Serge Boucher

I'm a computer scientist at ULB, focusing on databases and the semantic web. I'm also a musician and photographer.

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Friday
Jan132012

Is Facebook Too Crowded?

Uncrunched via Strategyist:

[M]ost of us aren’t going to spend the time removing friends on Facebook. Instead many of us are using new social networks, like Path (we’re an investor) and the upcoming Just.Me (we’re also investors, guess how much we like this space) to start fresh. Facebook is for thousands of people you don’t know. The start fresh new services can be finely crafted from the start to include only your actual friends. And they’re made for mobile.

Michael Arrington isn't making any sense. If taking a few seconds to remove an unwanted friend from facebook takes "too long", what about rebuilding your entire social network from scratch ? What about doing that regularly, each time a new up-and-coming social networking platform looks promising, because you never know what's going to take off, and anyway the last one is now "too crowded"?

I made a similar mistake about a year ago when I stopped using RSS readers. I was following so many blogs that I spent a ridiculous amount of time just trying, and failing, to keep up with the flow. I then noticed that this was much less of a problem on twitter. Because it doesn't care about "read" and "unread" items, twitter makes you feel a lot less guilty about not reading a few updates. So I uninstalled NetNewsWire and started following my favorite blogs on twitter instead.

This worked well for a while, but over time I gradually realized that for some of these blogs I really, really want to read every single post. Twitter does not make that easy, for the same reason that made it attractive to me at first: it doesn't keep track of read articles. Thus you need to manually skim lists of tweets, trying to remember which ones point to blog posts you've already read. I ended up just regularly visiting my favorite blogs by typing URLs in the good ol' fashioned browser. Of course, not knowing when a given blog had been updated, I spent much time loading pages without a single new post, or scrolling down a lot looking for the latest thing I'd read.

Only a few weeks ago did I reflect on my ridiculous behavior long enough to remember that there's a cool 12-year old technology that makes for a much-smarter way of doing things. So I reinstalled NetNewsWire, but this time I'm only subscribing to the blogs I absolutely want to read exhaustively. And if this list changes for any reason, I will ruthlessly unsubscribe from low-quality time-wasters.

Well, I wish. If history's any guide, a couple months from now I'll have 2000 unread posts on 43 different blogs. There's still a lesson behind this story though: Before you give in to frustration and look for a different platform, make sure the problem doesn't come from your expectations and behaviors.

If your expectation is that you can follow dozens of blogs, never skip a post, do something useful with your life and not feel completely miserable, no platform can help you. Some may be more efficient than others, but that will give you only incremental gains at best. At worst, the added efficiency only encourages you to subscribe to more feeds. Similarly, while OmniFocus can be a more efficient task manager than Excel, as long as you regularly review and cull your lists, Excel does the job very well. On the other hand, if you don't do reviews, even OmniFocus won't really help you make the best use of your time.

So the way to deal with facebook overload is not to look for a better platform, but to change your behavior. You can friend everybody you ever meet. You can read all the updates from all your friends. You can spend less than 8 hours a day on facebook. But you can't do all three. Pick.

Sure, facebook's news feed can quickly become overwhelming. Everyone is on facebook, and many of them are playing MafiaWars or FarmVille or some other hell fresh out of Zynga's Factory of Doom. But it gives you tools to help tame the flow, for example by blocking certain users or apps. If that's not enough, you can unfriend people. Or you can do what I do, and stop caring that maybe you're missing out on stuff. If it's that important, you'll learn about it outside facebook.

I'm not saying facebook is perfect. Of course, I wish it gave me even better filtering tools. But to think that a just-released platform is going to do a better job, in fact such a better job that it's worth rebuilding your entire network over there, that's just madness. Yes, my timeline is cleaner on Path than on facebook, but that's entirely because it's easier to organize updates from 7 friends than from 500+.

Actually, I'm pretty sure Arrington doesn't mean what he says. His post is only a transparent attempt to generate publicity for the social networks backed by his fund. I'm happy to play along with this, because I really like Path. (I haven't tried the other ones.) It's not going to replace facebook, nor I think is it intended to. But it's a beautiful little app, and you should try it out. Just don't think for a moment that it would be better than facebook at doing what facebook does.

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Reader Comments (2)

Hello Serge,
Good thinking here & thanks for the attribution.
On the subject of RSS readers, I've transitioned from Google Reader to Fever (by Shaun Inman of Mint fame), you should check it out. It has a smart approach to signal/noise management which supports both "seeing the big picture" from a large number of feeds (I have ~750) and reading the best (my top 20) exhaustively in topical groups. Well worth $30 for the time it saves me, and with the added benefit of hosting my data on my own server.

January 13, 2012 | Unregistered CommenterJean Friesewinkel

Thanks, I'll check it out.

January 13, 2012 | Registered CommenterSerge Boucher

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