From beginning, to middle, to now

A few thoughts on Facebook’s probably most controversial feature yet

Many people cried out in joy this morning over the fact that despite it already being the 23rd of December, their profile on Facebook still hasn’t been changed into a timeline. A small doomsday for many, Mark Zuckerberg and co. announced that all users will have timelines in place of the old design from 22 December 2011. Probably just because of the sheer number of users, but some have yet been fortunate enough to escape it.

Ever since it was launched, Facebook has slowly crept into even the remotest parts of the Internet and has woven itself into our lives as well. It would be a most interesting research to monitor people and count how many times they allude to Facebook in their everyday offline conversations; no doubt, the numbers would probably be pretty high. And not only it matters to us, it has a profound effect on our perceptions of life and the workings of society.

xkcd: Facebook

But what exactly is the Timeline, and why is it different from all the earlier changes? The timeline is a replacement for the (until now) usual wall and profile of a Facebook user, and it looks like, not surprisingly, a timeline, only vertical. All our Facebook activity – every status update, every photo we uploaded, every video we liked – literally everything ever since the day we joined is laid out on this virtual line. And here comes the new idea: after we have rejoiced / been saddened / felt ashamed the appropriate amount because of the things we commented on an old friend’s picture turtles in a pet shop or status update about feeling lonely, we can start completing our timeline. With what? Well of course, the things in your life you did before Facebook.

The new timeline feature allows you to scroll down to 1997 for example, and post about the time you had in primary school, like when that nasty kid stole your lunchbox. If you let them, your friends can also go back in time and add text, links and pictures to your life story. This is the key change compared to the old profile: from now on, Facebook would not only be just a place for easy communication and showing each other funny pictures on 9gag. Either together or alone, everyone can now write their own autobiography online. Of course, we all could have done this ages ago by building a personal website, but now it is easy and an audience is guaranteed. The significance of this change is the number of issues it brings up, as there are an even greater number of things that we now need to think about and evaluate.

Cover image on the Timeline (image from Mashable.com)

The main complaint concerning the Timeline (not counting the fact that many think it looks reminiscent of MySpace, and not in a good way) was once again about privacy. More precisely, a great number of people object to the fact that all users’ Facebook activity is now available and accessible with a single click. This also served as a wake-up call for many who didn’t quite realise that despite some things happening a long time ago, the Internet rarely forgets. And Facebook certainly doesn’t.

Some users will definitely go into a hiding/deleting frenzy, some will start slowly filling up their Timelines with events they deem worthy of recording. One thing is for sure:  many of us will be forced to rethink our relationship with Facebook. The main question will revolve around the extent to which we should use the new features.

For a second, let’s imagine we all filled out our Timelines together. Facebook would turn into a constantly updated, richly illustrated, online global encyclopaedia of everyone in the world (with detailed separate biographical entries for each), written by the world. It is the almost obvious next step for humanity in the digital age. Maybe, it was high time we began a new way of writing history. This would enable us to record the story of not only the famous but ordinary people too, and more extensively than ever before.

Wouldn’t that be nice actually? There would be a place where we could read about each other’s lives and be inspired by them. We would feel more connected then ever, because we would know almost everything about each other. All the things we did, all the experiences we had would be recorded and made accessible forever, so we could look at them again and again and reminisce. And not just us: it could easily become an essential asset for future historians who could have a clear picture of what everyday life was like in the 21st century.

However, it is not hard to see how such a thing would take up an immense amount of time. It also begs the question whether it is worth trying to record every little detail (although it is something that many users already do), instead of just simply living. The increased use of Facebook could also speed up the process of most communication moving online, leaving a lot less for the “real world.” Would we welcome such a change, or is there a golden mean?

The people at Facebook (geniuses or not) gave the Timeline to us to play with it. It’s up to us how exactly we are going to do that. And Mark Zuckerberg is probably looking down on us, smiling proudly.

Timeline: the story of your life (image from Ranker.com)

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