Pesky online friends? Firms offer a virtual 'mute.'

By Michael S. Rosenwald
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, August 30, 2010; A1

Esthela Gonzalez's friends are talking to her, but she's not listening.

The chatter is coming at Gonzalez not over a cup of coffee or at Five Guys but on Twitter, through her iPhone. Gonzalez, bored by some of her friends' blabbering, has quietly put a few of them on the social-networking equivalent of timeout. Using a $4.99 iPhone application called Twittelator Pro, the 36-year-old from Chantilly simply tapped a button that says "mute" and, voila, her friends' tweets are blocked. Best of all, they're totally oblivious to the fact that they've been silenced.

"When I saw this feature, it was like a choir of angels coming out to greet me," Gonzalez said.

The age of social media has made it easier than ever to stay connected with the people you know, but it has also made it almost inevitable that users will come to feel overwhelmed by interruptions, updates and status reports. So now, the technology that turned people into 24-7 communicators has spawned a tool kit that discreetly lets users be just a tad antisocial on their own networks.

This is the digital equivalent of walking down a back hallway to avoid the talkative colleague who's always boasting about his latest sale. With more than 500 million people connected on Facebook, 190 million on Twitter, and zillions more scattered on other social networks around the world, users are embracing new ways to politely ignore friends and family, just as they do in the analog world.

"The problem with one big water cooler is that you don't always want to be at the water cooler with everyone all the time," said Bretton MacLean of Toronto, developer of a popular iPhone app called TweetAgora, which lets users filter out unwanted tweets without the tweeter ever knowing. As the company puts it, "Some people are great in real life but just plain suck at Twitter."

Programmers such as MacLean say they are racing to meet demand for discreet ways to avoid people technologically. Besides muting on Twitter, other emerging services include Ex-Blocker, created by Web design firm Jess3, which blocks social-networking posts from ex-girlfriends, -boyfriends, and other undesirables. Avoidr, developed by a San Francisco techie, promises to "keep your friends close and your enemies at that bar down the street." The service uses information from Foursquare, the social network on which users share their location, to tell people which establishments to avoid to dodge someone who has moved to their zero list. Those seeking a more exclusive world than Facebook can instantly start private social networks using the Fridge. "All fridges are private," the company says. "Invite only. Safe from the parents, boss, or those pesky stalkers."

Even the lowly voice mail is evolving with the avoidance times: Slydial lets more than 10,000 people a day leave cellphone messages without the receiver's phone ever ringing. A senior State Department official cops to using it, though not by name for fear of blowing his cover. Still, he professes to have not a shred of guilt about avoiding direct contact even with the people he values most. "In the course of things I do in the day that I have to feel bad about," he said, "this doesn't rank in the top five."

How can the aide and Gonzalez claim to be guilt-free about cutting off their friends? Experts in the social dynamics of new media say users of avoidance technologies are simply being human in ways that social network creators didn't foresee when they built these supercharged ways to connect family, friends, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends.

"When these social networks came along, the founding premise seemed to be to just connect everyone," said Duncan Watts, a senior research fellow at Columbia University and director of the Human Social Dynamics Group at Yahoo. "My first reaction: Why would anyone think that's a good idea? We spend a lot of time making sure everyone doesn't know everything, and now we are collectively bumping up against this issue of people wanting to avoid people."

On most social networks, after "friending" someone else, the default mode is to exchange every possible kind of information and message. (Washington Post Co. Chairman Donald Graham is on the board of Facebook, the world's largest online social network.)

If John follows Jane on Twitter, John sees everything Jane writes, even if John couldn't care less about Jane's endless posts on "American Idol." This could leave John needlessly annoyed by Jane, a discontent that could seep into their otherwise healthy face-to-face relationship. The same goes for Facebook: John and Jane might be decent friends, but does Jane really care about John's pictures of his new deck?

John's and Jane's options, if they don't want to go hunting around Twitter and Facebook to figure out complicated privacy settings, have until now been dire: Just about the only way to rid themselves of a torrent of annoying posts was to drop each other from their friend lists. But in the face-to-face world, John and Jane would never drop each other over such trivial annoyances. Rather, if John knew Jane always wanted to talk about "Idol" over lunch in the cafeteria on Thursdays, he would simply avoid her table on those days. The new services seek to re-create that easy, unhurtful form of avoidance online.

"This is all really a question about how to best be polite online," said Danah Boyd, a social media scholar at Microsoft Research New England. "This etiquette is just starting to evolve. People are trying to find new ways to appear friendly when they don't really like what you're saying at all."

Just about everyone - users, programmers, big thinkers - agrees that the new avoidance services require a certain amount of deception, but they argue that these tools, and more subtle ones that will be developed down the road, are needed to avoid hurt feelings ("You dropped me? Dropped?") and are essentially no different from pretending to need a freshened-up drink to escape from boring cocktail-party chatter.

"I would never want to unfollow them," Gonzalez said of the friends she has muted on Twitter. "You don't want to offend your real-life friends. That would be a terrible thing to do." But she also shudders to think what would happen if her friends found out that she had turned off their flow of tweets.

"Oh, God, no," she said when asked about such a possibility.

But won't Gonzalez's friends figure out that she's not seeing their posts on, say, a new movie they saw? No problem: If the friend sees Gonzalez face to face and reminds her of his latest brilliant online movie critique, Gonzalez can simply say, "Oh, I must have missed that." Or "Oh, you know, I follow so many people, stuff falls through the cracks."

Such excuses never fail. "It's plausible deniability," said Boyd, the Microsoft researcher. "The more technology is fallible and has some holes, the more you can blame it for your failure to do something that is socially appropriate. That makes it much easier to use all these blocking and muting services, because otherwise people will not have the ability to pull this off."

So when the senior diplomat leaves someone a Slydial message, he can, if he chooses, add a casual aside: "Oh, that's so weird - your phone never rang." And when an Ex-Blocker user bumps into an ex-girlfriend who has just gotten engaged, he smoothly says, "Oh, I totally must have missed that on Facebook. Congrats!"

The upside of all this deception, at least for Gonzalez, is that her Twitter experience has become much more enjoyable. "Muting people is very discreet," she said. "I like it better this way." Then she paused, and something seemed to dawn on her: "I wouldn't be completely surprised if someone has muted me."

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