Could having fewer friends fix Facebook?
There are a lot of good reasons for people to quit Facebook right now, but the one that keeps me thinking about pulling the plug has nothing to do with Facebook’s embarrassing privacy record: I just have too many Facebook friends.
I’m not trying to brag, but I have 981 Facebook friends. I could have a dinner with a different Facebook friend every night for nearly three years before I’d need to meet someone new. I have so many friends!
The unfortunate reality, though, is that my Facebook friend list has become more of a “people I once knew” list — a smorgasbord of personal relationships from a decade that included college classes, a half-dozen internships, multiple jobs and all the usual social shenanigans people tend to get up to in their 20s.
And while having a lot of relationships is great, it hasn’t actually been great for my Facebook experience. My friend list is so big that I rarely see things in my News Feed from the people with whom I’m actually closest. I’ve also stopped sharing personal things about myself because I don’t necessarily want all 981 people to see them.
This isn’t an accident. Facebook has spent the past 14 years encouraging users to have as many friends as possible. There’s a reason the company goes to great lengths — and what sound like creepy lengths — to show you a list of “people you may know” in order to increase your number of connections. More friends means more things for you to see on Facebook and more time spent using the service. And all that time spent on Facebook has turned it into an advertising juggernaut.
Those friend connections form what has become known as Facebook’s social graph, the layer of personal relationships that gives the company a competitive advantage over virtually every other communications platform around. It’s why all kinds of other companies, from Spotify to Yelp to Tinder, let people log in to their own apps using a Facebook profile. Building a network of connections is hard, so a lot of internet companies encourage customers to port one over from Facebook.
But connecting with everyone I’ve ever met has come at a price: Facebook has lost the intimacy necessary to fill a useful role in my life. More specifically, I’ve started to use Facebook a lot less. If I didn’t write about Facebook for a living, I might consider getting rid of it altogether.
So it’s time for Facebook to build a new feature: A reset button. Click the button once and you’re friendless. Click that button and you’ll be able to rebuild your social graph from scratch.
That might sound cold, but it also might be necessary to the salvation of Facebook’s utility. Starting your friend list from zero would let Facebook’s algorithms, the software that decides what posts you see and what posts you don’t, re-learn what you actually want to see. In theory, you’d start to see more from the people you’re closest to — the first people you’d re-add as friends — and less from that one guy you had that one class with in college.
There are already features to cull or limit your friend list, though they take an abundance of time and/or patience. You can “unfriend” people, though you have to do this one friend at a time and you’ll feel horribly guilty when you’re done.
You can also narrow the list of people who can see your posts, though it requires going in and manually adding or excluding people to that list each time you share something. It creates another layer of complexity to sharing.
Fewer friends won’t just change what you consume, but it might encourage you to share more yourself. Anthropologist Robin Dunbar famously suggested people could maintain just 150 “meaningful relationships” at any one time, a number that’s been put to the test thanks to services like Facebook. It’s hard to share intimately with 981 people.
It’s clear Facebook already understands that friend lists have gotten too big. One of Facebook’s biggest product focuses over the past 18 months has been around private groups, which essentially recreate the Facebook experience but with a smaller group of people.
Last January, Facebook changed its software algorithms to show users more posts from other people and fewer posts from publishers and brands. It was yet another sign Facebook understands that your friend list is what makes Facebook valuable.
Which is why it’s time for a reset button. Facebook’s social graph is its most valuable asset. It’s time for Facebook to give it an update.
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