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.
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.
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.