Facebook’s Timeline turns your old updates into an unexpurgated biographyTimeline is the story of your life.—Mark ZuckerbergNine beef consommés, one iced cucumber soup, one mussel soup—Georges Perec, “Attempt at an Inventory of the Liquid and Solid Foodstuffs Ingurgitated by Me in the Course of the Year Ninteen Hundred and Seventy-Four”
Four months after Mark Zuckerberg first introduced it to the media, Facebook’s Timeline feature was rolled out in early December in New Zealand. Why New Zealand? Perhaps because the country makes for a relatively small control group and is marginal enough not to become an international center of outrage once it becomes clear that the company’s innovations, as is so often the case, are destined to kill your privacy.
Now Facebook has made Timeline available worldwide. It has fixed one notable problem with the feature since Zuckerberg unveiled it (it no longer outs you when you unfriend someone), but the fundamental approach of Timeline remains unchanged. What it does is reorganize your information and make it vastly more searchable, albeit by the same people whom you have given permission to view the information in the first place.
Still, this is no small difference. Previously, Facebook worked as a diary that couldn’t be browsed except by turning its pages backward one by one, in an extremely laborious and time-consuming manner, meaning that for all intents and purposes your old data wouldn’t be accessible except by somebody who took an inordinate amount of interest in it. Now Timeline places the things you have shared with Facebook along a chronological axis that can be navigated quickly and intuitively, allowing users to, say, jump back to somebody’s life in 2008, or view all the information you have put up in a particular category over time.
The easiest way to make sense of the change is to understand that your Facebook profile is henceforth no longer your (public) diary: It’s your biography. To underscore this point, Facebook invites you now to fill in the time before you joined the site. Consider my timeline:
The time between “born” and late 2008, when I joined Facebook, is currently blank, but I could fill it by uploading and giving dates to photos from my childhood or creating announcements and events to mark key moments in my life — say, my high school graduation, or when I moved to New Zealand. Facebook would like me to do that very much. That’s not just because the more information they have about me, the more valuable their product becomes to their advertisers, but also — and I suspect more importantly — because the more emotionally invested I become in their product, the deeper my engagement with it is likely to grow. Google+ has millions of users, yet nobody uses it. Facebook is used daily even by some of its most ardent critics. It’s always been its paradox.