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Social Networks: The Case for a "Pause" Button

PauseJason Kottke (via Rex, via TechCrunch) points to a new feature on FriendFeed that allows users to "fake follow" people:

That means you can friend someone but you don't see their updates. That way, it appears that you're paying attention to them when you're really not. Just like everyone does all the time in real life to maintain their sanity.

As duplicitous and sad as "fake following" sounds -- and let's be honest: the whole idea's pathetic on a number of levels -- for a certain kind of user, I can see why there's a desire for this functionality. Especially on a site like FriendFeed, which has quickly become the platform of choice for the web's least interesting narcissists -- and the slow-witted woodland creatures who enjoy grooming their fur -- this is a major breakthrough in the makebelieve friendship space. Yes, primate culture may be primitive, but it is not without its evolving needs.

Thing is, "fake following" is also not so far off from a more wholesome feature that I've been begging for on social networks for years now:

Any application that lets you "friend," "follow," or otherwise observe another user should include a prominent (and silent) "PAUSE" button.

I think users of apps like Flickr, Twitter, Facebook, LiveJournal, Delicious, and, yes, FriendFeed, would benefit from an easy and undramatic way to take a little break from a "friend" -- without inducing the grand mal meltdown that "unfriending" causes the web's more delicately-composed publishers.

Here's how it would work.

  • "Friends." There are entities in the world that, for whatever reason, do or make things that theoretically interest you. Let's call them "friends."
  • "I need a break." Occasionally, for any variety of reasons (new baby, SxSW, flight delays, adjustment to mood meds), your theoretical interest in the friend wanes, and you dread their next update. Perhaps you even find yourself wishing them some sort of non-permanent physical harm. Such as a hangnail or a bad haircut.
  • "Hit 'Pause.'" You visit the temporarily-annoying friend's profile or home page for the service, and hit their "Pause" button.
  • Break time. For the next n [hours|days|weeks] (would be great if this were configurable), you will not see items from this friend. Nothing new, nothing old, no comments, no nothing. It's like they're on the moon.
  • "Sssssshh!" No notification of the change is ever shown to the user whom you paused, and there's no way for anyone to detect your pausing; you're still "friends." Yay. "Friendship."
  • "On second thought..." If, at any time before the end of the pausing, you decide you're interested again, you could choose to "UNPAUSE" ("PLAY?") the friend. Or, of course, you might find you love the break too much, so you can fully "unfriend" them any time as usual.
  • "Hi, again." After the pausing ends, any items you missed would be available to view in whatever location functions as an archive on that given service. But, you and your "friend" have a fresh start with minimal unnecessary drama. Now you can enjoy them again.

You can pause your newspaper delivery, and the newspaper never complains. Unfortunately most people online haven't figured out that they're just another publisher in a crowded space. Which is kind of a shame, because I think accepting that mantle of "publisher" might improve many peoples' contributions as well as add a useful layer or two to their epidermis.

'If you need to appear on an internet list to know whether you're someone's friend, you may have problems a computer can't solve.'

If you're an adult who's at a place in life where you need to pretend you're interested in people whom you are not actually interested in, then "fake following" should be more than adequate for your needs. But, if you're here to actually read things and to enjoy the thoughts, photos, and opinions of actual people who have good and bad streaks, it wouldn't hurt to have an easy way to hit "snooze" for a while.

Sometimes, for whatever reason, either publishers or their readers just aren't hitting on all cylinders, and a flight delay's a terrible reason to lose a real, non-air-quoted friend.

Plus, everybody hates hangnails.

Addendum 2008-08-26 16:25:26 PDT

Just to clarify a point that I'd hope goes without saying: this all goes for me, too. My God, I feel like I say it often enough, but I'm thinking it needs to become a monthly PSA. I'll say it again here for posterity:

You are busy. You have many demands on your time and attention. Never, under any conditions, hesitate to ignore anyone or anything that's not making good use of your attention. Ever.

Why do I feel the need to press the point with specific regard to 43 Folders? This site is not a pyramid scheme nor a constantly-refilled bowl of Crunch 'n Munch. I'm not here to addict you to self-help, "life hacks," or any other topic you perceive this place to be about. That's not why I type.

The Buddhist parable says to stop carrying the boat once you've crossed the river. If 43 Folders (or anything else I have to share) has no place in your life on a given day or year, I promise you'll never hear a complaint from me. That's...just life, right? Exactly, that's life.

Like everything in your world, I serve your attention at your sole pleasure. You owe me nothing, reader-companion.

In fact, if you end up spending less time here because you've learned how to treat your attention as a free agent with incalculable value, then, in an unexpected way, you've paid both of us the highest compliment I can imagine; you've crossed the shit out of that river, and now you're ready to just let other folks use the boat for a while.

About Merlin

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Merlin Mann is an independent writer, speaker, and broadcaster. He’s best known for being the guy who created the website you’re reading right now. He lives in San Francisco, does lots of public speaking, and helps make cool things like You Look Nice Today, Back to Work, and Kung Fu Grippe. Also? He’s writing this book, he lives with this face, he suffers from this hair, he answers these questions, and he’s had this life. So far.

Merlin’s favorite thing he’s written in the past few years is an essay entitled, “Cranking.”




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