pays to make the effort to configure it in a way that delivers the results that they want. It should only need to be done once, but it has to be done well, and might need to be re-done with any major Facebook change to the News Feed.

    If it’s not important, or is only something you use casually to stay connected with old friends, or because everyone else is using it, then I think a minimalistic approach absolutely makes the most sense.

    All that said, friends – “proper” friends – are just as if not more guilty of Liking and doing all those things on Facebook that clutter up a feed as anyone else, so you might find that even these extreme culling doesn’t give you the results that you want or expect, and you may still need to tweak those knobs and dials.

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    1. The problem with all the privacy settings is they constantly change it so content you thought was private no longer is. I only use facebook for old lady stuff…keeping up with the nephews and events.

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      1. For me, that’s exactly it. People will often say something like “well, but you know your information isn’t private on Facebook”. But the thing is even the features designed precisely to give you some control are meaningless because Facebook changes them or, far worse, ignores their promises completely.

        The FTC settlement kind of says it all. Scroll down to the “Eight specific promises that Facebook did not keep” (Guardian UK article):
        http://www.guardian.co.uk/technology/2011/nov/29/facebook-ftc-privacy-settlement

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  2. I love WordPress than face book,I got less likes to the posts I made on Facebook,WP is better.Even G+ is better

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  3. You just described friend inflation. Just like anything else that can be measured in quantities (like money), the more there are of them, the less meaningful they become. If you have 1000 friends, then what does a “friend” mean?

    And then there’s the noise issue. The streams of electrons generated by Facebook posts and tweets not only drowns out useful information, it distracts people from their jobs. Which is why I think so many people make so many simple mistakes, bringing down the quality of service in the U.S. (and I’m not talking about video transmissions).

    It’s just a phase the world is going through.

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  4. Facebook flattens meaning and relationships – with all their quirks, context, messy history – into “friends” and “likes”. It’s a useful tool (says 1B people ;), but at a deep level, you can really feel the mismatch with the way people are actually social. It’s subtly dissatisfying.

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  5. You say one of the reasons you did this was because Facebook had become less relevant. I’m interested to know if the change has made it more relevant, and whether your usage patterns have also changed.

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    1. It has made it more relevant, but I am spending less time on it, if that makes any sense.

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  6. OK, I never signed up for Facebook, as I didn’t agree with their views on security and privacy. However, not only is it interesting to see people are now taking breaks / having “great unfriendings” / quitting altogether, but the comment about connecting with different people via different media ties-up rather nicely with something I wrote when Facebook was going through its IPO. I’d be interested to know what you think: http://ctovision.com/2012/02/social-media-change-control-and-security/

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  7. For me, it is the privacy and it’s the overload.

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  8. Facebook is not a must have tool like Google so after while its appeal wears off and you drift away.

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  9. ilias Benjelloun Saturday, February 23, 2013

    I honestly had much more relevant information back in 2008, when I was able to specifiy the kind of content I wanted to share/to see.
    I think one of the issues with Facebook is that it cannot please two masters: page likes and ads on one hand and the user on the other.
    I really wish I could pay 5$ a month to be able to use it without ads AND by being the client, see the company prioritise the user’s experience over the stickiness/monetization. (yeah, I know that’s the motto of app.net, but how would I get my grandma’s news ;)

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