Media

This Is Your Life

Timeline, Facebook’s latest bid to keep you in its grasp, is unsettling—and unexpectedly beautiful

by
Illustration by Luc Melanson

• 1,582 words

Illustration by Luc Melanson

That Facebook’s new Timeline verges on outrageous was to be expected. There’s only one website in the world with both the gumption and the data to play back your life to you as an infographic. Introduced last December to the social network’s 845 million users’ home pages, Timeline arrays everything you’ve ever posted along one long vertical scroll, beginning in the present day and rolling off the bottom of the page with slick, magazine-style panache. (You can view your own information, while others’ timelines are pruned for public consumption, according to Facebook’s ever-shifting standards of who can see what.)

It comes as more of a surprise that the new format is also curiously beautiful. It’s the story of your life, artfully told: the friend you made in April 2011, the passing remarks you left on a pal’s photos in September 2010, the website you recommended the month before, the happy banter you shared in 2008 with the partner you later left.

Yet to call the sudden regurgitation of years of photos, messages, contacts, and comments disconcerting is an understatement. All along, Facebook has been tracking your data, waiting for this moment to arrive. Because it’s not just your Facebook life that Timeline captures: the first date is not, as you might expect, the day you joined; it’s the day you were born. A site best known for disseminating awkward party photos is now imagining itself at the foot of your mother’s bed at the moment of your delivery, diligently taking notes. My timeline shows a substantial interlude between my date of birth and the day I joined Facebook. For younger users who hopped on the site in their early teens, the gap will be smaller. If Facebook is still around by the time they reach age twenty-five, more than half of their lives will have been spent in its sinuous embrace.

Since the site went live in 2004, Timeline marks the most significant overhaul of how it handles the delicate question of users’ biographies. It’s glossy and uncomfortably personal, and its message is unmistakable: whether you knew it or not, you have put your life in our hands.

Facebook was once a creature of the eternal present. In the beginning, the network was restricted to university students and geared specifically to their purposes. Users had “walls” designed to emulate the whiteboards students hang on dorm room doors. Like a wiki page, this block of text could be amended, edited, rewritten, or erased. But friends showed deference to one another, and instead of overwriting notes they began to post updates at the top. In response, Facebook changed the wall to a message board, with older posts pushed down the page and eventually disappearing. The scheme encouraged users to savour the moment, to pounce upon the latest post, photo, or status update with a squirrel’s intensity, and then let it slide into oblivion with the happy forgetfulness of a goldfish.

Facebook continued to sharpen this immediacy with considerable ingenuity. In 2006 (the same year the network opened its service to anyone over the age of thirteen, welcoming a flood of teenagers and older adults), it introduced News Feed. By collecting updates about friends’ activities, this feature gave users countless opportunities for bite-sized interactions—prompting them to chime in every time a photo was “liked,” a friendship made, a comment quipped—which made the site all the more addictive. Since then, Facebook has still further refined this quality. Last year, users discovered that they no longer had to click the Post button to send a message but could simply press the Enter key, shaving off a fraction of a second and making the site feel impossibly responsive.

This endless innovation is essential for the company. These are transitional days for Facebook; the site announced a $5-billion initial public offering in February. But the issue of expansion remains tricky. In North America, 65 percent of adults use social networks, and most everyone who might want to join Facebook already has. I call this phenomenon “peak friend,” the point at which a limited number of potential users could be recruited—and doing so takes more effort. All the while, the site is fending off challenges from competitors like Google, as well as from its own success; familiarity and ubiquity can breed contempt. The younger generation, eager to differentiate itself from the mainstream, is liable to decamp. Facebook’s challenge, then, is to retain existing members and encourage them to spend more time on the site.

Enter Timeline. The feature marks a departure from the fanatical focus on wringing the here-and-now for instant gratification. Instead, it’s as if the site has re-conjugated itself into a new tense, presenting users to one another in terms of their entire life stories. In so doing, it has opened up a new dimension in which they can busy themselves. You are encouraged to mark off points in your life in ever-more personal terms: “new pet,” “weight loss,” “broken bone,” “first kiss,” “changed beliefs,” and so on. When you make a new friend, Facebook exhorts you to “write something on his timeline.” On his timeline! Facebook now has us etching items directly into one another’s life stories. “Sear an item onto his soul” is not an option yet, but maybe next year.

With Timeline, the canvas of your life is literally stretched out before you and, by implication, quite a few other people. It’s your achievements and aspirations, beginnings and endings, broken hearts and new romances, all collected on one page. Many websites could offer such a canvas. But only Facebook can flesh out the past seven years for you with compelling and unsettling fullness.

How can Facebook animate your past so comprehensively? Well, it monitors our behaviour on the network, and tracks us as we surf other Facebook-enabled sites. Its collection of personal information allows it to target ads at exactly the eyeballs each advertiser wants to grab. Facebook has another interest in making your content public: more visible data means more interesting things to see, which means more time spent clicking through the site. In its pursuit of traffic and engagement, the company has been cavalier, to put it mildly, with users’ privacy.

Facebook has battled several complaints from watchdogs in Canada, the United States, and overseas. In November, it settled a series of claims with the US Federal Trade Commission, which held it to account for a series of egregious, if not illegal, manoeuvres designed to boost the amount of information its users share. In 2009, for instance, the site changed its rules so everyone’s friend lists would be publicly viewable—but users weren’t warned or informed of this beforehand. Later, Facebook updated its default privacy settings in a way that pushed people (neophytes, typically) into public view who never fully locked down their accounts.

These schemes have generated bad press, and sporadic protests like Quit Facebook Day. Meanwhile, competitors have leaped on these concerns, as Google did by making privacy a key selling point for its rival social network. Yet while Facebook’s growth shows signs of slowing in North America, which might be a function of market saturation, its global expansion continues. Facebook is not beloved (consumer satisfaction surveys put it near the bottom of the heap, alongside airlines and cable companies), but it remains, for today, very much an essential site.

Over the years, its size and sway have given it enormous utilitarian value. It has replaced the phone book as a central directory of contact information, in part because phone books don’t list mobile numbers (and because few people report falling in love while flipping through the white pages). More importantly, Facebook serves as a central exchange: the first place people post their baby photos, a clearing house for event invitations, a thriving platform for businesses. Everyone is on Facebook because everyone is on Facebook.

Timeline effectively reminds us that personal data reflects personal moments. Even wary users like me, who have kept the site at arm’s length, find themselves considering it with as much intrigue as discomfort. The scattered handfuls of posts I have made over the years, and the random collection of people from whom I have grudgingly accepted friend requests, suddenly knit together into something that seems like, well, my life. And it is undeniably affecting.

Timeline offers a glimpse of the depth of our complicated relationship with Facebook. In giving users a full accounting of what they have posted, it makes it easier for them to manage their public profiles and selectively clean them up. That’s a step in the right direction. But insofar as it has turned the site from a party planning tool to a repository for life stories, it is also sending us a wake-up call.

Rather than downplaying the mountain of data it has collected, Facebook put it on display. Look, it says, look at how much we’ve learned about one another. We’ve come a long way, you and I. Look at what we’ve built together. You wouldn’t walk away from that, now, would you?

This appeared in the April 2012 issue.

Ivor Tossell published The Gift of Ford, an ebook, in 2012.

Luc Melanson (lucmelanson.com) has done work for the New York Times, the Washington Post, GQ, and others.