I have too many friends. I know, I’m Mr. Popular, right? Not quite. Most of my “friends” aren’t friends. I’ve simply accumulated a hefty list of people on Facebook , FB 4.50% Twitter, Instagram and elsewhere. Staying “friends” with people who are no longer (or were never) my real friends always seemed harmless, but it’s actually ruining my social life.
For starters, having all those friends was a security risk. Prior to 2015, they could dispense my information to Cambridge Analytica and other shady data collectors. Your associations tell social networks—and advertisers—an awful lot about you. Just as problematic, all those pseudo-friends and likes distract from the actual potential of social networks. We’re all starting to realize that algorithmically driven social networks can’t be trusted to deliver accurate, useful information from real people you care about.
It also turns out there’s a maximum number of people you can maintain relationships with at any given time. That number is about 150, known as Dunbar’s Number—after Robin Dunbar, the University of Oxford professor who discovered the pattern researching how primates act in groups. In the world of Homo sapiens, Prof. Dunbar again and again finds examples of people naturally finding groups of about 150.
Online, strangers lurk. The average Facebook user has 338 friends, according to a 2014 Pew Research Center study. And don’t forget your Snapchat pals, everyone in your Twitter DMs and Instagram comments, your LinkedIn connections and your WhatsApp contacts.
At first, some thought these social networks might help everyone keep tabs on more people than ever. Prof. Dunbar says that’s true, but it isn’t to be confused with friendship. Social networking can prevent a mostly forgotten friend from becoming completely forgotten, but skimming your news feed does not a friendship make.
“There’s something important about seeing people face to face,” Prof. Dunbar says.
You could always delete your accounts to focus on the IRL, or take steps to tame them. I found a simpler solution: Unfriend almost everyone.
Being popular isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. Why look at 500 posts if you only care about five? And why outsource your friendship management to Facebook’s mysterious algorithms? One way to make Facebook less addictive is to have few enough friends that you can see everything and get out.
With Friends Like These
I recently went through many of the online services I use. I had 1,084 friends on Facebook, and followed 997 people on Twitter and another 374 on Instagram. That’s not counting all the apps with access to my contacts list, which numbers in the thousands and includes as many unnecessary entries.
I spent most of a day carefully trimming those lists. At first, clicking “unfriend” felt like a breakup. Sometimes I was a little too overzealous and got rid of people I actually like, but I can’t go back and friend them again. They’d know what I did!
Once I got going, it became a spring cleaning of sorts, a Marie Kondo-like experience. Any name that didn’t spark joy had to go. I unfriended all the “friends” I haven’t talked to in years—and a surprising number I couldn’t remember at all. After that, I unfollowed all the tweeters whose posts I’d never liked or replied to. My only Snapchat friends left are the people I actually snap with. I even severed some LinkedIn connections (though that was more about professional usefulness than personal closeness).
I didn’t get down to Prof. Dunbar’s 150, but I got a lot closer: I now have 395 Facebook friends, and follow 397 on Twitter.
Almost immediately, I cared about the contents of my social media apps again. All of Facebook’s new babies, engagements and political ruminations come from people I actually care about. On Twitter, everything seems more interesting. Having a smaller group of comrades generally makes me want to interact with them more.
I’ll Be There for You
Recently, a few social apps have gained popularity by more closely resembling real-life friendship. Snapchat’s redesign focused on friends and small groups, de-emphasizing—to many users’ disdain—some of Snapchat’s more public features. “We treat it the same way you do in real life, where you only talk to 20 or 30 people every day,” a company spokesman said.
On Houseparty, a popular video-chat app made by Life On Air Inc., the average user has 23 friends. By default, you get a notification every time any of your friends opens the app—so even 150 would be intolerable. Only eight people can join a chat at once. Houseparty’s designers wanted lively conversation like what you’d find at a large dinner table. The company talks constantly about “meaningful connection” and cares more about how much time users spend chatting than how often they open the app.
Designing for small groups can be difficult. Top 8s didn’t save MySpace, and nobody cared much for Google Plus Circles. Sometimes the best “social network” is just a good family iMessage chat thread, as my colleague Joanna Stern has said.
The most important thing, says Prof. Dunbar, is to understand the gulf between posting something publicly and sharing it directly. Sharing Facebook photos or Instagram Stories isn’t a way to keep up with hundreds of people at once; instead, it’s like you’re a lighthouse, flashing away whether there’s a ship or not.
I recommend picking one social media service where your friend count can go wild—let this be the place you stay slightly connected to lots of people. I chose Instagram, because everyone seems to use it and it’s extremely browseable anyway. Use Snapchat, Facebook and messaging apps to keep up with people you actually care about.
It means you’ll get fewer likes and your feed will feel slower. In my experience, both turn out to be good things. I even feel more like sharing, because it doesn’t feel like I’m pouring an Evian into the ocean.
Now that most of my friends are gone, it’s nice to see my friends again.
At Facebook Hearing, Senators Warn Mark Zuckerberg of New Regulations
CEO concedes missteps but offers no promises of radical changes to the social-media platform
Lawmakers grilled Facebook Inc. Chief Executive Mark Zuckerberg on Tuesday over the company’s handling of user privacy while also signaling they were prepared to embark on a new era of regulation for big tech companies.
During several hours of questioning, Mr. Zuckerberg sought to manage the discontent through a combination of contrition for missteps and calm explanations to complicated questions. And yet throughout, the 33-year-old billionaire was careful not to commit to any major changes in how the platform functions or how it sells advertising.
Mr. Zuckerberg acknowledged that Facebook feels responsibility for what is posted on its service.
“It’s not enough to just build tools. We need to make sure that they’re used for good,” he said. “And that means that we need to now take a more active view in policing the ecosystem.”
The financial markets reacted positively to the way Mr. Zuckerberg handled himself in the packed Senate chamber, with shares in the company ending the day up 4.5%
Kicking off the first of two days of extended testimony, lawmakers criticized Mr. Zuckerberg for a lack of transparency, repeatedly expressing discontent with Facebook’s handling of a series of scandals in which the privacy of millions of users was violated.
Senators showed little consensus on what many in the technology industry fear the most—comprehensive legislation to force the protection of user data. But the legislators clearly opened the door to government action further than it had ever been opened before.
Tuesday’s unusual joint hearing likely marked the beginning of a long deliberation over regulating the tech industry, a topic that has, until now, failed to gain momentum on Capitol Hill.
“The status quo no longer works,” said Sen. Chuck Grassley (R., Iowa), the Judiciary Committee chairman. “Congress must determine if and how we need to strengthen privacy standards to ensure transparency and understanding for the billions of consumers who utilize these products.”
Mr. Zuckerberg conceded that government regulation might yield benefits, given the recent surfacing of such problems as fake news, foreign interference in elections and hate speech. “I think the real question as the internet becomes more important…is what is the right regulation?” he said.
Mr. Zuckerberg suggested openness to a few categories of potential government fixes, including transparency requirements concerning data use, mandates for user control over their data and protections for innovation.
And yet he hinted that the tech industry would resist any legislative move it thought went too far. “We still need to make it so companies can innovate,” or the U.S. will risk falling behind other countries, particularly China, he said.
The widely anticipated hearing was Mr. Zuckerberg’s first appearance before Congress. It involved a joint session of the Senate Commerce and Judiciary committees, with at least 42 senators attending, according to a congressional aide. Mr. Zuckerberg is scheduled to appear Wednesday before the House Energy and Commerce Committee.
The hearings mark a remarkable turn of events for Mr. Zuckerberg, who started in 2004 what was then called thefacebook.com in his dorm room to connect students at Harvard University. The social-media platform now is used by more than two billion people a month, as a critical source of news and information from friends and family.
Employees and executives say that transformation is largely due to Facebook’s corporate culture, which encourages rapid experimentation in keeping with its longtime motto, “move fast and break things.”
Until recently, that startup ethos was celebrated as an example of American ingenuity and gumption, including by Washington lawmakers, many of whom have rushed to buy campaign ads on the Facebook platform and eagerly took pictures with Facebook executives such as Mr. Zuckerberg and Chief Operating Officer Sheryl Sandberg.
Its friendly relationships with Washington lawmakers helped Facebook skirt past regulation, despite its growing size and a number of scandals related to user privacy and content policies over the years.
But over the past 18 months—arguably the most tumultuous in Facebook’s 14-year history—the downsides of the company’s approach have become increasingly apparent with users, regulators and advertisers questioning whether it should possess so much power over modern life without regulation.
“In the past, many of my colleagues on both sides of the aisle have been willing to defer to tech companies’ efforts to regulate themselves,” Commerce Committee Chairman John Thune (R., S.D.) said during Tuesday’s hearing. “But this may be changing.”
Senators touched on a number of concerns that have been growing in the public, including privacy, a lack of transparency, and Facebook’s dominance of social media.
“You don’t think you have a monopoly?” said Sen. Lindsey Graham (R., South Carolina) asked, to which Mr. Zuckerberg responded: “Certainly doesn’t feel that way to me.”
Ultimately, Mr. Zuckerberg didn’t promise basic changes to the design of its platform and advertising business, including Facebook’s reliance on users’ personal information to show relevant ads in their news feeds. Facebook instead is promising to enforce its policies more stringently.
He also suggested that some of the challenges being posed by contemporary technology could be resolved with more technology—notably artificial intelligence. But late in the hearing, he acknowledged that the technology’s risks aren’t yet well understood.
Of overwhelming concern was Facebook’s failure to protect privacy. Sen. Dick Durbin (D., Ill.) asked whether Mr. Zuckerberg would be comfortable sharing the name of his hotel in Washington, or the names of people with whom he has messaged through social media.
“Uh, no,” Mr. Zuckerberg deadpanned, drawing a few chuckles from the audience.
Mr. Durbin sought to frame the issue as a trade-off, asking how much privacy users needed to give up to be connected, to which Mr. Zuckerberg responded that “everyone should have control over how their information is used.”
Mr. Zuckerberg appeared well prepared for the questioning, but many senators were skeptical. Sen. Richard Blumenthal (D., Conn.) expressed anger over whether Facebook should have spotted that Cambridge Analytica improperly obtained data, suggesting the failure could violate an agreement Facebook has with the Federal Trade Commission.
“What happened here was in effect willful blindness—it was heedless and reckless,” Mr. Blumenthal said of Facebook’s missteps with regard to the data.
“No, senator,” Mr. Zuckerberg said.
“We’ve seen these apology tours before,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “You have refused to acknowledge even an ethical obligation to have reported this violation of the FTC consent decree.”
The senator said he has letters from Facebook employees that indicated not only a lack of resources but also a “lack of attention to privacy, and so my reservation about your testimony today is that I don’t see how you can change your business model unless there are special rules of the road.”
In 2012, Facebook agreed to obtain user consent for collecting personal data and sharing it with others. The FTC is now probing whether Facebook violated the terms of this agreement when data of tens of millions of its users were transferred to Cambridge Analytica, which worked with the Trump campaign.
Mr. Zuckerberg also said the company has been “working with” special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation into Russian meddling in the 2016 election.
Several lawmakers occasionally struggled during the hearing with arcane details of data and disclosure policies in the limited amount of time they had, underscoring the difficulty of the task of regulating online data use and privacy.