What’s the deal with Facebook Timeline?

For those few who aren’t aware, Facebook recently introduced a whole new way of looking at people’s profiles, aptly called “timeline.” Now, people complaining about changes Facebook makes is nothing new, but it seems to me that the reactions for this change have been even more negative than normal. Let me start by talking a bit about what timeline is, and then I’ll discuss what I think some of its implications are.

Simply put, the Facebook timeline is an entirely new way to access people’s profiles. While previously all your information was accessible via a one dimensional feed that you could scroll down to move back in time, it now is separated into two columns to allow more information within a given space (a bit more like Google+, methinks). And while previously there was no way to instantly navigate to different time periods, there are now timelines on both the top of the page and the side bar that allow you to view Facebook activity from years ago with just a couple of clicks.

Once I went to my shiny new profile page I did what I’m sure most people did- go to the very beginning. And Facebook does indeed start you off at the very beginning; the first event on your timeline is your birth. For most of us the next activity will be whatever happened after you first created your account, and it didn’t take long for me to realize that many of the earliest posts on my feed were very embarrassing, things I had forgotten, or things I wish I didn’t remember. For one example, the first couple posts ever on my Facebook feed were apparently from a girl flirting with me shortly before she started dating my best friend.

Aaaaand delete.

To someone who entered GSLIS to study information science, this new change, and people’s reactions, raise many interesting questions. From the standpoint of ease of access the timeline feature is leaps and bounds above the old method. Before there was no easy way to view information posted from periods more than a couple weeks past. Now it’s as easy as choosing a year and going from there. And this is precisely at the heart of the majority of complaints I hear- the fact that your information is more easily accessible than it was before.

So, if we were to ask the question, “Is making information easier to access a good thing?” which most people would generally reply to in the affirmative, we might now not be so sure. This is a great example of the fact that in what ways we interact with information is just as important as the information itself. And this, my friends, is exactly what an information scientist studies- how information is accessed and organized.

So what does this change mean for Facebook? Facebook isn’t exactly trying to hide that it wants to do (just watch the video)- become the new photo album for your life, except instead of just photos have a montage of images, videos, and written word (Kind of reminds me of the movie Final Cut, which I’m pretty sure nobody has seen.). This is why they added the feature to allow you to add dates and locations to new photos you upload- Facebook wants you to put your entire life in one place, easily accessible and already organized for you (not so coincidentally on one of their servers). The concern with many, though, is that this isn’t how users have been using Facebook over the years, and Facebook didn’t really ask before they decided to change that.

On a more philosophical level, your Facebook profile is a representation of who you are, so when you look at your Facebook profile from five years ago, what you are really looking at is a half-decade old version of yourself. And, as it turns out, most of us were pretty different. I think this kind of opportunity for introspection is actually quite healthy on a personal level- the problem only arises once you realized that it isn’t only personal, and that everybody and anybody has the potential to gain that same insight about you as well. This makes a lot of people uncomfortable, which is why many people are hiding much, if not all, of the activity from their history.

Of course, the fact of the matter is that Facebook is a business (a very profitable one), and we are its customers. We have some kind of sense of entitlement and think that we have the right to control how people access our information- after all, we’re the ones who put it up! But the fact of the matter is that this isn’t a two way street- Facebook has no obligation to listen to what we care about, and the sad part is, they don’t need to. We have so much of our lives already invested on Facebook that it’s too late to retreat (Facebook doesn’t make it easy to get information back either). And Facebook is too engrained in our society for (most of) us to simply stop using it. It’s the same reason Google+ failed (or at the very least wasn’t as successful as they probably hoped for). I also think this is one of the reasons the timeline feature makes us so uncomfortable – we not only willingly gave Facebook much more information than we realized, but now know that we have no real control over how it is organized and accessed by the public (other than simply hiding what you don’t want to be seen). And if people start to use Facebook the way Facebook wants them to, we will only become more dependent on it in the future (sounds like a good business model, amirite?).

I may be giving off the impression that Facebook is doing something evil by making these changes, but I honestly don’t think that’s the case. Facebook is simply a business, and, from a business perspective, this is a great move. Is it forcing people to reconcile the fact that they give Facebook much more than they realize, or that they are much more dependent on it than they like to think they are? Definitely. Is making people realize this such a bad thing? I guess I’ll let the reader decide.

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