Facebook’s Timeline: A catalog of nothing

February 17, 2012

We have seen the past, and it doesn’t work.

Over the past few weeks, Facebook has been rolling out Timeline, its effort to remake its members’ profile pages into scrapbooks that, like nearly everything published on the social web, is told in a reverse chronology. While redesigns always inspire grumbling, the discontent seems particularly strong this time — 70 percent of users surveyed say they just don’t like it, and Facebook’s own blog page announcing Timeline is filled with complaints in the comments.

At first glance, Timeline looks interesting — a retrospective of an online life. But soon enough, there’s plenty not to like. And the biggest problem isn’t that Facebook scrapped the elegant sparseness of the old profile page for a cluttered interface, or that many users will — yet again — need to reset their privacy settings, or even that, once you switch to Timeline, you can never go back to the old page.

No, the biggest problem with Timeline is that it feels like a mean prank Facebook is playing on its users. It confronts them with the unpleasant reality that the sum total of lives preserved by social media is not just mundane but inauthentic, devoid of what gives meaning to the very thing it’s meant to catalog: life.

The press billed Timeline as a kind of scrapbook. But it actually couldn’t be further from one. A scrapbook preserves symbols of moments with deep emotional value. Facebook is an accidental diary of our procrastinations — the games, political rants, lolcats and memes that distract us in the moment but lose meaning even after a few days. If a scrapbook holds the memories of our lives, Facebook preserves the background noise. Timeline makes this all too painfully clear.

Facebook, however, has big plans for Timeline, which is why it’s not letting anyone escape from Timeline’s clutches. Timeline is the front-end user interface for Social Graph, Facebook’s grand plan to create a social platform for the Web itself. Users will share and discover video, music and other content on any number of websites and mobile apps, and their Timelines will act as a central clearinghouse for all of it.

Facebook knows the social web is fragmenting. And it wants to be the glue that holds it all together. So it’s offering dozens of Timeline apps that will share with your friends (and automatically preserve in Timeline) even more trivial minutiae: what songs you heard, what food you ate, what news stories you clicked on, what products you bought or coveted, etc.

This is great news for sites like Foodspotting, Pinterest, Payvment and even dinosaurs like MySpace and Yahoo. All have integrated a third-party app into Timeline and enjoyed a boost in traffic. It’s also great news for Facebook advertisers, who can pay Facebook to prominently feature in news feeds any posts mentioning their brands or products.

The genius of Timeline is that it lets Facebook monetize word of mouth. But it comes at the cost of turning our conversations into commercials. Rather than designing Timeline to better reflect the more meaningful moments of our lives, Facebook is making it a chronology of consumption.

And that is why I suspect no one on their deathbed will use Timeline to remember the good times. The more social Facebook tries to be, the less intimate our interactions on it become. The moments we remember the most are the ones with the greatest intimacy — in our families, our work and our friendships, or even in caring for strangers.

There’s no reason why social media can’t allow for an online interaction that has the intimacy of, say, a dinner party with friends. But Facebook isn’t moving toward that useful goal — it’s moving in the opposite direction, turning our lives into opportunities for product placement and our wishes and desires into ads.

Timeline clearly isn’t working for the majority of Facebook users, although in the end it may not matter. Many will grow inured to it in time, as they have with all of the other controversial changes the company has introduced over the years.

And even now the broad dissatisfaction doesn’t matter to Facebook, its partners and its advertisers, which are the true beneficiaries of Timeline. Forget all of Mark Zuckerberg’s high-minded rhetoric about social missions and the Hacker Way, Facebook’s true mission is to train its users to consume conspicuously and, in doing so, turn friendships into marketing venues.

In a few weeks, Facebook will begin to roll out Timeline for brand pages. Already some politicians have set up Timelines, notably Newt Gingrich and Nicolas Sarkozy. Both of those men opted to omit any mention of their previous marriages. And soon enough, we may all be selectively editing our own Timelines, grooming an online persona that’s more public relations than authentic self.

And why not? In the online world Facebook is creating, it’s getting harder and harder to tell the difference between people and brands.

PHOTO: Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg introduces Timeline, a new feature for Facebook, during his keynote address at the Facebook f8 Developers Conference in San Francisco, September 21, 2011.  REUTERS/Robert Galbraith


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I couldn’t agree more. I’m a creative person and aesthetics are tremendously important to me. The main reason I initially made the switch several years ago from My Space to Facebook was for Facebook’s “elegant sparseness” as you put it. Even as ad space grew over the years, there was still something nice and clean about it that you couldn’t find anywhere else. People don’t want clutter in their real lives and they certainly don’t want it in their cyber ones. If Facebook serves as a kind of escape as well as a way to connect with friends, it should be a more pleasant experience. The huge thumbnails of images that now appear on the walls or “timelines” are so tastelessly huge that it takes longer for the eye to even make out what they are. As you scroll up and down someone’s timeline, it takes 15-20 seconds for comments and pictures to load and has brought a tediousness to the Facebook experience. Someone in an article (I forget where) had also pointed out that because of this time delay and effort that is involved in looking at someone’s wall/timeline, people will become less interested in others and more interested in their own contributions to Facebook. This will invariably deplete the social connectedness of Facebook. And let’s be honest, who is really going to look through someone’s past on their timeline? Think of all those screen freezes during scrolling!!! It is painfully clear that the changes to Facebook (Timeline) were made solely for consumption and commercial purposes and never for a more personal experience as Zuckerberg et al. claim them to be. Some of us may not have matriculated at Harvard but please don’t insult our intelligence.
Also, the format of Timeline resembles that of a blog with the years on a side bar and the endless scrolling. If I wanted to have a blog, I’d create a blog. Facebook Timeline is the dysfunctional love child of My Space and blogs.

And as you rightfully point out, Zuckerberg could care less.

Posted by YellowDaffodil | Report as abusive

We’re going to post all our tatooed, binge-drinking pictures on Facebook so we can ensure our joblessness. We’ve been waiting for something like this to come along our whole 22 years. Thank God for Zuckerberg. He’s da man!

Posted by WeWereWallSt | Report as abusive

Time line totally sucks’ I feel totaly’ duped by facebook, I wish I had never joined the whole social Net_Work crock’ of Malarchy’ and Time line, “to get to the point”, is just flashy’ bull, now they even add add’s to your photo viewing experience,
In short’ it really is pathetic

Posted by violin1 | Report as abusive

Mr. Kelleher, u took the words right out of my mouth..unfortunately FB and its IPO stakeholders believe the public(participants) are sheep and this product is an easy cash cow to milk for years to come

Posted by jds2010 | Report as abusive

I am a VA and expanding my knowledge into internet marketing. I am working so hard to cope with it. After reading your blog, I am now set to improve my Facebook page and use it as a powerful tool for my marketing.

Posted by Aneza | Report as abusive

“I am now set to improve my Facebook page and use it as a powerful tool for my marketing.”

And that is a perfect illustration of the author’s point. Facebook is beginning to resemble an eastern European boiler room operation. All ads, all the time.

Here’s a clue, marketing wannabe: If there is nothing but advertising there is no reason for users to go there any more. You can all have fun trying to sell to each other.

Posted by ChicagoFats | Report as abusive

Slowly, but surely Zuckerberg has succeeded in making me a fan of his Hate Club. I hate Timeline, I hate the clutter, and I hate the purposefully designed chaos of FB’s personal Privacy Settings. HATE it, and quit using FB several months ago. And so did some of my friends. We just walked away without any withdrawal complications.

Posted by wilrose | Report as abusive

with every Facebook update (from the wall, to how the photos are displayed) people make some convoluted/metaphysical argument about how awful it is, but end up not only adopting it, but loving it.

i mean really, it’s just putting your facebook history in chronological order.

Posted by avp17 | Report as abusive

Internet marketing is what is killing FB for its fans, Aneza. You can improve your FB page all you want; when there is nothing to look at but ads no one will look at them. Do you think the advertisers are going to be selling to each other?

Posted by ChicagoFats | Report as abusive

I have been using Timeline for months now, and I so far have mixed feelings about it, the same emotions I would have if I were shoplifting: thrilled and terrified.

Timeline mines every note, comment, status update, photo, video, link and “like” I’ve ever posted on Facebook – and they go as far back as when Facebook wasn’t even around yet (photos I tagged as from the 1990s, for instance, or a pre-Facebook info I appended to your personal details like my birthday or my child’s first communion) – and presents them on my profile page in a very visual, very detailed manner, in chronological order, hence a “timeline” or, as the Zuckerberg bunch professes, a “story of your life”.

I found it charming at first. I saw in my own timeline a digital scrapbook of everything that went on in my life since I became a citizen of Facebook on Aug 10, 2007. Mostly, it had something to do with nostalgia; you know, that cliche, that fuzzy feeling you get when you “walk down memory lane”.

Through a mosaic of words and photos, I began recalling specific moments in my life that I thought I had already consigned to the backup servers of my mind, to be forgotten, forever. I was suddenly made aware that Fiona Chan and I became Facebook friends on Nov 7, 2007, and that I spent the better part of my Facebook time in 2007 playing Bogglific; that in 2008, I had my left ear pierced on Jan 8, I professed my love for Tina Fey on May 4, and I made 299 new Facebook friends; that I stopped smoking for a full three months in 2008 and 2009; and, that I lost an iPod Touch on Dec 2, 2009.

Key moments in my life that I knew happened but somehow couldn’t place exactly when they happened were there, too. They had always just been “in the past”. With Timeline, they suddenly had dates and photos and annotations and a label (Facebook now calls them “life events”). A near-death experience when I had my large intestines cut and resawn in December 2008. A superb journalist from Reuters dying of cancer on May 27 of that same year. An acquaintance from college who passed on suddenly in September 2009 after a game of pick-up basketball. Nearly packing up and heading off for a job in Jakarta in July 2009. Writing “ay masaya (is happy)” on my status box on Oct 31 last year.


As I sifted through everything that made up my recent life, I suddenly realised something unsettling. There it was, right in front of me, just as Mark Zuckerberg had promised. The story of my life, laid bare in all its drudgery and banality, a full accounting of boredom. It was the story of a basic functionary without ambition, or even hope of an ambition, of someone who had plateaued and had lost interest, except to maintain a basic salary sufficient to finance a low-overhead subsistence.

That Facebook had to archive it in all its mundane glory is frankly mortifying. That people will now have access to it just makes it terrifying.

Timeline, the way I see it now, heralds the age of full personal accountability, of full disclosure. Gone are the days when you can be ambiguous, even mysterious, and you can always try to reason your way out of a difficult situation by saying, “Oh, I totally forgot about that.” You can no longer tell a human resources drone examining your CV that, as far as you can recall, you have no history of clinical depression because that drone sitting in front of you with the robotic voice will have the exact date when you posted statements on Facebook, such as “thinks life is a stale joke with no punchlines”, that could be interpreted as a manifestation of suicidal tendencies.

You’ll now have to be accountable for every status update, comment, note, photo, video, link or ‘like’ you post on Facebook. Saying something like “I hate donuts” may seem so innocent to you now, but it may come to haunt you later in your life when, while on your deathbed, the only lifeline available to you will be a charitable donation from Dunkin’ Donuts. I’m just saying.

Timeline is now a compelling argument for me to deactivate my Facebook account and switch full-time to Google+, where I currently have four friends, but then I too believe that being on Facebook is like living in America: We can complain all we want, but we’ll never really leave. Eventually, I’d forget about how mad I was and go on enjoying Facebook and all the narcissistic bliss it brings.

Posted by roboratistheman | Report as abusive

This is a very interesting look at the new Facebook Timeline. It’s good to remember that Facebook is a business, and that, like all businesses, it needs to make a profit to survive. To survive in the ever-changing realm of the internet, Facebook must also change. I recently wrote a post on my own blog reviewing the recent changes at http://www.alecdifrawi.com/internet-mark eting/facebooks-new-look/.

Posted by AlecDifrawi | Report as abusive

Blah blah blah blah. Could care less about the grand strategy behind the timeline. All i know is that i hate it! Looking at someone’s wall should not be an arduous task. This is the same kind of nonsense that made MYSPACE so unbearable. Seems like their are too many guys sitting around just trying to justify their salaries. Some just never learn “IF IT AIN’T BROKE, DON’T FIX IT!”

Posted by magic69 | Report as abusive

I’ll start to use that feature on Facebook timeline as soon as it comes up. www.hack-facebook-password.org , great post keep it up!! :)

Posted by Adamevanich89 | Report as abusive