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Plucking order from social network chaos

  • Article by: MATT BUCHANAN
  • New York Times
  • November 13, 2012 - 4:41 PM

It doesn't take a hurricane, a presidential debate or an Apple product announcement to find yourself overwhelmed by the flood of updates pouring into your social networks.

Thanks to Zuckerberg's Law -- the belief of Facebook's co-founder, Mark Zuckerberg, that people share twice as much every year as they did the year before -- there really is more information than ever before.

But there are easy ways to manage Facebook, Twitter and Instagram to keep it all within limits.

The core problem is that you're trying to see too many things. So you should embrace what digital entrepreneur Anil Dash has called "the joy of missing out." You're not going to see every update from every person ever. In fact, that's the big secret about controlling the waterfall of content that social networks mercilessly dump on your head every second: You're not supposed to consume every drop.

Facebook designed its News Feed, the first thing you see when you go to Facebook.com, to deal with this problem. The stream of updates from your friends isn't ordered chronologically, but is based on how relevant the updates are for you, at least according to Facebook's algorithms.

The simplest way to manage what you see in the feed is to "like" or comment on the kinds of updates you want to see more of, said Will Cathcart, a Facebook product manager. Based on those "likes" and comments, he said, Facebook "will try to do a better job in the future of putting similar stories toward the top of the feed."

If you have the opposite problem and you want to see less of a particular person or kind of update, every item in the News Feed has a triangle-shaped icon in the top right corner. Clicking it will give you the option to hide the post. If you hide it, you'll get additional options to change what kind of updates you see from the poster.

The settings get quite detailed -- maybe you only want to see photos and music updates from a particular person -- or you can choose to see "only important" updates. Important updates are determined by a number of signals, says Cathcart, like how other people are reacting to a post, but Facebook tries to home in on "things that are very meaningful," like changes in relationship status.

You could also choose the sniper rifle option and "unsubscribe" that person. The elegance of unsubscribe is that it banishes their updates from your News Feed, but you still appear as friends, so there's no chance anybody's feelings will get hurt.

A relatively new feature that's only been promoted to some Facebook users, says Cathcart, is the option to organize whom you see in your News Feed by creating a series of lists that streamline the process of picking which friends you want to see less of in your News Feed. To use it, look to the left of your News Feed or after you hide a post, you may be prompted to organize who you see in your News Feed. Designating people as "acquaintances" tells Facebook to only show their "important" updates, which cuts down on their communication. Conversely, adding friends to your "close friends" list adds more weight to their updates, so you'll see more of them at the top of your feed. (Fortunately, these are private lists, so none of your friends will see.)

Twitter has also adopted lists to make it easier to follow different kinds of individuals and organizations without feeling overwhelmed. But they're mostly the province of power users because of their relatively clunky format. The idea is that you can have a "politics" list, a "good friends" list and an "aging rock musicians on Twitter" list, all separate from your main feed, like a series of nested Twitter accounts. Residing under the "me" tab is a section for lists. You can create public or private lists, which can contain up to 500 accounts. After creating a list, you go to the profile page of somebody you'd like to add to a list, click the silhouette icon and see an option to "add or remove from lists." You can access and track your lists from your Twitter profile page. Whenever you load up a list, you'll only see posts from the accounts on that list. Unfortunately, you can look at only one list at a time on Twitter's site or in its mobile apps.

You could use lists in combination with TweetDeck -- what Twitter considers its "pro" experience -- which lets you watch multiple streams of posts in a column format side by side. It's information overload but feels as if it's under control. Another approach is to call more attention to things you absolutely don't want to miss. Among Twitter's more overlooked features are individual mobile notifications, which deliver a text message to your phone every time an account posts. To receive notifications for an individual account, go to the account's profile page and click on the silhouette icon, which reveals an option to turn on mobile notifications. Twitter lets you turn off mobile updates for certain hours of the day, so while activating mobile notifications for a friend might be something you regret, it won't be because you were awakened at 4 a.m.

Twitter is clamping down on third-party client applications, but many are still available that offer a "mute" option, like TweetBot on the iPhone and Osfoora on the desktop. Muting particular users without "unfollowing" them allows you to avoid your weird uncle's Twitter posts.

One last approach is to use an app like TweetDeck, HootSuite, Yoono and the built-in People app in Microsoft's Windows 8 and Windows Phone, which aggregate multiple social networks within one application. They are largely intended to bring order to the chaos of the hypersocial by managing lots of jabber across multiple networks. Using TweetDeck if you keep track of fewer than 100 people might be a little bit like bringing a bazooka to a knife fight -- and it doesn't necessarily cut down on the amount of noise in your feeds -- but there is some utility in bringing them all together in one place, and in the utterly rigid organization that these apps provide.

The bottom line is that social networks should make you feel more connected, not under siege. Be merciless in who you keep track of and who you don't. Last year, I was keeping up with around 450 accounts on Twitter, and I "unfollowed" every single one of them. Now I keep track of just 150 people. And on Facebook, I marked almost everybody as an acquaintance. It hasn't done anything to cure my addiction of turning to Twitter or Facebook whenever I get bored at work, but I know that whenever I open the page, if there's something new to see, it's something I actually care about.

It put the social back in social network.

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