21 December 2011

The Facebook Timeline: your life in Facebook’s hands

Announced a couple of months ago, the Timeline, a new version of the profile that should hold your entire (digital) life, has begun rolling out to users – me included. Some are already thrilled by it and expect it to encourage even more sharing, as people start building up their timelines to reflect real-life events; while others are already pondering how it might be used for advertising. At first look, I also found the concept interesting and visually compelling, even if you only use it to record specific events and don’t share much of it with friends. It’s very nice how you can focus on some specific years or months to recall your status updates and activities; literally a trip down a digital memory lane. I must admit I started to add information to my timeline – past jobs and some of the trips I took – just to see how they looked. And naturally, small and annoying problems started to appear…

The designers behind Facebook Timeline, Nick Felton and Joey Flynn, stated that their goal was to create a UI with soul:

Facebook’s Timeline […] wanted to do something more: It wanted to convey a feeling. Two feelings actually: The feeling of telling someone your life story, and the feeling of memory--of remembering your own life.

I would say that they largely succeeded at that. Naturally, Facebook wants it to generate emotion and attract users, so that it can collect as much data on them as possible. The problem is, no matter how inviting the new profile is, it’s hard to imagine people will take the time to fill in all the gaps from previous years or to correct the mistakes or omissions caused by Facebook’s incomplete tools. That sounds a lot like work, not fun, and I’m sure most users think of Facebook in terms of ‘easy and fun’, not ‘oh, I must go fill in what I did three years ago’.

Let’s take one of the most popular activities on Facebook: sharing photos. I noticed more that half a year ago that photos were saved with the upload date instead of the original date, which in most image files is stored in EXIF format by the digital camera. Until now, that wasn’t such a big deal, because your friends saw new pictures in the feed and older ones in albums. Now, all photos are attached to the timeline, with most of them in the wrong month, or, worse, in the wrong year! Assuming you want to have a clean record, you must go to each and every one of them to manually adjust the location and date; and no, changing the date of the album does not move those photos to the correct date in the timeline! After nearly five years on Facebook I uploaded only a hand-full of photos, preferring Flickr and Picasa for the more advanced features; even so, I can’t imagine spending the time to fix those dates, because I just don’t see any value in it for myself. It gets even stranger if you are tagged in another person’s photo: you cannot edit the location on some of them, with no apparent reason (privacy setting of the owner, maybe?!), so they won’t be accurately placed on the map. It looks like this feature still needs a lot of work to make it user-friendly.

Some called the new timeline ‘creepy’; I find it at most ‘socially awkward’. Call me old-fashioned, but I’m not about to share the ‘loss of a loved one’ on Facebook, even with my ‘Close Friends’ list. That’s something private enough that I want to keep strictly offline. And, seriously, who will broadcast that they got a ‘Tattoo or Piercing’?! That’s definitely something for the attention whores and wannabe celebrities out there. What’s even worse is that every time you add a ‘life event’ to your timeline, the default privacy setting is ‘Public’. As far as I can tell, there is no way to change that default through the privacy settings and Facebook doesn’t remember your last choice here, as it does with status updates. Not a very good move and something that will most likely backlash, as people will inadvertently share private events with the world. With all your past activity only a couple of clicks away, many users will learn the hard way to be more careful about what they post.

Facebook Timeline life events
So, when did you get your tattoo? Facebook wants to know!

Otherwise, Facebook did a pretty good job with privacy on the timeline. You get seven days to review past posts and change their visibility, although with the amount of stuff amassed there over years it’s hard to expect people to go through all of it. Users have very granular controls both in the timeline and in the parallel ‘Activity Log’, which is visible only to the user and easier to manage, because of the better filters by content source. There are some questionable choices here as well, like the fact ‘Questions’-activity is public by default and that you can set global privacy options for third-party apps, but not for built-in apps (Groups, Questions, etc.). And for the busy – or paranoid – there is the ‘nuclear’ option: under ‘Privacy Settings’ ► ‘Limit the Audience for Past Posts’ you can reset all past posts that were originally public or shared with friends-of-friends to the safer ‘friends-only’. Facebook Timeline limit audience for old postsAfter a confirmation dialog, of course…Facebook Timeline confirm limit audience old posts

Regardless of the issues – which could be fixed, assuming Facebook actually wants to offer it’s users a great product – the Timeline stands as a beautiful feature with a lot of potential and with no current competition from the other major social networks. At the end of the day, like the other networks and apps on the web, the Timeline is another tool in the hands of people; it it becomes an excellent tool for self-expression or just another marketing ploy or, worse, a flop, it’s entirely up to us.

Update: After a heated discussion on Twitter, Mahendra Palsule noticed that correcting the date of an album does update all the photos on the timeline, but only if you also add a location to the album, something that I tested and confirmed on my own timeline. Not a very intuitive decision to say the least, but surely one that benefits Facebook, by tricking the user into putting even more data inside their walled gardens.