Information Overload, Facebook Fatigue, and Twitter’s Awesome Filter

I’ve been using less and less of Facebook recently, and I’ve started to wonder why. I primarily use it to organize events, keep track of contacts (once a month I need to reach someone whose e-mail I don’t have) and occasionally upload photos that I don’t want to put on Flickr and/or want to tag with people I know.

My loss of interest in Facebook is exemplified by my current infatuation with Twitter. I was deeply skeptical of Twitter when I first heard about it, but signed up and quickly forgot about it. After I stumbled across a couple of Twitter accounts and started following them, I decided to actually try it out.

Now I’m hopelessly addicted. As Mike Arrington said, I need Twitter more than Twitter needs me.

But I hadn’t given a lot of thought to moving on from Facebook until I came across Molly Schoemann’s post on “Why I left Facebook“:

Because every damn time I signed on to Facebook, my feed went like this:

[Girl you found distasteful in high school]: Has posted pictures from her wedding!

Click here to view her photos, while wondering if perhaps you misjudged her, back in the day.  Find photos distasteful, even for wedding photos.  Feel slightly depressed, if also vindicated.

You get the idea.  Molly has perfectly articulated my Facebook fatigue. I’ve found that I’ve had trouble separating the signal from the noise. In fact, most of Facebook has just become noise to me. The useful parts are specific ones. I either receive an e-mail telling me that is an event that I want to go to (though I rarely RSVP correctly — either over or under obligating myself for months) or I search for someone’s e-mail or phone number.

The feed now both scares and bores me.

Facebook is now suffering from information overload and we lack the resources to adequately deal with it. Sure, I can select “Less Information about [Guy I Barely Know]” but the problem seems to systemic to Facebook in general. I don’t think Facebook is objectionable because it publishes private or otherwise hard to find information, I think its objectionable merely because it publishes too much valueless information, period.

Creating adequate filters is the essential solution to this problem, and it is why Google was so successful. They created a filter to tame the info-glut of the late 90s on the web.

Google was solving a problem that was essentially an artificial intelligence once: how does a machine know what you are asking for? How can a machine understand what you want to find? Google’s solution was to leverage the collective intelligence of the web in order to infer meaning about its content.

Facebook has tried making stories more interesting by showing me stories involving more than one friend. The system is making an educated guess about what stories I’ll find most interesting. It picks the ones that implicate multiple friends, and to some extent this works as a good indicator as to whether I’ll find a particular item interesting.

But my interest is still waning.

Stop reading now if you hate Twitter, because you’re not going to enjoy this next part.

I think Twitter presents a better solution to taming the Signal-to-Noise Ratio of social networks. This is because Twitter’s inherent filter is better and more active. On Facebook We’ve been brainwashed to mindlessly accept most relationships of people we know in real life, (rejecting a friend request is serious business, most people just leave them queued up in), but we haven’t actually taken into consideration the fact that we’ll be inundated with trivia about their lives.

With Twitter, the filter is better for a number of reasons.

First, relationships are asymmetrical, which removes the friend hoarding incentive. In other words, that there is no reason for me to follow you unless I’m interested in what you have to say. The fact that I follow you means nothing about me. Compare this to the incentive of you and I being friends, symetrically, on Facebook. Even if we aren’t that close, there is little incentive for me to deny your request if I’m interested in showing how popular I am; what human doesn’t want to show how popular they are? Facebook’s architecture rewards friend hoarding, and consequently, information overload, in a way that Twitter’s doesn’t.

Second, if I begin to follow you on Twitter and you are posting boring, irellevant, or uninteresting items, then I will unfollow you. No hard feelings, I’m still probably friendly with you, we might even be good friends IRL, but what you are offering on this platform is not what I want from it. While unfollowing may sometimes precipitate unfriending, the former certainly does not necessitate the latter.

Thirdly, if I miss posts on Twitter, it seems less personal and less of an issue. No big deal, I’ll read your next post.

Fourth, the whole point of Twitter is to Keep it Simple Stupid. By limiting the amount of characters or content a person can post to 140, the emphasis is about conveying as much meaning and value with as litle content as possible. This dramatically increases the quality of the SNR since users feel compelled to not waste characters or posts.

In short, Twitter has avoided the information overload problem, or perhaps I have avoided information overload on Twitter, because its architecture naturally yields a better filter. This is A Good Thing.

Facebook can over come this, maybe, and I think it may still be useful as a friend-indexing-social network for organizing events and looking up phone numbers, but it will be a difficult challenge to get over the info-glut.

  1. Don’t you think that part of it is also that fewer people use twitter? And that to some extent, those people, as relatively savvy early adopters “understand the rules” (i.e. don’t post too frequently, don’t post boring shit, etc.).

    I think you’re right, that facebook’s use of the word “friend” makes saying no a bit tougher, but I’m not sure that everyone would be so blase about being unfollowed. This doesn’t seem to be built into the architecture so much as built into the norms around using twitter, which while strong, haven’t really been tested by a massive influx of every fucking person like Facebook has. I think the same thing is true about the character limit: it’s not the length of FB posts that is annoying, it’s the frequency, which again, is governed by twitter’s norms.

    The strength and persistence of those norms is really fascinating to me. Ian pointed out a while ago that most people use a real photo of themselves on twitter, which is kind of astonishing.

  2. “Facebook can over come this?” *YOU* can over come this. Just say no.

    Admittedly, I can see how it would be useful to have asymmetric “friendships” or more intuitive graduated access control, but I’m wholly unsympathetic to Molly’s plight. If she found the girl distasteful in high school, what was the thought process that led her to confirm her “friendship”? Sounds to me like Molly is simply realizing that being the venerable FB-good-time-gal isn’t fun when you come home with friend-feed-gonorrhea.

    I reject that dismissing a friend request (or leaving it in the queue) is a big deal. And if it is, it’s not your responsibility as the rejector to manage someone else’s feelings. I think the worst you could say is that FB encourages thoroughly co-dependent hand wringing about someone else’s shit.

  3. I agree with everything you said. There’s too much going on, people assume you read the garbage they post, and I honestly don’t care about Debby Yerardi from elementary school (sorry Debby, I’m sure you’ve become a fantastic person, but I didn’t really know you then, and it seems the ship has sailed. Especially if you can’t take the time to add a message along with your friend request.)

    I’d add that I think Facebook is terrible software. The things I am most interested in, on the rare occasion that I log in, are really difficult to find (like the “notifications” button.) Moreover, there are way TOO MANY things. It reminds me of Windows vs. Mac. Specifically, the time that Bill Gates was baffled by Apple’s new 6-button remote control; why would anyone want THAT instead of the Windows 144-button remote? Don’t people want choices???

    Well, no. I don’t really want to LEARN my social networking platform (what’s the difference between a note and a blog? What are the rules and regs about whose photos I can comment on? Where do I go to adjust frequency of updates? etc.) I just want to USE it.

    All that said, I find Facebook to be pretty indispensible, at the moment. Because there are people I want to stay in touch with, who use it all the time. It’s my hope that they’ll all migrate to Twitter someday, just like most of the people I want to stay in touch with moved from Myspace to Facebook. But, that may be a pipe dream, since they really reflect a very different way of approaching things. Facebook was “better” than MySpace by almost any measure; I’m not sure you could say the same about Twitter vs. Facebook. On a certain level, they’re just “different.”

  4. Tim, I find your comment very interesting, it reflects a very different experience of Twitter than I’ve had.

    I have MORE contacts on Twitter — by a good margin — than Facebook. My Twitter contacts seem to have MORE to say, not less, than my Facebook contacts.

    Even so, I like Twitter better, by a country mile. But as has been said, a big part of it is not feeling obliged to try to follow everything. I just catch whatever’s being said when I log in, and check in on personal messages. Then I get back to whatever I was doing; as opposed to Facebook, where I think people tend to get caught in the quicksand a little more, and lose productivity.

  5. I just wanted to suggest making better use of your friend lists within facebook. These act as great filters for controlling how you view your newsfeed.

  6. There is great incentive in denying friends on Facebook. If you are not selective, you end up with the pointless drivel that is driving you away from it. I am very pleased with my friend set on Facebook. Slow down and build a better network.

  7. What I hate is when people use services to cross post their status to facebook and to twitter.
    What are your thoughts on friendfeed?

  8. This post is brilliant on many levels. It will be quoted to explain “that twitter thing” to baby-picture-on-facebook-loving parents this weekend. You’ve articulated what has only previously been explained as “just try twitter, you will love it.”

  9. […] Fred Benenson Blog Blog Archive Information Overload Posted by root 56 minutes ago ( Jan 2 2009 information overload facebook fatigue and twitter awesome filter tim i find your comment very interesting it reflects a very different experience of fred benenson blog is proudly powered by wordpress Discuss  |  Bury |  News | Fred Benenson Blog Blog Archive Information Overload […]

  10. I just wanted to suggest making better use of your friend lists within facebook. am very pleased with my friend set on Facebook. Slow down and build a better network.

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