Monday, August 20, 2012

It's Not Me, It's You

I recently completed a major culling of Facebook friends. Chances are you already know this, because there is a high likelihood you are reading this blog due to me posting about it on Facebook. I went from 851 friends to 319. So what possessed me to say goodbye to 532 of my nearest and dearest Facebook friends and what was my criteria for culling?


I started to realize that Facebook, despite spending a large amount of time tuning their algorithms to highlight people I supposedly care about the most, still does not seem to have nailed the decision process around what to hide and what to show in the news feed. I did some analysis using statushistory.com, which retrieved my last 149 status updates. As a side note, it always seems that these apps can never go all the way back to the initial creation of your Facebook profile. Not sure if this is an API limitation. So my Mum has me covered for most likes of my status updates, with more than twice as many likes as anyone else. Top commenter on my own statuses is me, but I like to argue with myself so that is kind of expected. However this sort of analysis does not really help attribute significance to how likely I am to care about someone else's status update, or the quality of their updates. After me, the 2nd most frequent commenter on my status updates is a former workmate from Australia. So does Facebook then decide that the former workmate is my bff on this basis? We were always friendly on a professional and personal basis and I do enjoy reading his updates (hence his survival through my friends list zombie apocalypse), but I would never describe us as close friends and I probably haven't seen him for 18 months. So would Facebook show his updates over say a family member who infrequently posts or interacts with me, but one I would really want to know about?

The end result was that I found if I trusted Facebook to highlight my "top stories", I seemed to miss a lot of things. This could result in the awkward real world conversation of, "Didn't you see my Facebook update?". Far too many false positives (incorrectly attributing to much significance to a Facebook friend) and false negatives (incorrectly attributing a lower significance) to let the propeller heads at Facebook decide what I should see. Level of interaction on Facebook ≠ level of interaction in real life. Therefore my tendency was to read through all status updates which can be quite time consuming with 851 friends. I had a moment of clarity where I realized I had little personally invested in many on my friends list. With a few exceptions, I had never actively thought about whether or not to accept a Facebook friend request, which resulted in a mostly unfiltered list of people I have had some point in time had contact with, but no context around the significance of that contact, the type of ongoing relationship I have with them now or will have with them in the future. These are not people I wish any harm upon, but if they were to vanish off the face of the planet, I would neither notice or be particularly impactedNow I'm not self absorbed enough to suggest that these people will suffer from the lack of my frequent random musings and photos, but a similar apathy around managing their friends lists likely exists where they haven't asked themselves, "Do I really care about that Lee Peterson character?". I am also not sure of the split, but a non insignificant percentage of those that were on my bloated friends list were as a result of my curiosity being piqued from seeing them in my people you may know list. In fact there are even a few where I sent friend requests some time ago, which they only recently accepted, resulting in me immediately removing them as friends because they didn't meet my new criteria. 

My decision process was of course around who to keep and who to delete, with the who to keep decisions probably being easier. Loosely speaking, the questions I asked myself were a combination of the following:
  1. Are you a family member?
    Pretty simple decision to keep you as a friend and far less subjective than some of my other criteria. Direct and extended family included within this category. If we're blood, even if we aren't close, I still want to know what you are up to. 
  2. Have I spoken to you in real life any time in the past 5 years?
    If we have been in the same room and had a conversation, or we've spoken via Skype or on the phone, then you are likely to be someone that I have either a personal or professional relationship with that I value. 5 years also neatly co-incides with how long it has been since I moved to the US. A topic for another post on how your personal relationships change as a result of moving country.
  3. Have I had any online interaction with you in the past 2 years?
    There are a few people I message with a lot through Facebook, but have not spoken to per se in quite a while. Pre-facebook, many of these people I would have had difficulty keeping in touch with. If we've interacted in the past two years, it is because one of us has bothered to reach out and make the contact. Can be as simple as "Hey, how are you doing?".
  4. Is there any prospect of us seeing each other in real life within the next 2 years?
    Given the tyranny of distance, I'd call this one more of a tiebreaker than an out and out criteria for inclusion or deletion.
  5. Are you a random I met somewhere?
    I had a few people in my friends list where I actually had a hard time working out who they were or where the hell I met them. Despite us swearing that we would be best friends for ever after meeting on that Eurostar train ride to Paris and bonding over creme brulee, neither of us has bothered to reach out and make contact since. A good indicator that our relationship was fleeting and doesn't bode well for the chances of you asking me to be your kid's Godfather.
  6. Are you regularly annoying/miserable/psychotic/overly dramatic on Facebook?
    In general, I try and socialize with like minded people. Now I'm not saying that the occasional post about a sad event in someone's life is verboten, but Facebook is poor substitute for therapy. 
  7. Do you post things to Facebook I find interesting or entertaining?
    The reverse of the above, but not necessarily mutually exclusive. Much easier to decide to stay Facebook friends with someone that is an actively engaged Facebook user that makes contributions.
Having made the cull around a month ago, here are my observations: 
  • I feel no poorer for not knowing what those I deleted are doing, proving Heisenberg's uncertainty principle without having to poison Schrödinger's cat
  • I can read all status updates in a few minutes versus 15 minutes or more (Depending on when I last logged in of course)
  • Facebook makes it incredibly hard to mass delete friends. My guess is that this is by design, but quite annoying given how easy they have made it to add friends.
  • To the point above, I did see a number of people who were still in my friends list, but who had since deleted their accounts. Perhaps if Facebook made it easier to separate the wheat from the chaff, less people would resort to the dramatic step of complete account deletion.  
  • Despite a 62.5% reduction in Facebook friends, my post about deleting said 62.5% had as many likes and comments as any previous status updates. Not sure if this is because I deleted the right 62.5%, or whether it is a reaction to human desire to be accepted and liked. 
So I highly recommend the cull to anyone that wants to reclaim their social media consumption time. It is much simpler than the real life process of unfriending a person.