Avoiding Social Bankruptcy

After having his website hacked recently, Chris Brogan posted on Facebook about something I’ve been thinking about lately – social bankruptcy. He had so many people let him know that his site was hacked that he felt overwhelmed by the volume of contacts.

There’s a limit to the number of people you can devote attention to and maintain any semblance of a real connection. The limit is slightly different for each one of us, but Brogan put it quite simply, saying “we’re not MEANT to have thousands of friends.” He didn’t call it social bankruptcy, but that’s effectively what it is and he’s absolutely right.

When you find yourself with thousands of “friends” maintaining those relationships can feel like a burden.

The World Gets Smaller

Social media presents an amazing opportunity to make the world a smaller place. I know people in at least 50 different countries around the world and those are just the ones I can think of off the top of my head. Twitter, Facebook, and Google+ have become the global coffee shop to talk about baseball, complain about the government, and share big ideas with relative strangers. My coffee shop may have some of the same people as yours, but we each have our own fairly unique experience. At some point, the coffee shop starts to get too crowded and remembering everyone who visits becomes impossible.

All Friends Are Not Created Equal

Here’s the thing I realized – keeping up with everyone all the time isn’t necessary. In the physical world, I don’t keep up with every detail of everyone I know. It makes no sense to try and do it online either.

For most of the people in our lives, we have touchstones that keep us connected. I may talk to one of the dads from my son’s class on the ferry once a week and never know much beyond where he works and what activities the kids are involved in. If my son changes schools, we may still talk about what the kids are doing, but our “friendship” will likely never be more than infrequent conversations about the kids.

Most online “friendships” have a similar depth. I may connect with someone because I wrote a helpful article on my blog, but that doesn’t mean they expect me to know every detail of their lives. I have many people I’ve met through blogging. We share tips with each other when it makes sense, but most of the time our focus is elsewhere.

I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in my approach. I wouldn’t be surprised if you do something similar, whether you think about it or not.

I have friends who are genuinely treasured. These are the people I talk to several times each week. They are the people who know about the good and bad days. They help celebrate my success and commiserate when I fail. I will always have those friends because they are part of my close personal network.

The New Rules of Friendship

The first step in avoiding social bankruptcy is letting go. Brogan points to having unfollowed many people in order to regain some balance. That’s one approach, but I’m not convinced it’s necessary. You can just as easily trust the tools provided by the networks themselves.

Facebook is really good at only showing you the people you engage with regularly, which means that even if I friend someone, if I don’t interact with them, they disappear from my general news feed over time. This is very much the way we function in real life – connecting with people as we come into contact with them and letting them fade into the background.

Twitter and Google+ reward the noisy people. If you shout the loudest and most often, the people who follow you will see you more than anyone else. I have spent a fair amount of time creating lists (or Google+ Circles) but those simply show the noisiest people in that subset, which is only a slight improvement.

One of the ways I keep my own “friendships” in check is to lay down some ground rules. Way back when I first started using Facebook, I decided that a “friend” was someone I’d met in the physical world and had at least one real conversation with. On Twitter, I follow people based on how they fit with my interests. And Google+ I sort people into circles. Some of those circles are rarely visited. I still come back to the idea that I’m okay with missing things.

Focus on What Matters

You don’t need to know what each of your friends is doing all the time. The most important thing you need is context.

To maintain healthy online friendships, you need to know which of the people you connected with online will be the places you will be. That way it’s easier to quickly check in on what those folks have been up to before you get there. It also makes for great conversation starters.

Many of my favorite people are storytellers. I can read about everything they do online, because most are prolific writers, but I find it far more fun to listen to the stories in person. Even the best writers don’t convey in text that glowing look they get as they explain to about some exciting moment in their kid’s progression toward adulthood. The story about wiping out on a paddle board is far more epic when told over a beer or coffee than reading it on a screen.

Make these moments when you connect matter and all the little things that go zipping by in the streams of life won’t matter.


  1. I have had similar thoughts but you have said it far, far better than I could have. I appreciate the depth of this blog and the suggestions.

  2. One challenge is as simple as which Twitter client to use on the desktop, which for the Android and whether to turn on mobile notifications for the folks you follow on Twitter. Add to that dilemma a similar set of uncertainties for LinkedIn, Google+ and Facebook. Sometimes the streams just have to flow without me standing on the bank watching the debris float by.

  3. I leave mobile notifications off for all social networks – there are very few things that I need to know as they happen. The people closest to me all have my cell phone number and can call or send a text if something really important is going on. Everything else is likely exciting for the person doing it, but not something I can’t live without knowing.

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