There are plenty of tools out there for adding "friends" to your social network: Glue lets you connect with others who like the same media and entertainment sites as you, Twinkle lets you discover people tweeting near you, WhosHere helps you find "chance encounters" with people—whatever that entails—and social Web browsers like Flock lets you channel the musings of your entire social media constellation into one easy-to-read basin.
The problem: these apps work. Often too well—the basin is overflowing.
When I look at my Facebook News Feed, Google Talk list and my Twitter client, here's what I see: old friends, workmates, acquaintances, and then, in a much smaller group, real friends. In an article this week entitled, "What's a Friend Worth?" BusinessWeek writer John Byrne went straight to the source—Facebook HQ in Palo Alto—to figure out just how many real friends a given Facebook user actually has in his or her network.
According to internally collected data, Facebook reports that "an average Facebook user with 500 friends actively follows the news of only about 40 of them, communicates with about 20, and keeps in close touch with about 10. Those with smaller networks follow even fewer." Anecdotally speaking, Byrne writes, even committed Web users like New York venture capitalist Fred Wilson can cut their swarm down to about 50 without stepping on too many (valued) toes.
But most of us don't want to do this. The whole point of social networking was to glean value from those most tenuous relationships, ones that might have been lost in earlier times, but could still come in great use. Therein lies the dissonance: We want to talk to 80% of the people in our networks just 10% of the time.
In keeping with the great democratization that is the Internet, all users on your social networks are, for the most part, created equally. The fatal flaw with Facebook, Twitter and the rest: The updates arrive in chronological order, and are therefore not always personally relevant. This means you end up hearing more from the people who talk more, not the people you care about most. In the case of Twitter, of course, you can use a desktop client to aggregate the people you want to hear from more. And with Facebook, you can edit down the coverage of a friend on your News Feed, but to do so for every one of hundreds or thousands of friends would be mind-numbing.
Glue takes one step towards solving this problem; it treats friends' comments (about music, people, movies and the like) as real content and filters them by relevance and not recency. But that doesn't solve the larger problem: how do I cut down the flow of social flotsam that I don't want, and get my friends to the top of my feeds?
This month, two tools emerged that do just that. The first is Web-based: PeopleBrowsr launched in alpha this week. PeopleBrowsr's mantra is "filter, sort, follow, post, repeat," which luckily seems to be in order of priority. The site first asks you to login. And no you don't have to create yet another account, as you can use your Twitter or Facebook credentials to login. Then the site asks for your credentials for the other networks and apps you use most. Once you're done (which might take a while; this process is still a little buggy), you get "stacks" of feeds from each service you use.
Stacks can be organized geographically, or by trends, topics, keywords, and users, meaning that you can distill the feed to display exactly the kind of content that you want to read, and none of the detritus. This is a boon for anyone who's feeling overloaded by friends, but doesn't want to commit the brutality of what I'll call "social cleansing": the purge of unused contacts from all your networks.
There's a lot going on here, so I won't try to summarize all of PeopleBrowsr's features (which includes searching, "campaigns," aesthetic themes, and of course, posting), and the interface is obtuse at best (if you're a social net vet), and plain old terrifying at worst (if you're a noob). But if you need to quell the onslaught, you'll figure it out, and future versions will surely get better.
If it's a mobile onslaught you're suffering, check out Zensify, released as a "preview" for iPhone this week. It's an aggregator, like other apps, pulling together feeds from Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, Flickr, Digg, Delicious, and a handful of others. But it also lets you perform custom searches across your entire social graph, and add certain people as "favorites" who appear in one centralized feed, no matter which network they're chosen from.
Got other tips for filtering out the wheat from the chaff? Post them below.
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