November 29, 2010

Unfriending, Unfollowing, Unsubscribing... Less Is More

The world of social media and networking is much too consumed with numbers, and it seems at times, we are making sacrifices of our time and energy wading through piles of noise and indirect relationships in an effort to obtain the rare connections of serendipity that bring us value.

In the past year, my position on connections in all these networks and with all these people vying for a piece of attention has changed - from an open networking approach, to one much more tidy, and it is constantly being refined. I've had it with seeing the streams where I spend a lot of time overwhelmed by strangers and off-topic behavior, and continue to take steps to improve the experience. Lately, I've resorted to seeing my numbers go in the reverse direction - fewer connections, fewer subscriptions and fewer services.

It's often said "he with the most names wins", but while that may be true for a social network, it's not always true for an individual. You are not a social network. You are just one point in that network.

A year ago, I said to jump on the massive unfollowing trend would be a mistake. At the time, I was following more than 12,000 people on Twitter, and that number eventually climbed to more than 14,000. Similarly, as I accepted connections on Facebook to all who wanted in, that pile of flesh grew to more than 2,000 - not near the network's famous 5,000 limit, but enough that if I ever looked at the "Recent News" feed, I was unlikely to know most of the folks.

What's changed in the last year for me is that I have had to adjust and spend more time on those two networks in particular, making them central points for engagement and discovery. With that post being written on August 6 of 2009, FriendFeed's acquisition by Facebook happened 4 days later, putting the once-vibrant community into practical mummification, making its centricity for my own activity dramatically less useful.

Additionally, more and more services are launching that enable the portability of one's social graph from site to site. For every new service I try, I can automatically discover who else I am already linked to, and get the chance to add them to my network. As others do the same, this increases the volume of service notifications by e-mail, and consequently, the number of updates on each site is proportional to your social graph at the source hubs - usually Facebook, Twitter and Google. Therefore, a reduction of people on any or all of those three services reduces the noise in all other places.

When Facebook launched their new messaging platform two weeks ago, putting an emphasis on the friends in the site having access to your in box, I started to have second thoughts about all these random people I'd blindly said yes to in the last couple years. For every great person who I would meet in the future and learn from, there were others trying to invite me to events and groups that were a waste of time, or whose updates were never catching my eye. So I took the opportunity to get out of the mess I had created.

Thankfully, Facebook has made the process of disconnecting much easier of late. Under the friends tab of the site, you can click "Edit". Sort by All Friends, and you can start to remove folks 1 by 1 with the little x to the right until your feeds are clean again.

In a bloody swoop, I cut more than 1,200 people on the site this way on the 15th, going from 2200+ to less than 1,000. Does this mean fewer people will see my blog posts, my photos or my status updates? Sure. But the benefits are that I know who I am engaging with and the quality of the site has improved a great deal. Before this move, I could only get a good Facebook experience through my6sense.

Unfollowing by Source in SocialToo Cleaned Up My Twitter Stream

For Twitter, the work was a little harder, but doable. A few months ago, as discovered by Twittercism, I leveraged SocialToo, where I am an advisor. The first thing I did was whitelist hundreds of my favorite contacts in Twitter, to be sure I wouldn't drop them. Then, I set up content filters on the site to automatically unfollow all people who used any of the major Twitter platforms, like TwitterFeed,, TweetDeck, or even "Web". I left this brutal killer on for about 5 days, and saw the people I was following melt away from 14,000 to about 2,000. Then I stopped the bleeding and took out the noise one by one, to the point I follow just over 1,000 now. Of course, I had to refollow some innocents who were caught in the purge, but most have been fixed. While Twitter still is rough to read in real time (again, my6sense wins here), I am connected to real people I know - and their reshares of other folks' content get the best of the rest.

Twittercism Captured My Unfollowing Earlier This Year

That leaves two major repositories of content that I also have moved to thin, to reduce content overwhelming my available time. The first was to unsubscribe from services that I don't use. Despite my practical abandonment of some services, that didn't stop people from following me constantly. It's obvious the social graph synchronization with Twitter and Facebook means people aren't even looking at your content, even if you think they are. So for the most egregious notification in box fillers, I just deleted my account. I started with GetGlue and Plaxo and may hit some more if things aren't dramatically improved. The other is in Google Reader. I'm notorious for reading a lot of RSS feeds, and still do, but Reader helpfully shows me just how many updates come from each source to clutter my daily reading. Contrasting the updates to shares I make shows me what I find valuable. For those where the noise ratio was too high, I have been cutting them one by one, and it's saving me hundreds of items a day. Bliss.

After some cuts, these are the top publishers (30 days of data) I read.

Twitter and Facebook hold more value for me in 2010 than they did in 2008. With their improved abilities to hide content by source, and to use lists, friend management has improved a great deal. Plus, they, in addition to Google Buzz and LinkedIn, are practically the only games in town for centralized discussions now. So rather than fight against the grain, it's made sense to make the sites a better experience for me.

There's no harm in letting people go. It's your right to unfollow and unsubscribe. It's their right to bring you value and deliver you a good experience so you don't disconnect. But if you're finding your streams a mess, take a deep breath and do something about it. I am glad I did.

Disclosure: I am VP of Marketing for my6sense, which has an app that supports Google Reader, Twitter, Facebook and Google Buzz, and sorts by personal relevancy. I am also an advisor to SocialToo.

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