There’s an unwritten rule that the only acceptable way to celebrate a new Facebook layout is to complain about it. They change ‘become a fan’ to ‘like’? Time for a moan. They bring in that stupid sidebar to tell you that your friends are commenting on posts by people you don’t know? Post a furious status threatening to delete your account. They fiddle around with the privacy settings, claiming to make them easier to use but actually just making them more complicated? Back in a moment, just getting a pitchfork and joining the lynch mob that’s headed for Mark Zuckerberg’s house. [There’s an Oatmeal cartoon that accurately describes these events here.]
But Timeline is different. Whereas most Facebook layout changes are relatively small, so that users can adapt to them with minimal effort – and forget what the ‘old’ Facebook looked like within 15 minutes of their profile making the change – Zuckerberg et al. have taken a huge gamble by changing what it is people use Facebook for. Although the original aim of the original site, Facemash, was to serve as a Harvard ‘Hot or Not’ application (as shown in 2010’s Best Picture Oscar-nominated film The Social Network), it evolved into a broader social network with the mission statement “Connect with friends faster, wherever you are”. Timeline’s name says it all – it’s looking to make the Facebook user profile into a timeline of their life. It’s a huge departure from merely being a social networking tool; Facebook is now asking you to record your life story on there. It wants to know everything, be your autobiography of sorts and, courtesy of the ‘cover’ picture at the top of the page, individualise your Facebook experience a little bit. It’s a cool idea. In theory.
…Unfortunately, cool ideas in theory aren’t necessarily good ideas. The electric tricycle, The Sinclair Research C5, was a cool idea. Concorde was a cool idea. Smell-O-Vision, a 1960s cinema ‘add-on’ of sorts which released odours in conjunction with what was on the screen at the time, was a cool idea. All of these ideas failed commercially. Although Timeline’s situation is not really comparable to those of any of these examples, its advent is a strange and dangerous move by Facebook’s management, particularly considering that 7 million North American users – nearly 1% of the site’s entire users – became inactive in May 2011 alone. Will a hefty site rejig really stop the rot?
This isn’t the first time I’ve thought that Facebook was on thin ice courtesy of changes. The last ‘big change’ previous to Timeline was the installation of the sidebar that I mentioned in the first paragraph; despite promising improved privacy settings, a sidebar that tells everyone in your friend list what you’re saying to anyone if you don’t have tight privacy settings was hardly upholding the mores of personal privacy. Although it’s easy to tighten your settings, it doesn’t tell you beforehand that your information is being publicly displayed if your privacy settings extend further than ‘Friends’. Even as a bit of a Facebook stalker myself, I find that amount of information being readily available to my stalking senses deeply uncomfortable. And don’t get me started on Subscribers…
…But, still, the gamble might be paying off. Certainly, the majority of tech websites and blogs have been having geekgasms over it since it was released on December 15th. The Guardian released a startlingly sycophantic article in support of it, including gushing over the fact that you can jump back to the day you were born on your ‘timeline’. In all honesty, I can’t think of anything I’d require less on the website. With most of Facebook’s 800 million users yet to adopt the new layout, the wider public’s opinion is yet to be known.
However, speaking as someone with little knowledge of computer complexities, over 4 years’ worth of Facebook experience and the Timeline installed for a fortnight now, I’m going to make the bold prediction that 2012 is going to be Google+’s year, and (eek) the beginning of Facebook’s downfall. Industry analysts predict that Google+’s user base will reach 400 million – half of Facebook’s – by the end of this year, and a radical change of Facebook profiles is almost certainly going to lead to that number increasing. A quarter of Google+’s users signed up in December 2011 alone – the same month that Timeline was released. Especially considering that users aren’t being given the option to revert their profiles to the ‘old’ layout, I doubt that’s just a coincidence. Let’s just say that, given the choice, I wouldn’t have kept my profile in that state, and – had I not already been on Google+ – I would have signed up for it there and then.
Essentially, with Timeline, Facebook is asking too much of its users. Sure, it was fun having a play around with the map feature when I realised I was stuck with the damn thing. I tagged where I’d been in my life – which came to disaster when I somehow, embarrassingly, managed to tag friends as being in Abu Dhabi airport with me right at that moment (despite entering the date of this visit as July 2009) – and had a cheeky stalk of myself from years past (result: oh Christ, the embarrassment of being an angsty 15-year-old…). But – maybe I’m too old to spend ages arranging my profile into a specific order, maybe I’ve grown out of the website, or maybe it’s just jumped the shark now – it all seems forced, unnecessary and, to keep their information on the site to a minimum, alienating. Many users keep their profiles merely to keep in touch with distant friends, share articles (cough) or remain on the social radar, to be invited to events. What exactly does Timeline do for them?
Other parts seem to be overkill even from the most avid stalker’s perspective. What does knowing when someone liked a page do for anyone? The only use for it that I can think of may be a misguided assumption in any case; assuming that someone started liking a band at a certain point because they became a fan of them in October 2009 could be wrong for any number of reasons. Over the years I’ve cut back my musical Likes on my page either out of embarrassment, lapses in support or by mistake (alternatively, just to cut back the sheer number), so if you’re assuming, for example, that I only became a fan of McFly in 2008, you’re so wrong. (February 2004, actually.) While some of the information you can dredge up from your history on Timeline is interesting, enlightening or amusing, there’s no point having it if it’s plain wrong or utterly useless/tedious.
On a more serious level, the option to add sensitive life stories to the profile such as ‘Death of a Loved One’ seems like a serious misjudgement on Facebook’s part. Sharing Likes was one thing; sharing deaths is quite another. Perhaps I’m being old-fashioned or over-analysing things here, but I was under the impression that family or friend deaths aren’t the sort of trivial things that one would want to share with the world, or even your whole friends list. Sure, you can decide not to put it on there, or you can hide it from certain people you wouldn’t want to share it with, but the fact that it’s even an option lends the disturbing conclusion that Facebook wants to know all your secrets, including the most painful and traumatic ones. In my opinion, that’s the sort of information that people should have to earn through trust and proper friendship, not just from being a casual acquaintance that boosts one’s numbers. In the days of yore, when it was just Likes that one could flaunt, Facebook’s sharing facilities meant that people who didn’t know each other that well could base a friendship on a mutual interest, or at the very least discuss it. Sharing deaths turns Facebook from being a refreshing, light-hearted opportunity to socialise into a potentially solemn and awkward experience. After a frenetic stalking session, I once discovered a friend’s father had died several years before we’d met; it leaves you feeling guilty, overly-intrusive and puts you off stalking a little bit. And without stalkers to read your life story, Timeline is utterly redundant.
Sometimes Facebook’s changes are for the best. Who can really say that they miss Superpoke! or Gifts? But I honestly don’t think the new layout is more attractive than the old one; two columns of links or comments overwhelms the user with an overload of information where the previous layout’s single column neatly presented information at a digestible pace. The ‘cover’ idea is alright, livening up the top of the page, but I can’t help but be reminded of MySpace’s garish backgrounds and HTML stars falling down the page when I see it. The jumbled and random placing of activity boxes, recently listened to music and recently read news articles is incredibly confusing, as are the privacy settings; ok, you can decide how private each speck of information is, but more options leads to more confusion. Admittedly, I do like the fact that it has incorporated news applications into the site – although a lot of the articles I find myself reading on there are utter trash, some of them are quite interesting or informative and it’s never a bad thing to know that a supposedly ignorant age group are educating themselves on world affairs in between stalking.
I think the main problem here is that Facebook’s monopoly on social networking has made its directors want to incorporate the USPs of every other social networking website into it so that it fulfils every purpose and continues to be a necessity in modern life. It copied the ‘what’s on your mind?’ question in the status box after Twitter got big (though both have now changed this), introduced a Spotify-merger music profiling system that rips off LastFM (to a less successful extent – there’s no way of combining it with one’s iTunes listens, making its catalogue of music plays unrepresentative for many users), and has the option to ‘tag’ one’s location that Foursquare provides. The one thing that it doesn’t provide is a comprehensive search engine; this gives Google+ a major advantage.
Google is the only website higher up in the Alexa rankings (detailing the most visited websites in the world) than Facebook, and is ubiquitous to the point where it has its own verb in the Oxford English Dictionary (“To google (2): 1. intr. To use the Google search engine to find information on the Internet.”), something that Facebook has yet to achieve; as such, it reaches an even wider target audience than Facebook. But what really gives it the edge is Google+’s USP: it strips back most of the excess that Facebook has accumulated in trying to be everything to everyone, and instead gives you a clean, uncluttered interface. It provides a similar service to that which many people originally signed up to Facebook for; connecting and interacting with friends. There’s none of this Timeline nonsense, except your birthday, schools and jobs – if you want to share them – and there’s no ‘share the death of a loved one’ obligation. It’s simpler, nicer to look at and is comfortingly ‘old-school’, but simultaneously fresh. At the moment, it gains over half a million users per day; that number looks set to increase as other social networks drive out their users with unnecessary changes.
Of the people I know who have explored Timeline, the overwhelming majority dislike it. When it becomes a compulsory layout for all, they won’t be alone; surely this will tie in with a surge of people deactivating their accounts and leaving the website, maybe in their millions. After all, how long until the next set of changes? How many times can people watch their profiles being messed around with? Somewhere in Los Angeles, Tom Anderson from MySpace is sitting on the sofa of ex-social network overlords, cackling at the schadenfreude of it all, and getting the popcorn out as he watches the drama unfold. He’s waiting for Zuckerberg to join him.