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.


  1. Ariel says:

    Actually you are correct in your observations and I enjoyed reading the clarity of it. Maybe as a follower of your pics in Facebook I can only ask that if u decide to close your user, then maybe u can at least open a page special for the pictures. Lots of people like myself that don’t know you personally find your photos greatly inspiring

  2. mb says:

    Actually Ariel, Facebook added a function not long after I wrote this, which I’m now using: you can subscribe to my public updates without friending me, and I post most of my photos publicly.