03/27/2012 12:17 pm ET Updated May 27, 2012

Debunking the Big Gang Theory: Why Facebook and Others Suffer From Being Big

Of the top 39 stories that appeared in my Facebook feed on a recent afternoon, 11 were from brands, nine were from people I wasn't interested in hearing from, and 13 from people I couldn't for the life of me remember.

In short, it was a mess -- a cacophony of noise from people whom I barely know, whose actions and opinions have little bearing on my life, and whom I have a minor interest in keeping up with. I don't much care for their music recommendations and I'm not dying for their restaurant tips.

It wasn't always this way. When it first launched, a then much smaller Facebook provided an online extension for offline relationships. The social network offered a way of keeping tabs on the classmate down the hall and the neighbor next door, people whom we cared about and whose activities online would influence our behavior offline. Then I became friends with teammates' siblings and friends of friends I hadn't met, but felt obliged to follow. I fell back out of touch with all the people I'd lost touch with before Facebook. I followed a few celebrities, and gradually brands, companies, and other organizations weaseled their way into my feed. As a result, the few dozen people I care to keep tabs on have gotten lost in the hundreds I now follow online.

This information clutter isn't unique to Facebook, but it's symptomatic of one of the greatest and most complex challenges confronting social networks: how to deal with being big. Like a cocktail party that spirals out of control and ends up a sweaty, noisy mess of hundreds of strangers, our online social circles have grown, and, in the process, have become something else entirely. And there's no easy fix that can make them intimate and relevant again.

Social media sites, such as Facebook, have been driven by the Big Gang theory of social networking, which mandates that bigger is better and the best way to get rich is to get huge. They focus on expanding their universe to connect distant coves of the human galaxy at large and claim more and more millions of users. As the criticism of Google+ underscores, a social media site must either grow faster than just about any other before it, or be branded a ghost town.

But little time has been spent addressing the flipside of the Big Gang theory and the trouble with Silicon Valley's obsession with size. Can there be too many people networking on a social network? How do you take a crowded social circle and make it feel personal again? Will our social binging -- adding more people, adding more friends, sharing more data -- be followed up with a purge?

Attracting users is the easy part. Now, sites are grappling with how to transition from "massive" to "meaningful."

Social media services suffer from their success in a way other tech companies do not. The experience of using Google,, or the iPhone doesn't change drastically if the number of other users skyrockets from 8 million to 800 million (and if anything it improves). The network effect has dictated that new technology must get huge to be useful -- be it fax machines, text messaging, or even Twitter. Yet downsides to the network effect are emerging for social networks, which risk becoming less useful to users as the din of data from their millions of members increases.

Nowhere is the Big Gang problem more obvious than on Facebook, the web's largest and most sprawling social network. The site has continuously reinvented itself and transitioned from focusing on personal relationships with people we know to fostering connections with people we admire, brands we covet, and news organizations that inform us. The result? A jumbled mess of updates that are part personal, part aspirational, part informative, part materialistic.

There's still enormous value to what our friends share on Facebook -- but we may not be seeing it. And while we're only beginning to tap into the huge potential for a rich ecosystem of apps -- from news readers to games -- that use Facebook to connect us to the people we care about, the utility of these services is being undermined by all the noise.

Facebook users have been trying to muffle the racket by paring down their social circles, which, on average, include 229 friends. Sixty-three percent of social network users said they had "unfriended" people in their network, up from 56 percent in 2009, according to a study by the Pew Internet and American Life Project. Though Pew did not specifically ask why people had deleted their friends, the move suggests an effort to de-clutter the social media experience as well as a concern for privacy. Facebook has also been trying to address the issue of social sprawl with features that make it simpler for users to shush acquaintances they don't care to hear from and sort friends into groups.

There's no obvious solution to this "shareturation," though a slew of startups are rethinking the Big Gang theory with offerings that limit whom we interact with and what we see (and share).

While Facebook links everyone, social apps such as Path and Highlight connect only some -- those who are chosen and those who are nearby, respectively. Path, which describes itself as a "limited, intimate, more personal network," caps a user's social circle at 150 friends. Another burgeoning breed of social media services focus on physical surroundings instead of a virtual world. Highlight, Glancee, Kismet,, and Sonar seek to link us to people by using a smartphone's GPS and a user's online social circle to show individuals nearby who share interests or friends. These apps superimpose a filter on our enormous networks to showcase people we can meet face-to-face rather than status-update-to-status-update.

Another solution may be to narrow the topic, rather than the group of users. Pinterest, Instagram, and YouTube have each zeroed in on a specific medium -- images, photos, and videos, respectively -- and lay out strict templates for what can be shared and how. Facebook does it all. These social media services very intentionally do less.

Yet there's no guarantee that these services, which are still small by comparison with Facebook, will not be undone by their own Big Gangs, or muddled by their users in our relentless quest for more friends, more connections, and more attention online.

Instead, the next move for social networks may be to offer exclusivity -- online gated communities for members who have been carefully screened and selected. Think of them as the fraternities or country clubs of the Internet. The come-one-come-all Facebooks and Twitters of the web could be supplemented by sites that deliberately admit only a select assortment of individuals based on like interests, like incomes, or similar values, potentially even charging membership fees as part of admission into the "club." In this sense, perhaps our socializing online will come to look a bit more like our socializing offline: divided along class lines and dotted with enclaves reserved for the rich, famous, well-connected, and like-minded.

Even Facebook knows the benefits of staying small. The social network exploited its initial exclusivity to build buzz: It launched first at Harvard, then spread gradually to Stanford and the rest of the Ivy League, followed by other campuses, where students were eager to gain admission to a site they had heard rave reviews about from their peers. The reverse may happen: From elite to mass, the future could see social networks move from mass back to elite.

Online social networks may be forced to reckon with online societies -- elite, exclusive, invitation-only enclaves accessible only to a select few.