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Articles
The Business of Unfriending People

How start-ups such as GroupMe, Path, Diaspora, and Letter.ly are attempting to descale the social networking landscape.

"Cut out some of the friend fat in your life" is the advice from Jimmy Kimmel, who proclaimed November 17th as National Unfriend Day. While 'NUD' may not become a Hallmark holiday, Kimmel might be on to something: At what point does hoarding friends reach diminishing returns? There is new evidence to suggest that as social media gets bigger, we're getting smaller. This is the growing trend of descaling—the pruning of our social lives on the Internet. Here we take a media, which is structurally perfect for massive scaling at low cost, and use it to make the Internet a more meaningful, emotional, and intimate experience.

Increasingly, digital relationships are more about quality than quantity. Blog hits are less valuable than comments and conversation and apps are more apropos than mindless surfing. For instance, a new study says that consumers under 35 are ditching browsers for apps. It even seems that many the big places on the Internet are shrinking, such as Farmville, which lost 30 million players this year.

Fortunately a new wave of innovation is here to help us descale our social networks. GroupMe is a group texting app, which caps your number of group text participants at 14 to foster more meaningful dialogue. Like hosting a dinner party, with GroupMe you must pass judgment on which friends fit into which situations.

Dave Morin, of Facebook fame, is also getting in on this trend, with a new website called Path. The site offers small-scale communities in which people can feel more comfortable sharing photos and other material that is personal. The site doesn't want you to share in the high-scale, Flickr sense.  As Path states, these are "moments" of your life and quite frankly these moments are much more meaningful to those you know than those you don't". Path controls who you can view your photos and eliminates features that might make your content viral. And there's letter.ly, a subscription-based newsletter for bloggers who feel that posting in public decreases the quality of the conversation. Letter.ly is intended to open a discussion to only those people who pay, or who are privately invited to read a blog post.

This new sense of intimacy derives from two places. The first is our growing sensitivity and sophistication about privacy. While much debate rages here, I think the question is more basic: Are our lives better off for all of this sharing? In a world of WikiLeaks and Facebook's hold on our personal information, a kind of  anti-Facebook competitor like Diaspora has been able to raise over $250,000 from thousands of Kickstartees. And every Meetup starts small, as a reaction by a group of people to over-scaled online conversations. In New York City, for example, the NY Tech Meetup got so popular, it has led to dozens of splinter groups that are looking for new intimacy in conversation.

Secondly, this trend to intimacy isn't relegated to the digital world. It's happening across our economy. Wal-Mart is going local and getting smaller, and retailers are shrinking their footprints to make shopping more manageable. The pre-crisis consumer—obsessed with having the most of something without care for it's origin—has become a smart shopper, more concerned with maximizing both the value of his or her purchase, but also actively supporting the brands, ideas, and friends that share his or her values.

This drive towards intimacy represents both a threat and an opportunity for companies and for their brands. The threat is that your customers will insist on products, services, and experiences that convey a certain sense of intimacy—and quite possibly higher costs of goods sold for lower revenue. On the flip side, the opportunity is that if you get it right and foster intimacy, you will have established yourself not just as a conduit for consumption, but as a member in your customer's tightly-controlled circle of trust. That means the next sale will be much easier than the first. My advice to you is that in 2011 you should stop thinking big and start getting small. Descaling is what consumers now crave.

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