Facebook Timeline changeover causes concern as total switch looms

By Garth Brody

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KK/Flickr

KK/Flickr

Has Facebook crossed the line this time?

Facebook’s latest iteration of its graphical user interface, Timeline, which has been advertised by the website’s founder and chief executive Mark Zuckerberg as the means to a more rich and satisfying completion of its users’ individual “stories,” has, to the surprise of few, been received with mixed reviews.

While past Facebook design updates, such as the constantly self-refreshing newsfeed, have been met with similar, if not more resistance (one recalls the ubiquitous “One million strong against the new Facebook” groups), the Timeline arguably represents a more disruptive overhaul.

Several media outlets, including the Los Angeles Times, reported yesterday that the switch to Facebook Timeline, which is currently optional and has been since Dec. 16, will become mandatory for all of the social media network’s approximately half a billion users “over the next few weeks.”

Part of Facebook’s marketing tactic for the Timeline has been to ease users into its introduction by placing the responsibility of talking it up in the hands of users’ friends. The blog “Inside Facebook” reported on Dec. 28, that “Timeline has been widely available to anyone who wants it, but instead of thrusting it on users with a homepage notification, Facebook is showing prompts on the profiles of other users who have switched to the new look. People are likely to be more receptive to a change presented to them by their friends than by the company.” Friends who switch to Timeline had their switch highlighted in News Feed updates.

That’s peer pressure. Not cool, Zuckerberg.

Facebook officials should recognize that just because they buffer the blow of switching to Timeline, does not make it any less of an imposition.

Save for the scant troglodytes and bottom-feeders skirting the fringes of our University’s tech savvy bubble, most students will have at least a vague notion of Timeline’s appearance. Nevertheless, it bears a quick description. And who better to deliver that description than everybody’s best friend, Mark, who at the Social Networks F8 Conference in San Francisco in September of 2011, gave a 15-minute presentation on Timeline, equating it to the latest and most personal development in the conversation that is Facebook:

“So if the original profile was the first five minutes of your conversation, and the stream was the next 15, then what I want to show you today is the rest,” he said, before utterly deflating the poetry of his preceding statement. “It’s the next few hours of a great, in-depth, engaging conversation, whether it’s with a close friend or with someone you just met. It’s the heart of your Facebook experience, completely rethought from the ground up.”

And by “completely rethought from the ground up,” Zuckerberg means “barely adapted from an already buggy design.” Furthermore, Zuckerberg seems to be a little too enthusiastic about the “story” aspect of his creation. It is his baby – his clasped hands, somber intonation and diction make that clear, particularly at the moment when he scrolls down his own Timeline and giddily announces that “there are all the years of my life, right here – all the way to the bottom.”

He is attached to his original idea – the story of a person’s life as they would tell it to others. And he’s determined to see how far he can push it. Rather than rest on a solid foundation of social networking, which he has created with the former platform, he has become too enamored with the realization of his system’s potentialities. He refuses to allow Facebook’s design to remain stable, unlike contemporary digital giants like Google (excepting recent minor design changes).

Perhaps this neurotic behavior has to do with his recent, ambivalent portrayal in David Fincher’s “The Social Network.” Having lost control of his own life’s story, he must lash out to destabilize what he perceives as the life stories of 500 million Facebook users. He calls the new Timeline “the story of your life, and it has three pieces, all your stories, all your apps and a new way to express who you are.”

Under this definition of the social networking experience, Zuckerberg is equating your stories, your posts, your photos and your apps – each as an event blip in your life. And when those blips begin to climb down the Timeline, they become automatically prioritized for a streamlined summary of your life experience. Thus, meaning is only assigned to the pieces of content which Facebook deems significant.

But Facebook only knows you as a set of consumer data (a fact clear to anyone who examines the right side of the page). As such, the most significant moments in your life, to Facebook, correlate to the most interesting pieces of content (events, photo albums, etc.). This will, of course, not always align with a user’s own sense of personal significance. For instance, Facebook will probably not add the earth-shattering wall post you made five years ago on the wall of the person who is now your spouse to its Timeline summary, no matter how earth-shattering that wall post was. And if the user is to instead undergo the effort of choosing the events to be designated as “important,” then why not express that same designation of important events in any other medium (like, say, an autobiography)?

This brings to light the underlying shift represented in the new design scheme: while Facebook has always revolved around the idea of a personal branding mechanism, the current shift to a hyper-interactive digital narrative takes self-marketing to a whole new level.

However, the design is still hampered by an overreliance on traditional branding elements. As Zuckerberg puts it, “first thing you’re going to notice, it’s just a lot more visual.” Well, there is an enormous honkin’ picture at the top of the page, but otherwise the design is cluttered with seemingly disjointed “tiles” of information connected to the timeline. Worse still, a user’s activities beyond those displayed in the most recent posts are relegated to a purgatorial unstuck territory near the top of your profile, with dates attached, but with no visual correlation to the timeline.

“Millions and millions of people have spent years curating the stories of their lives and today there’s just no good way to share them,” said Zuckerberg. And though he feels Timeline is the cure to this ailment, millions of Facebook users may not be open to their upcoming forced inoculation.

Garth Brody can be reached at [email protected]. Alyssa Creamer can be reached at [email protected]