Time for Timeline

The other night I live-tweeted my first experience with Twitter’s new version of TweetDeck. In the same spirit, I’m now going to live-blog my first experience with Facebook’s new Timeline feature. Fair warning: Going in, I’m extremely skeptical of Timeline. I’m sure it will look great, but I think it’s a little creepy how Facebook wants me to share everything important about my life via Timeline.

One other thing before I start playing with Timeline: Earlier today, I went to “Account Settings” and clicked on “Download a copy” of my Facebook data.  Several minutes later, I was emailed a link to a ZIP file containing much of what I’ve contributed to Facebook since I opened my current account in 2007. The format was an HTML file with links to other HTML files containing my Wall, photos, messages, and other content. Pretty much impossible to feed into some other tool, but not a bad capture of my Facebook contributions.

At the bottom of Facebook’s introduction to Timeline, there’s a “Get Timeline” button. I’m now going to click it. Here’s what I see:

(Click on the image above to see a larger version.)

At the top, I’m informed that I have seven days during which to preview my timeline. During that time, only I can see my timeline. My timeline will go live on December 22nd, unless I hit “Publish” before then. Okay, that’s handy. I have some time to tweak my timeline before my Facebook friends see it. But I don’t have to wait seven whole days to publish it if I’m ready sooner.

The timeline in the upper right is a bit silly right now. There are equally spaced entries for Now, November, 2011, 2010, 2009, 2008, 2007, and Born. Because, you know, nothing really important happened between my birth and the year I joined Facebook…

It looks like I can add a “cover,” which, I think, is the massive image that goes at the top of my timeline. I’ll come back to that in a minute. For now, I notice that below my profile pic, there’s some basic information about me with an “About” link to, presumably, more info.

To the right of that I see a few boxes that display different kinds of Facebook interactions: my friends, photos, maps, and likes. I don’t recall loading any maps to Facebook, so that must refer to my check-ins. I used SCVNGR for several months, often posting my SCVNGR check-ins to Facebook. The fact that these check-ins appear to have been placed on a single map worries me a bit. I’ll check that out later.

To the right of these little boxes is a button I can click to see a few more boxes. When I do, I see a display of my Notes and subscriptions. Notes I get, but I don’t know what my subscriptions are. Maybe a Facebook app I installed long ago and forgot about?

Now I notice that red “1” next to “Activity Log.” When I click on “Activity Log,” here’s what I get:

Oh, this must be how I control what appears on my timeline. In fact, you can see above that I’ve clicked on the small grey circle on the right side of my most recent activity. Everything I’ve ever done on Facebook seems to be appear on my timeline by default, but this circle lets me hide something from my timeline or feature something on my timeline. I believe featuring something on the timeline means it gets a widescreen-shaped box on the timeline for a little more attention.

So now I’m faced with the question: What do I want to appear on my timeline? I’m okay with my recent status updates. They’ve been relatively infrequent since I’ve been weaning myself off Facebook in preparation for today. (I’m guessing that Timeline will creep me out enough to motivate me to quit Facebook altogether.) And, in general, I try not to post something to Facebook I wouldn’t mind the whole world seeing, since I’m never 100% sure I’ve got my privacy settings correct.

But when I scroll down, I see a few other types of activities that I might not want on my timeline. The other week I watched the first season of The Walking Dead and thought it was great. So there’s an activity that reads “Derek likes The Walking Dead,” followed by a comment I left on a friend’s wall about the show. (I went to college with the TV show’s editor.) Do I want my “likes” and comments on friends’ walls to show up in my timeline? I guess that depends on what they look like. Time to hit “Back” and see.

Okay, this is weird. When I scroll down the timeline to early December (when I finished The Walking Dead), here’s what I get:

The fact that I “liked” The Walking Dead is there, but my comment on my friend’s wall is not. Is that because such comments aren’t displayed on the timeline, even though my Activity Log said it would be? Or is that because the timeline has left some activities off that occurred in late November / early December? See the “Earlier in November” sign across that gap on the timeline? What’s going on there? Are there some algorithms deciding what makes the cut on this view of the timeline instead of just putting everything there?

Let’s see what happens when I click on 2011 in the tiny timeline in the upper right of the screen. The big timeline scrolls down to show me “2011 Highlights”:

I get big versions of a couple of photos I posted in 2011, a box with all my birthday greetings, a status update that got 26 replies (which is a lot for me), and other items, including what appears to be a featured item:

Okay, I didn’t start work at Vanderbilt in 2011, but I did get a new job title in August (Acting Director). Timeline doesn’t seem clever enough to understand that, but that’s perhaps a subtle thing for an algorithm. The featured item spans both sides of my timeline. (Non-featured items show up either on the left or right.) And apparently I can add a photo to that featured item.

Below the job change, there are other 2011 highlights, including, yes, a map of places I checked in while visiting my mom in South Carolina this summer. Yep, the map thing is creepy.

Below that are other photos I posted in 2011, along with status updates that generated lots of likes or comments. At the bottom of the 2011 highlights are a few summaries of my Facebook activity for 2011. I’m not comfortable posting a screenshot here on the blog, but I’ll describe these summaries for you.

  • I see I added 63 friends on Facebook in 2011. (Do I get a prize?) I see profile pics of some of them, along with what appear to be randomly chosen comments made by my friends on my wall.
  • I visited 46 places, again all through SCVNGR. I see a map centered on Nashville with a few of those check-ins displayed. My most visited place? The Center for Teaching, with five check-ins.
  • I liked 54 things on Facebook in 2011. I see page pics for a few of them, with the option to go see all of my 2011 likes.
  • And I joined three events in 2011. All three are shown in the summary box for events. (Obviously, I’m not a college student. They go to way more events than I do.)

Below those summary boxes is a “Show all stories from 2011” box. Clicking on that lets me go month to month in my timeline, with a level of detail closer to what I saw at the very top of the timeline for December. That is, most everything seems to be there.

Okay, I’m getting a sense of how the timeline works. Let’s go down to the bottom of the timeline by clicking on “Born.” Wow, that seems to slow down the entire browser. Coincidence? Or does generating new sections of the timeline for the first time take Facebook some work?

Now that the bottom of my timeline has loaded, I see a series of featured events based on my basic info already in Facebook. There’s my birth:

I’ve blocked out the date, but there’s no year listed. I’m pretty sure Facebook knows my birth year, but I believe I’ve set my privacy so that the year doesn’t show on my profile. It looks like my timeline is respecting that.

This featured event is begging for a photo, but do I really want to put my baby photos on Facebook? Here’s where the creepiness comes back in. Do I mind that my family members and college friends see my baby photos? No. Do I want the professional colleagues I’ve friended on Facebook (including some that work at my center) to see those baby photos? That’s a little more of a grey area for me.

What are some other items on the early years of my timeline? Graduating from high school, graduating from college, graduating from graduate school, starting work at Harvard, things like that. All basic info in my profile. And, of course, none have photos yet.

How can I add other events to my timeline? At the top of the screen, there are buttons for adding statuses, photos, places, and life events. For each of those items, I can let Facebook know when to put it on my timeline, by year, year and month, or date. Okay, so now I can backdate status updates? That’s a little strange. It also means I should take status updates on other people’s timelines with a grain of salt.

Adding a life event is interesting. Here’s a screenshot:

What kinds of life events does Facebook think I might want to add? Under “Work & Education” I can add a new job, retirement, new school, study abroad, volunteer work, military service, or other life event. I wonder, are those the same options for everyone? Does Facebook know I studied abroad during college?

Under “Family & Relationships” I can note a new relationship, the time I first met someone, an engagement, a marriage, a new child, a new pet, the loss of a loved one, and more. Under “Home & Living” I can note when I moved, bought a home, got a new roommate, got a new vehicle, and more.

Things start to get a little wacky under “Health & Wellness.” There I can add to my timeline new eating habits, weight loss, glasses and contacts, broken bones, and times I overcame an illness or quit a habit. I’m looking forward to my social science colleagues helping me understand what it means that Facebook chose those activities for “Health & Wellness” and not, say, gained weight or suffered from depression or lost a limb.

“Travel & Experiences” is just as strange:

New hobby, new instrument, new language. Tattoo or piercing, new license. Travel, achievement or award, changed beliefs, first word, first kiss, new sport. Seriously? Why group tattoos, piercings, and licenses together? Are those experiences fundamentally different from new hobbies and instruments? And why these experiences and not, say, joined a church or got a haircut or voted in an election or bought an iPhone? Again, social scientists, have at it.

I’m reminded of watching Mark Zuckerberg when he announced Timeline back at the F8 convention a few months ago. He’s an odd bird, and he has a particular perspective on sharing and privacy. Some people share that perspective, but a lot don’t. And I’m not convinced that Zuckerberg actually understands that other people might have different perspectives on sharing and privacy. As a result, Timeline is Zuckerberg’s idea of how we should be sharing our lives online. And for those of us who might want to share in different ways, well, we’re out of luck. Zuck’s not giving us a choice about it. Profiles are gone, timelines are here.

I’m sure I’ll tinker with my timeline some more. I might even publish it and see how my Facebook friends react to it. But the idea that all of my current Facebook friends can dig through my status updates and photos from the last four years? I’m not sure that I’m cool with that. I like my Facebook friends and all, but I don’t like or even know them equally well.

Perhaps more importantly, I don’t like the idea that Facebook is encouraging its users to share even more than they already do about themselves. People share a lot on Facebook, but I can see Facebook’s advertising algorithms going to town on the life events that people add to their timelines. Do I want Facebook to show me ads based on my weight loss history? My first kiss? My tattoos? The loss of a loved one? My broken bones? My volunteer work? My bad habits? I don’t think I want to give Facebook that kind of information, even if I’m fine with sharing it with my friends.

I don’t have to add those life events to my timeline, of course. And maybe I’ll stick around Facebook with a pretty minimal timeline. But the fact that Facebook wants me to share all those life events with them? That’s creepy, and it might be enough to motivate me to quit Facebook altogether.

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