It’s Nothing Personal

This morning I had 740 “friends” on Facebook. Now I have 352. Before you rush off to see if I’ve dissed you, please read on.

So I got the shears out this afternoon and drastically trimmed the friend tree. Here’s how I made my decisions. Looking at each person on my list of friends, I asked myself these questions:

  • Do I recognise this person’s name? If not, do I at least recognise their face? (I’m bad with names)
  • Have I had anything to do with this person in the real world in the last 5 years? If not, have I had any meaningful online interaction with this person in the last year?
  • Have I recently read anything that informed me, touched me or was somehow important to me written by this person?

If I couldn’t answer “yes” to all of these questions, I cut. Many of the people I unfriended (bizarre verb, eh?) fell into one of these categories:

  • People I had an interesting chat with at a conference years ago, but haven’t interacted with since.
  • Buddhists I had an interesting chat with or worked with at a meditation course years ago, but haven’t interacted with since.
  • People I had brief contact with somewhere else online, but never met.
  • People I used to work with and was never personally close to, with whom I’ve had no contact since the work relationship ended.
  • People I don’t or barely know, who friended me to see stuff (usually photos) I post on Facebook.
  • Someone I’ve never met at all and can’t remember how we became Facebook friends in the first place.

This all probably seems pretty cold. People’s feelings will surely be hurt. I’ve already received Facebook messages from people who’ve taken it personally. I’d apologise, but I reckon Facebook, and in a larger sense this clumsy new space we’re conducting our relationships in, are to blame.

The Facebook model of relationships, and the models of most, if not all, social networks are seriously flawed, for a number of reasons.

Just like “Friends” (without the sofas)

Apart from the broken insistence that everyone we have any kind of relationship with is a “friend”, Facebook in particular forces symmetrical relationships; that is, if we agree that we’re friends, you’re forced to see my stuff, and I must see yours as well. I speak at conferences, so you might be interested in my stuff, but there’s a good chance I don’t even know you. I’m a fan of your blog and am interested in your thoughts, but again, you understandably don’t have the slightest interest in me. I also post lots of photos on Facebook, especially from Buddhist events I’ve attended, so there are hundreds of Buddhists I’ve never met, many of whom don’t even speak my language, who want to see my pictures, but I don’t want to see their unreadable posts in Russian, Czech, Finnish, etc. But Facebook forces two-way sharing on us, and although they’ve given a slight nod to this problem, the interface they’ve given us to deal with it is clunky at best. Beyond a certain number of friends, we get an extremely high ratio of noise to signal, and miss the things we want to see as they drown in a deluge of irrelevance.

Things change

Other than all of that, real relationships change: people move, quit jobs, break up, drift apart. This happens naturally, and over time – I left Hamburg Germany 3 years ago, and naturally kept in touch with my close friends, but didn’t see the occasional acquaintances any more, simply because I wasn’t there. Nobody was snubbed, and nobody thought twice about it.

On Facebook, I’m always “there” and me and all 740 of my so called friends, no matter how emotionally or physically distant we are, are in each others’ faces every single day. In order to change this, I’m forced to make a a conscious decision and, if we translate the interface into natural language, say to them “I’m no longer your friend”. At least they don’t get a “Matt Balara just unfriended you” mail, but even without remembering when, how and where the hell we met, I can’t help but feel rude clicking a link that says “unfriend”. And considering how quickly I’ve received “refriend” requests (five within an hour), some people keep close track of this sort of thing and do indeed take it personally.


Very few natural relationships are in fact symmetrical. You might be a very open person who’ll tell anyone about your dog dying, your new job or the sexy lady you took home last night. The guy you just met in a bar may not want to hear it, and wouldn’t even dream of telling you what he had for dinner. An extremely asymmetrical relationship. It’s a real-world one though, so he’s got a pretty practical solution to his dilemma: he can get up and leave, and likely never see you again. Unless you got his name and can find him on Facebook.

In the real world, we all choose how much we share with who, and most of us get it more less right most of the time. There are unspoken cultural rules we absorb throughout our lives, and we shift gears smoothly and unconsciously as we change our social context: share less at work, more at the pub with old friends, even more at home with loved ones, and so on. On most social networks each of us is standing on a stage, yelling indiscriminately into a crowd of neighbours, current and ex lovers, colleagues, clients, acquaintances and complete strangers. And trying to target our messages at just the right group of people on Facebook is enough effort (not at all smooth or unconscious) that we rarely bother, and therefore rarely say anything that truly amounts to sharing.

Show me the money

This is not an accident. The last thing Facebook wants is for you to be able to quickly and easily manage what you see from, or say to, who – they earn their daily bread by providing other companies with a network that’ll quickly distribute their stuff far and wide – and their interface is quite smartly optimised for that, not for our ease of use or to reflect our actual relationships. I can’t blame them for that – Facebook is a company and exists to earn money – but it doesn’t mean that their interface doesn’t piss me off on a daily basis. I could argue with them for hours about whether or not pissing off users is a sensible long-term strategy, but that’s another story, and an argument I likely couldn’t win.


Simply allowing asymmetrical relationships, i.e. I can see your stuff without you having to see mine, helps a lot. I love Twitter, for example. At the moment 1,304 people follow me, and I follow 444. I see what I want to see, and allow strangers to see what they want. If people I don’t know yet interact with me through an @MattBalara, I’ll often end up following them, and I’ve met people who’ve ended up being friends this way. Although the 140 character limit lends itself very well to link sharing, witty banter and light contact, it’s no replacement for the more in depth sharing and conversation that’s theoretically possible on something like Facebook.

Google+ looks like it goes a little way towards solving some of these problems, by emphasising context with Circles, and allowing asymmetrical relationships. I’ve got to admit I haven’t yet looked at it long enough to really get it, and I need another time intensive social network like I need a kick in the teeth, but after today’s big trimming, I’ll be having a much closer look, with a move away from Facebook in mind.

Now I know you

I now find it quite enjoyable to look through 352 names and know exactly who each of them is, where we met, and what we mean to each other. I’m surprised that I can remember that many people. We may not all be “friends” exactly, but I know they’re all people I want to keep in touch with, who mean something to me somehow, and who I look forward to hearing from.

To those who’re no longer in the list, please know that my intent wasn’t to insult you. I just couldn’t keep up, and had to draw the line somewhere.

It’s nothing personal. Which is the whole point really.

Instagram Rocks, Almost

Instagram snagged over 100,000 users in its first week in the iTunes App Store, so there are plenty of you out there who’d be happy to leave the “almost” off of the headline above. When I first installed it a few weeks ago, my first thought was “I already share photos on Flickr. What do I need this for?” My mate Lachlan Hardy and I had a long chat about it and agreed throughout, but I’ve got to say my attitude’s changed after a recent 42 day trip through 14 cities in Europe.

If you’ve never heard of Instagram (you can skip this paragraph if you have) it’s an iPhone app that allows you to make a photo, crop it to a square format – which makes sense considering the screen you view the photos on – apply one of eleven filters to it – to give it the look of a 70’s Polaroid for example – and post it to the ‘net with a location and a comment. You can find and follow other Instagram users, and what they post, you see, and your followers see your posts. You can also choose to simultaneously post your photos to Twitter, Flickr, Facebook, Tumblr and send your location to Foursquare to check in.

At first I snapped a little and looked through my feed occasionally, but on my recent trip I really started to get into Instagram. Taking me back to my Polaroidiary days, I started shooting whatever I was experiencing wherever I was and sharing it with friends. In the spirit of “the best camera is the one that’s with you” (can anyone give me the original source of that quote?) through Instagram I learned to appreciate my iPhone’s camera and really enjoy making photos with it, and found it especially suited, due to it’s inconspicuousness, to making candid shots of the people around me. Instagram is shoot from the hip and share, and contrary to my first opinion, I found it a great way to easily share snapshots, with the option of posting the best of them to Flickr as desired. Instagram’s interface makes it quick and easy to do what it’s there for and I’ve really had fun with it.

There’s just one grain of sand in the Instagram ointment.

The small irritant is that Instagram pays at best lip service to the web as we usually see it, i.e. in a browser (but hopefully not IE). If you choose to post a photo to Twitter, it creates a short link, like this: The page shown completely omits the location and comment of the photo, and there’s nothing else – no way to see any other photos, the photographer’s profile or followers – nothing but the photo. And, if you neglect to post your photos to Twitter, there’s no way at all to get a link to your photo after the fact – it can only be viewed in the Instagram app itself. My web sharing & grazing take place on at least 3 platforms depending on context, and I like to have a link for every bit of data I’m putting out there, to use when and as I see fit. This post is a perfect example: I can only share photos here that I either posted to Flickr or Twitter. I can’t link to all photos from a certain day or place, for example, nor can I send you to my Instagram page to see all of my photos.

Going on the principle of focussing on the essence, I can understand Instagram’s decision – it’s a mobile app, and the shooting, sharing & viewing are intended to happen on a mobile device, and that all works fine. I can understand it, but I’m a little irritated all the same. To be fair, it could also be a “core first” decision, and I wouldn’t be surprised if they beefed up the web view in the future. Any Instagrammies out there got any inside goss on this?

Side note: when I was made aware of the Instagram Terms of Service, which gave Instagram and other users the right to use your photos as they see fit, I was ready to drop the app completely. To their credit Instagram reacted quickly and corrected what was apparently a bit of a copy & paste error. Kudos to the Instagram team. You can see the updated ToS here.

Update: the Instagram guys let me know that you can grab the link to a photo by tapping the … button on the right under any photo you’re looking at.

TEDx Sydney Sketchnotes

I’m a bit behind on this, but I’ve got to admit I was pretty disappointed with how iPad sketchnoting worked out at TEDx, so I guess I’ve had a little aversion to the whole topic.

What went wrong? Well, a few things. Firstly, most sessions at TEDx were completely dark except for the stage, and I was a bit too self-conscious to sit there with my iPad glowing in the dark & irritating everyone within metres. Secondly, although the iPad charcoal stylus is a nice idea and does work as it should, I quickly realised that I couldn’t write worth a damn with it, and sketchnotes are as much about the notes as they are the sketches. And lastly, I don’t have enough practice with Sketchbook Pro to make anything worth seeing at the speed that sketchnotes demand.

Nigel Marsh

Good thing I took my trusty pen & Moleskine with me.

I can’t say I made any sketchnotes I’m super excited about (mood influences these things heavily, and I was pretty bummed about the iPad thing not working out) but I can say I enjoyed TEDx and look forward to attending again next year. After watching so many absolutely brain-bursting TED talks, I’d set my expectations pretty high, and a local TEDx could never have fulfilled them completely, but it was an interesting & enjoyable day. If I had one wish for next year it would be that speakers should speak more about big ideas they want to share, and less about products they want us to buy and use.

You can see all of my TEDx Sydney sketchnnotes here. I’ll be practicing with the iPad charcoal stylus & Sketchbook Pro, and with any luck I’ll post some sexy scribbles here soon.

The iPad Charcoal Stylus

Yesterday I went from enthusiasm to disappointment in a few minutes when I hacked together an iPad stylus to use for scribbling sketchnotes. The damned thing just reacted too slow to be useful.

Not long after publishing that post, I went back through the DIY video, trying to figure out what I’d done wrong. Towards the beginning (around 0:45), he says “it’s a good idea to make sure the foam you’re using is indeed conductive.” So I snipped off a chunk of foam, and tried drawing with it.

And it worked just as good as my finger.

Holding that little strip of foam, I realised I’d made myself an iPad Charcoal Stylus. I’d automatically gripped it as I’d learned to hold a piece of charcoal way back in art school (ahhhh, those were the days), as seen below.

So if you want the simplest iPad stylus the world’s ever seen, you’ll need:

  • Some conductive foam (found at an electronics store if you’re not a nerd and don’t have any lying around)

Then follow these complicated instructions:

  1. Cut a strip of conductive foam that’s as long as you want and as wide as the thickness of your foam (a square in cross-section).
  2. Snip the corners off of one end so it’s more or less rounded.
  3. Download Sketchbook Pro, sync your iPad and start drawing!

The foam’s quite rigid stuff, so it doesn’t flop around and is easy to hold. The charcoal grip is best suited to pretty rough drawing, but I’ll be experimenting with longer styluses better suited to a typical pen grip. My first results with the iPad Charcoal Stylus are still pretty rough, but I’m now confident that has more to do with learning & getting the most out of the software, and not a half-functional stylus.

Getting better...

So thanks to the wonders of conductive foam I’ll be snipping myself a few more charcoals and sketchnoting TEDx Sydney tomorrow on the iPad! I just hope the conference coffee’s worth drinking.

iPad Sketchnotes Setup

Having not sketched a single note since Web Directions in October (and let’s not even go into how long it’s been since I wrote anything here… ahem), and after being interviewed on sketchnoting recently (super sekrit, more on that later), my fingers have started itching. I’m lucky enough to have an invite for TEDxSydney in two days, and if you add that to the new iPad sitting on my desk what do you get? iPad TEDx sketchnotes of course!

Sketchnoting is usually pretty simple: open sketchbook, click pen, get started. An iPad’s a computer, and they’re always more complicated than the anologue world, so this will need a little more preparation. Firstly, the software: there are a few drawing apps out there for the iPad, but the hands-down, knock-down-drag-out winner is Sketchbook Pro from Autodesk. At AU $9.99 it may seem pretty expensive for people used to piddly little iPhone apps that cost $1.99 and do next to nothing, but this is another beast entirely. It does layers à la Photoshop, creates smooth & soft lines and has a simple, smart interface. And the results are often stunning. So no contest there. You can also get the iPhone version, but the small screen always felt cramped to me – the lovely large iPad screen is perfect for it.

The only downside is the iPad wants a finger as input, but only monkeys draw with their fingers (ewwwwww!). Like any other more advanced primate, I want to draw with a pen. I ordered a Pogo Sketch, a pen designed to simulate a finger, but they’re back-ordered two weeks in Australia. Sigh. What to do? The inimitable Stepehan Cox saved the day and gave me a tip. Instead of me prattling on about it, watch it yourself:

So off I enthusiastically went to buy a cheap ballpoint, some copper wire and a chunk of conductive foam (did you even know there was such a thing?)

After following the instructions, I now have two very DIY looking iPad styluses.

I wound the copper wire a bit tighter than in the video, and taped it all down with some grippy black gaffer tape, and voila! They’re done!

Am I excited? Well, no actually, I’m not.

It’s possibly a side-effect of them being DIY, the thickness of the copper wire, how well wrapped in wire the bits of foam are or somethigng else I’m unaware of, but these things react sloooow, and sometimes not at all. I know it’s not an app problem, as Sketchbook Pro reacts with hardly any lag at all when I use my finger, but the lag these styluses introduce makes it almost impossible to draw anything, as you can see…

TEDx iPad Stylus Test

TEDx is tomorrow (not today as it says in my sketchnote, silly me), so it looks like I’ll be drawing with my finger after all. With any luck the Pogo Sketch will be much more responsive when it arrives in two weeks.

Maybe the ol’ trusty Moleskine & gel pen are the way to draw after all? I will take them along, just in case.