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It’s not you Facebook, it’s me — okay, it’s partly you: Why I unfriended almost everyone

There have been a rash of posts of late from people who have quit Facebook (s fb) 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.


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 (s lnkd); if I want to connect to people through photos, I do it on Instagram or Flickr (s yhoo) (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

31 Responses to “It’s not you Facebook, it’s me — okay, it’s partly you: Why I unfriended almost everyone”

  1. daveatkins

    I did a great unfriending a few years ago and then, this weekend, I just quit. I was helping my mother in law configure her ipad to use the facebook app and I saw all the drivel that was in her newsfeed–self-important political pontifications from our relatives–and I thought, is this what I look like? How did we get to this point where everyone thinks their friends want to know what they are thinking all the time?
    I predict you will experience a period of six months or so where you feel Facebook is a little more relevant to you and you enjoy actually seeing what your real friends are doing–now that they are less obscured by the noise of those people who friended you to join their 1000+ friend club–but then you will realize: it is all crap. It’s all fake. It was fun for awhile to “reconnect” with people you hadn’t seen in 20 years, but the reality is, you are not really connected and unless you’ve reconnected in person, the Facebook experience is just an illusion.

  2. Let’s face it: Only drama queens go on unfriending sprees. It’s a way they make themselves feel self important on a system where their shallowness is initially fed by friend count. After they tire of their inability to max out at 5000 friends, they decide to “unfriend everybody” to help their bruised egos.

  3. Dona Buckmann

    I use facebook to link to a wide variety of news and informational pages. Economist, Foreign Policy, The New York Times,, Forbes, The Cool Hunter and the list goes on and on. Links from the far right to the far left & everywhere in between. It also affords me the opportunity to stay in touch with people and share a few tidbits, I’m overseas & it would be easy to lose contact with everyone I’ve ever known – In theory I’m not a hugh fan of Facebook in the manner most use it, but it serves a purpose to me for now.

  4. Greg Satell

    I love Facebook, but then I’ve always been careful about who I add. In my book, anything that has family stuff on it is not an open forum.

    A few times people harassed me about it, but as far as I’m concerned, I have a twitter feed, a fan page for my blog and I linkedIn profile that I’m pretty open with. There are more than enough opportunities for anyone who wants to connect with me.

  5. nikolaus heger

    I think a lot of people are in the same boat – friend rot happens when you friend too many people, or people who are relevant for a little while, then not so much anymore.

    And once your account gets poisoned by this disease, its easy to leave – why would I put work into getting a good experience from facebook when there are so many other things I could be spending my time on – like things that are good without me having to do any work.

    Facebook has tried to address this problem by automatically hiding posts from people it thinks youre not interested in. For me this has backfired spectacularly: I dont get updates from people I care about, mostly from people I dont really know.

    So yeah I could not get into modifying the settings, creating lists, and go on an unfriending spree.

    I could also just leave. Which is what I am doing. Not in a dramatic way – I check in every now and then, I just use it way less.

  6. Before the days of the internet, before open networking, my personal privacy policy was to own the story, to control the presentation — for the most part I was successful, and if I wasn’t — it’s no longer relevant. There is no permanent record just the continuing gifts of embracing an opportunity that was ahead of its time in the eyes of some.

    After years of working on both sides of Federal privacy and internet policy, sharing and not sharing information, paying and not paying for information, I, too am considering shutting down my Facebook page — not quite altogether — but for family and a few close friends who are like family. Linked in will be my “open” network. It’s just a matter of time and priorities. And my family uses facebook.

  7. Jennifer Shannon

    I joined FB probably about 5 years ago after being pressured by real-life friends to join. I’ll admit, I was hooked almost right from the start. But my mantra has always been and will always be to only friend or accept friend requests from people I would be willing to have a real-life conversation with and actually enjoy it. I have a friend list in the 260s and I find that manageable for me. It’s all individual. I enjoy keeping up with friends and family, especially those who live all over the country. It really has become an invaluable tool for me.

    I think it all depends on the user. Yes, FB is going to make changes. They have to, that’s their job and they can’t please everyone. It’s up to the user to figure out how best to make it work for them. Otherwise, leave and don’t look back.

  8. Like you, I’ve lost control of my Facebook profile by accepting a lot of people who aren’t “friends”. So far, my approach is to simply use Facebook as a business marketing tool rather than a personal network. That said, I don’t share much personal info on Facebook.

  9. Tara Robichaud

    Great article! I’ve done the big Facebook pruning myself, and have regularly cut ties with those who I don’t have anything in common with. I now have only 134 friends, and most of those people know me well and I can feel free to speak my mind. BUT, at the end of the day, I’ve learned that using FB just makes me feel bad. Its so oddly voyeristic and faux social. It’s kind of icky. I’ve decided that this year I want to spend more of my time living ‘real life’, off Facebook. Like I dunno, having phone conversations and spending time together. Actually connecting. Making news and having adventures instead of reading about them. Plus, I hate that I have become controlled by an exceedingly wealthy company when it comes to keeping in touch with people. No one website should ever have that kind of power over my life. It’s a freaking website for crying out loud.

  10. 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

  11. My problem with Facebook is simply the amount of sponsored horseshit that it puts out, and the poor targeting of said sponsored crap. For example, for 6+ years my status has been “In a relationship” with my girlfriend, who is also on Facebook. Yet, without fail, every day, a third of the posts in my timeline are about Why? Then I also get ads about Samsung (liked by a friend), Miller Lite (not liked by anyone in my network), and Tide, Fiat, a Thai place in San Francisco when I’m in DC (all liked by a friend’s son who is mentally handicapped). To add insult to injury, it’s impossible to keep up with people because the timeline is no longer sorted by time, but by Facebook’s incomprehensible and nonadjustable algorithms.

    I was amongst the first people to join Facebook – back when it was – and it was restricted to the Ivy League colleges + a few others. I’ve not minded the majority of the changes, but I now never go to browse Facebook to catch up on the lives of friends. I go, carry out a task, and leave.

  12. ilias Benjelloun

    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, but how would I get my grandma’s news ;)

  13. Dave Walker

    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:

  14. 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.

  15. todd drake

    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.

  16. 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.

  17. I believe Fred stopped using Facebook altogether – even his Page ( 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.