This Is Your Life (According to Your New Timeline)
By Allie Townsend Monday, Feb. 13, 2012
Facebook is rolling out the personal digital archive Timeline to replace its aging profiles
Illustration by Joe Magee for TIME
At Facebook's F8 developers Conference in San Francisco last September, CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduced the site's new page motif, Timeline. F8 has played host to most of Facebook's biggest announcements--new profiles, the Like button for websites, Graph API--but this one had the usually unflappable Zuckerberg looking a little giddy. "We're more than just what we've done recently," he told his listeners, and he laughed as he scrolled through his own Timeline to show the audience a few of his baby photos.
Timeline, which is being introduced to all Facebook users over the next few weeks, is a complete rewiring of the way Facebook works. For one thing, it's far more attractive than the current profile: photos are displayed with more prominence, including a page-spanning "cover" image of your choice to gussy up the space behind the traditional profile picture. But the real change is conceptual. Timeline is a social blow by blow of a person's total Facebook past, an easy-to-parse, easy-to-navigate account of his or her entire experience on the platform. "It's how you can tell the whole story of your life on a single page," Zuckerberg said. The algorithm-generated archive seeks to accent users' most meaningful life moments (relationships, moves, career milestones) while condensing the less interesting stuff, like the latest round of birthday messages. Users are also encouraged to fill in details from their lives P.F. (pre-Facebook) by adding photos from childhood, the way Zuckerberg did with his baby pictures. It's life, in aggregate.
Organizing your life in aggregate is a time-consuming project, and a lot of users are already complaining about making the switch to Timeline, especially people who've been on Facebook for years and have a lot of data to sift through. (Users get a week to examine their Timelines to remove unwanted content before friends can see it.) But to Facebook, that's the point. The more time people invest in editing their Timelines--with their trips, promotions and best friends' weddings--the bigger the emotional cost of ditching Facebook for another service.
As Facebook barrels toward what will likely be the largest initial public offering of any Internet company in history--on Feb. 1, it filed for a $5 billion IPO; analysts predict it could raise as much as $10 billion--it has to present a future worth investing in, even if that means a radical revision of what the site has been. Today's social-media landscape is lousy with choices, and Facebook knows it. So instead of asking users to create their Timelines from scratch, which is what many people are saying they'd prefer, Facebook has done the work for them, pushing their content to the new format to show them how invested they already are. The status update has been one of the site's guiding principles since it was introduced in 2006; it's a reminder of what your friends and family are doing or thinking in the present. With Timeline, Facebook is asserting itself as a personal archive too--a searchable, curated, data-driven record of your past. It isn't just a design overhaul. It's a fundamental change in strategy, designed to keep Facebook at the top.
It's no secret in silicon valley that for the past few years there's been a Twitter-size thorn in Facebook's side. The microblog took off when users latched onto its philosophy of immediacy and then demanded more of it from other social networks. (Twitter launched in July 2006. By that September, Facebook had introduced its own early version of the status update.) Zuckerberg liked Twitter early on and even made an offer to buy the company in 2008. But Facebook doesn't like the direction social media have taken since. "It was so frustrating to be in a world where social media had prioritized just the present," says Facebook product manager Sam Lessin. Zuckerberg's base is larger--it's expected to hit the 1 billion mark this summer--but as Twitter grew, Facebook lost some of its archetype status. In the chuckwagon race of social pioneering, it was falling behind.
So Facebook set out to create a more robust network, one that broke its dependency on the status update to create a deeper storytelling tool. "We realized that early Facebook users have been telling stories for seven years on our platform and we were sending them a message that it didn't matter," Lessin says. "So we said, Instead of immediacy, instead of the five most important facts about a person, let's weave a story together about your life."
The more radical move was to cut out the need for manual updates--Twitter's bread and butter--by eliminating the middleman. Open Graph, the developer-friendly arm of Facebook's core social graph that was introduced in 2010, allows outside companies to create apps for the Facebook platform to integrate with their sites. It's working: users are installing more than 20 million apps every day. But new apps made specifically for Timeline will create an even more seamless Facebook experience across the Web through "frictionless sharing," a set of actions that will give third parties the ability, with your permission, to log your activity on outside sites in your Timeline.
Instead of your posting about your musical appetite du jour, music-streaming sites like Spotify, MOG or Rdio will do it for you. Spotify users have shared 5 billion songs on Facebook this way since the F8 announcement four months ago. Updates end up inside Facebook's new Ticker, a feed of your friends' activity streaming in real time, and are another response to Twitter's chaotic but beloved social ecosystem. In turn, your Timeline gobbles up your data and presents it to you later in a set of summarized highlights broken down month by month: most-listened-to albums, books you read or recipes you tried.
Between the frenzy of activity happening in front of you and Timeline's sleeker, more linear storytelling, Facebook is betting that users will find the site a richer place for discovery and engagement, even if they hate it at first. To lessen user apprehension, Facebook held off on a mandatory switch, and it isn't relying on a p.r. push to ease people into the idea of the new design. Instead, it's counting on users to do that for one another and giving the early adopters time to evangelize. "We've been in a mode where users can choose to use Timeline since September," Lessin says. "The way people learn to use social media is from their friends."
What Google Can't Read
With more than 60 new timeline apps available right away, Facebook is positioning itself to become the online hub for social activity by aggregating the full range of an individual's digital experience in one spot. Already, 1 in every 7 minutes spent online and 3 in every 4 minutes spent on social sites are spent on Facebook, but as the social space grows, more networks are vying for that attention. Frictionless sharing embraces this competition and invites people to add their experiences on sites like Pinterest, Goodreads or Turntable.fm to their Timeline. Now you don't have to be on Facebook to use Facebook. All the while, the company gathers more information about you--information it's able to monetize because no one else has it.
To be successful online in the past decade, sites had to play Google's game. Publishers obsessed over keywords and search-friendly page names while Google's spiders crawled. The only shadow was the deep Web, a vast, anonymous alt-Internet, a haven for pedophiles and hacker types. If it was worth seeing, it was indexed by Google--at least until Zuckerberg gave us the power to provide for ourselves. Facebook is essentially a vault of Internet activity that Google can't read, and it's only getting bigger. In 2010, Facebook's Web consumption grew 69%, eating away, slowly but surely, at the searchable Internet.
The rise of Facebook was more than just a fundamental change in the way we used the Internet. It was a collision of Web cultures. A people-powered, social Web shifted curatorial control away from Google, something it's trying to reclaim with its own social network, Google+. For now, Google+ has done little to threaten Facebook's dominance, and the Facebook IPO will likely solidify its strength. But overhype is always a risk. Other hot Web companies like Groupon, Zynga, Pandora and Renren, the "Chinese Facebook," went public in the past year, raising billions of dollars but underperforming once in the market. "The social network is only as valuable as the engagement that's fostered within it," says Brian Solis, a principal analyst at the Altimeter Group, a digital-research-based advisory firm. "The network has to constantly reinvent itself so people feel compelled to come back, and more importantly, to share more about themselves than they had thought of or felt comfortable doing so in the past."
The Digital You
A new survey of Facebook users by security firm Sophos found that of the more than 4,000 users polled, 83% had negative feelings about the Timeline change. Facebook's earliest users enjoyed the freedom of sharing their college experience exclusively with other students; the social-media learning curve on the finer points of privacy didn't surface until the network widened and Mom showed up to spy on the digital game of beer pong. For many people, that content still exists; it's just buried under posts by Facebook You 2.0, the smarter sharer.
In the past, Facebook wrongly made it tough to remove photos and data from the site. The company made a string of mistakes that began in 2007 with the now infamous Beacon, an ad ploy that touted users' shopping practices to their friends, and continued in 2009 with the release of confusing privacy controls. Timeline's in-line publishing controls are a subtler way of addressing that problem, but privacy isn't the real issue here. Everything on your Timeline was posted, or green-lighted, by you. Facebook is just making it newly accessible. Your privacy settings haven't changed. The burden of reassessing your content has.
Facebook is betting that we'll come around to Timeline and to the idea of sharing our digital footprints with our friends. Even the site's most loyal adherents have a track record of hating its new features, only to later declare that Facebook would be unrecognizable without them. When the news feed was introduced in 2006, users reacted to the change by circulating petitions and forming Facebook protest groups with hundreds of thousands of members. They now spend more than a quarter of their Facebook time within the feature.
Once users do come around, the advent of Timeline could mark the era in which a person's digital identity becomes ascendant. Information about everything you do--the music you listen to, the books you read, the videos you watch, the news you consume--is being collected passively, provided you make it accessible. And making information about yourself accessible is the whole point of Facebook. As a result, your online identity becomes potentially richer and more complete than your off-line one: a combination of photo albums and scrapbooks and notes and all the things that, since the arrival of digital communication, we've increasingly left behind. Pore over the aggregated backlog of relationship changes, vacation pictures and reading lists in your Timeline and you can actually learn things about yourself--things that you might not realize in the passing moments of day-to-day life. Maybe you revisited old Motown albums after Janelle Mone's "Tightrope" music video was released. Maybe updates from Airbnb, the Craigslist of couch surfers, will remind you of a trip you would have otherwise forgotten.
"The way Mark Zuckerberg runs Facebook is reminiscent of the way Steve Jobs ran Apple," Solis says. "It's 'We're not going to wait for customers to tell us what they want. We're going to introduce what we think is in their best interest, and they will learn to love it.'" Of course, this rests on Facebook's ability to persuade people to dump the bulk of their digital footprints into the network. As an incentive, Facebook has massaged deals with other online services, like Spotify, to use Facebook accounts as a prerequisite to sign up. By doing this, Facebook can make you feel locked out not just of experiences on the Internet but of your friends' lives as well. But maybe the smartest--and most frustrating--thing of all is Facebook's emerging role as an Internet passport. It's now that much harder to get a complete online experience without it.
FOR MORE TIPS ON THE TIMELINE SWITCH, GO TO time.com/timeline