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.